Social Movements Essay

One of the developments in both global and national political systems since the end of the Second World War (1939–1945) has been the emergence of groups, organizations, and individuals who seek to influence society, the state, and public policies that are directly or indirectly concerned with public interest. Indeed, increasingly, these organizations and individuals have come to occupy significant positions when issues of societal advancement are considered. For example, the emergence of the green movement, whose dynamics have portrayed its transformation from one state to the other, clearly points to the various groups, organizations, and individuals who argue that there is need to ensure sustainable use of resources in the environment.

Conceptualization Of Social Movements

Social movements are a wide range of social forces and their organizations that seek to influence society and public policies. They provide some sort of counterweight to the state on serious matters of public interest.

Social movements are organizations, groups of people, and individuals who take collective actions to bring about transformation in society. These groups of people and organizations contrast sharply with those of other groups and organizations, such as political parties and governmental organizations. For example, modern social movements in many countries do not seek to capture state power.

Social movements deal with issues that are deemed important for the advancement of society. These movements could take global and national shapes, but it remains that they are issue-driven. The issue creates the need for formation of organizations, but it also could be the other way around, in which already existing organizations enlist to deal with an issue that has been deemed to be of national or global concern for the interest of affected groups.

Activities of social movement organizations signify existence of civic culture and consciousness associated with broad conceptualization of civil society. Civil society is both a descriptive and normative category in relation to the political process and policy politics of nations.

Social movements are issue-based and tend to be contentious. Although not always in ways that lead directly to violence, their contentious character is because they often lack regular access to formal political process.

They are modern phenomena that evolved from premodern forms of contentious politics over the years to deal with issues around humanity and the political system. In fact, it has evolved from traditionalist models of protest that endorsed use of violence to the use of nonviolent and civilized methods of resisting authorities, seeking social change, or influencing public policy. They are divided into the old and new social movements. The former use strategies such as protests, strikes, and the like to address the state. The labor union, the anticolonial, or various nationalist organizations that emerged in the nineteenth century represent the old social movement. In contrast, the new social movement, such as the human rights, gender, environmental, peace, and nonviolence, give voice to the frustrations of the educated middle class and professionals. They are concerned with rights, demanding what Mary Kaldor (2003) has described as radical democracy. In any case, an important area of difference to note between the old and the new social movement is that whereas the old social movement adopted traditional methods of protests that were often violent, the new social movements are basically nonviolent in their approach to issues.

The point of social movements is that they seek to influence government, public policy, and society in general and specific ways. In many respects, social movements such as the environmental movement seek to achieve goals that are directly related to individual rights to a safe environment. The environment is a public good whose protection does not benefit only a section of the world but does add to life for all peoples, especially within the context of human activities, change in climate, and depletion of the ozone layer.

Social Movements And Society

In recent times, collective actions of social movement organizations have had tremendous influence on politics, public policy, and society in general. They are sometimes discussed within the context of civil society.

Emphasis on democracy in recent times requires vibrant and dynamic civil society. Indeed, social movements for most of democracy in the developing and developed countries today are centers of power that relate with the political system in ways that shape both the structure and content of politics. Activities of these movements are remarkable because of the effects they create in public policy, partisan politics, and the general political system. Political leaders often respond by repressing groups such as labor, environment, and others who protest certain policies or business organizations or government policies. For instance, the events of mass protests of labor and other civil society groups in Nigeria in June 2007 over a hike in the price of petroleum products and the sale of government business organizations without following due process led to the repeal of the policies. This has had profound implications for current democracy in that country.

Social movements provide the social capital that is needed for civic engagement with policy makers and governmental institutions in democracies. Social capital is simply the characteristics of organizations that help to coordinate and facilitate mutual benefits. One way of measuring social capital is the participation of individuals in the activities of social movement organizations. By participating in such activities, especially when it is about serious issues of public concern, social movements serve as a platform for oversight influence on the state and its power.

They sometimes initiate debates on social problems and may mobilize citizens toward it, a feat that more often than not the regular political machineries such as political parties are unable achieve due to bureaucratic procedures and a generally slow approach to certain issues. Response of the state to social problems is sometimes quicker when public interest and demand have been ignited by the civil society.

More often than not, issues of public importance that have remained out of public view are stirred by social movements, bringing focus to the issues’ merit for the purpose of winning governmental attention. The merit of such issues may not be so judged by authorities until some sort of organizing is started by these social movements.

They resist certain policies and programs of government seen to be against the public interest. Success in achieving this depends substantially on the availability of resources for the concerned group. The success of such groups in getting government to change a particular policy or even to adopt a definite measure in the interest of the public depends on the regime type—democratic or dictatorship. For instance, various groups involved in the human rights and environmental movements in the Niger Delta of Nigeria today might count their successes based on regime type. The military regimes were intolerant of opposition over issues of violation of economic, environmental, and other human rights.

The institutional and associational life of any democracy is important for the success of democracy. Given the nature of democracy, whether in normative or descriptive terms, the emergence and activities of social movement organizations in pursuit of a social goal do have a positive impact in the performance of democracy. Indeed, this is why Western democracies such as the United States are regarded as such. The blossoming of associations in response to issues of governance and development of society is a fundamental signpost that the leaders in the near future will be more conscious of the existence of these groups.

Social movements are issue-based, and this is the more reason to make sure that their emergence and possible contributions to debates on societal issues are not hindered. The experience in many countries of the developing world is that most regimes are antagonistic to social movements. This is worse with military regimes.

Social Movements And Politics

Social movements seek change in society. Achievement of such change depends on strategies. The choice of strategies sometimes also depends on the goals of the movement.

In certain instances, leaders of such movements may directly engage political strategies, such as support for political parties that address the problems that define particular social movements. They may sponsor bills of particular societal concern in the legislative institutions. They may field candidates to seek elective positions. All these and more are direct political strategies that leaders of social movements might use.

The success of social movements in the use of political strategies depends on the social forces at work. For instance, interpretations of the intentions of certain movements might depend on the leaders of such movements. In the case of the Niger Delta of Nigeria, the local environmental movement often is interpreted to mean an ethnic project by members of other ethnic groups in the country. Some actually use partisan political methods to effect change in society. The examples of the global environmental movement in European countries have not been very successful, but it does seem that such movements have supported in specific ways green political parties.

Social movements can serve as the vehicle for engendering the mass attitude needed for the sustenance of democracy where it has been challenged by ant democracy forces. They also can be instrumental in creating the pro-democracy mass attitude needed for establishment of democracy where denied. These processes involve gradual engagement with the citizens to mobilize them toward ant democracy forces and create democratic institutions where denied. In the political culture literature social movements and other social groups have been identified as important agents of shaping political attitudes of citizens. Indeed, they are very often highly motivational factors for an otherwise apolitical and apathetic population of people and creation of a mass attitude that is supportive of pro-democracy activist groups.

When discussed within the context of civil society, strong social movements facilitate democracy, although this has been contested in literature for transitional societies. Indeed some have argued that civil society in the contemporary sense is a necessary condition for democracy. This argument makes a lot of sense given the fact no democracy in history has ever emerged or consolidated without a strong civil society. Civil society reflects the emergence of a variety of groups with interests that demand recognition and reflection in the political system.

Civil society faces an empirical challenge of definition, but in terms of relationship to social movement organizations, it may be seen as any group that represents collective interests or the entirety of civic engagements of citizens in a polity that tend to promote associational life. Several arguments have been made for the positive effects of the civil society in society. This has been so essentially because of the functional role that social movement organizations have played in development and democratic accountability. Indeed, studies have shown that social movements and their organizations can challenge state authorities to respect the rights of groups or individuals. For example, in Africa, Asia, and eastern Europe, various organizations came together to sign petitions and organized protests against despotic regimes. In other parts of the world, such as Poland and the Philippines, social movement solidarity played significant roles in dismantling authoritarian structures.

It should be noted, however, that existence of the civil society is not a sufficient guarantee for democracy. To be sure, civil society can exist without democracy. Indeed, some civil societies contain undemocratic elements and need to be democratized. Some are also disruptive of social order.

It seems that civil society plays different roles in societies, although this may vary between the developed and developing countries. Civil society is required for maintenance of the plurality of interests, democratization, and provision of the basis for associational democracy. Appreciation of these roles depends on the perception or conceptualization of civil society. Whether seen as a set of societal conditions, conflict resolution mechanism, or organizations as actors, definite roles are expected from the civil society. For example, understood as organizations as actors, the idea is that ordinary citizens might join together in associations or groups to form a public sphere in order to influence public policy on the basis of what Ezra Vogel (1969) has described as rational critical discourse. If seen as a set of social conditions, it will imply how integrated these organizations or groups are in society. When lacking access to the public decision-making process or political system, there might exist a tendency for these groups to be conflictive or violent in their approaches of seeking to affect public policy. When integrated, with a tangible sense of that integration among members of such groups, dialogue, and nonviolent strategies are more likely to be employed in the quest to influence public policy and the social structure in general.

Some governments today are beginning to use social movement organizations for the execution of certain programs. For instance, various nongovernmental organizations are in partnership with the government in Bangladesh, Liberia, Nigeria, and South Africa, to mention but a few, in the designing and administration of certain government programs. Development nongovernmental organizations have long partnered with these governments in areas such as containment of HIV/ AIDS. Some of these organizations also campaign for more human-centered and comprehensive government policies to address the problem.

Many of these organizations have long begun to act internationally. One study suggests that international nongovernmental organizations involved in addressing various issues numbered more than one thousand in the 1950s. By the 1970s, it had grown to five thousand. Recently, by the end of the 1990s, it had risen to well over twenty-six thousand.


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