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An Exploration Into the Heart of Social Movements: I

Ola Ayorinde

This blog by our Movement Building Coordinator, Ọlá Ayòrindé​, is the first of a series in which we are seeking to understand the nature of social movements, and how we can take lessons from movements of the past and present to inform how we organise today.

This blog is the first in a series intended to be an investigation into the lifespan, development and action of social movements. At Shared Assets, the last year has given us, as it may have for many, the opportunity to deeply reflect on our position and where we stand in relation to ongoing work around us. These reflections have led us to rethink our strategy, opening the space for a much more exploratory and collaborative function of our work. For now, we are calling it movement building, and depending on where the thinking in this series takes us, we may be calling it something else down the line. 

 

The aim of this series, apart from serving as a place to document our journey in this endeavour, is also to encourage debate and discussion amongst people involved in social movements and the general public. While we will be broadly speaking on social movements, our focus will be on the movement which we will identify as the ‘land justice’ movement. This movement consists of various individuals, organisations and networks which recognise land, its ownership, and its use as integral to social, political and economic realities. Throughout the series, where the opportunity presents itself, we will refer directly to this movement and draw historical comparisons or insights which will be useful for our understanding.

 

In essence, we see this as an opportunity for some shared thinking — this process is an external one as much as it is internal, so your thoughts, comments and reflections are greatly appreciated. We do not expect or desire to come to any hard conclusions, nor do we anticipate a certain length to this series. We are aiming for fluidity and coalescence simultaneously — finding a balance between the two will be a challenge, but one we accept and relish with full enthusiasm. 

 

For us to proceed, it’s necessary for us to begin with the very basics. So, what is a social movement? While definitions normally give us a clear road for whatever we are exploring, the nature of social movements can be so complex, that, given the particular structure or formation of one, they can all have varying definitions or carry certain notions. The literature on this topic is very diverse, and there exists many contrasting views and opinions on what actually constitutes a social movement. However, despite varying definition, what can be said about social movements that is held in common is that the definitions share three specific criteria, they are:

 

  • A network of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups/and or organizations
  • Engaged in political or culture conflict
  • Formed on the basis of a shared collective identity 

 

For the sake of clarity we will loosely define social movements as a freely associated group of individuals acting on their own accord towards a particular aim or goal — usually societal change. It’s important also to make the distinction between social movements, and social movement organisations. Following our definition, it may occur that a part of the movement formalises itself as an organisation, and may well become the leader of the movement, but nevertheless it is important to stress the organisation does not encompass the entire movement. A great contemporary example is the Black Lives Matter organisation which came into existence in 2012, after the murder of Trayvon Martin. Since then, in the public eye it has swayed between movement, and organisation, especially given that many of the monikers and slogans from the organisation are used even by those not affiliated with BLM, but are a part of the wider movement for Black Liberation. 

 

Having touched briefly on what social movements are, we must also understand why they are formed, in other words, what is the reason(s) for the genesis of certain movements. If we can understand the circumstances, or the conditions under which social movements emerge then it may give us insight into how the movement is shaped over time, and the course it takes over its lifespan. 

Some movements are the result of a singular event, or a chain of connected events which spur the rise of a collective action around the issues that caused said event. Taking from our earlier example, the murder of Trayvon Martin arguably sparked a revitalisation of the movement towards liberation for Black people globally. To claim that this movement started in 2012 would be giving an incomplete picture. Rather, it is a longstanding movement, existing over centuries, that at specific points in history has been reshaped by the prevailing conditions of the time. The same can be said for the struggle for land — it has arguably been a necessary feature of the successive forms of society we as humans have established — present in Antiquity, Feudalism, and now currently as we exist, in Capitalism. From here we can conclude that social movements are shaped by the conditions prevalent in society at the time.

So far we have looked at what social movements are, and what conditions generally give way to their emergence. For the purposes of this investigation, it may also be helpful to understand the life cycle of movements, and the direction they may take. According to Blumer (1969), Maus (1975), and Tily (1978), social movements have several distinct stages that they pass through. The first is identified as emergence, where as we discussed earlier, a social movement arises from a particular event, or builds up gradually until it is recogniseable in all senses. The next stage is coalescence – the common dilemma and source of oppression is being pinned down allowing for organisation and appearance of the issue to the public view (typically through mass media) to be established. The third stage, bureaucratization, is when movements must become more organized, centered around a more systematic model. The set up and system for going about the construct must be more formal, with people taking on specific roles and responsibilities. “In this phase their political power is greater than in the previous stages in that they may have more regular access to political elites.”

 

The life cycle ends with the decline of the movement, which according to these authors, isn’t necessarily a negative outcome. Before the decline of a movement they propose several routes that a social movement may go through before reaching its end. Success, failure, regressions, cooptation, repression or going mainstream. It could be seen that going mainstream is in essence a successful measure, but this could also mean the opposite. Going mainstream leaves a movement vulnerable to the other routes proposed in the final end of the movement’s life. In fact, all routes may lead to one another, leaving the ‘decline’ to be the unanswered question. What does this decline look like? 

 

For different movements, there of course will be different answers. However, if we look carefully, we will surely find intersecting issues, dependent and inextricably linked to one another. If we take the decline of a movement to mean that it’s successful in its aims, could the success of one movement lead to success in another? If we look at the housing movement for instance, characterised by an association of individuals seeking better quality, more affordable housing and an end to homelessness, how does this movement line up with the movement for reducing climate change? There is an obvious link between the construction of homes, and climate change. How do the actions of these two movements relate to one another, and what cohesiveness, if any, exists between them to achieve both their aims simultaneously?

 

Estimates of three million new homes built over the next 20 years are needed according to a report, to solve the so-called ‘housing crisis’. On the other hand, the science has been explicitly clear about how much time we have left to make radical changes to how we live and meet our needs. How do these two declarations make space for one another — in other words, what do these two movements have to learn from one another? 

 

It seems like a sensible step forward to look deeper into the conditions under which social movements arise. We saw earlier how, typically, social movements are trying to enact some form of real societal change – they seek to change the conditions of society. Perhaps looking at the forces behind the change of conditions could give us more insight into what movements are responding to, and more importantly ‘how’ they are responding. If we can understand what the fundamental changes are that cause the social ills we are targeting then we can effectively organise our movements. This also gives us another picture of whether a movement is truly revolutionary, that is, it seeks to fundamentally change the conditions of society. Our interest and focus, as we mentioned before, is on  the ‘land justice movement’. Over time we will explore this notion of ‘land justice’ and what it means in light of our context today, and how this notion serves as a lens for real social change.

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