Social Movements

Suffrage Hay Wagon (LOC), By: The Library of Congress

Social Movements

In this article, we shall discus the role of social movements in international politics. Social movements are important, particularly when discussing issues of human rights, citizen political representations, environmental politics, etc… We shall examine how social movement form, for what reasons do they often exist, and their levels of effectiveness in altering state and non-state behavior in the international system.

Social Movements have existed for various causes. For example, they often take the form of human rights movements, whether it is with regards to speaking about state injustices, non-state actors’ behaviors, etc… And, the issues are as diverse, ranging from environmental social movements, international development, to those concerned about refugees and asylum seekers, religious minorities, sexual minority rights, or globalization. For example, speaking on this last point of globalization, social movements have formed to speak out against the behavior of some states and transnational corporations who have violated human rights or the environment in the name of economic profits. Some of this criticism has built up against international organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, as well as the World Trade Organization for what has been seen by some as intense economic liberalization which has harmed many of the citizens in the Global South, all the while helping the rich actors become richer. These social movements have called for more attention to human rights, and addressing any violations committed.

And while social movements form on these diverse issues, scholars argue that what is starting to happen is a form of “convergence” amongst different organizations and movements, the reason being that “globalization is creating common interests that transcend both national and interest-group boundaries” (Brecher, Costello & Smith, 2011: 276). And in many cases, although the groups may have different, more specific long-term objectives for each movement, they also tend to have a great number of commonalities, often on overarching themes of democracy, human rights, and economic rights (Eitzen & Zinn, 2011).

How Do Social Movements Form?

While social movements form for different reasons, many of them are based on the idea that the current power conditions or relationships are not fair. When people with the same feelings are then able to find one another, they can cooperate on the similar interest. From there, they can publicize their cause, recruit others, as well as work with other organizations and other social movements (where there may be issue overlap).

What Groups Are Part of A Social Movement?

In order to understand things like the international human rights movement, it is important to know that much of the success of that movement has centered around individuals and groups who have decided to become active in a social movement for human rights. Often, the answer is that it varies. When you look at human rights social movements, you find that they are comprised of many different groups. For example, as Claude & Weston (2006) explain, “…human rights interest groups are…diverse. They include trade unions and business organizations, professional societies, single-issue and policy reform groups, political organizations, and ethnic, ideological, and religious entities. A minority deal exclusively in the human rights field. Most are human rights “part-timers,” special purpose groups that make human rights activities a significant but not exclusive part of their concerns” (13). Others are religious groups who “have drawn their faithful into promoting human rights through action as well as through education” (13). 

How Do Social Movements Fall Apart?

There are many reasons as to why social movements, that may have once been popular, may no longer exist, or have the same influence as they once had. Brecher, Costello & Smith (2011) list different reasons for the weakening of social movements. They are as follows:

“Schism: From Catholic and Protestant Christians to Sunni and Shiite Muslims, from Communists and socialists to separatists and integrationists, social movements are notorious for their tendency to split. They can often turn into warring factions whose antagonisms are focused primarily on each other. Splits often occur over concrete issues but then perpetuate themselves even when the original issues are no longer salient.

Repression: Movements can be eliminated, or at least driven underground, by legal and extralegal repression.

Fading sun: The concerns that originally drew people into a movement may recede due to changed conditions. As economic upswing or the opening of new lands has often quieted farmer movements. Or constraint frustraiotn may simply lead to discouragement and withdrawal.

Leadership domination: In the mild form, and movement evolves into an institution in which initiative and control pass to a bureaucratized leadership and staff, while the members dutifully pay their dues and act only when told to do so by  their leaders. In a more virulent form, leaders establish a tyrannical control over their members.

Isolation: Movements may become so focused on their own internal life they are increasingly irrelevant to the experience and concerns of those who are not already members. Such a movement may last a long time as a sect but largely irrelevant to anyone except its own members

Cooptation: A movement may gain substantiated benefits for its constituency, its members, or its leaders, but do so in such a way that it ceases to be an independent force and instead comes under the control of sections of the elite.

Leadership sell-out: Less subtly, leaders can simply be bought with money, perks, flattery, opportunities for career advancement, or other enticements.

Sectarian disruption: Movements can often fall prey to sects that attempt either to capture or to destroy them. Such sects may emerge from within the movement itself or may invade it from without.”

Are Social Movements Successful?

There is a great debate as to the level of effectiveness of social movements in international relations. For some, the idea that social movements can significantly alter the behavior of the state is ambitious and, in their mind, not realistic. While social movements can bring up issues, the state is very powerful in the current international system, and thus, can dismiss the demands of these non-state actors. Some within the realist school of theory view non-state actors as rather insignificant in an anarchical world that in turn forces states to rely on military (and to an extent economic resources) to achieve power and security.

However, there are others that argue that despite the power of states, numerous historical cases exist as evidence that social movements can bring about great changes in behavior. For example, “…social movements have overcome equal or even greater concentrations of wealth and power in the past. Colonized peoples from North America to India, and Africa and Vietnam, have thrown out imperial powers with many times their wealth and firepower. The abolitionist movement eliminated slavery in most of the world and the civil rights movement eliminated legal segregation in the United States” (Eitzen & Zinn, 2011: 278). In addition, “In recent decades, mass movements have brought down powerful dictatorships from Poland to the Philippines. A coordinated domestic and global movement abolished South African apartheid” (Eitzen & Zinn, 2011: 278). And it was active social movements that brought about the Arab uprisings, in part through social media, and in part through other forms of protest and organization, in 2010-2011 in North Africa and the Middle East.

Examples of Social Movements: Feminism

As mentioned above, there are many examples of social movements that exist today. For example, one movement to look at are feminist and women’s rights movements. Feminist movements have formed to challenge and change current conditions (and biases, discrimination against) women. Now, this is the goal, but there are many different ways that social movements operate within this objective. For example, some groups may focus more specifically on employment or education equality for women, whereas others may work more on issues of health or political representation for women. And often times, “Feminist activists and activism typically are embedded in organizations and institutions with multiple goals. To have a feminist goal is in no way inconsistent with having other political and social goals as well” (Marx Ferree, 2006: 294). In addition, some may not use the word “feminism” when describing their work or organization, but the work itself may be well in line with feminist objectives or goals.

One of the effects of globalization has been the ability for feminist groups and women’s rights groups to be able to link with one another, sharing information about their goals and objectives, activities, strategies, etc…In fact, scholars such as Keck and Sikkik (1998), in their work Activists Beyond Borders, have been able to look at how non-governmental actors have worked with other activists through international linkages. And today, what we are seeing is this interconnectedness of activists and groups. In fact, “Three groups of strategies for making feminist change have spread like wildfire through the world system: developing a “women’s policy machinery” within state institutions, building an issue advocacy network outside of formal institutions, and developing women’s movement practices that are knowledge-creating, many of which link policy machineries with advocacy networks to multiply political effectiveness” (Marx Ferree, 2006: 297).

For example, the political machinery includes all aspects of brining in women’s voices into the political governance structure of a government or international organization. Thus, this often includes work that focuses on improving the representation of women in government, whether it is through a percent of seats in government, or groups that focus on other ways to have womens’ voices heard. Or, with regards to issue advocacy, globalization has allowed people to become more connected on issue of interest to them. Then, the last type of social movement has been the creation of knowledge, which includes research, reporting, theory formation, and the establishment of international academic and policy conferences (Marx Ferree, 2006).


Thus, as we can see, social movements are very important in human rights and international relations. They are actively working to change the international system, away from rights abuses or injustices, towards equality for all individuals. They often form out of necessity against state or non-state abuses, and once formed, can often work with different strategies towards common objectives of equal rights.

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