Social Movements in Global Politics

Book review

Reviewer: Aliaksandr Novikau

Publisher: Polity Press ISBN: 9780745649597
Author's page: David Wes

Social Movements in Global Politics

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The twenty-first century has, so far, been characterised by a crisis of institutional politics. Nation-state governments have become less and less capable of solving long-standing, potentially catastrophic problems such as global climate change, world population growth, global inequality and the loss of local cultures. As a result, many people are dissatisfied with politicians and politics in general. According to West, author of Social Movements in Global Politics, these flaws in policy-making are not unavoidable and could be solved through extra-institutional forms of politics such as social movements, which are defined as ‘enduring patterns of collective activity that take place outside and often in opposition to official political institutions’ (p. xv).

According to West, the role of social movements in politics has often been neglected – they have literally been ‘hidden from history.’ Yet social movements have always played a role in global politics. For instance, nationalist movements played a crucial role in the development of the modern nation-state. At the same time, social activists have continually fought for the political rights of all individuals, regardless of an individual’s property status, gender, race, religion or ethnicity, which is the essence of the modern liberal democracy. Although economic rights are usually viewed as a private matter, extra-institutional activism has also raised questions about the poverty and economic disparity that led to the development of the contemporary welfare state.

One distinguishing feature of social movements is their ability to work towards – and often achieve – goals that are viewed by the wider society as utopian at the time. Hence, the motto of the social movements of the 1960s – ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible!’ Unlike political parties, social movements attempt to not only achieve certain political changes but also to transform the entire political landscape and the cultural assumptions that are held regarding specific social issues. Hence, neglecting social movements also means neglecting a vital dimension of politics. 

The author describes the phenomenon of the new social movements that appeared in the late 1960s around the world. At that time, many believed that most of the social problems have been solved. However, the new social movements politicised previously neglected social issues such as gender, sexuality, the environment and ethnicity. West selects two of the new types of movements to discuss in detail: the environmental and anti-globalism movements. He identifies two features that differentiate these movements from others: both are directly related to the economic sphere and are not really concerned with the politics of identity. In other words, unlike in other movements, the members of these are not associated with a certain social group that has been excluded from the sphere of politics. 

As this growth of new social movements has inevitably affected the contemporary theories of social movements, the author discusses the evolution of several approaches to this phenomenon. The first of these is the normative approach, which discusses the role that social movements play in society. The theories that previously dominated usually viewed these movements as illegitimate, often destructive forces. However, since social movements are often more accessible to individuals than traditional political institutions such as parties and state agencies, social movements are often capable to raise important societal questions, and are therefore crucial for democracy and democratisation.

According to West, there is also a shift in empirical approaches to social movements. Until the 1960s, mainstream theories viewed social movements mostly in terms of collective behaviour, explaining their emergence by social breakdowns, and the inability of the state to solve these breakdowns, resulting in a largely irrational collective outburst. Now, social movements are viewed more as rational collective actors that can achieve certain collective goals. The empirical analysis of social movements goes beyond debates about their rationality or irrationality, however. New approaches emphasise the role of social identities, oppression, and consciousness; and therefore, the cultural creativity of social movements.

In sum, the book provides an excellent summary of the major theories of social movements – from mainstream to critical approaches. Moreover, it explains many of the fundamental concepts of political science; for example, the state, social power, international relations and democracy. Most importantly, the author has succeeded in delivering this information in a very simple, reader-friendly style, making Social Movements in Global Politics a good handbook for undergraduate students studying social movements and for members of the general public who are interested in this important social phenomenon.

2017 - Volume 11, Issue 4