Defining Terms, Blurring Boundaries

by | 16 Oct 2013 | The Blog | 0 comments

Our intention with movements@manchester is to improve understanding of social movements and movement-like phenomena. We believe that social movement theories have potentially broader application than is generally seen in current research and also that these theories will only be improved through connections to other bodies of theory in analytically similar real-world domains. So, this post is my first attempt to think through what our unit of analysis might be.

The use of ‘social movement’ as a concept typically signals three broad characteristics:

  • movements are collective actors composed of individuals working together voluntarily;
  • they seek to challenge or defend some structural feature of society;
  • and they tend to use non-institutional means of pursuing their objectives.[1. See: Castells, Manuel, The Power of Identity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), pp.69-72; Della Porta, Donatella, and Mario Diani, Social Movements: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), pp.15-25; Scott, Alan, Ideology and the New Social Movements (London: Routledge, 1990), p.6.]
Greenpeace activists scale the Shard

Greenpeace activists scale the Shard; image from:

These characteristics are, of necessity, rather broad and so debate might exist over whether any particular instance of action would ‘count’ as a movement. ‘Social movement’ is a good example of an essentially contested concept: its meaning will never be fixed indefinitely or to the agreement of all scholars.[2. Connolly, W. E., The Terms of Political Discourse. (Blackwell, Oxford, 1993).] This is not least because some of the defining terms themselves are open to question. We might ask how many people, and how much coordination, is required for a set of individual actions to be considered collective? Answers to such questions will also change over time, which is clearly visible if we consider how we might delineate institutional from non-institutional means of action. Do Greenpeace direct actions, such as the recent scaling of the Shard, count as non-institutional even when they are carried out by well-trained, paid professionals and if there seems to be a recognisable script for such media stunts to follow?

The notion of a social movement is, therefore, pretty open to interpretation – but it should not be so open as to become meaningless and, although there is room for debate on any particular case, I think the three criteria above give pretty good grounds for deciding whether some really occurring phenomenon ‘counts’ as a social movement. Perhaps more importantly  it offers grounds for excluding phenomena from the category ‘social movements’.

Firefly Fan Art

Firefly Fan Art (and gratuitous use of a spaceship image in a social science post!); image by Nacho Yagüe at:

Consider the petition to continue making the sci-fi television drama Firefly, which gained over 17,000 signatures after Fox had axed the show during its first series. Whatever you think of Mal, Wash and the gang, this is unlikely to make your list of key socio-political concerns. The petition can be a classic protest technique but in this case I would avoid talk of the ‘Save Firefly Movement’. (It arguably fails to meet either the first or second characteristic listed above.) As Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport argue, the increasing ease with which online campaigns can rapidly gather large number of supporters – especially around issues of media, celebrity and sports – means they can be conceived and carried out by one or few individuals with very little coordination and very little resource cost. For that reason, the study of mechanisms of protest may now need to be separated more clearly from the study of  movements.[3. Earl, Jennifer, and Katrina Kimport, Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age (MIT Press, 2011).] This suggests both that the study of protest historically situated in the field of social movement studies might have relevance for theorists of consumerism and that movement scholars might benefit from viewing some protests through the lens of consumption.

One early approach to understanding social movements located them as one phenomenon within a broader category of ‘collective behaviour’ (CB), which also included panics, fads and so on. The collective behaviour approach has been roundly criticised over the years (though see Crossley for a partial defence[4. Crossley, N., Making Sense of Social Movements (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2002), esp. ch. 2.]), but perhaps the use of petitions and other protest tactics for seemingly apolitical ends should be taken as a reminder that there is some meaningful crossover to be explored here. While the Firefly example is politically trivial, other consumption-oriented movements are not so easily dismissed.[4. See Haenfler, Ross, Brett Johnson, and Ellis Jones, ‘Lifestyle Movements: Exploring the Intersection of Lifestyle and Social Movements’, Social Movement Studies, 11 (2012), 1–20.] Theorists of the ‘new social movements’ were always interested in the blurry boundary between social movement activities, on the one hand, and activities that generate a sense of belonging or identity on the other.[5. Especially Melucci, A., Challenging Codes – Collective Action in the Information Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).] But consumption choices are also tied into issues of identity and may help individuals locate themselves in the postmodern terrain of advanced capitalism. We need not subsume all change-oriented action under the heading of ‘social movements’ in order to recognise the movement-like features of that action, or of the potential intellectual gain of scholarly conversation that overlaps those kinds of boundaries.

McAdam, Tilly & Tarrow have made a similar move in the sense that their notion of contentious politics also seeks include a wider set of phenomena as candidates for understanding through social movement scholarship. [7. McAdam, Doug, Sidney G. Tarrow, and Charles Tilly, Dynamics of Contention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Tilly, Charles, and Sidney Tarrow, Contentious Politics (Boulder, Colarado: Paradigm, 2007). ] Their key term includes revolutions, civil war, ethnic and religious conflict, transnational activism as well as more familiar social movements. They also corral together some of the main concepts from the last few decades of movement scholarship – resource mobilization, political opportunities, repertoires of contention, interpretative frames and so on – and redescribe them as mechanisms and processes  to be used in explaining the various forms of conflict. This is an ambitious project by some of the leading lights of US social movement scholarship but it seems somewhat colonizing in nature: it seeks to bring movement theories to other empirical domains where other scholars are already using different theoretical tools rather than seeking a real two-way communication on these issues. The approach is also clearly oriented to the political, where political is understood primarily as public activity, rather than as in ‘the personal is political’. This is a perfectly coherent boundary but it necessarily excludes the kinds of activities described by Haenfler et al. [12. Haenfler et al., op cit.] that were a key concern of (primarily European) ‘new social movement’ theorists.[9. Alan Scott’s book, cited above, contains a good overview for readers exploring this approach for the first time.] For me, the inclusion of identities and lifestyle ‘politics’ is vital to understanding movement-like phenomena because in so many real-world situations social movement activism and an ‘alternative’ lifestyles bleed together.

So, while movements@manchester is certainly interested in the kinds of social movements that fit into the straitjacket of my earlier definition, as well as the kinds of contentious politics described by McAdam et al., we should also be going  further in blurring the boundaries of social movement research. A list of empirical interests might include: terrorism, subcultures, civil society, consumer politics, organised crime, fringe political parties and cultural identities. Each of these areas is studied by cognate disciplines but with rather different conceptual foci and explanatory concerns and it is in such areas, I think, that intellectual crossover might be most satisfying. My initial list could likely be much extended so please do use the comments section to add your ideas.


  1. See: Castells, Manuel, The Power of Identity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), pp.69-72; Della Porta, Donatella, and Mario Diani, Social Movements: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), pp.15-25; Scott, Alan, Ideology and the New Social Movements (London: Routledge, 1990), p.6. 
  2. Connolly, W. E., The Terms of Political Discourse. (Blackwell, Oxford, 1993). 
  3. Earl, Jennifer, and Katrina Kimport, Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in the Internet Age (MIT Press, 2011). 
  4. Crossley, N., Making Sense of Social Movements (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2002), esp. ch. 2. 
  5. See Haenfler, Ross, Brett Johnson, and Ellis Jones, ‘Lifestyle Movements: Exploring the Intersection of Lifestyle and Social Movements’, Social Movement Studies, 11 (2012), 1–20. 
  6. Especially Melucci, A., Challenging Codes – Collective Action in the Information Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). 
  7. McAdam, Doug, Sidney G. Tarrow, and Charles Tilly, Dynamics of Contention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Tilly, Charles, and Sidney Tarrow, Contentious Politics (Boulder, Colarado: Paradigm, 2007). 
  8. Haenfler et al., op cit. 
  9. Alan Scott’s book, cited above, contains a good overview for readers exploring this approach for the first time. 


Kevin GillanKevin Gillan

Kevin Gillan is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Manchester and Editor in Chief at the journal Social Movement Studies. He has interests that overlap between social movements scholarship and economic sociology.