openMovements: social movements, global outlooks and public sociologists

Social scientists have a very specific contribution to deliver in a democratic public space, as openDemocracy’s articles daily testify. The articles by leading global sociologists published this week in openMovements are, we believe, exemplary.

Breno Bringel Geoffrey Pleyers
16 March 2015
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

We live in a time of deep reconfigurations of both democracy and social movements. The democratic project is under serious threat in various regions of the world. On the one hand, social movements are repressed, journalists killed, citizens are spied upon by their states and major trade negotiations are conducted by technocrats on which citizens have little impact. On the other, conservative, racist and far right movements are gaining impetus in the West and in the East, jihadism attracts young people from all regions of the world.

This dark panorama is however an incomplete picture. All around the world, insightful social movements and new forms of activism and democratic practices have emerged. They open horizons of possibility and challenge our classic perspectives about what activism, social movements and democracy mean today. Citizens have occupied squares, and invaded the Internet to organize, diffuse their messages and promote an open and free society where knowledge and information are shared. They consider democracy not only a matter of polls or demands addressed to their governments, but a claim for social justice and dignity as much as a personal commitment they intend to implement in their activist and daily life practices.

For this first week, openMovements has invited leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary struggles and issues. Boaventura de Sousa Santos opens our platform with an analysis of the Spanish party Podemos within the emergence of a broader wave of social actors in different parts of the world, including social movements in Latin America, the World Social Forum and the Arab Spring. This tireless promoter of the epistemologies of the South shows how Podemos results from a learning process initiated in the Global South and which proposes a creative way to channel the outrage that ran through the streets of Spain.

While Podemos’ future remains uncertain, its path so far clearly shows that social movements open up new scenarios for the future. This is what ISA vice-president Markus Schulz points out in his contribution. Like Santos, Schulz highlights the need to consider the global intelligibility generated between different struggles. On Tuesday, looking at the Zapatistas’ struggle, he shows how aspirations, social imaginaries, everyday practices are key elements for the construction of alternative futures and new roadmaps for social transformation.

In his contribution, Olivier de Schutter offers a bright overview of a key topic connecting daily life to global policies: food sovereignty. The 2008-2014 UN Rapporteur on the right to food shows how food sovereignty has been promoted and shaped by social movements from the global South. In spite of peasant movements’ success, “food sovereignty” remains the site of a conflict between “movements from below” and powerful national and global actors. The struggle over the meaning of the concept and its underlying agenda is not yet over.

Social movements and transformation do not all point towards progressive alternatives and a bright future for humanity. In the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo carnage and the success of the Islamist State in attracting hundreds of young volunteers both in the South and in the West, the next three articles address the complex relationship between social movements, war, terrorism and radicalization.

Although this is sometimes a hackneyed discussion due to the abuse and reification of certain imaginaries and categories, the authors gathered here shed an original light. Michel Wieviorka, former president of the International Sociological Association, points to the changing meaning of global terrorism over the past 50 years and proposes an insightful approach to terrorism as an anti-movement. Leading social movement scholar Sidney Tarrow underlines the need to connect “top-down” approaches on war and state building with “bottom-up” research on contentious politics. Political contention often plays a key role in mobilization for war, sometimes working to prevent war but more often play a key role in war-making.

In turn, Farhad Khosrokhavar shows how analytical rigor and long-term fieldwork “below the tip of the iceberg” is indispensable to understand events that strike the news headlines and to build thoughtful policies against terror. Behind the two terrorist attacks that caused 17 deaths in Paris last January lies a wide radicalization process. He provides an insightful multidimensional analysis, from socioeconomic profile, to cultural identity and global networks. The stay in prison, Khosrokhavar states, has become a rite of passage to adulthood and a place where excluded youth construct themselves as subjects of their life and actors in society.

Mona Abaza’s accompanying text addresses the other side of a war on terror in a brilliant analysis of the Egyptian revolution and its dark side: the counter-revolution and its retaliation, repression, persecution, exodus of intellectuals, artists and activists. Movements and counter-movements notably struggle around disputes over political memory.

On Friday, the ambivalence of our times is further addressed by Donatella della Porta with a straightforward question: Is there still a chance for Another Europe? She shows that the European scenario is shaped by its socio-political and economic conjunctures and evolving structures, but also by subjectivities and social movements. The vision of and project for Europe, has been a battlefield between the «Europe of the Market» and the perspective of «Another Europe» promoted by social movements over the last few decades. 

Finally, both of the last articles discuss the production and circulation of knowledge within an unequal world structure. The very inspiring American scholar and activist Jackie Smith underlines the importance of movements as learning processes and of the struggle of the open access movement against the commodification of the knowledge. A key research agenda is understanding how the open access movement helps define new ways of sharing information that lie outside the contemporary capitalist logic. In a complementary exploration, Michael Burawoy reflects on the production of knowledge (and particularly of theory) within a North/South divide.

After this week’s series by leading sociologists, openMovements will publish two articles a week by well know scholars as well as insightful young researchers from every continent. We will also make more topical, direct interventions, but always with the intention of going beyond mere opinion and seeking rigorous analysis. Contributions from Latin America, Africa and Asia will receive special attention. We welcome articles drawing on empirical research that connect the analysis of social movements to the reconfiguration and challenges of activism, democracy and society. 

openMovements emerges as a joint project by openDemocracy and the International Sociological Association Research Committee 47 “Social Classes and Social Movements” (ISA47), with the support of the Institute of Social and Political Studies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (IESP-UERJ) and the Collège d’études Mondiales, in Paris.

It aims to provide critical and empirically-based perspectives on these contemporary social movements, both on those which threaten the democratic emancipatory project and those which promote a deeper democracy, movements which gain mainstream media headlines as much as those which discreetly transform daily life and/or politics, whether at the local, national and global level.

openMovements intends to “open up” social movements and social movements studies in five ways:

1. Connecting social movements and society

Social movements are major actors in the production and transformation of society[1]. Social movements influence concrete policies, transform culture, daily life and subjectivities and produce knowledge, shape our society and open new scenarios of the possible. As Alberto Melucci put it, they “show glimpses of possible futures, and are, in some respects, the vehicles of realization of these very futures[2]”. Studying social movements and learning from them consequently provides us with insightful tools for understanding society as a whole.

2. Opening a dialogue with and learning from the South

openMovements promotes a global outlook for the understanding of these social transformations by proposing a dialogue between different voices, generations, perspectives and traditions of thought and action. Actors, intellectuals, ideas, experiences and epistemologies from the South[3] provide insights into their own reality, but also the challenges for democracy and possible emancipation paths in the Global North.

3. Combining the local, national, regional and global levels

Fostering a global outlook does not mean dismissing local movements or national struggles. On the contrary, to understand todays’ actors and challenges, we need to combine scales of action and levels of analysis, from the local to the global, and from personal subjectivity to globalization[4]. A proper global outlook requires empirical fieldwork in different sites and regions of the world, fully embedded in a reality that is at the same time local, national, regional and global. Social movements are shaped by contexts and actors in all these distinct arenas, but they also contribute to determining the local, national and global[5]. Localized movements are usually reduced to parochial conflicts, while movements like the Zapatistas uprisings in Mexico have shown that they also have important global meanings to offer. We also need to understand how struggles and cultures of activism resonate beyond national borders and how transnational networks affect both domestic and international politics. 

4. Learning from and with social movements

Social movements and activists are producers of social change but also producers of knowledge. OpenMovements thus aims at opening a space to learn from and with social movements. Contemporaneous social movements have a strong ability to generate collective learning, both in concrete struggles and in social experimentations that are being set up on all continents.

5. Public sociology

Finally, openMovements aims at addressing the academic community by opening a space for public sociologies of social movements. The institutionalization of the subfield of “social movement studies” has led many of its scholars and journals to focus on social movements outcomes on institutional politics and short-term strategy, while professional scholar journals became the only legitimate site for publication, at the expense of a public sociology. In the words of former ISA president and openMovements’ author Michael Burawoy, “public sociology endeavors to bring sociology into dialogue with audiences beyond the academy, an open dialogue in which both sides deepen their understanding of public issues”.

To avoid the traps of both “professional” sociologists’ hyper-specialization and intellectual vanguards, ISA47 and openMovements promotes approaches that connect the study of social movements with major democratic challenges and the ‘big picture’ of social transformations. Social scientists have indeed a specific contribution to deliver in a democratic public space, as openDemocracy’s articles daily testify. Scientific rigor and long term empirical fieldwork are needed to understand the features, stakes and challenges of struggles and conflicts beyond the immediate events covered by mainstream newspapers and thanks to a profound knowledge of contexts and actors. It is therefore important to open spaces where scholars who have conducted in-depth research can diffuse their results and perspectives through texts accessible to an audience beyond the wall of the academic world. The articles by leading global sociologists published this week in openMovements are exemplary in this perspective.

[1] Touraine, A. (1981) The self-production of society, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

[2] Melucci, A. (1996) Challenging codes, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

[3] Sousa Santos, B. (2014) Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide, Boulder : Paradigms.

[4] Wieviorka, M. & Calhoun, C. (2013) Manifeste pour les sciences sociales, Socio, vol 1, pp. 3-38.

[5] Bringel, B. & Domingues, J.M. (Eds.) (2015) Global Modernity and Social Contestation, London/New Delhi: Sage.

How to cite:
Pleyers G., Bringel B. (2015) «openMovements: social movements, global outlooks and public sociologists», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 16 March. https://opendemocracy.net/breno-bringel-geoffrey-pleyers/openmovements-social-movements-global-outlooks-and-public-sociologist


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