Student protests and social movement theory

Posted on Jan 4, 2011

Aaron John Peters has a new article up at Left Foot Forward that takes a look at networked forms of social movements, and their superiority to older social movement organisations. I want to take issue with this, and as I’m being lazy, I’ll quote paragraphs and offer my views:

Elsewhere actors like UKUncut and False Economy have functioned in a manner that has been described previously as ‘open source’ behaving in a networked and autonomous manner in making an impact.

The open source paradigm is a much abused one in contemporary political theory. Considering that the OSS ideology came about due to an abundance of defence money coming into US universities allowing students & researchers to do whatever the hell they like. The OSS movement is dominated by global corporations, who finance and provide full time employees to work on the well-known OSS projects – Google (Android/Webkit/Linux/Mozilla), Apple (Webkit), AOL (Mozilla), IBM, Intel, AMD, Red Hat (Linux). OSS also replicates and exacerbates inequality found elsewhere, particularly in participation by women in hacking, which is often seen as a masculine activity. Finally, OSS is not without its (benevolent) dictators. All of this makes me wonder why OSS is such a popular paradigm in critical theory today. There’s been a change in organisational forms over the last two decades or so, but theorists need to give greater specificity.

For such actors there is no structural hierarchy or bureaucracy and anyone who wishes to participate and actively contribute to the group can do so. These networks in many ways represent organising without organisations.

Networks are not an alternative to organisations — a network is just an analytical device that sociologists (and computer scientists) use to understand relations between actors (or nodes). Networks may contain organisations, and organisations may contain networks, both formal & hierarchical and informal & non-hierarchical, as well as everything in between. See Steve Borgatti for more on this point.

There has been something of a debate as to whether such ‘open source’ actors are indeed any better than organisations, with some claiming that such actors will necessarily have to compromise their structures as time goes on and will eventually come to imitate the social movement organisations (SMOs) of the past with top down hierarchies of leaders who represent the interests of ‘members’ rather than participants.

It’s important to draw a distinction between social movements (SMs) and social movement organisations (SMOs). The latter is merely one organised group within a larger social movement, which in turn forms part of the social movement industry (SMI) containing all social movements.

In response to such claims these networks claim that they are inherently more flexible, dynamic and are more capable of reacting to fast changing events than those of centralised, hierarchical organisations with bureaucracies that by their very nature hinder quick and effective decision making as we so desperately saw with the National Union of Students (NUS).

Peters treats the anti-fees social movement as fitting outside of traditional SM/SMO models. This is not the case. Many of the post-1968 New Social Movements started off as informal non-hierarchical organisations—indeed the latest social movements, including the anti-fees one draw much of their rhetorical legacy from the post-68 NSMs. The reason that the linked Wikibook speaks of new social movements more as advocacy organisations is that most social movement organisations went from informal non-hierarchical organisations towards becoming institutionalised as advocacy groups and mass membership organisations. Caniglia & Carmin [1] identify a few reasons for this. Weberian approaches focus on the “iron law of oligarchy”; suggesting that the original goals of organisations get displaced by the singular goal of survival, but Caniglia & Carmin note that studies have found that hasn’t happened in many instances. More recent work treats processes of institutionalisation as an adaptation to circumstances:

SMOs may develop in many different ways and have varying degrees of formalization and professionalization. The degree of formality that is adopted, however, can facilitate as well as impede goal attainment, resource acquisition, legitimacy, and mobilization capacity (Zald and Ash 1966). Bureaucratic organizations often are more successful at gaining access to established political channels (Ferree and Hess 1985), being recognized as legitimate movement representatives (Gamson 1975), and at sustaining ongoing interactions with diverse constituencies including “allies, authorities, and supporters” (Tarrow 1998: 137). Unlike their more formalized counterparts, it appears that informal SMOs are often able to mobilize quickly and adapt to emerging situations (Gerlach and Hine 1970; Piven and Cloward 1977).

They also appear to have fewer barriers preventing them from engaging in disruptive action (Tarrow 1998). At the same time, centralized decision making and a clear hierarchy can facilitate rapid mobilization since they reduce conflict and ambiguity (Gamson 1975; McCarthy and Zald 1973, 1977). While research shows advantages and disadvantages related to various forms, often the internal challenge for an SMO is finding the proper balance between the extremes of formal organization and autonomy (Tarrow 1998).

The difference in institutional linkage is precisely why I don’t believe we should be talking about the anti-fees movement replacing or taking over the National Union of Students. The NUS is a bureaucratic organisation that functions under operational as well as discursive restraints. This is necessary because it is considered legitimate where it matters most—the corridors of state power as well as the mass media. A well run NUS would thus act as a broker, lobbying government and making policy recommendations on behalf of the anti-fees social movement. I thus remain ambivalent on whether or not Aaron Porter should be forced to quit over the inability to commit resources after offering initial support for the occupations. If people feel strongly, they should perhaps work towards not getting him re-elected rather than throwing the NUS into an expensive EGM crisis right when the media is paying attention to it.

A perhaps more fruitful approach to looking at (newer) new social movements would take a serious look at if and how new technology affects the attributes of SMOs described in the quote above. Here’s a few initial ideas:

Finally, I would ask whether or not the anti-fees social movement functioned without hierarchy at all? Observing the goings on at the UCL Occupation, it was clear that there existed some ‘key nodes’ in the overall network of the social movement. These include foundational members of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, NUS activists from SWSS and Student Broad Left, those with ties to mass media organisations, and trade unionists. Those from NCAFC and the NUS activists were key to kicking off the occupations across campuses and did much to set the initial framing of the issue. They also chose the dates of national protests and provided the promotional literature to get the message out. Individuals within each occupation not tied to the national structures instead coordinated and took part in local actions but were unlikely to have been involved in decision-making at the national levels. This more nuanced view of the internal workings of the anti-fees movement should help place it within the context of already existing social movement research.

[1] Caniglia, B. S, and J. A Carmin. “Scholarship on social movement organziations: classic views and emerging trends.” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 10, no. 2 (2005): 201–212.

[2] McAdam, Doug, and Ronnelle Paulsen. “Specifying the Relationship Between Social Ties and Activism.” The American Journal of Sociology 99, no. 3 (November 1, 1993): 640-667.

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