Social Movements


Social Movements

The term “social movements” has come into vogue in reference to visible groups of people demonstrating a common agenda and manifesting a recognizable force in the local and global public arena. In significant cases, authorities have responded to such expressions of “people power” calling for fundamental changes in laws, policies, doctrines and regimes across the planet. This increasingly coordinated form of collective action, when coordinated on a global scale, has even earned recognition as the “second superpower.”[1]

“Social movement” is a generic term that connotes more about the form (formulation) of the collective action than the values they convey. Thus, a broad spectrum of social and political agendas can qualify as social movements. Their constituent parts can vary is style and composition from dower mothers picketing in silence, to intellectualizing social theorists, to disruptive—but essentially nonviolent—demonstrators engaging in mass actions on the city streets.

It is impossible to generalize about the style or objectives of the panoply of social movements throughout history. They could be radical, reformist, conservative, revolutionary or reactionary. Some individual social movements, because they are so multisectoral, may even defy the usual political categorization. They could involve some revolutionary actions and objectives coexisting with constitutional or parliamentary reform movements. It is the development of relationships, tools and techniques rather than the ideological predisposition that characterizes all social movements. In essence, what is most common among social movements is their resort to collective action.

It is generally assumed that social movements emerge in response to some form of moral value or perceived injustice, and embody the will of the people, or at least a significant cross-section of the people. The self-acclaimed righteousness of a social movement’s cause and its sheer number of participants tend to evince a measure of legitimacy, despite—or, in same senses, because of—its putative challenge to established authorities and hegemonic powers. Hence, “social movement” has emerged as a positive appellation that, for some, is analogous with the role of popular heroes,[2] except social movements are collective and not necessarily identified with a particular charismatic figure.

Social scientists and other observers have provided several major definitions of social movements as distinctive forms of contentious politics. They are

contentious in the sense that social movements involve [the] collective making of claims that, if realized, would conflict with someone else’s interests, and politics in the sense that governments of one sort or another figure somehow in the claim making, whether as claimants, objects of claims, allies of the objects, or monitors of the contention. (Emphasis added.)[3]

In the past several decades, social movements can be credited with catalyzing dramatic changes such as decolonization and national liberation, institutionalizing civil rights in the United States, the fall of Communism, ending apartheid, outlawing landmines and institutionalizing women’s rights. A longer list of local, national, regional and global issues and objectives has variously combined the efforts of multiple conjoined actors.

People have shown a natural propensity to band gather to change conditions that deprive them of their rights, well-being, justice or development. By developing relations and common cause, they will be most likely to make collective claims and take tactical collective action toward realizing one or more strategic objective(s). Among his many contributions to the study of social movements, Charles Tilly has provided us with a succinct definition of a social movement as:

a sustained series of interactions [among] powerholders and persons successfully claiming to speak on behalf of a constituency lacking formal representation, in the course of which those persons make publicly visible demands for change in the distribution or exercise of power, and back those demands with public demonstrations of support.[4]

We have witnessed a marked evolution in the tools and methods that social movements use, incorporating new technologies. Television brought the African-American Civil Rights Movement to an entire continent in the 1960s. In the late 1970s, the world witnessed the “cassette revolution,” spread through the distribution of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s recorded homilies. The information and mobilization efforts around the first Palestinian intifada (1988–93) made ample use of new FAX technology. The development has involved utilizing such tools as the human rights instruments, the media, internet facilities and communication techniques. Other techniques have incorporated innovations ranging from sophisticated legal argumentation to street theater. All of these innovative tactics have played a crucial role in disseminating a movement’s message and mobilizing support.

Social movements around the world, notably from the 1999 Seattle anti-WTO demonstrations on, have galvanized opposition to economic globalization policies. In response to the wealthy and power proponents of neoliberal economics convening annually in the World Economic Forum, many social movements have consolidated interests and activities in the World Social Forum, 2000–05.[5]

Some distinguishing features

We often speak of various goal-oriented groups in interchangeable terms such as coalitions, alliances and networks. In the interest of clarity, we distinguish among these levels and forms of collective action. (All of these can be part of social movements, and vice versa.) The activists of HLRN have applied a typology that distinguishes these formations on the basis of their coverage of “issues and sectors”:



















M = multiple; S = single.

In this table, the size and/or complexity of the formation increases from the bottom row to the top row. It is important to recognize that the functions dealing with single issues and sectors can be relatively loose and informal, making management simpler. The more the formation is “multiple” in its constituency and substance, the more clear the codes of operation, and the more closely managed it must be.

Social movement processes build and reproduce dense informal networks among a multiplicity of actors, sharing a collective identity, and engaged in social and/or political conflict. They contrasts with coalition processes, where tactical relations to achieve specific goals do not require a collective identity, but allow its members also to operate under their own auspices.[6]

Social movements combine three kinds of claims, program, identity and standing. Program claims involve stated support for, or opposition to actual or proposed actions by the party(ies) that the movement is trying to influence. Identity claims consist of asserting that “we” (the claimants) constitute a unified force to be reckoned with. Standing claims assert ties and similarities to other political actors, for example excluded minorities, properly constituted citizen’s groups, or loyal supporters of the regime. The movements sometimes concern the standing of other actors, for example, campaigns to defend certain actors or groups from the deprivation of their rights.

We can imagine these formations of collective action in light of some characteristics found, to some degree, in all of them. For example, we may find differing degrees in:

· The conflictual [conflictive] orientations vis- -vis clearly identified opponents;

· The informal exchanges among members of the group;

· The collective identity that members share.

In all these aspects, the social movement would rate higher conflictual orientation, greater density of informal exchange among members, and a clear sense of collective identity than any of the other formations.[7]

Some social scientists and political writers see that the refurbishment of civil society during the last 25 years has supplanted the social movements, particularly in the post-Communist or former state-socialism countries, and maybe also in the Arabic-speaking countries. However, influential actions by social movements around the world in the last decade could lead us to refute this conclusion, as have others:

…in the same time civil society is a complex of different forms of organization, developing within specific contexts. Placing too great a faith in civil society, vaguely defined, glosses over important differences between nongovernmental organizations, grassroots organizations, social movements and other forms of civic action.[8]

Moreover, in addition to the presumption of civil society’s simultaneous democratizing and contentious roles, much of the treatment of “civil society” promotes the notion that nongovernmental actors and their social capital can be enlisted to carry out services such that enables the State to withdraw from its existing obligations to provide services.[9] That notion is distinct from the usual function of social movements.

How do social movements work?

Management of social movements requires allowing for tremendous diversity and internal complexity. Social movements can either benefit from, or help create a climate that allows for the synthesis of three functional elements:

1. a sustained organized public effort making collective claims on target authorities (i.e., a “campaign”[10]);

2. combinations of political actions, including: creation of special-purpose associations and coalitions, public meetings, solemn processions, vigils, rallies, demonstrations, petition drives, statements to and in public media, and/or pamphleteering (or social movement “repertoire”); and

3. the participants’ concerned publicly demonstrate the movement’s worthiness, unity, numerical strength and commitment.

Displays of worthiness, unity, numerical strength and commitment can take the form of statements, slogans, or labels. Yet collective self-representations often act them out in idioms that local audiences will recognize, for example:

  • worthiness: sober demeanor; neat clothing; presence of clergy, dignitaries, celebrities and mothers with children;
  • unity: matching badges, headbands, banners, or costumes; marching in ranks; signing and chanting;
  • numbers: headcounts, signatures on petitions, messages from constituents, filling the streets;
  • commitment; braving bad weather; visible participation by the old and handicapped; resistance to repression; ostentatious sacrifice, subscription, and/or delivering services to the needy.[11]

The social movement repertoire overlaps with the repertoires of other political phenomena such as trade union activity and electoral campaign. During the twentieth century, special-purpose associations and cross-cutting coalitions, in particular, carried out an enormous variety of political work across the world. However, the integration of most or all of these performances into sustained campaigns is what distinguishes social movements from other varieties of politics.

For the social movements to succeed in building a counterweight to hegemonic powers, they must constantly develop and use all the instruments available. The greater the power imbalance, the greater is challenger’s reliance on multiple relationships and multiple tools of action. These may involve also instruments or defensive tactics of self-reliance such as community solidarity and pooling resources, or it may involve leveling the playing field with legal instruments. Therefore, social movements also could embody effective tactics that are strategic, but less-demonstrative than the stereotypic public demonstration.

Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), for its part, has been exploring the concept and experience of social movements that produce material change through the improvement of living conditions in a process of social production. HLRN members have been able to provide examples of their own experiences in the “social production of habitat” as practical models of sustained collective action. Common to these interrelated concepts and practices is the importance of managing social capital as a valuable resource in social production, social movements, in general, and social production of habitat, as an example of a particular repertoire of collective tools and techniques.

HLRN relates organically to certain social movements by sharing common objectives, composition and collective functions. Contemporary social movements, like HIC and HLRN themselves, have a long history and, at the same time, are a sign of the times.

Types of social movements

In the past several decades, social movements have been identified with a rich variety of interests and objectives, including environmental protection, eliminating landmines, promoting women’s rights, poverty eradication, both religious fundamentalism and reform, opposition to capital punishment, promoting animal rights, legalizing and opposing abortion, minority protection, combating sexual-orientation-based discrimination, among others.

Based on the most important references in the social science, we find a distinction between two main types of social movements: (1) the social movements that seek to change the dominant rules, and (2) the ones that seek to change the values and morals. Some other criteria for classifying collective actions divide social movements into rural and urban categories, while yet other analysts distinguish social movements by their geographic scope, classifying them as local, national and international social movements. Karl Marx and classic Marxist literature have considered five categories: worker’s, students’, peasants’, women’ and cultural social movements.

Naturally, while attempting to give distinct classifications to collective social action, it is also important to recognize that these also can overlap and merge from time to time for strategic and tactical reasons. Alternatively, they could form more-institutionalized relationships, interlacing their functions and blurring their borderlines. Some social movements also can be represented in coalitions and networks, can form other alliances, and actually can be comprised of distinct local community-based organizations and NGOs.

HIC-HLRN and social movements

Housing and Land Rights Network and the larger Habitat International Coalition also consist of members that are self-acclaimed social movements. The Movimento sem Terra (landless people’s movement) and the União de Movimentos de Moradia, in Brazil, the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (USA) and the Urban Poor Consortium (Indonesia) are self-acclaimed social movements that are also active constituents of HIC. HLRN’s Nairobi-based member implementing the Sub-Saharan Africa Program, Mazingira Institute, has played a key role in the nationwide constitutional-reform movement in Kenya. In the past few years, several long-standing members if HIC in Peru have consolidated into a national movement under the banner of “the right to adequate housing.” The National Housing Rights Campaign, in India, and its successors have contributed greatly to HIC and HLRN over the years.

In addition to the social movement representatives already serving on the HIC Board as regional representatives, the HIC Constitution also allows for two Board positions social movement. This reflects the collective and cooperative nature of HIC, which constitutes a kind of social movement in itself, working to the advancement of housing rights and the improvement of living conditions for the world’s impoverished, displaced and marginalized.

It is this collective exploration that has motivated us to introduce this website section, in order to present examples of social movements—both large and small—that aim at social production of their habitat. The common features of social movements already have been observed, with their own regional specificity, surprisingly, in the Middle East/North Africa region, where:

social production processes find community members and partners contributing labor, time, materials and/or money (e.g., through savings schemes) from within the community to build community assets in the form of housing, infrastructure, services, environmental improvements, or other achievements that redound to the benefit of the local initiators/participants.[12]

[1] The phrase first gained usage as an observation of the ten million protestors against the US-threatened invasion of Iraq, 15 February 2003. See Jonathan Schell, “The Other Superpower,” The Nation (14 April 2003),; James F. Moore, “The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head,” Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School (31 March 2003), at:; The Second Superpower: Cooperation, Politics and Activism, at:

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1963).

[3] Charles Tilly, Social Movements, 1768–2004 (New York: Paradigm Publishers, 2004).

[4] Charles Tilly, “Social Movements as Historically Specific Clusters of Political Performances,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 38 (1994): 1-30.

[5] For example, see WSF 2005: “Call from social movements for mobilizations against the war, neoliberalism, exploitation and exclusion,” at:

[6] Mario Diani and Ivano Bison, Organizations, Coalition, and Movements, Theory and Society, Vol.33 (2004).

[7] Mario Diani, “The Concept of Social Movement”; Mario Diani, “Networks and Social Movements: A Research Program,” in Mario Diani and Doug McAdam, eds., Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 299–319.

[9] Civil society is perceived and expected “to fill the gap left by downscaled state services, [thus,] infrastructural and direct financial assistance should be complemented by the promotion of supportive civil society institutions.” See Stephan Baas [FAO Rural Development Division], “Participatory institutional development” paper presented at the International Academic Exchange Conference on Sustainable Agriculture and Sand Control in Gansu Desert Area, China, 3–8 November 1997, See also Peter Niggli, “Should private agencies withdraw from development cooperation?” Graduate Institute of Development Studies (IUED) Yearbook, 2004 (Geneva: IUED, 2004),