Understanding the Evolution of Social Movements

Existing work in the fieldThe trajectories of social movementsThe women's movement and concepts of abeyanceThis project's contribution to social movement theoryReferences

Existing work in the field

The interest of social scientists in non-institutional politics and social mobilisation increased after the rise of new forms of political action in the 1960s, when students and other middleclass radicals took to the streets. There was an upsurge in theorising about how and why such new collective actors were appearing on the scene, leading to two major bodies of social movement literature. One stems primarily from Europe and focuses on the production of new collective meanings and identities (Melucci 1989). The other stems primarily from North America and focuses on resource mobilisation by new collective actors and the opportunity structures that enabled this to take place (Tarrow 1994).

In recent years social movement theorists have combined these approaches with varying degrees of success, emphasising the discursive strategies of social movements, the ways in which they generate new frames for interpreting the world but also the ways in which they connect to existing frames (eg Meyer et al 2002). Successful discursive strategies (and they are not always successful) introduce persuasive new ways of viewing the world and place new issues onto the policy agenda.

In the Australian context, Ian Marsh (2005) has argued that in recent decades all new issues have reached the policy agenda via new social movements. Following early work by Jan Pakulski (1991), Verity Burgmann (1993; 2003) has produced ground-breaking works mapping the emergence of new social movements in Australia and their role relative to that of other actors in generating social change. She covers the Aboriginal rights movement, the environment movement, the women's movement and, more recently, the anti-globalisation movement. Other important accounts that focus on the women's movement include those by Gisela Kaplan (1996) and Chilla Bulbeck (1997). These focus on the women's movement's intersection or lack of intersection with other movements, and its failure to adequately encompass Indigenous, migrant or working-class women. Marilyn Lake (1999) reaches further back to examine women's framing of policy claims over more than 100 years.

Another important strand of social movement theorising has focused on the repertoires of contestation used by social movements, how these change with the architecture of politics and how they are disseminated globally (Tilly 2004). North American scholars have often viewed the use of unconventional and disruptive repertoires of political action as a defining element of social movements, or at least as a heuristic device to distinguish them from other collective actors. Social movement theorists have recently challenged the idea that social movements are by definition involved in disruptive repertoires (McAdam et al 2005), particularly in relation to the women's movement (Staggenborg & Taylor 2005). The women's movement is seen by some as operating most characteristically at the level of everyday life and relationships, rather than through participation in collective protest (Mansbridge, forthcoming). 

While women's movements may not be involved in disruptive collective action all the time, they have relied on the mass media to get their message out to broader audiences. Women's movements have created 'dissent events' of the kind described by Scalmer (2002) as occurring in Australia. In the United States, Anne Costain (1992) used the New York Times Index to map the rise and fall of the women's movement in terms of the reporting of such movementevents, while in the United Kingdom Paul Bagguley (2002) used The Times. Women's movements, however, have generally combined such street repertoires with other less visible forms of challenge and media reports may not accurately reflect social or policy influence. As early as 1976 Women's Electoral Lobby activists in Australia were complaining that just because they were no longer in the streets with placards, the media assumed the women's movement was over (Sawer 2007). In fact the policy influence of the new women's movement was just beginning in many jurisdictions. In West Germany the women's movement has been found to have the lowest proportion of protest events of five movements, despite the existence of large numbers of women's groups, and has been found to focus on interaction in settings other than the streets and the media (Rucht 2003).

The Trajectories of Social Movements

The social movement literature contains many hypotheses concerning the trajectories of social movements. The first is that there is a naturally short life span for intense social movement activism and engagement. This hypothesis received an influential form in Sidney Tarrow's (1994) life-cycle model of social movements. Social movements become possible within certain historical conjunctures, and by their nature as non-institutionalised forms of collective action cannot be sustained for very long. Their life cycles are limited by internal factors, which may relate to the volatility of emotions that drive non-institutionalised protest, such as rage at injustice (Goodwin et al 2001); and external factors, which can include the change to a less favourable political and social context where movement activism no longer has discernible returns.

The second hypothesis is that social movements that succeed in achieving their aims change into something else—for example, through opening up new opportunities in the power structure or in professional careers for those they have mobilised. Movement from the streets into the corridors of power may be regarded 'the long march through the institutions' on the one hand or co-option on the other. The transformation of social movements into 'something else' may also create a new constellation of institutions reflecting movement values and perspectives—for example the institutionalising of women's movement values in women's services such as domestic violence refuges (Bagguley 2002) or the unobtrusive mobilization of women within mainstream institutions and vocational bodies (Katzenstein 1990). The 'submerged networks' created by social movements may sustain cultural change within communities and within daily life.

The third hypothesis is that cognitive frames shift so markedly in a post-modern era that collective action to achieve social goals no longer appears a real option, as collective identities become fragmented and social movement mobilisation is delegitimised. New cognitive frames that stress individual market choices and cultural consumption become dominant, overshadowing the values of collective action (Sawer 2006). The ability to 'speak for' shared identities and values is called into question as the fragmented and contingent nature of identity makes the assumption of shared values problematic. This loss of faith in collective identities removes the political base for claims-making and enables the dismantling of social movement policy gains and policy structures.

The fourth hypothesis is that the emotion cultures of social movements may sustain groups after broader mobilisation recedes—in other words, social movement organisations may be sustained by close friendships based on shared values (Taylor 1989). Within abeyance structures the meanings and identities produced by social movements may be preserved through periods when the political environment is unreceptive, and provide continuity from one stage of mobilisation to another (Rupp and Taylor 1987). This hypothesis leads to another—that activism during the downturn is the foundation for later success (Maddison and Scalmer 2006). In other words, there will be a third wave of women's movement mobilisation and it will have some identifiable continuity with earlier waves.

The Women's Movement and Concepts of Abeyance

The media assumption that the women's movement was 'over', which became common in the 1980s, relied on a definition of a social movement tied to particular repertoires of action. However, as we have seen, these may not be characteristic of women's movements. The idea that a social movement might be 'over' when it was no longer visibly engaged in public contestation did not coincide with feminist views that there had always been a women's movement over the past century (Spender 1983; Lake 1999). In response to such dilemmas of how to define social movements and whether social movements could still be said to exist when they became relatively unobtrusive, social theorists began to develop the concept of social movement abeyance (Taylor 1989).

As already noted, the term 'abeyance' refers to a holding process by which movements sustain themselves in non-receptive political environments. The women's movement might no longer be visible on the streets but still be working its way through institutions, and be alive within submerged networks, cultural production and everyday living (Whittier 1995; Maddison 2004). Apart from these expressive manifestations of feminist identity, women's movements may also look upwards and outwards, finding new homes in the multilateral institutions that have promoted gender mainstreaming and electoral quotas and in cyberspace. It is claimed that feminist activism within cyberspace has become 'a new form of consciousness-raising and one that has taken on a global perspective' (Marshall 2008).

Meanwhile women's organisations may become more specialised and professionalised, and more reliant on cheque-book membership than collective action. They may turn away from direct policy engagement and public contestation, when this has few returns, and focus more on commemorative activities that validate collective identities and values (Sawer 2007). This turning away from policy engagement has been associated in the US with increased polarisation between movement organisations 'co-opted by the state' and radical groups that focus on cultural expression and abeyance activities insulated from mainstream politics. Sawyers & Meyer (1999), for example, identify policy costs resulting from depoliticisation and suggest that successful mobilisations could have taken place if different strategic choices had been made.

While the decline in policy contestation in Australia reflects more a decline in active membership than increased polarisation between women's movement organisations, the policy costs of a decline in visible protest appear similar. A major issue is whether a movement that no longer has a visible media presence can provide a political base for women's policy machinery and for the protection of women's policy gains. Australia has been noted for early institutionalisation of the policy insights of second-wave feminism within government (Sawer 1990Eisenstein 1996; Weldon 2002; Chappell 2002). Australian experience suggests that the precarious institutionalising of feminist perspectives within the state cannot survive the loss of visible movement activity outside (Chappell 2006; Sawer 2007; Maddison & Partridge 2007). Changes within movements relate not only to changing political environments and life-cycle influences but also to generational shifts. Feminist activity and identity may take different forms among young women, sometimes with little connection to older women activists (Maddison 2006; 2007).

This project's contribution to social movement theory

The evidence generated by the three other strands of the project (eventsinstitutionsdiscourse) will be used to test existing propositions concerning lifecycles and repertoires of movements. The project will also seek to develop criteria, usable for single-country and comparative work, to assess whether social movements are flourishing, in abeyance, or 'over'. 

The development of criteria whereby a social movement might be judged to be in abeyance or actually over will build on the varying conceptualisations of abeyance in international social movement theory. It will also draw on the empirical event data and discursive and institutional evidence produced by the project to move abeyance theorising forward and ensure its applicability to countries where the women's movement has taken a more institutionalised form.


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