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New Social Movements most effectively describe a specific movement Essay

New Social Movements (NSMs), originating in the early 1980s. It became clear that the type of movement to which the NSM label was pinned, primarily the environmental, peace and women’s organisations of the 1970s and 1980s, now used widely differing strategies for promoting similar messages. On the other hand, movements evolving later around the issues of ethnicity, ‘race’ or sexuality could not be captured within the same frame. This essay will introduce the concept of New Social Movements and distinguish between the various approaches used to study them when arguing about if new values are behind te rise of environmental protests.

I will then review the work of three authors who identify NSMs in terms of the changing political and social structures of the 1970s and 1980s and in recognition of the ‘new identities’ created within the New Social Movements: Claus Offe, Alberto Melucci and Alain Touraine. New Social Movements most effectively describe a specific movement-type emerging in the late 1970s; principally the peace, women’s, ecological and local-autonomy associations (Cohen, 1985) that have characterised mass-based collective action for roughly two decades. Their success continues to have an effect upon the nature of political decision-making in western societies.

New Social Movements emerged as a direct response to the overly bureaucratic nature of established institutions – of both state and civil society – and the modes of political action pursued by collective actors in the past (routinised, hierarchical, representative). NSMs sought to “politicize the institutions of civil society in ways that are not constrained by the channels of representative-bureaucratic political institutions, and thereby to reconstitute a civil society that is no longer dependent upon ever more regulation, control and intervention” (Offe, 1985: 820).

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Various approaches have been used in the study of NSMs with different elements of both the conditions for their emergence and their mode of functioning stressed by different authors. However, their heterogeneous nature has been central to all approaches, exemplified by their abandonment of both class-differentiated politics and strictly delineated modus operandi. Contemporary movements have also been understood in terms of an hermeneutic approach which places emphasis on the self-understanding or reflexivity of collective actors (Touraine, 1985).

In sum, NSMs have been aptly described by Jean Cohen (1985: 664) as: “… a self-understanding that abandons revolutionary dreams in favour of the idea of structural reform, along with a defense of civil society that does not seek to abandon the autonomous functioning of political and economic systems – in a phrase, self-limiting radicalism. ” Defining New Social Movements along these lines recognises two different approaches to their study.

The first has stressed the structural conditions in changing forms of political organisation, economic concerns and the shifting relations between public and private spheres characteristic of ‘complex societies’ (Melucci, 1995) to which NSMs are said to respond. Such arguments have principally been taken up by Claus Offe in his comparison of ‘old’ and ‘new’ paradigms of collective action, Alain Touraine who emphasises the importance of ‘post-industrial’ society and Alberto Melucci, who concentrates on “systems of high information density” (1995: 101) and their effects on contemporary conflicts.

A second approach to the study of NSMs has centred upon strategic elements as key explanations for their ‘newness’. Such an approach may be split into two divergent understandings of NSM functioning. The first was developed in the late 1970s as a theoretical tool for the understanding of collective action in general by a group of American sociologists within the rational-choice school (McCarthy and Zald, 1977; Tilly, 1978) and is known as Resource-Mobilisation Theory.

This theory emphasises strategic interaction and cost-benefit calculations in understanding the logic behind new modes of collective action (Cohen, 1985). A second approach may be termed the Identity-Oriented Paradigm. Here a certain amount of overlap exists with authors such as Offe, Melucci and Touraine who place the greatest stress on structural conditions. A significant portion of the literature (essentially American as opposed to the European-based analyses presented by the fore-mentioned writers) also places a strong emphasis on culture as central to NSM activity (Dalton, 1994; Klandermans, 1990).

A third branch of thought has emerged among commentators on the NSM debate in the academic literature. Both Dalton (1994) in his analysis of European Green networks and Cohen (1985) call for an approach, which unites the useful elements of Resource-Mobilisation, and Identity-Oriented approaches. However, as has briefly been shown, the latter may not be conceptualised in itself as a unified theoretical perspective. I will make no effort to re-enter the well-frequented debate that compares and seeks to amalgamate Resource-Mobilisation and Identity-Oriented approaches.

The quest for solutions to thorny theoretical problems is seldom found through the joining of approaches at once diverse and incomplete. Rather, I will argue that a closer reading of explanations that emphasise structure as a way of addressing the questions of power and powerlessness as they relate to social movements (Offe, 1985) and of giving meaning to action within an overall paradigm that emphasises identity assists in understanding the ‘newness’ of New Social Movements.

Discussions of NSMs that have stressed the structural conditions in which they emerged generally refer to the types of political system, the institutions of state and civil society and the extent to which decision-making is accessible as well as to general processes of transformation and the global social and political pressures that influence collective action. The influence of shifts in social and political priorities and possibilities on the choices open to collective actors is prominent in all accounts that examine the novelty of NSM activity.

It is the process of describing what is new about New Social Movements that informs us both about the strategies that they follow and about the changing nature of power and politics that create the conditions necessary for their emergence. Therefore, analyses of the relevance of political and structural change to the emergence of contemporary movements have also defined the nature of the functioning of the NSMs that they have observed.

In my opinion, Touraine, Offe and Melucci, albeit in varying degrees of success, have presented more holistic accounts of NSM rationale than have those who concentrated on strategies of collective action, whether taking a Resource-Mobilisation approach or one centred upon methodological concerns – such as frame analysis – in Identity-Oriented paradigms (e. g. Johnston and Klandermans, 1995; Larai?? a, 1994). What have been the key conditions stressed in bringing about a ‘new paradigm’ (Offe, 1985) of social movement activity?

Various authors have stressed structural elements that have concentrated either on the specificities of collective action in the domain of civil society (Offe, Tarrow) or on the wider pressures brought about by the rise in importance of information as a primary resource in ‘knowledge-based’ (Melucci) or ‘post-industrial’ societies (Touraine). I will present an integrated account of these different theories in an attempt to accent the importance of structural accounts in explaining both the emergence of NSMs, thus their ‘newness’, and the modes of functioning that they pursue in the achievement of their aims.

The significance of structural conditions in defining the possibilities for social action has been seen as vital to the study of movement politics for as long as they have existed. Sydney Tarrow (1998, 1996) usefully introduces the concept of the ‘political opportunity structure’ for explaining the variable options open to collective actors across diverse political systems. He returns to Alexis de Tocqueville’s comparison of ‘strong’/centralised and ‘weak’/decentralised states as fundamental to explanations of the historical role of social movements in the project of state building.

The ‘political opportunity structure’ refers to the governmental type which, depending on the extent to which agents in civil society are granted access to decision-making structures, colours their ability to effect social and political change. Tarrow takes up Tocqueville’s original examples: France, the prototype ‘strong’ state with a near impenetrable, centralised system of government, and federalist USA, with its diffused locuses of power that encourage citizen participation at sub-levels.

Weak states, Tarrow argues, allow for widespread, moderate participation that reduces the chances of violent state-society clashes. Centralised systems, on the other hand, weaken the institutions of civil society and discourage citizen participation so that when conflict appears it most often takes a violent form. The notion of ‘political opportunity structure’ is worth recalling in discussions of New Social Movements because it highlights both the similarities and the differences between the structural frameworks for ‘old’ and ‘new’ paradigm movements.

NSMs have been said to have arisen due to the search for alternative life forms (Touraine, 1985) and the growth in significance of ‘postmaterialist’ issues (Waters, 1998). Whilst the contemporary swing away from traditional modes of organisation and interest categories is marked to be sure, the structuring of political opportunities does not appear to have been altered to as large an extent.

As a consequence, NSMs are often characterised as operational at trans- or sub-national levels, no longer looking for conflicts at the level of the state and tending less than their predecessors towards struggles over issues of material distribution or production (Melucci, 1995). It would be interesting to ask to what extent the impenetrability of certain political systems and the more participatory-oriented ideals of others shape the evolution of NSMs.

But for my purposes, it is more relevant to bear in mind the historically dualistic nature of state-social movement interaction. The influence that social action had upon the evolution of modern state systems historically is vital to any work that seeks, by examining the changing nature of social movements, to understand the interrelationships between citizenship and participation. The next section will turn to a more specific discussion of theory-building around New Social Movements reflecting this emphasis.

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