Theorizing Twitter Revolutions Part 2: A Short Introduction to Social Movement Theory

February 7, 2011

In Part 1 I made the point that you can’t separate technology and the social so looking for an independent impact of technology is problematic.

In this post I wanted to point to the analytical framework that social movement theory (SMT) provides for making sense of situations such as Egypt. I think that this is useful because at a minimum it provides a guide to how we look at the case.  What follows is drawn from Sidney Tarrow’s Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics.

The starting point for SMT is that the existence of grievances are insufficient to generate action. The emergence of a movement is dependent on the opportunities and constraints offered by the environment of groups with grievances.  This is termed the ‘political opportunity structure’.  Although elements of this will quite stable, for instance state strength and modes of repression opportunities can emerge from a variety of sources.  Tarrow points to new routes of access into the political system, changing political alignments, divisions among elites, and the emergence of new allies as shifts in the political opportunity structure that can facilitate the emergence of new movements.

Emerging movements need to develop repertoires of contentious behaviour and framings that will allow them to mobilize support.  Framing is not a neutral process as certain framings will tend to support the formation of particular coalitions while obstructing others. Movements face the challenge of developing ‘mobilizing structures’ – which translates into organizational modes that will allow them to maintain the support they need to confront their opponents.  The requirements of organization give rise to a characteristic set of issues for social movements: how do they sustain themselves over time?  What is the role of leadership? To what extent should the movement compromise with their opponents? Movements tend to endure tensions between bureaucratization and radicalization. For instance movements may spin-off groups that see the leadership as hopelessly compromised and violence as the only solution.

I think one of the attractions of SMT is the effort to recognize both the importance of structural factors but also of agency.  In historical perspective it is clear how particular choices have had huge impacts on the success or failure of particular movements.

So how do ‘technologies’ fit in with this?  An obvious route in is through the impact on mobilizing structures.  The claim that is made by techno enthusiasts is that communication technologies allow an easier resolution of the challenges of mobilization and leadership. It can also be argued that technology affects the political opportunity structure through inhibiting the use of repressive violence. They can also spread framings more easily but they don’t resolve the issue of which framings to use.  These technologies certainly have an effect but I think that the value of a SMT perspective is that it recognizes the importance of political context.  Technology doesn’t resolve the political problem of how Egyptian protesters should act in relation to discussions between political parties and the regimes. One important point that Tarrow makes is that one of the consequences of a social movement is its impact on elite politics – something that seems to be happening in Egypt.

The important point in these two posts is that technology shouldn’t be treated as something that operates autonomously and deterministically any analysis of democratizing protests has to take account of the political and cultural context.

Tilly, C. (1978) From Mobilization to Revolution. Reading, [Mass.]: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

McAdam, D. (2001) Dynamics of Contention. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McAdam, D., J.D. McCarthy, and M. Zald (1996) Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tarrow, S.G. (1998) Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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