There Is Nothing ‘New’ About New Social Movements – Sociology Essay

There Is Nothing ‘New’ About New Social Movements – Sociology Essay
Movements such as the students movement and peace movements that took place in the late 1960s served both to define the era as one of distinct social and political unrest, and also to mark the emergence of a new form of social movements. These new movements

differed in many ways to the workers movements that had
been most prominent in industrial society. As Scott (1990) outlines, the focus of the new movements stretched further than political issues and rested firmly in notions such as values, morals and lifestyles, and at the same time resisting incorporation into institutionalised politics. (Scott 1990 p.14) In the study of new social movements, Giddens (1991), Kriesi (1995) and Scott (1990) have stressed that the main defining characteristics of these movements is their emphasis on cultural issues of lifestyle and identity, and their location within civil society. Whether or not the term ‘new’ now remains a valid description for contemporary social movements is a question that calls for a detailed analysis of the new movements distinguishing features as well as the historical point at which these movements emerged. Such an analysis shall be the focus for this discussion, involving comparisons to ‘older’ types of movements and their organisational structure, motivations, aims and ideologies.

In Scott’s (1990) analysis, it is suggested that the labelling of specific movements in recent times as ‘new’ may have arisen through recent changes within society that have served to motivate such movements. A change in the style and conduct of a social movement can indeed reflect a change in society and social structures, as well offer reasons for mobilisation, as social changes bring about different pressures on different social groups, thus motivating a movement. All social movements can be referred to as a reaction to a common set of circumstances, and thus as circumstances to which society is subjected to change over time, new ways of challenging and attempts to change circumstances have arisen in the form of new social movements. The period following the Second World War is an interesting point in history on which to focus, as it marks the shift from industrial to post-industrial society, as well as the shift to late modernity. These profoundly social changes are key factors that led to the emergence of new social movements, as they brought about the erosion of rigid class structures and traditional morals and values within society, leading ultimately to individualisation and a higher degree of self awareness. This resulted in the formation of minority groups and consequently their efforts to establish and maintain an identity through new social movements. This ideology is one much focused upon by Giddens (1991) in his analysis of modernity, and shall be returned to later in the discussion. In order to provide a sound foundation for the argument for the ‘new’ social movements, a conceptual analysis of the movements must first be made and compared with more traditional forms of movements.

A conceptual analysis involves the identification of the movements main characteristics such as movements aims, demands, ideologies and organisational structures. The contrasting concepts of the workers movements and new social movements, such as the ecology movement and peace movement, provide a strong footing for arguing the relative ‘newness’ of contemporary social movements. Table 1, extracted from Scott’s (1990) analysis summarises the key distinctions between these two types of movement.
Table 1 – Points of contrast between new movements and the workers’ movement:
Workers’ Movement New Social movements

Location increasingly within the civil society

Aims political integration/ changes in values and
economic rights lifestyles/defence of civil

Organisation formal/hierarchical network/grass roots

Medium of action political mobilisation direct action/cultural

(Source: Scott 1990 p.19)

Through examination of these distinct differences between the two types of movements, it is possible to justify the new movements as ‘new’, as they incorporate an entirely different set of concepts and are also more loosely organised movements. Perhaps the most profound difference in the new movements is their location within civil society and not within the polity, and in fact the lack of any specific political aims or actions. The focus of the new movements lies within areas such as personal freedoms, identity promotion, and individual rights, which is a move away from the aims of more political and industrial related movements. Scott (1990) provides the best summary of the aims of these new movements:
“ On the basis of much recent discussion of new movements, we can characterise their aims broadly as bringing about social change through the transformation of values, personal identities and symbols. These movements are identity involving and transforming, they self-consciously manipulate symbols and they challenge entrenched values. This can be best achieved through the creation of alternative life-styles and the discursive re-formation of individual collective wills.” (Scott 1995 p.18)

Much of the new movements therefore aim to promote a different lifestyle, a safer environment or issues such as gay and lesbian rights, bringing such subjects out of the private and into the public domain. Mobilisation of such movements has been brought about by the discrimination or alienation of minority groups who aim to promote their identities and argue their cause. The processes of modernisation and technological advancement since the Second World War has allowed minority groups to substantiate themselves and project their identities through media that was not previously available to them. Global news coverage of social movements and technologies such as the internet are relatively new in the historical timeline of social movements, and thus their social significance has increased only in recent times, as these new media allow the global unification of minority groups and more effective movement organisation. These new technologies and means of global communication are directly linked to the notion of modernity, on which much of Giddens’ (1991) work is focused.
Modernity, or rather Late Modernity, as Kriesi et al (1995) and Giddens (1991) agree, is a factor that lies at the heart of this discussion of new social movements. It is a notion that has given rise to new social structures and social groups which mobilise into new social movements as a response to the profound change in social circumstances brought about by modernity and the shift to a post-industrial society. Kriesi (et al 1995), offers insight into popular thinking on modernity and its impacts on social values and structures in the following extract:
“ We believe, indeed, that the rise of new social movements was intimately linked to the slow, but profound transformation of the societies conflict structure in the course of the macro historical process of modernisation. This transformation implies, first of all, a weakening of traditional cleavages in which people are free from traditional ties of class, religion, and the family. The result has been an unprecedented degree of individualisation, but not the dissolution of structural and cultural bonds altogether.” (Kriesi et al 1995 p. xxvii)

The post industrial stages of late modernity is indeed the point at which society, moreover in western states, experienced a distinct change in structure, eroding long standing traditions and class structures. The emergence of the new middle classes in the 1960s served to further this process. Replacing formal class structures were new smaller groups within society, each eager to establish an identity and uphold individual civil rights. Recent structural and cultural transformations are the roots of many of the new social movements, many of which are located within the new middle classes. The increase of citizens working in the service sector since the 1960s has brought about new issues and conflicts between small groups included in the middle class. Kriesi (1995) states that much of the work in this sector is related to organisation and control of individuals through management of personnel, and many of the disputes that take place within this sector are tied to the control of the workplace and personnel and their freedoms and rights. (Kriesi et al 1995) Whereas previous movements such as workers movements have fought political battles, the conflicts in the contemporary workplace remain rooted in notions of identity and the rights of individuals such as women and ethnic minorities. This fact alone provides another means of justifying the ‘newness’ of such social movements, as the aims and location within society a markedly different from previous politically tied movements, where such issues were not included.

Giddens’ (1991) analysis of new social movements and their relation to what is referred to as ‘high modernity’ allows a greater insight into how modernisation and its recent socio-cultural impacts have motivated the new movements. Giddens states that modernisation has lead to a profound increase in self-awareness and self-promotion, both issues incorporated into his notion of ‘life politics’. New forms of social control that have arisen in recent years target new emerging groups in society which has lead in turn to new oppressive forces to which many new movements are a reaction to. The movements have also been actuated by responses against minority groups resulting from increasing local-global relations.

“ It becomes more and more apparent that lifestyle choices, within the settings of local-global relations, raise moral issues that cannot simply be pushed to one side. Such issues call for forms of political engagement which new social movements both presage and serve to initiate.” (Giddens 1991 p.9)
This extract serves to focus the attention of this discussion to how local events and newly emerged groups can establish themselves in global issues of lifestyle and identities, provoking reactions and thus social movements, all enabled through a high degree of global connectivity. The technologies that enable this series of events are recent introductions to society, therefore showing the new movements to in fact remain ‘new’, as reactions to small scale events and distant minority groups were difficult, if not impossible in early industrial society.

The anti-globalisation movement provides another sound example of a new social movement, motivated by the shared experience of circumstances around the world, as the process is in its nature global. Politics, stated so far as a feature of more traditional social movements, is of course at the centre of this issue, however the impacts of the process on cultures and individuals also strongly motivate the movement. Globalisation, a very recent phenomenon has resulted from modernisation, and is such closely tied with many social and cultural changes that have taken place recently. Corporatism lies at the heart of the process, as large corporations move into international territories, expanding their hold on global markets, as well as meeting with strong resistance both within home states and foreign territories. Anti-corporatism movements, as analysed by Crossley (2003), is a contemporary social movement that displays many of the characteristics of the new social movements outlined by Scott (1990).

Crossley argues that the reaction against the process of corporate domination has arisen through the evident ‘cultural impoverishment’ that it creates through intrusive advertising, corporate take-overs of small firms and widespread cultural homogenisation. (Crossley 2003 p.290) Rationalisation is also central to his explanation for new social movements, as is that of Scott (1990) and Giddens (1991). The following extract gives insight into this thinking:
“ Integral to the process of rationalisation, however, has been the uncoupling of these two forms of activity [religion and tradition] from the normative core of society, such that each has become an arena for relatively free utilitarian action….As political and economic agents, in modern societies, we make a choice about what is best for us and pursue that choice in a strategic fashion. We are not, or at least need not be, bound by normative considerations or traditions.” ( Crossley 2003 p.292)

This brings to light the fact that in modern society, we are freed from the constraints of religion and tradition and thus free to voice opinions and take actions against oppressive and intrusive events and forces. Modern society is arguably becoming more and more rational, and this coincides with the recent emergence of new social movements that campaign for individual rights and freedoms, as well as ecology movements that benefit all.

The discussion has so far argued the case for the ‘newness’ of new social movements, emphasising that a conceptual change in the movements themselves as well as changes in society brought about by ‘high modernity’ have motivated these movements. The fact that the new movements are reaction to a common set of circumstances which are firmly located in the time period of the last 40 years suggests that they are indeed relatively new in the long history of social movements. Therefore the classification of the new movements as ‘new’ is dependant upon how they are viewed in relative terms. The students movement and anti-Vietnam protests marked the point in history where society began to voice its views on personal rights and freedoms, and when compared to highly organised and more formally conducted movements previously in history, they were in fact profoundly new in their nature. Of course, all social movements are a reaction against a shared set of circumstances and fuelled by shared grievances, and in this sense, all social movements are fundamentally the same. However it must be emphasised that issues of identity, symbols, culture and personal freedoms are the focus of these new movements and thus clearly distinguish them from other movement families.


Crossley, N. 2003 – “Even newer social movements? Anti-Corporate protests, Capitalist Crises and the Remoralisation of Society” – Organization Articles Vol. 10(2) pp.287-305 Sage, London

Giddens, A. 1991 – “The Consequences of modernity” Cambridge Polity Press

Kriesi, H., Koopmans, R., Dyvendak, J., Giugni, M. 1995 – “New Social Movements in Europe – A comparative analysis” – University Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Scott, A. 1990 – “Ideology and the New Social movements” – Routledge, London