The main topic for discussion this week was New Social Movements Theory. To better contextualize the emergence of New Social Movements Theory, I will provide a short overview of the theory that we have covered to understand social movements. One of the reasons why Resource Mobilization Theory emerged was to address early modernist Behaviorist Theories, which simplified social movements to reactionary and emotional outbursts caused by societal and economic disruptions. Behaviorist theories reduced social movement actors to angry mobs and mobilizations to contagion effects, where people came together through common emotional outburst and through “hive mentality,” having little agency over actions or articulations behind the socioeconomic disruptions that caused a given movement. Resource Mobilization Theory challenged the reductive attitude of Behaviorist Theories, and instead highlighted the agency of social movement actors in their path towards acquiring resources and recruiting allies. Resource Mobilization Theory was largely used to understand the social movements of the 1960s, which largely had top-down organization structures and singular charismatic leaders, and it used frameworks found in Economics. New Social Movement Theory emerged in the 1980s, and it challenged the structuralism and Marxism that was embedded into Resource Mobilization Theory.
Emerging from influences of Post-Structuralism, New Social Movements Theory highlights situated subjectivity over the objectivity and structuralism of Resource Mobilization Theory. New Social Movements Theory aims to understand how dimensions of identity and interpersonal relations incentivize actors to be involved in a social movement. What’s more, New Social Movements Theory provides an alternative way to understand solidarity and mobilization, by stepping away from formal governing structures of organizations and placing identity and shared experience at the forefront. Furthermore, Resource Mobilization Theory implies a clearly defined organizational structure, often top-down, to account for mobilizations in social movements, whereas New Social Movements Theory allows for the possibility to understand the mobilization of loosely connected networked organizations that operate as independent nodes and are “leader-full.”
One of the main criticisms of New Social Movements Theory is that the types of movements it aims to describe are not new. The theory itself emerged in the 1980s, so it is “new” today only contextually. Also, the parameters outlined by New Social Movements Theory can be applied to virtually any social movement in human history, making the theory’s name a misnomer and existing within rhetoric of “newness.” This rhetoric of newness found in New Social Movements Theory literature can imply a narrative that all social movements are stepping into the direction of post-structuralism, when in fact they stand alongside traditional and structural forms outlined by Resource Mobilization Theory. While the Occupy Movement could be better understood using New Social Movements Theory, the Tea Party Movement could perhaps be better understood using Resource Mobilization Theory, but not exclusively. The Occupy Movement is multi-nodal in its loosely affiliated organizations structure and it is “leader full,” whereas the Tea Party Movement is more traditional in its structure and adopts the charismatic leader approach.
In short, New Social Movements Theory was a new lens through which scholars could understand social movements and not a totalizing claim on all social movement in general. The final criticism that was discussed in our course was how New Social Movement Theory can imply that a stage of economic development is needed in order to be applicable, so it could be more applicable to the first world than to the third world. We know that this is not the case, because elements of identity and interpersonal relationships are just as important for incentivizing social action in less developed nations.
Where does New Social Movements Theory stand today? Media and Technology, especially the Internet, have complicated our previous theories for understanding mobilization in social movements. The book “Alternative and Activist New Media” by Leah Lievrouw attempts to understand these complications by introduction concepts like “mediated mobilization.” In short, mediated mobilization describes how social movements and mobilization for action are being carried out using media and technology. However, mediated mobilization not only describes how social movements are harnessing the web to carry out traditional forms of organizing, but also how the web itself is a space for social movements to exist. This dual facet of mediated mobilization, of the web as both a vehicle for action in the “real” world and also a space for action in the digital world, surely complicates the now old New Social Movements Theory. However, mediated mobilization seems quite compatible with New Social Movements Theory, and instead seems to urge for a 2.0 update or patch than a complete revision.