Discussion: Social Movements

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Select a social movement. It may be contemporary, historical;  local or large-scale; from the United States or abroad. Examples could include a labor strike, abolitionists opposing slavery, the women’s right to vote movement, or Occupy Wall Street. This is wide open. Pick something that interests you, or perhaps you or someone in your family or in your ancestry may have been involved with.

Early in the week, share which movement you will be researching so we can cover a variety of movements. You will be able to see your classmates’ selections so there won’t be duplication. Your initial post serves as a placeholder to claim the movement you will investigate. 

Do some research to see what you can uncover about the social movement you selected. In particular, see if you can find anything from the time it was occurring: news articles or video footage.


  1. the issue that spurred the movement
  2. any leaders of the movement you can find and their background
  3. the timetable in which it occurred
  4. perceptions of it. If you were alive during the movement, what was your perception of it? If you weren’t and can find someone who was, ask them for their perspective. If you have selected something historical, how does history view the movement?
  5. Finally, was the movement successful? What changed as a result of it?

Module 6: Lecture: Social Movements and Social Policies

 Module 6: 
Lecture: Social Movements and Social Policies

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Social Movements and Social Policies

On many fronts, political discourse, engagement, and mobilization are changing. This is due, in part, to the current economic challenges facing both citizens and governments and the subsequent policy responses that have been and are being enacted. In contemporary history, the deepest structural problems have characterized the crisis, which began in late 2007 and exploded further in 2008, and the global response (White, 2016). The increasing instability of economic relations under democratic capitalism has, to a large extent, facilitated the rise of contentious policy movements. The basis for conflict and resistance in an era of crisis, austerity, and radical change in social and public policy needs to be identified and analyzed. These critiques also help frame the debates that drive some discussions around social policy issues and concurrent political mobilizations.

The basis for these discussions is a broader investigation into the changing nature of political engagement and the location of class struggle because of the decline of trade unionism. Of those mobilizations that have been the most instrumental, social movements such as UK Uncut and Occupy London have left an indelible mark on the landscape of anti-austerity resistance. In terms of determining a definition for contemporary anti-austerity movements, recent work by Della Porta (2015) provides insight into the nature of such forms of resistance. In 
Social Movements in Times of Austerity, Della Porta argues that anti-austerity movements have a distinctive economic and political character: “Anti-austerity protests react not only to the economic crisis (with high unemployment and high numbers of precarious workers) but also to a political situation in which institutions are (and perceived to be) particularly closed to citizens’ demands, at the same time unwilling and incapable of addressing them in an inclusive way” (Della Porta, 2015).

The Multiple Crises

The social and political issues that arose because of the economic crisis are manifold. What began as a crisis in the financial sector quickly became an issue that had huge structural ramifications.

Firstly, it’s clear that there has been a crisis of confidence in the welfare state apparatus: What types of provisions can be made for the citizen in a period of declining acceptance of social security? Moreover, what is the role of the welfare state, and how should it provide for those that require support?

Secondly, a lack of direct democracy has been evident in the current political climate. The methods of traditional, institutional engagement within the political system are not satisfactory and do not meet citizens’ demands. Therefore, what types of engagement – non-institutional – can be used to hold systems to account?

Thirdly, the implications of the continuing economic crisis for class politics: social movements have had mixed success in tackling wider social policy questions. What movements should take on the questions of social justice, regulation, redistribution, and the representation of working-class communities?

The first crisis has its roots in changes in government social policies, mainly in implementing welfare reform policies aimed at reducing the spending on public services to address a large deficit. The second follows from the first in that citizens have become increasingly disenfranchised in a political system that no longer represents a popular opinion. There is concern that traditional methods of political engagement have been unrepresentative and, therefore, citizens have adopted other forms of organization. Finally, there is a growing sense that the traditionally representative labor movement has been slow to take up the legitimate grievances of working-class communities (White, 2016). The result is that there is now a vacuum in which there is no effective political representation, formally or informally. In the absence of such representation, social movements have the assignment of engaging with the socio-political challenges that arise because of the sharp retrenchment of the state (Thompson, 2020).

Political Engagement and the Democratic Deficit

The economic crisis had many direct consequences, with the political agenda of austerity being the most controversial. The failure of large-scale movements, political parties, and trade unions to directly challenge issues that affect working-class communities is resulting in a crisis of confidence. At the macro level, protests quickly spread across Europe after 2008, attacking the unjust policy prescriptions of national and international governmental organizations. Broadly, these movements were born out of bottom-up, civil society struggles that aimed to challenge policies that, in essence, penalized those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

As the subsequent attempts by governments to resist the tide of activism were successful, the movements condemning such policy maneuvers became disillusioned: anti-austerity protestors seem instead to have lost hope for political reforms, as they see more and more overlapping of economic and political power, especially with aggressive (and effective) lobbying from business and industry groups. The search for profit and economic growth cited to justify cuts to public services, salaries, and pensions, is stigmatized by anti-austerity campaigners as an institutional denial of the political nature of public decision-making (Della Porta, 2014). This has been especially true for young people, who are particularly vulnerable economically, although their biographical availability made them the obvious candidates for political engagement.

Activism has seen a resurgence among middle-class senior citizens who had previously enjoyed greater economic independence and stability.

Lapavistsas and Politaki (2014) explain that, however, the precarious nature of economic life for younger citizens has contributed to a crisis of confidence: the double whammy: education disruption and unemployment. This speaks to both the narrative of insurmountable political challenges, particularly those in the liberal democratic capitalist state, and the fact that few institutional movements can adequately capture discontent among working-class communities. This moment in the popular struggle illustrates that very few political parties will rise to the challenge of representing the interests of the socially, economically, and politically marginalized.

A Crisis on the Left

In times of crisis, trade unions have been essential to demonstrate the power of an organized working class against the exclusive interests of the rich and ruling elite. The resistance of the trade union movement has lacked power and dynamism in the post-crisis period. This has been marked by the absence of a class analysis, which could have been implemented in previous years to challenge government policy. Many of the features of the current political narrative defining austerity have a relationship to class-based injustice, but, as Cooper and Hardy assert, “the language of class resistance [has not been] as prominent as might have been expected in previous decades” (Cooper and Hardy, 2012).

The nature of resistance has changed without a focus on the impact on working-class communities. This is combined with a crisis of confidence in unionism, which has diminished its power significantly and, as a result, reduced its ability to organize. This is especially true for unions when their ability to organize has been eroded, in part, due to regressive legislation designed to curb their influence. (Jericó, 2015).

From Trade Unions to Social Movements

In terms of understanding the shift form trade unions to social movements, we need to examine some of the historical perspectives that explain the conditions for such a shift from formalized engagement to informal and flexible arrangements. This section is interested in questioning: (1) why these movements have become important, (2) who are they trying to represent, and (3) are these movements response to globalization and neoliberalism?

In terms of representation in working-class politics, the nature of direct and protest action is shifting away from the centrality of the labor movement towards unaligned movements, which have taken on many of the complaints (Thompson, 2002).

Institutionalized and Non-Institutionalized Engagement

The contemporary period has seen a shift in the routes for political engagement, especially when considering the working class’s organization and representation. The shift has resulted in two very different modes of engagement: (1) the traditional institutionalized methods, as operationalized through political parties and trade union movement (organized labor), for example, and (2) non-institutionalized methods, which are characterized by unaligned, informal groupings of people, often non-hierarchical in structure, that mobilize in protest (Thompson, 2002).

Changes in Social Movements

There has been a steady decline in citizen participation in the labor movement and in political parties. The shift in engagement from formalized, institutionalized politics to non-institutional group action, while not historically unique, suggests a change in how citizens engage with political demands, especially those that have characterized austerity.

Considering the fact of the working-class interests, there is a vacuum of radical union organizing. In the conspicuous absence of such forms of organization, it is possible to trace a steady increase in non-institutional political mobilizations. These involve non-aligned activists and organize spontaneously. As such, many contemporary examples of social movements have been directly involved in struggles that, previously, would have involved the participation of trade unions, political parties with working-class sympathies, and organized labor (Thompson, 2002).

More recent examples have moved participants away from the traditional institutional sphere and toward non-institutional political mobilizations. Such movements have provided the focus for demonstrations on issues ranging from education and diversity to housing and financial regulation. The character and nature of these protests have been well documented in recent years, as researchers and scholars alike begin to take more interest in the activities of social movements. The changing nature of citizens’ political engagements in relation to the state is of particular interest. It can be argued that, in favorable circumstances, social movements can maneuver themselves into a position where their grievances are, at the very least, considered or addressed to some extent.

In less favorable circumstances (that is, when the state acts to repress the actions of social movements), their mobilizations are less effective: “the right to demonstrate and protest, the most basic of fundamental freedoms, has been severely curtailed amidst the hardening of disciplinary and repressive state apparatuses” (Fanelli and Brogan, 2014). The repression of dissent, particularly in the age of austerity, has precipitated the use of diverse and more direct tactics.

The increasing frequency and militancy of such mobilizations in response to the government’s pursuit of austerity policies is a reaction to the hardening of state responses. The non-institutional engagement has seen a resurgence since the double whammy of the financial crisis and the introduction of austerity. What is clear about the latest wave of protest movements is that they are rooted in a desire not only to challenge current conditions but also to reconceptualize and radically revise the institutions of political and economic governance that have led to the current crisis and the oppression and marginalization of specific sectors of society. As the full extent of government complicity with the financial sector has become clearer, non-institutional engagements have become increasingly concerned with democratizing economic relations and arguing against inequalities (Tejerina, 2013).

Movements for the Democratization of Power

It can be argued that non-institutional methods of engagement have been central in creating the conditions for the democratization of power. The anti-austerity movements that mobilized citizens were, to an extent, important in discussions on the distribution of power – from the state to the citizen. While the use of participatory forms of democracy through protest movements is not unique to the post-crisis era, there is a distinctive nature to the pattern of organization and the frequency of mobilizations, which can be attributed to changes in political conditions and to advances in technology (that is, the use of social media).

Although the contemporary relevance of non-institutional engagements, the increasing frequency of such mobilizations has stirred debate as to whether there are unintended consequences to the rise of anti-austerity protest movements. Kriesi (2014), for instance, argues that: “Professionalization and institutionalization are changing the social movement into an instrument of conventional politics and social movement organizations become rather like interest groups” (Kriesi 2014). The use of social movement platforms to campaign for party leaders – as with the current Labor leadership contest – is a recent example of this shift. UK Uncut in the UK, for instance, has used social media and online petitioning to promote the campaign for Jeremy Corbyn – an anti-austerity candidate in the leadership contest (Bush, 2015). From this perspective, the contemporary social movement, rather than becoming an agent of change, is absorbed into the everyday repertoire of institutional politics. Mobilizations, by this account, become less effective and lose the potential for affecting any meaningful change.

Social movements that attain a level of power and significance can transform from non-institutional, direct-action organizations to political parties and institutional groupings. Looking upwards towards the macro level, radical left politics in Europe, and particularly in Greece (with the rise of Syriza) and Spain (with Podemos), are illustrative of such coalitions where separate political factions and social movements become alliances in opposition to the politics of austerity (Shannon, 2014). Similarly, Puerto Rico, during the summer of 2019, Puerto Ricans banded together in an informal, unstructured movement. They demonstrated consistently for several weeks until they achieved the resignation of the Governor in office. The movement occurred mainly because of the power posturing of a particular political group and the government’s mishandling of the conditions following Hurricane Maria, which left the country in the dark for almost a year (endi.com, 2019).


· Farmer, P. (2005). 
Pathologies of power. Health, human rights, and the new war on the poor. University of California Press

· Pérez-Garzón, C. A. (January, 2018). Unveiling the meaning of social justice in Colombia. 
Mexican Law Review, 10(2), 27-66.

· Thompson, N. (2002). Social movements, social justice and social work. 
The British Journal of Social Work, 32(6), 711–722.

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