Social movements have arisen during the last two centuries in response to actual and perceived injustices to groups of people. There are numerous instances where large numbers of people have over time bonded together in a common belief and come together to jointly press for their cause, sometimes with startling results. In most cases these movements have been geographically localised and have taken substantial time to evolve into cohesive and powerful social change agents. Nevertheless, they have been instrumental in bringing about significant and widespread change and have been used to reduce inequality, diminish oppression and radically improve the social conditions of unfortunate people. Charismatic leaders have often played key roles in organizing many of these movements, while others have been collectively led and have been able to further their objectives, even with changing leadership. Many of these movements, which originated in the second half of the nineteenth century, dealt with current issues like the working conditions of labor, and freedom from colonial rule.
The Indian independence movement, which commenced in the late 1800s consolidated itself only after Mahatma Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1910 and took over its control. The non violent movement for India’s independence took nearly forty years to achieve its objective of freeing India from the British. To a certain extent, the labor movement and the socialist movement of the late nineteenth century served to act as prototypes of social movements and set the trend for many such collective claim based campaigns; which were to flourish later, in the early twentieth century.
Post war industrialisation and the advent of capitalism, along with far more efficient long distance communication practically freed social movements from geographic localisation. Many of these movements, e.g., the various ecology movements, the feminist movement, and of course the Islamic movement which arose after the mid sixties, became pan global in their spread and appeal, The emergence of new social movements also initiated a debate among social scientists on the different facets of old and new social movements, as also their spread and effectiveness as vehicles of social and political change.
It is the objective of this essay to examine the tenets of the old and new social movements, try to understand the points of difference as well as the challenges which the new movements are placing upon the old. The researcher has tried to access the great deal of literature available on the subject using online libraries like Questia as well as other available sources.
2. Social Movements, Types and Theories
A social movement can be described as a combination of shared ideas, visions and thoughts which lead to collective and democratized action to bring about change in patterns of social life, more often through informal and non-governmental methods. Charles Tilly, (2004) in his book contends that a social movement must have three essential elements.
• Campaigns, which consist of sustained and organised public effort and make collective claims on specified authorities
• Social Movement Repertoire, which include a combination of various forms of confrontative political action like public meetings, processions, rallies, demonstrations, media awareness and others
• WUNC Displays, namely the public portrayal of the participants’ worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment
Most social movements do tend to have all the above elements in ample measure. Social movements are of comparatively recent origin and a scouring of the histories of the world does not give evidence of such movements even in late medieval or post medieval times. Possibly the peasants revolution in England of 1384 could qualify to be called a social movement, especially because of its cause of social justice.
The main call of the peasant rebels was for the abolition of serfdom. This was because, since the middle of the century, their lords had prevented them from making the most of the changing economic conditions. Visitations of the plague since 1348/9 had reduced the population by between a third and a half. As a result, labour became more scarce, wages rose and the economy began to suit the peasant more than it suited the landowner. However, the landowners of Parliament legislated to keep wages low and to restrict the free movement of serfs. (Hobbs, 2000)
Nevertheless, social movements started globally only in the late nineteenth century as the process of urbanisation led to social interaction on very large scales between people who had similar objectives and goals, which in turn led to organization and the genesis of collective effort. The spread of education and the creation of universities brought many young people together and enabled them to meet and collectively form opinion groups, which helped in the creation of social movements. The process of democratization provided an environment of freedom of expression, and contentious issues were taken up for discussion and action, as people found that they could hold their own opinions and speak about them without fear.
Social scientists speak of various types of social movement. Movements can differ in scope and the type of change they want to usher in, have diverse target audiences as well as different methods of work. Both reform and radical movements have ushered in change, and while some movements have tried to bring in innovation, others have tried to keep old value systems intact. Some movements like Mohandas Gandhi’s movement for Indian independence, despite being totally non-violent, have achieved tremendous success, whereas violent movements like the ones sponsored by Hezbollah have little to show after years of effort, apart from heavy casualties.
Social scientists also refer to various theories for social movements. In this respect Sergey Mamay specified four important ones, which still appear to be quite relevant. These are the collective behaviour theory, the resource mobilisation theory, the action identity approach and the new social movement.
The collective behaviour theory works on the basic premise that social movements arise only in sick societies. “In general, according to the collective behaviour approach, social movements are the symptom and manifestation of a sick society. A healthy society does not have social movements; it has a conditional form of political and social participation. (Mamay, 1990) The theory of collective behaviour treats social responses as strains arising out of semi rational responses to abnormal situations, which arise from unhealthy societies. The supporters of this theory feel that healthy societies will not lead to conditions that will foster social movements; instead they will work out mechanisms for participation and corrective action to remove social problems. In such societies, strong class or group solidarities prevent manipulation of people.
The resource mobilisation theory is extremely positive in its approach and postulates that social movements are part of a political process and are “rational and novel responses to new situations and new opportunities in society” (Mamay, 1990) and arise from new opportunities and political resources available in democratic societies. The Action-Identity theory propounded by Touraine suggests that social movements are natural occurrences and will always serve to renew society, destroy social stagnation and lead to social emancipation. Action-Identity theorists propound that “class-related social forms of domination are challenged by social movements, which are the principal class counter-actors” (Mamay, 1990)
The theory and practice of new and social movements needs more detailed discussion, being central to the main theme of this essay, and is thus taken up separately.
3. New and Old Social Movements
The old social movements arose many years back, long before the modernization of communication and the invention of the internet, as well as before the concept of the global village took place. These movements were usually limited geographically and focused on local issues. Some of these issues, of course, arose from more universal concerns and it is more than likely that similar movements, unknown to each other were growing in different parts of the world. These movements worked through forging local alliances that would result in political advantage and had collective political objectives. Examples of old social movements are the trade unions, the suffragists and the like.
Reverting to the Indian war of independence, one of the finest examples of the old social movement, it is evident that all three of Tilly’s elements, campaigns, social movement repertoire and WUNC displays were there in full measure. The movement was able to gather enormous support, due in large measure to the charisma of Gandhi and grew into a pan Indian movement. It is important to keep in mind that India, then, was an enormously fragmented society with poor communication, numerous languages, different religions and various political affiliations with the centuries old caste system keeping 25 % of the population out of the pale of humanity.
Despite all these constraints, Gandhi was able to build a movement, which drew all these different peoples into one collective force, forge political alliances with different focus groups, organize myriad campaigns and display WUNC on hundreds of occasions. Gandhi’s movement lasted for forty years. It was able to generate enough pressure on the British to force them to grant India its independence, this in spite of their knowing that the loss of their Indian territories would end their pre-eminent position in the world.
Despite its spectacular success, and the introduction of non-violence and civil disobedience as a unique means of protest and an immensely potent political tool, the Indian independence movement stayed restricted within the Indian sub continent. It did not spread to other countries, even while it strengthened and consolidated in India. Most of the countries in Asia and Africa were then under colonial domination and it would have been normal in today’s post-industrialized society to assume that similar movements would spread all over Africa and Asia, in line with hat was happening in India.
In India, strong local leaders with Gandhian values and ideology were springing up all over the country and collectively making the movement more formidable with each passing day. Despite the potential to be used elsewhere the movement, however, remained essentially local. Restricted to the Indian sub continent, it did not spread to other countries in Asia and Africa.
The new social movements are essentially “post industrialization” in their time frame and refer to a number of movements that came up in various societies, first in the west and then all over the world during the last forty years. They are also significantly different from traditional social movements. Whereas many of the old social movements focused on economic or political issues, like the labor movement or localized freedom movements, the new social movements of today tend to work towards achieving social change in a far more universal context, examples being the ecology movements, the feminist movement and the Islamic movement. Most of these movements concentrate on social and lifestyle issues, rather than on public policy or economic advancement.
The main feature of social movements, according to `new social movements’ theorists is their anti-state, anti-apparat turn of mind and action. New social movements, in contrast to old social movements, are produced by new contradictions of society, contradictions between individual and state. `New values’ theorists also stress that the condition of economic prosperity and political stability experienced by the post-1945 cohorts in the West, allow them to de-emphasise material values and lead them to embrace post-materialist values, reflecting `higher’ aesthetic, self-realisation, and creative needs. Inglehart’s new values are essentially the anti-state contradictions identified by Habermas. These approaches change class interests (or transform them) into non-class but `universal human’ interests (Mamay, 1990)
The Islamic movement is a stark example of a new social movement. The Islamic movement has now spread practically all over the world and is fiercely in evidence in practically every country with a Muslim population, however large or small it may appear in a local context. The movement may possibly have its origins in the countries of west and central Asia and could have arisen due to the Israel factor in the Middle East but is now evident in the USA, most countries of Europe, Africa and Asia. The movement has become truly global and Muslims in Malaysia, Indonesia, Kerala, Afghanistan, the Gulf countries, the countries of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the countries of Europe as well as in UK and the USA find common cause in their movement for Islamic solidarity and their perceived demands from the non-Muslim states.
The Islamic movement is thus starkly different from Gandhi’s independence movement. It has been able to transcend local boundaries and smaller national concerns and become a truly global movement, working on a transcontinental basis for the perceived benefits of a very significant portion of the earth’s population.
The old social movements concentrated on economic or political issues. The new social movements however challenge the old because they appear to transcend localized issues, which are pertinent only tu a specific people and many of them, e.g., the movements that take up issues of race, gender, ecology and nuclear disaster, preoccupy themselves with areas that deal with the collective good of humanity. Very obviously, compared to these new developments, the old social movements appear to be rather limited in scope and appeal as well as in their potential to become powerful and universal change agents. In fact, the old social movements have never taken up the issues mentioned, possibly on the assumption that they were less important than the issues at hand.