Book Report – Power in Movement

Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics

Author: Sidney Tarrow

 I will summarize the main points of Tarrow’s book by going over his main thesis and then highlighting the key aspects from each chapter.


Tarrow begins the introduction by pointing out the continuing importance of social movements and contentious politics as evidenced by the various stories from all over the world that appear in newspapers daily.  Throughout the study, Tarrow is attempting to put the elements of social movements in to the realm of contention.  Tarrow looks at where contention comes from and then explains how development of the modern age and the modern state has allowed contention to be organized and sustained.

This book defines social movements as follows:  “collective challenges, based on common purposes and social solidarities, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents, and authorities”“sequences of contentious politics that are based on underlying social networks and resonant collective action frames, and which develop the capacity to maintain sustained challenges against powerful opponents” (2).

He begins by outlining how collective action has been characterized historically.  Marx saw collective action as part of social structure.  He also developed the theory of false consciousness, whereby those who ‘should’ revolt do not because they are unaware of their situation.  Lenin focused on how leadership could create this consciousness.  Antonio Gramsci focused on the cultural hegemony of society’s elites and how the working class needed to be proactive and build bridges between and among each other (there could not just be a leader like Lenin proposed).

  •  Marx — Grievance Theory
  • Lenin — Resource Mobilization
  • Gramsci — Framing and Collective Identity Formation

Tarrow points out the new movement cycle that began in the 60s which spurred new interest among scholars in studying social movements.  Scholars decided that grievance alone cannot create a movement because there are ‘free riders’ who will not take action when they see that others are doing it for them.  In the 70s and 80s there was a disullionement with Marxism and scholars turned more towards Gramsci’s thinking and focused on culturalism (especially with the rise in the study of identity politics and nationalism and Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’).  Another theory about where social movements come from, the political opportunity model, explains that movements must be looked at in relation to politics because they will increase or decrease depending on resources that are external to the group related to the state.

Part 1 – The Birth of the Modern Social Movement

Modular Collective Action

So contentious politics has always been woven in to society’s fabric.  However, the way people act depends on their “repertoire of action”.  People will use disruptive strategies that they have learned that feel familiar to them.  For example, the barricade became a modular type of collective action.  There was an old repertoire that was “parochial, bifurcated and particular” (31).  In contrast, the new repertoire is “cosmopolitan, modular and [of] autonomous character” (31).  Examples of collective action in the old repertoire would be localized events like food riots, grain seizures or field invasions.  Churches would organize events that parodied opponents.  Peasants would revolt or use funerals (death) to mobilize.  However, these events were not social movements because they were localized and short lived.  However, the new modular repertoire developed between the eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century and gave birth to the modern social movement.  Examples of the new repertoire include the boycott, strikes, demonstrations, election rallies, petitions and public meetings.  These were more flexible and national.

Print and Association

Print media and the new ways to associate and socialize were structural changes that helped create the social movements that we are familiar with.  Print and association gave people a broader sense of community and connection with one another.  This change also allowed for secular collective action, which had been more rare.  Pamphlets were an important part of politics in the colonies and newspapers became important everywhere.  Newspapers especially were able to make contentious disruptions seem ‘normal’ rather than implausible far-away events.  Additionally, there were coffee shops and reading clubs where people could congregate and discuss.

State Building and Social Movements

State building, state organization and state identity all affect social movements.  In more centralized states, there is little local autonomy, participation or acceptance of individual initiative against the state.  In contrast, states where civil society and local government have a stronger place, contention may be commonplace.  Tarrow compares monarchical Britain, absolutist France and colonial America.  He looks at three different policies that were used by states to expand their power (making war, collecting taxes and providing food) and sees how they affected citizens.  These policies determine, among other things, the way citizens identify themselves, how they organize and the direction they take in order to mount claims.

Part 2 – From Contention to Social Movements

Political Opportunities and Constraints

Tarrow argues that “contention is more closely related to opportunities for – and limited by constraints upon – collective action than by the persistent social or economic factors that people experience” (71).  So contention will increase when people have resources and opporunities to use them.  It also increases when people feel threatened and when there are rifts in a government’s repressive capacities or within elites.  Tarrow mentions that the opportunities need to be external to the group and they only have to be perceived.  Tarrow also makes makes it clear that increased opportunities does not necessarily lead to sustained movements.  However, increased opportunities can indeed lead to increased communication about contention which can open even more opportunities.  During the depression there were different levels of contention depending on where you were.  For example, France and the United States had more strikes because they did not suppress the labor force.  Germany and Britain also had the same grievances and resources but opportunity levels varied between these countries and more contentious ones.  Contention arose in the 1980s in the Soviet Union because the party secretary thought they needed reform in order to remain a world power.  This meant that some liberalization started at the top.  This, in turn, meant that civic groups started appearing.  Allies appeared, splits appeared within the elites and the state was not as capable at suppressing dissent.  These combined elements can lead to mobilization.  Three aspects that can give rise to contentious politics are state strength, states strategy to challenge and state control.

In this chapter, Tarrow also mentions the power of perceived threat.  The threat of loss is often argued to be more energizing than potential gain.  However, there are three objections.  The first is that there are cases in which contention has arisen even with no immediate threat.  Second, it can be hard to determine whether something is a loss or a gain.  Third, people are often mobilized even when they are not directly affected by the potential outcome.

Now Tarrow turns to the elements needed to create a sustained movement from the contention that has been allowed to rise with opening opportunities.

  1. The forms of contention people use.
  2. How issues are framed
  3.  Mobilizing structures

Acting Contentiously

There are 3 major aspects of publicly mounted contention:

  •    Violent encounters
  •    Organized public demonstration
  •    Convention

Performance has become key to the outcome of social movements (part of this is because of mass media!).

Violence is the most visible type of performance but it is also dangerous.  Violence can make the message in to a bipolar issue and frighten off sympathizers or  invite repression.  Tarrow argues that in modern states the contemporary repertoire cannot sue violence because it will not win against the authorities.

Disruption is just the threat of violence.  It can broaden the conflict, disrupt activities or threaten public order but it does not have to.  Gandhi solidified nonviolent direct action in to the contemporary repertoire.  Disruption can be very powerful but can be difficult to sustain because it is a balancing act between violence and conventionalization.  People will often go with the collective action that they are familiar with like strikes and demonstrations.  However, when methods become conventionalized, they can lose their sting.  Additionally, it can be difficult to keep authorities at bay because organizers need to continually have new tactics.  Additionally, if movements begin to lose interest, the more radicalized, and potentially more violent, members remain.

Itineraries of repertoire have four categories in which they can change:

  1. Institutionalization of disruptive forms of contention
  2. Innovation at the margins
  3. Tactical interaction with police
  4. Paradigmatic change – ‘moments of madness’

Framing Contention

Symbolic mobilization is part of every movement.

Here are some examples:

  • Military tunics by Rusiand and Chinese Communists
  • Pagan glitter of Italian Fascist hierarchs
  • Khaki cloth of Indian nationailists
  • Scruffy beards of Latin American guerilleros

It is difficult frame contention because you need to balance “inherited symbols that are familiar, but lead to passivity, and new ones that are electrifying, but may be too unfamiliar to lead to action” (107).  Symbolism in a movement comes from the context and from the interaction of the movement in a culture.  Context matters.

Here I will expand upon the part of this chapter devoted to media, considering our class focus.  Media is a way to show a collective identity and convey emotion to bystanders and opponents.  The radio was vital ot he May 1968 events in France because it helped inform people in different parts of the country about marches, strikes and occupations.  The civil rights movement was the first televised social movement.  It could show how to ‘sit-in’ or ‘march peacefully’.  The Tienanmen Square demonstration is a key example of media’s global reach.  Tarrow makes the point that the media is not neutral.  It likes dramatic, visible events and it will focus on violence (which can, unfortunately, be an incentive for it even given its liabilities).  Movements need to continually innovate and keep the media listening.

Mobilizing Structures and Contentious Politics

Mobilizing structures are the third resource that a movement must assemble.  In this section, Tarrow argues “that the most effective forms of organization are based on partly autonomous and contextually rooted local units linked by connective structures, and coordinated by formal organizations” (124).  Tarrow describes the failure of the 1841 insurrection and then describes two possible solutions for better organization that emerged in Europe.  One was strict hierarchy and institutionalization.  Unfortunately, that meant that people were more interested in the survival of the organization than the cause.  The other possibility was more disruptive; it rejected social democracy for anarchy but it also failed because in this case, there was not enough organization.  The balance between the two ends requires connective structures like informal contacts amongst people, churches, farmers’ cooperatives and political movements.  The movements do not require a strong centralized head and they can emerge from existing connections.

The 1960s was a time of innovation and many movements emerged.  External resources that developed and helped movements emerge were the television, increased money, free time and expertise (more people in college and more disposable income) and finally, increased resources (from foundations, NGOs, governments, business groups, civic groups).  Resources internal to movements also developed.  Examples of these are mimeograph machines, computerized direct mailing lists, the fax and the internet.

Tarrow addresses the concern that we are experiencing a social capital deficit because there is no steady participant base in movements.  However, Greenpeace is an example of a movement that has managed despite the deficit.  It has a small but professional leadership base, passive mass support but networklike connective structures.  Greenpeace has mainly financial support from its millions of members but can have impact and stay visible through the leadership.

There is no one way for movements to organize.

Part 3 – The Dynamics of Movement

Cycles of Contention

There are cycles to movements.  The beginnings are often quite similar but the outcomes vary considerably.  To begin, there is the mobilization phase.  Opportunities will open up and then there is collective action that once successful will diffuse to inspire others to be involved.  In the early stages of the contentious action, new repertoires and frames are created from the new actors and new possibilities.  Information flows far and fast when contention rises.  Another phase is the demobilization phase.  In this phase there exhaustion an polarization as people become tired and disillusioned.  Next there is violence and institutionalization because there is conflict between the moderates and the radicals who are left in the movement.  The reaction of the state, whether they facilitate or repress, is the third factor in the demobilization phase.

Struggling to Reform

Tarrow argues that cycles of reform are the most likely outcome from movements even though they are not necessarily what activists were originally striving towards. What remains after “the enthusiasm of the cycle is a residue of reform” because movements “create opportunities and provide models of thought and action for others who seek more modest goals in more institutionalized ways” (175).  Ideas need to be “politically processed” and social change is slow so the effects of social movement cycles are difficult to predict and are often indirect.  One typical outcome of movements is the evolution of new forms of collective action.  Tarrow compares the failure of the French student movement of 1968 with the success of the American women’s movement.  The French movement was more disruptive, used discourse that isolated them from the public, did not have strong connective structures and short-lived opportunity openings.  The American women’s movement, on the other hand, used a variety of collective action techniques, was cautious about their naming of subjects in order to reach the most people, had a broad connective structure and emerged amongst the American party system which had many opportunities.

Tarrow wonders if modern social movements will be different because they are able to appear and spread more rapidly.

Transnational Contention

The Eurostrike a chief example of transnational contention.  There are new aspects to movements now that they can be transnational.  For one, private citizens can mount claims against firms based in other countries.  Second, there can be cooperation across borders.  Finally, global governing institutions have a role.

He mentions the Zapatista’s netwar that we heard about last week as an example of transnational contention.

Tarrow asks five main questions to consider when it comes to transnational contention.

  1. Is the new technology of global communication changing the forms of the diffusion of collective challenges or only the speed of their transmission?
  2. Can integrated social movements span continents in the absence of an integrated interpersonal community at both ends of the transnational chain?  Can such transnational communities be created with resources borrowed from abroad?
  3. Will the new forms of transnational exchange lead to benevolent forms of “people’s power,” as writers like O’Neil seem to think?  Or will they lead to the violent forms that Anderson and others have seen in the potential of “long distance nationalism”?
  4. Is there a cumulative movement from the two temporary forms of transnational politics sketched here – diffusion and political exchange – to the two stronger ones, and particularly toward true transnational movements?
  5. What will the role of the state be in all of this?

Conclusion – The Future of Social Movements

I will briefly summarize his cursory look at new movements and changing problems.  The main question is whether or not our world will now be in “a period of general turbulence” or if we will institutionalize movements.

There are examples of fundamentalist and violent movements in the 1990s (genocide in Rwanda, rebellion in Chiapas, militant Islamic movements and Burmese and Indonesian dictatorships.  These movements raise concerns about violence, ethnic conflict and civility.

Today there are more organizations and more people who are taking part in contentious politics.  The middle-class Britons or Catholic priests in the Netherlands are examples of new social actors besides the typical cluster of students, peasants and workers.  Indeed, women are now more visible in contentious politics although I will refrain from saying that they are more active because I presume that they have always played a part.

Contention has become more complicated.  Indeed in Western countries there seems to be more contention but there is an increase in the less contentious forms of action (like petitions and peaceful demonstrations) with a decline in militancy.  It seems that the accepted forms of contention have narrowed to include more peaceful techniques.  However, as mentioned, we see violence (guerrilla wars, hostage takings, bombings) and it is all the more shocking in places where contentious collective action is expected to be peaceful.

Again, he begs the question of how television, cheap air travel and electronic communication will impact the state’s role.

He also asks what the role of institutions will be in future movements.  What kind of organization will happen within institutions and what will be extra-institutional.

Biography of Author

The following paragraph is the author’s biography.  I took this paragraph directly from the Cornell University Department of Government Faculty Bio page.

“Sidney Tarrow (PhD, Berkeley, 1965) is the Emeritus Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Government at Cornell University. Tarrow has his BA from Syracuse, his MA from Columbia, and his PhD from Berkeley. His work has covered a variety of interests, beginning with Italian communism (his first book was Peasant Communism in Southern Italy (Yale, 1967), then shifting to comparative communism in Communism in Italy and France (Princeton 1972, ed., with Donald L.M. Blackmer. In the 1970s he made a long foray into comparative local politics (Between Center and Periphery, Yale 1978), before, in the 1980s, turning to a quantitative and qualitative reconstruction of Italian protest cycle of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, in Democracy and Disorder (Oxford, 1989), which received the prize for the best book in Collective Behavior and Social Movements from the American Sociological Association. His most recent books are Power in Movement (Cambridge, 1994, 1998), Dynamics of Contention (with Doug McAdam and Charles Tilly, Cambridge, 2001), Contentious Europeans (with Doug Imig, Rowman and Littlefield 2001), Transnational Protest and Global Activism (with Donatella della Porta, Rowman and Littlefield 2004), The New Transnational Activism (Cambridge 2005) and Contentious Politics (with Charles Tilly, Paradigm, 2006).”


2 thoughts on “Book Report – Power in Movement

  1. Pingback: Week 3 Blog Summary: (Classical Theories), Resource Mobilization, Political Process AKA Dumb Angry Mobs | Networked Social Movements

  2. Pingback: La sociedad civil ucraniana en la consolidación de la democracia | Zyanlopez

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