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SOCIAL MOVEMENTS / Vol. 52, No. 4 (Winter 1985)

Jean L. Cohen, Guest Editor
Arien Mack, Journal Editor

The term “new social movements” has gained wide currency among theorists sympathetic to the peace, feminist, ecological, and local-autonomy movements proliferating in the West since the midseventies. Yet whether there really is something significantly new about these movements, and what the theoretical or political import of the innovations are, remains unclear. My task in this essay is twofold: (1) to compare the two competing theoretical paradigms for the study of social movements with respect to how each perspective might assess what is new in the new social movements; and (2) to show how they could inform each other, despite significant differences.

By now, the scholarly literature on popular collective action contains plenty of good descriptions and numerous general models but leaves a void between the two. Researchers who seek to account for real-life events such as particular social movements and concrete revolutions find that the available theoretical apparatus gives them little grip on those events. Theorists who begin with general models find themselves selecting simplified conventional accounts of presumably well-known events or classes of events and gaining little fresh insight into those events. Although theories of collective action will always benefit from improved description, for the time being theory lags behind the available evidence.

The maturity of a field of knowledge can be measured by its ability to organize its works and discussions about a few central problems. Today, the central problem of sociology, in a rapidly changing world, is to understand the production and control of change, and its central debate must oppose the concepts of strategy and social movements. These concepts represent to some extent complementary approaches, but it is indispensable for students of each school to try building competitive general theories. Only the debate between these conflicting images of social life can give back to sociology the vitality it seems to have lost.

Conflicts and power can't be held by the same actors. The myth of the movements transforming themselves into a transparent power has already produced tragic consequences. The distance between processes by which needs and conflicts are formed and structures performing systemic integration and goals is a condition for making power visible, that is, negotiable. The enlargement of the public space, between movements and institutions, is the task for a real "postindustrial" democracy, a task in which both movements and political actors are concerned.

Among political sociologists and political scientists who analyze the changing structures and dynamics of West European politics, it became commonplace in the seventies to observe the fusion of political and nonpolitical spheres of social life. The continued analytical usefulness of the conventional dichotomy of "state" and "civil society" was questioned. Processes of fusion could be observed not only on the level of global sociopolitical arrangements, but also on the level of citizens as the elementary political actors. The dividing line that delineates "political" concerns and modes of action from "private" (e.g., moral or economic ones) was becoming blurred.

This analysis comprises three separate parts. First, I would like to deal with the problems inherent in the traditional attempts at explaining collective action in terms of class theory and to suggest a genuinely sociological explanation. Then I will attempt to sketch a phenomenology of the NSMs which will identify both the social-structural basis and the collective identity of the groups mobilized in the NSMs. Going one step further, I will deal with the normative problems connected with an explanation of the NSMs (are they "new" movements, are they "movements" at all, indeed are they the harbingers of a new social formation?) and then explicate the rationalistic premises which are necessarily at the basis of any attempt to explain the NSMs.


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