Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Alana Lentin (1999) 'Structure, Strategy, Sustainability: What Future for New Social Movement Theory?'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 3, <>

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Received: 15/6/1999      Accepted: 15/9/1999      Published: 30/9/1999


The theoretical domain developed for the study of New Social Movements (NSMs) in the early 1980s has recently been largely abandoned by its main advocates. Increasingly, the cross-class, 'post-materialist' movements of the 1970s and 1980s, typified by the issues of environment, peace and feminism, cease to pose a radical challenge to contemporary western politics. This paper revisits the theoretical work of three of the European voices central to understandings of the emergence and success of New Social Movements. Claus Offe, Alberto Melucci and Alain Touraine succeed in amalgamating an essential emphasis on structural transformation and an understanding of the importance of identity in bringing about 'new' collective action in the 1970s and 1980s. In response, to the significant decrease in European work on the NSM phenomenon today the paper proposes that the existing body of theory may be insufficient for describing collective action at the turn of the Millennium. The increasing predominance of 'identity' politics (e.g. in the realms of ethnicity and sexuality) in the arenas previously dominated by 'universalist', post-particularist themes; the institutionalisation of elements of NSM action and concerns; and the perceived appropriation by transnational agencies of the issues dominating original state-NSM struggles are cited as reasons for the need to develop a new language to describe contemporary collective action phenomena.

Collective Action; Identity; New Social Movements; Structural Transformation; Transnationalisation


Recent trends in the social sciences have revealed a preoccupation with social processes beyond the realm of the nation state. Responses to the growing pressures of 'globalization', in addition to those concerning economics and international relations, have stressed the role of 'transnational new social movements' (c.f. Smith et al., 1997). These protectors against the abuse of human rights, environmental degradation and the denial of equality on the grounds of ethnicity, gender or sexuality have, over the last decade, developed professionalised strategies employed on an international scale. However, the continued use of the label New Social Movements to refer to that which resembles advocacy or 'lobbying' points to important changes in the ways in which social collective action is now conceptualised.

In building a theoretical framework for the doctoral research[1] into anti-racism movements and the particularistic nature of collective action in that field, I returned to the literature on 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. Nevertheless NSMs are usually exemplified by a list which - alongside the ecological, peace, women's triad - includes anti-racism, gay rights and other 'identity based' organisations (Waters, 1998). The ideology of the original NSMs of the early 1980s as well as some of their actors, could now be identified with the policies of both governmental and supranational institutions and of the private sector. Others had been relegated to the fringes or had ceased to exist. The anti-racism movements or those promoting gay rights, however, could not be said to have followed as neat a route. In recognition of the importance of 'dealing' with social issues from within institutions, many western governments (local and national) as well as the European Union, the Council of Europe, trades unions, political parties and other organisations promoted anti-racist campaigns[2], equality training and other measures. Yet, when independently formed, movements tended to remain at 'grassroots' level, non-institutional and strongly linked to the 'community'.

These differences would not appear problematic to those within social movements research who take either a rational choice approach (resource mobilisation) or one prioritising the centrality of identity alone yet paying little attention to structural constraints. However, I will avoid an analysis that takes either a means-ends approach or concentrates solely on actors' personal motivations for joining movements. My discussion will favour an examination of the socio-political conditions in which movements emerge and that they in turn affect. The paper will introduce the concept of New Social Movements and briefly distinguish between the various approaches used to study them. 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.

My aim is to address three central questions that I see as arising from a comparison of a review of this body of work and the contemporary nature of social movements activity. Firstly, is 'identity' in the sense in which it was described by these authors (reflexive, post-material, knowledge-based) comparable to the identities of proponents of the 'new' politics of minority ethnicity, sexuality and the like? Does the 'universalist' appeal of the message promoted by the original NSMs, in which identity was moulded around issues, not oppose the 'particularism' of new movements for whom essential identities give rise to issues? Secondly, in what ways can the New Social Movement label continue to be applied? Given that 'universalist' NSM agendas have been largely institutionalised in recent years and that 'particularist' movements have little concrete parallels in the NSM phenomenon there is a need for new vocabularies. Lastly, in consideration of the institutionalisation of NSMs (or of their concerns) and the concomitant localisation of the communal politics of 'race' and ethnicity, have social scientists been right to have stressed transnational over state-based processes? Has the state's collusion in the transnationalisation of social concerns witnessed a backlash in the growing significance of 'particularist' politics?

The Birth of the New Social Movement

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).

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[3]. 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).

Whilst both schools agree upon the relevance of culture to new forms of social movement organisation, their methodological strategies seem to be divided along European/theoretical-American/empirical lines. In general, it appears to me that the distinction can be made between two types of authors. On the one hand, Johnston and Klandermans claim in their 1995 volume, Social Movements and Culture, that "...students of social movements have felt the limitations of excessively structural and interest-oriented perspectives" (p. vii) and call for a "common framework for the integration of cultural variables in the study of social movements" (idem.). Others, on the other hand, whose work concentrates on Europe, look to historical explanations of social movement activity (Offe, 1985; Tarrow, 1996) and discussions of contemporary political and social transformation (Melucci, 1994) as the means for explaining the centrality of identity to the study of NSMs.

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[4]. 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.

Shifts in Structure / Changing Patterns in Collective Action

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; Laraña, 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.

Stressing Structure / Prioritising Identity

This section presents a brief overview of the work of Offe, Melucci and Touraine. I have chosen to return to these authors in particular because their amalgamation of structural arguments with new ways of conceptualising actors' motivations in terms of identity are still relevant to the debate on social movements. However, the ways in which identity is constructed and played out differ (especially in the work of Offe) from the processes observable in today's 'particularist' movements. A review of this work thus helps us both to contextualise today's movements and to identify in what ways they differ from original NSMs.

All three authors display strong commonalties in their stress on the specific nature of 'advanced capitalist industrial' (Offe), 'post-industrial' (Touraine) or 'highly differentiated' (Melucci) societies. Claus Offe calls on Foucault who espouses an "...even more radical version of the 'dispersed' nature of power and powerlessness that can no longer be attributed to any central or fundamental causal mechanism" (Offe 1985: 845) to explain what he calls the 'broadening', 'deepening' and 'irreversible' forms of social control which render institutions powerless and cause the blurring of class divisions in late-modern European societies. These processes have the effect of making formerly localised problems applicable at a broader level as flexibility enhances the possibilities for finding solutions through non-institutional channels. This leads diverse groups to experience first-hand, by means of a 'spill-over' effect, the once specific concerns of class. A second outcome is the deepened experiencing of deprivation caused by bringing closer the formerly distinct realms of the controlling institution and that of the private or individual. Finally, it has been starkly recognised that social and political institutions (most notably the Welfare State) are no longer able to cope with global threats and their resultant deprivations. Problems of this nature (environmental decay, military technology, severe poverty) are deemed irreversible because of the state's incapacity to provide solutions for them despite its continued control over social life. Protest is thus directed against states' success (rather than their failure) in promoting economic wealth (Berger and Berger, 1983), the factor responsible for the desensitisation brought about by the wielding of such enhanced power.

Claus Offe places a strong emphasis on the explication of the 'newness' of New Social Movements. He accomplishes this through the development of two prototypes of collective action: the 'old paradigm' social movements and the emergence of a 'new paradigm' (Offe, 1985). Offe links the structural transformations necessary for bringing about these observed shifts to the emergence of a type of actor who reflects changing concerns in the domain of class. Western 'old' paradigm social movements were at their most prominent post-1945, in a period defined by the liberal-democratic structures of the free market economy and its required flip-side - social security - and by the predominance of party-politics. Offe argues that this period witnessed a lesser degree of social and political conflict than before or immediately since insofar as "collective bargaining, party competition, and representative party government were the virtually exclusive mechanisms of the resolution of social and political conflict. All of this was endorsed by a 'civic culture' which emphasised the values of social mobility, private life, consumption, instrumental rationality, authority, and order and which de-emphasised political participation" (Offe 1985: 824).

Offe characterises new movements as non-institutional. He does not imply that these alternative forms of collective action have completely replaced the 'old' paradigm. Rather, he argues, the two compete and at the time of writing, he foresees the success of the 'new' paradigm as based on its ability to form alliances with the old Left against the project of neo-conservatism. Aside from having the advantage of hindsight and the knowledge that he largely bases his analysis on the case of Germany, Offe's emphasis on the changing nature of class structure is integral to understanding NSM emergence. Offe sees NSM politics as rooted in the concerns of the 'new middle class' made up of highly educated, economically secure individuals many of whom work in the field of 'personal-services'. This body characterises the membership of issue-based movements such as peace, ecological, women's and civil-rights associations. It is joined by members of 'decommodified' groups (students, the unemployed, housewives etc.) described as 'trapped' in highly authoritarian and often exclusionary regimes of social control yet with a significant amount of free time for movement activity. Such alliances are said to cut across traditional class conflict and resist class-specific themes, favouring either highly universalist issues on the one hand, or strongly particularist[5] ones on the other.

The predominance of the 'new middle class', albeit that they act in alliance with the above-mentioned 'decommodified' groups in NSMs, is crucial to Offe's understanding of structural change. He recalls the observations of mass behaviour in early psychologising theories, described as irrational and arising from disaffection and exclusion (e.g. Smelser, 1963). Within such accounts it was impossible to conceive of either the elites or the core groups of society participating in a challenge to the institutions of the state. This was seen as a reaction against transformations brought about by the process of modernity to which such groups were deemed central. This supposition was negated early on by Gramsci (1971), who claimed that key players in civil society belong either to the hegemonic bloc or are resolutely counter-hegemonic in their consciousness. Along these lines and in complete contrast to theorists of 'deviant' mass behaviour, Offe's 'new middle class' actors are neither disaffected nor peripheral to the concerns of mainstream politics nor are they economically marginal. Actors' self-awareness of their social status is central to Offe's pinpointing of the 'new middle class'. The process of self-understanding embarked upon by the members of this new class - straddling traditional class divides - "ultimately determines one's ability to free oneself of the dominant ideology, overturn the institutional forms of hegemony, create new associational forms, and thereby act in counterhegemonic terms" (Lynch, 1998: 165).

Offe, in agreement with Touraine and Melucci, sees structural transformation as key to understanding the increased role of a 'new middle class' in New Social Movement politics. The favouring of structural as opposed to 'functionalist' arguments in the theorising of NSMs, he argues, indicates a commitment to theories for social movements as opposed to the latter's tendency to mere description. Thus, Offe recognises that a discussion of collective action that is ignorant of structure disregards the significance of shifting power relations in all social phenomena and especially in those that prioritises human agency in situations of social and political conflict.

Alberto Melucci's stress on the primacy of structure makes use of a rather different language to that employed by Claus Offe. Whilst Offe speaks in the language of institutions giving the reader an overview of the historical processes, post-1945, that saw the rise and demise of state centrism in the domain of social life, Melucci prioritises information and communication as fundamental to structural transformation. In this way, while Offe's accounts resonate for many students of western European national societies, Melucci may say more about the 'globalisation' of knowledge pervasive at multiple levels and in different contexts. Like Touraine, Melucci's prioritisation of what he terms, 'identitisation' (Melucci, 1997) in the commitment of actors to movements, strongly locates subjective human agency in its structural and political contexts.

Melucci prioritises the production and processing of information in contemporary societies as crucial to the understanding of changing paradigms in collective action (Melucci, 1994; 1995). Information is constituted as the key resource of a 'planetary' world denoted by its pluralisation, "the pluralisation of languages, pluralisation of perspectives, pluralisation of theoretical standpoints" (Avritzer et al, 1997: 95). This multiplicity creates the need to access knowledge because the very plurality of 'complex' societies also raises the risk of being confined to one domain. This immediately reduces the chances of survival in a society which has become 'highly differentiated'. In Melucci's terms, social movements of newly 'identitised' actors contribute to avoiding this. Therefore, "the movements of the 1970s and the 1980s were the last signs of the transition from movements as political actors to movements as media" (Melucci in Avritzer et al, 1997: 108).

Melucci's emphasis on the acquisition of information in the evolution of movements, their functioning and their role in society as the conveyors of this vital knowledge stems from his view of the "systemic forms of the development of power as an issue that is very problematic within contemporary societies" (Avritzer and Lyyra, 1997). Such a perspective recognises the uneven nature of power relations that are diffused throughout social life and that cannot be embodied in a single, impenetrable locus. This Foucauldian standpoint is translated into Melucci's insistence that in spite of subordination "people, in their own ways, were able to use the space of their own power to act against and to act for" (Avritzer et al, 1997: 96). Seen in relation to the structural transformative effects of social movements that such appropriations of the power spaces may have, Melucci considers movements to constitute

"that part of social life where social relationships have not yet crystallised into social structures, where action is the immediate carrier of the relational texture of society and its meaning. They are therefore, at least for me, not only a specific sociological object, but a lens through which many problems can be addressed" (Melucci in Avritzer et al, 1997: 95)

Melucci attributes a significant role to social movements in their capacity to affect change upon institutional and political structures in both direct and indirect ways. He sees 'everyday networks' as being the spaces in which public confrontations are prepared in the self-reflexivity of negotiation. Nevertheless, social movements have been directly implicit in broadening the boundaries of the political and changing the nature of participation and representation, often by providing new institutional personnel. Indirectly, social movements have contributed to both a change in organisational life and to the acceptance of new languages, such as the languages of ecology and gender, as intrinsic to institutions. These effects are not wholly welcomed by Melucci who views the focus on organisation and the domain of the institutionally political as being a rather narrow outcome of NSM activity.

The work of Alain Touraine has focused explicitly on the conjoining of structural and cultural concerns. He has sought to build a theory to frame the structural and cultural dimensions of the contemporary western societies where collective action is played out. He has also developed an action-theoretical analysis of the conflictual processes of identity formation in actors. He, therefore, examines the reflexive processes that sustain social movement agency through the development of norms in the realm of identity and focuses on the democratisation of society and on the centrality of culture (Cohen, 1985). In order to develop a global perspective on the relevance of social movement activity to the ensemble of social and political processes, Touraine believes in identifying the common cultural field in which opponents compete, resisting accounts that are filtered through the prism of the identity of particular groups. Similarly, groups whose action centres wholly on the self-understanding of their identity or culture may not be described as social movements. "A social movement [...] is a collective action aiming at the implementation of central cultural values against the interest and influence of an enemy which is defined in terms of power relations. A social movement is a combination of social conflict and cultural participation" (Touraine, 1991; cited in Waters, 1998: 180).

Unlike both Offe, whose focus is on the overcoming of class divides, and Melucci, for whom the understanding of differentiation and multiplicity, not least cultural, is crucial to the understanding of contemporary struggles for the control of information, Touraine sees the relationship between culture and movements as problematic. Whilst Offe generally ignores it and Melucci tends to embrace it, Touraine has difficulty in attributing collective struggles in the domain of culture to the Subject as social movement. Therefore, while identity remains key, as it does for all three, Touraine's conceptualisation of this identity remains entangled with the notion of the subject as individual. So, "the individual asserts him or herself as a subject by combining desire with empathy, without surrendering the temptation to identify one with the other, as that would reduce the I to the Ego, which is effectively its antithesis" (Touraine, 1995: 223). Thus, the 'Subject as social movement', or the struggle to "transform the relation of social domination that are applied to the principal cultural resources" (Touraine, 1984: 64) is a commitment or responsibility that enables the Subject to surpass her tendencies to egoism.

Such claims are consistent with Touraine's resistance to the argument that supports the increased individualism of contemporary society and the hegemony of consumerism. Although he does not negate such claims, he proposes a collective ability to resist the advent of a totalising individualism:

"The modern world...increasingly abounds with references to a Subject. That Subject is freedom, and the criterion of the good is the individual's ability to control his or her actions and situation, to see and experience modes of behaviour as components in a personal life history, to see himself or herself as an actor. The Subject is an individual's will to act and to be recognised as an actor" (Touraine, 1995: 207)

Unlike Melucci's proposal of the possibility for social action in the spaces of diffused, yet uneven power, Touraine's equation of the Subject and alternative modernity with the choices of the individual to act de-emphasises the role of power in collective struggles. He sees as a "perversion" (Touraine, 1995: 210) Foucault's (c.f. 1988) view that subjectivation (the engendering of the Subject) necessarily entails subjectification (or the creation of subjects). For this reason, Touraine's theorising of social movements as the birth of the Subject presents some fundamental problems for the development of a theory of collective social action which is grounded in the realities of asymmetric power. The centrality of the 'Subject' and the relegation to the sidelines of the 'subject' hinders the possibility of applying Touraine's perspective on social movements to the domain of today's 'particularist' movements that start from a position of marginality. The universalisation of Subject possibilities inherent in his theory encumbers the student who reads Touraine on multiculturalism[6] and remind us of the importance of theoretical clarity in writing about diverse movement forms[7].

I have presented three structural analyses of New Social Movements. Each author approaches the subject from an angle that cannot escape the strong influence of national constraints - German, Italian and French - on the evolution of the "special type of social conflict" that is entailed in collective action (Touraine, 1985: 750). Despite this, all three make justifiably strong inferences as to the nature of NSM action on a global (western) scale. Revisiting these theoretical contributions helps to clarify the problems created for social movements as a field of study by the contemporary changes in the nature of movements labelled NSMs.

Contemporary Relevance: NSM Theory in a Future Perspective

I now return to the three questions posed in the introduction of the paper. I shall start by outlining in greater detail the content of the problem in light of my discussion of NSM theory in the previous section. I will then attempt to address the issues by referring to the needs of students of 'minoritarian' movements at the turn of the Millennium.

My first question asks to what extent the identity constructed by actors in New Social Movements has changed with the emergence of a greater number of particularist movements claiming recognition in public space? Can movements such as those that claim rights for ethnic minority groups or AIDS sufferers, who indeed use non-conventional, self-reflexive means of action, be conceived merely as later versions on a continuum of NSMs? A distinguishing factor of the original New Social Movements is that they uphold the egalitarian values contained in a 'universalist' world vision that includes notions such as peace, sexual equality and environmental protection. If this is the case, as Lynch (1998) argues (although I am not sure it pertains where gender is concerned), do movements of predominantly homogeneous groups or 'communities' constitute a return to the old particularism exemplified by class-based struggles?

Secondly, if we agree that the need to table the issues promoted by the original NSMs in the 1970s and 1980s (peace, equality, environment) is now less urgent, can groups continuing to organise around such issues still call themselves social movements? Have they not, as a result of their success, undergone a process of institutionalisation that de facto complicates their aim of being representative of the interests of civil society? Is this an inevitable and generally applicable outcome of successful collective action? Alternatively, can it be said to be based, in a Gramscian sense, on the predominance in NSMs of core groups with privileged access to decision-making that eventually take their 'rightful' place at the seat of institutional power?

Lastly, have global developments, such as those stressed in Melucci's account of societies governed by non state-bound flows of information, and the concomitant transnationalisation of collective action come full circle? Social movements' criticism of the state's powers of coercion has facilitated the imposition of the constraints over state sovereignty institutionalised by the strengthening of international governmental bodies and the ethereal strong arm of global finance. Is it, as Lynch (1998) claims, paradoxically necessary that social movements return now to tackle the state in an attempt to halt the appropriation of 'public' issues (human rights, the environment, peace) by international institutions or by professionalised non-governmental lobby groups?

Three main issues have been identified. Addressing these questions will contribute to delineating what we mean when we talk about social movements at the end of the 1990s and may go some way towards setting an agenda for further research. I will examine each issue in turn. However, my central claim is that original NSM activism, 'universalist' in its appeal must be distinguished from contemporary movements with 'particularist' demands. The other two issues that I have raised, those of institutionalisation and the viability of transnational categories, revolve around this main point. My purpose is two-fold: to demonstrate in what ways contemporary 'particularist' movements differ from the NSMs and to propose that the privileging of structure in the theories summarised above should not be discarded in the study of 'new' New Social Movements.

In answer to the first question, my main claim is that a distinction must be made between original NSM activism which carried a 'universalist' message and the 'particularism' of many contemporary movements organised around ethnicity or sexuality. It has become mandatory, particularly in the North American context, to equate the NSM phenomenon with a new 'politics of identity' through which "neither women nor racial 'minorities' nor sexual 'minorities' nor the handicapped nor the 'ecologists'...would ever again accept the legitimacy of 'waiting' upon some other revolution" (Wallerstein, 1989). Immanuel Wallerstein reflects the tendency of some writers to present an all-encompassing view of NSM activism in which any group with a grievance in some way based upon culture or identity, pre-existing or 'imagined' (Anderson, 1983), represents a whole new collective action form. This confusion can largely be accounted for by the predominance of the notion of identity first in NSM theory and later through 'identity politics'.

I argue that a perspective from the 1990s, during which professionalised activism has increased in dominance, obscures our vision. Lobbying or advocacy tackles particularist grievances by couching them in the language of universal human rights. But when groups call for special rights or recognition (Taylor, 1994) on the grounds of their ethnic, sexual or other difference we must discount the appeal of these claims to universality. Moreover, such groups generally speak from a minoritarian position and have little access to decision-making centres. In making these comments I would strongly disagree with Waters (1998) who analyses contemporary movement politics in France to conclude that these would be more usefully categorised as a 'new citizenship' movement. She claims that groups such as the purposefully subversive ActUP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) are exemplary of the "profoundly democratic nature of contemporary movements and their attempt to further the rights of all social groups rather than the narrow concerns of a particular movement or social category" (Waters, 1998: 178). The confinement of such movements within the liberal democratic political project represents a profound misunderstanding of their mission. Furthermore, the grouping together of ActUp (anti-institutional) and SOS Racisme (strong institutional connections) is indicative of a complete misreading of social movement politics in that country. In a different way, movements for the political recognition of ethnic or 'racial' minorities increasingly call for an understanding of their needs which is 'particular' rather than 'universal', often inciting criticism on the grounds of separatism and a rejection of dominant/majoritarian cultural themes. These groups, victims of a social exclusion based on identity as well as poverty, obviously cannot choose to be determinedly counter-hegemonic.

Having made this distinction, I must stress that the separation of 'universalist' from 'particularist' political ideals cannot be dealt with by recourse to the popular theme of 'identity politics'. Today, particularly in the United States, this label is imposed on the majority of movements working in the domain of ethnicity, sexuality and the like. I draw a barrier between 'identity politics' and other movements such as ActUp and various anti-racist movements for example, because many writers over-state the claim to exclusivity manifested by some and apply it to all identity-based groups. Adam (1992: 52) reflects this general trend: "Much of the confusion surrounding 'identity politics' reflects the 'nationalist', 'fundi', or 'culturalist' face of new social movements, which valorises difference, essentializes identity, and affirms the self."

Furthermore, by concentrating on exclusive identities rather than on the collaborative strategies developed by many minoritarian movements, there is a tendency to elevate such movements to a universalist purpose that all do not share. Ernest Laclau shows how the "proliferation of particularisms" (1996: 27) contributes to the 'universalisation of particularism':

"If each identity is in a differential, non-antagonistic relation to all other identities, then the identity in question is purely differential and relational; so it presupposes not only the presence of all the other identities but also the total ground which constitutes the differences as differences. Even worse: we know very well that the relations between groups are constituted as relations of power... Now, if the particularity asserts itself as mere particularity, in a pure differential relation with other particularities, it is sanctioning the status quo in the relation of power between groups." (Laclau, 1996: 27)

This serves to illustrate the importance of separating between the various types of (new) social movements. I have argued that the original NSMs of the 1970s and 1980s enjoyed a claim to universality because the identity constructed by actors was based on issues with a wide-ranging appeal. Secondly, the categorising of all novel movements as NSMs denies the important claim to difference of 'particularist' movements that lack any aim to assimilate into society at large. Nevertheless, this conflation is understandable in an overall climate that emphasises the proliferation of identity politics. If we take Laclau's point about the universalisation of identities we can see how some movements, especially for ethno-nationalist, religious or indigenous people's rights, have demonstrated success. The majority of currently active movements against racism, sexism and homophobia in western societies are locally-based but have transnational connections, intersect gender, ethnicity and sexuality and operate institutional links while being independently aligned. Yet, these movements continue to be described, as they have by Wallerstein, Adam and Waters cited in this article, as NSMs.

The second question raised at the start of this section relates to the first and most important problem discussed above. There has been a significant trend towards the institutionalisation of both NSM demands and of many movement actors. I argue that the universal appeal of the NSM's core issues to some extent facilitated this process. The NSMs of the 1970s and 1980s have enjoyed success in driving home their message and influencing decision-making whether through the continuation of non-conventional, mediatised action modes or through an ascendance to positions of institutional power. The environmental movement is at the fore of both phenomena with associations such as Greenpeace continuing to resist bureaucratisation and attract a wide-level, international base of support and Green parties winning seats in national and European parliaments.

The attraction of individuals to concrete 'causes' such as environmental degradation and threats to security have at times been attributed to the NIMBY (not in my backyard) factor (Roche, 1995). Certainly, the success of collective pressure to bring about changes that affect individuals' daily lives may explain in part the relatively rapid institutionalisation of some NSMs (e.g. liberal feminism, Green parties). Furthermore, Offe shows how the location of core or elite groups in NSMs is vital for the success through institutionalisation of NSM issues and actors. Becoming institutionalised could be avoided during the early NSM years by actors who 'knew the system' who in the same way could later access it.

On the level of research and theory production also, there has been an increasing emphasis placed upon the resource mobilisation approach to NSM theory. This prioritises a view of movements as principally oriented towards the adoption of highly routinised structures that maximise efficiency in mobilising resources in the resolution of public grievances. The approach favours the establishment of alliances with any public or private collaborative agent with the sole purpose of mobilising the appropriate organisational or entrepreneurial resources deemed necessary for attaining a desired outcome (Dalton, 1994). The heavy bias on opportunity and organisational features and the neglect of political or structural motivations in this perspective supports a view of NSMs that concludes either in their dissolution after the attainment of the identified goal, or in their institutionalisation. However, if we seek to stress the structural conditions as a result of which NSMs emerge and the return effects of collective action on political and social structures, this type of means-ends analysis remains insufficient. The complexity of the matter may have contributed to the demise in concern for NSMs in the European context or, as Melucci claims (Avritzer et al, 1997), the increasing attraction of American rational choice models for European writers.

"What resource mobilization brings to the analysis of social movements is an attention to the how... But there are two shortcomings in this success. One is the eclipse of the question about the why. Thereby, the attention to structural roots - the best inheritance of the Marxist tradition - is completely erased as everyone in the Left, the entire European Left, and maybe even in the third world as well, is switching to rational choice theories". (Melucci in Avritzer et al, 1997)

These arguments connect to the discussion of my first question. To a certain extent the institutionalisation of NSM issues replies to public demand for greater control against environmental hazard, the promotion of equal opportunities and the protection from nuclear threat, to give some examples. Knowledge of these issues was no doubt provided by the NSMs. In that many of these concerns have been submitted to a degree of institutionalisation it is to some extent justified that sociologists now study the how, the mobilising of resources for the attainment of concrete aims. But this cannot be separated from my core argument that NSM institutionalisation was facilitated by the universalist appeal of the issues, on the one hand, and of the dominant position of the actors, on the other. Whereas there is evidence of a linear trajectory from movement to institution for some original NSMs, the same linearity cannot be seen in the history of 'particularist' movements. In particular the case of anti-racism demonstrates how movements have always been either more or less institutionally allied, more liberal or more radical in different contexts and depending on their protagonists. Indeed, an overall problem for anti-racism has been the practical inability of enjoying wide-spread support without a modicum of institutionalised, mainstream backing. Movements that rejected any form of collaboration with state-bodies, the church or other central institutions have often been labelled subversive or deviant by proponents of a liberal anti-racism as well as by forces on the Right (Gilroy, 1987).

My final point relates to the transnational nature of the original NSMs. One of the most important factors stressed by all theorists of NSMs is their ability to work across and in spite of borders. This backs up my point about the universal appeal of NSMs and helps stress why 'particularist' movements are mostly local and appeal for recognition from nationally-bound politico-legal institutions. Lynch (1998) supports these claims by arguing that transnational NSMs' criticism of the state has paradoxically assisted it in relinquishing responsibility for resolving social problems: "For either a minimum or maximum program to take hold, social movements delegitimized rigid conceptualizations of state sovereignty, legitimized the demobilization of the state's coercive capacities, and encouraged guarantees of controls placed on the state by international mechanisms of oversight" (Lynch, 1998: 163).

This problem is particularly significant when related to the concerns of the 'particularist' movements. There is little doubt that the issues raised by the original NSMs, in particular ecological and security concerns, need to be tackled at supra-national level. However, the marginalisation of some groups in society must also be conceptualised in relation to the state and its failures in the face of civil society. The NSMs' criticism of the entrenched bureaucracy of the Welfare State has in many places given governments an excuse for dismantling it with no efficient replacement. This has led to growing disaffection in reaction to the exclusion of society's most marginalised groups. It is around these issues that many of today's social movements are most active, particularly in the face of AIDs, growing homelessness or the recent case of entrenched institutionalised racism demonstrated by the Stephen Lawrence case in the UK. There is no doubt a dialogue between similar movements in different countries. Indeed, one of the defining factors of many contemporary movements is their ability to act both on a local and on a transnational level. However, whereas environmental degradation and nuclear threat are and must be global concerns, social problems arising as a direct function of the failure of states to provide for their citizens demand a case-by-case approach. The results of localised action often resonates across borders and it is in this way that activism becomes transnationalised, rather than being top-down. Lastly, there is a stark contrast between many of the actors involved in original NSM activity, exemplified by Offe's 'new middle class', and the ethnic, racialised or sexual minorities active in 'particularist' movements. Transnational activity may be less realistic for today's movements.


The discussion of these three questions may act as pointers for the development of a viable theory of the changing patterns in social movement structure and function. It has been suggested (Waters, 1998) that the term 'New Social Movement' has lost resonance in the description of collective action today. As it relates to a distinct form of activism emerging due to specific structural conditions in the 1970s and 1980s I would agree that the NSM label no longer covers social movements. I have shown that the original NSMs had a 'universalist' appeal whereas many of the movements that are still defined today as NSMs raise 'particularist' issues. Further, many actors in original NSMs had privileged positions which assisted in institutionalising their claims. Lastly, the transnational ideals of the NSMs have inadvertently given rise to the issues raised by contemporary movements. The option of organising across borders is not as accessible for such movements as it had been for the NSMs.

If differences have been recognised between original NSMs and today's movements it has been generally been put down to the proliferation of 'identity politics' (ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, religion). I have argued that this perspective cannot adequately explain the function of many movements. Rather, 'particularist' movements need to be analysed in terms of the shifts in the structural political conditions of the states in which they emerge. They should not be seen as products of an alien 'identity' with little bearing on the societal processes experienced by majority groups. Yet, neither are they New Social Movements in the way I have described them. In conclusion, I propose that whereas the description of original NSMs does not fit many of today's movements, the methods used to research and theorise them by the three authors whose work I described does. Contemporary work on 'particularist' movements should free them from the NSM label. Yet the structural approach taken to studying the original European NSMs is useful for showing how it is neither identity alone nor means-ends functioning that defines the emergence, the ideals or the trajectories followed by social movements. 'Particularist' movements need to be studied as intrinsic to the societies that give rise to them and not as separate, other or alien.


1I am currently in the second year of my doctoral research entitled Moving Racisms: the European nation state and the future of anti-racist/inter-ethnic action, European University Institute. My interest in the field arises from my own experiences as an anti-racist activist and became academically honed when writing my Masters dissertation, Effective anti-racist strategies: new social movements as a potential for renewed ethnic mobilisation, London School of Economics and Political Science, September 1997. On the basis of my current research, I presented a paper at the 34th World Congress of the International Institute of Sociology, Tel Aviv, July 1999 entitled 'Race', Racisms, Anti-Racisms.

2The Council of Europe ran a European Youth Campaign against racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and intolerance (1994-1996). The European Union designated 1997 as the European Year against Racism.

3Resource Mobilisation theory does not seek to specifically explain the novelty of contemporary collective action although it has been used to do so. Melucci (1985: 109) points out that "the notion of 'novelty' was first used to indicate the weakness of the existing theories of collective action, if applied to the emerging phenomena, and to stress the need for a more comprehensive framework. It was also a temporary critical tool for addressing the shortcomings of resource mobilization theory."

4For discussions of Resource Mobilisation, see McCarthy and Zald (1977) or Tilly (1978). For an analysis of the debate comparing Resource Mobilisation and Identity-Oriented approaches, see Cohen (1985) or Dalton (1994).

5Here, it is important to distinguish between the types of movement that Offe sees as having particularist interests (largely, reading from his analysis, local-autonomy or women's groups) and the types of movement characterised by the term 'identity politics'. This is a later phenomenon, at least in Europe (it emerged earlier and has more prominence in the Unites States) and refers mostly to associations organised around ethnicity, nationality, colour, religion, sexuality and disability.

6Touraine, A. (1997).

7Indeed, Touraine's work on social movements in the 1980s concentrated on the domain of the factory (industrial struggles) and that of political liberation movements, principally Solidarity in Poland (anti-totalitarian, nationalist struggles). The relative homogeneity inherent in the composition of his research objects problematises his continued insistence on social movement/Subject primacy in his more recent work on democracy and multiculturalism.


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Adresses of some movements old and new mentioned (directly or indirectly) in the article:

ACT UP/Golden Gate <>
Alana Lentin Home Page <>
Amnesty International <>
Arci <>
Black Information Link <>
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament <>
Liens vers des Associations Amies <>
Greenpeace <>

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