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Asien-Orient-Institut UFSP Asien und Europa (2006–2017)

Social Movements from Different Angles

The workshop “Social Movements in Theory and Practice: Concepts and Experiences from Different Regional Contexts” (October 24–25, 2014) organized by the URPP Asia and Europe and the Centre for African Studies (University of Basel) brought together different perspectives on social movements stemming from case studies in different regions of the world.

Silva Lieberherr

After Hanspeter Kriesi (European University Institute, Florence) gave an introduction to the field of social movement theories, the other invited guests presented case studies from Cambodia (AbdouMaliq Simone), Mali (Hamidou Magassa), Japan (Koichi Hasegawa), and Egypt (Marie Duboc). Younger scholars later analyzed case studies from Guinea, Uganda, India, South Africa, Taiwan, and Japan.

The case studies were rich in detail as well as full of contradictions and particularities. They challenged not only the conceptions of what social movements are, but also the dichotomies and assumptions often applied when talking about them. In this article, I will address the workshop’s diverse material, discussing the various issues and questions that emerged.

“Polite protests”

The case studies from Egypt, Japan and Taiwan raised the questions of the degree to which protests or social movements must be contentious in order to be conceptualized as “protests,” and under what circumstances protesters choose these non-contentious forms of protest. Marie Duboc (University of Tübingen) analysed labour movements in Egypt and labelled them as forms of “polite protests.” First, these protests were non-confrontational. Second, they were non-contentious in their major orientation and focused on bread-and-butter demands. In doing so, the movement that Duboc presented explicitly restricted itself to economic demands and tried to avoid more political ones, though of course this distinction is constructed, as we will see later. These movements fought for entitlements or rights rather than political change and framed their protest as rightful resistance within the existing political system. Consequently, when trying to get these entitlements, the actors cooperated with institutions of the state instead of contesting them fundamentally.

Towards advocacy

For Japan, Koichi Hasegawa (Tohoku University, Sendai) described this as cooperation rather than confrontation with state institutions when describing the environmental movement. The movement focuses on educational activities that are intended to change consumer behaviour, cooperating for this purpose with the ministry of environment, particularly on a local level. Hasegawa showed that the movement indeed sought change but was nonetheless non-contentious. Ayaka Löschke (URPP Asia and Europe) compared the anti-nuclear movement after Chernobyl with the one after Fukushima. She showed a similar tendency, namely that the anti-nuclear movements in Japan changed their repertoire from agitations to advocacy. In doing so, it has also become more “polite,” to re-use the term introduced by Duboc. Simona Alba Grano (University of Zurich) argued that, during the so-called “tree-hugging” movement in Taiwan, activists framed their protests non-contentiously, insisting mainly on tree protection and heritage conservation while in fact criticizing both the decisions of the political establishment and the lack of opportunities for participation. These examples lead to a new series of questions: What kind of arrangement is needed for contentious social movements to be conceptualized as such? Under which circumstances do protesters chose “polite” forms of protest?

Fighting against whom?

“Polite” forms of protest blur the line between politics and economics in many areas, three of which were important during the workshop. The first area concerns the question of to whom the movements direct their demands. Kriesi noted that whereas classical social movements (i.e. the labour movements) formerly considered capitalism and ist representatives as their main enemies with the state only later becoming the primary target, today’s movements seem once again to contest economic actors rather than state institutions. The discussion showed that this issue has gained importance in the context of supra-national structures of governance both in and beyond Europe. These institutions decide on peoples’ lives but are neither democratically legitimate nor accessible nor accountable. Some participants argued that it has therefore become increasingly difficult for social movements to know whom to address with their demands. However, others argued that the nation state is the primary target, since states are in the position to meet the movements’ demands. Also in supranational negotiations, movement protests can count on the national governments’ bargaining power and therefore leverage the movements’ demands.

Leaders in protest

The second area concerns the organization of the movements. The environmental movement in Japan served as an example. Hasegawa analysed how local movement groups increasingly act like small companies by producing wind energy and selling sun collectors. This makes the distinction between social movements and economic companies difficult. The same applies to the distinction between social movements and political parties. Kriesi noted that many of the most powerful contemporary movements are or have become political parties, such as the right-wing party movement in Europe, the party-turned Indignados, or the “tree hugging” movement in Taiwan.

The third area concerns the activists themselves. The lines between politics and economics become even blurrier when politics becomes the activists’ source of income. The case study from Uganda and Guinea illustrated this point. Joschka Philipps (Centre for African Studies) gave an example of movements’ leaders being, in his words, “extremely situational.” This implies that these figures are political leaders who make ad hoc decisions that depend on multiple factors, such as which upper-level leaders they support. Accordingly, their main task is to mobilize people through the general frustration of the upper-level leaders. Along similar lines yet with a different argument, Silva Lieberherr (University of Zurich) described activists in small movements in India. They constantly struggle to maintain the balancing act in order to stay trustworthy: On the one hand, activists need to be good at fixing alleged problems, so that they must be close to the powerful and part of electoral politics. On the other hand, maintaining honesty by staying out of politics and being morally upright is their major advantage against the established political parties and their main mobilizing argument.

The ambivalent role and position of elites was further illustrated by Hamidou Magassa’s (SERNES / University of Bamako) presentation on the link between the democracy movement and the education system in Mali. He described how discussions of democracy and ist meaning were quite present in the streets of Bamako, but that democracy should be understood as an opportunity for people to change their circumstances of living. Magassa argued that it is the task of the elite in education to invoke creativity in people for the sake of imagining and realizing opportunities for change. He suggested that, through education, elites played a central role in making democracy meaningful to people, but that, in so doing, the same elites tended to overlook the role that local knowledge could play in this endeavor.

Space for manoeuvre

Presenting the actions of the Pama-group in Phnom Penh, AbdouMaliq Simone (Goldsmiths, University of London) reflected on the question: To whom do social movements address their claims? He argued that earlier urban movements turned to the government and explicitly claimed a space in the city so that, among other reasons, they would have a place to be addressed when the government reacted to their demands. In contrast, the Pama-group is constantly on the move and the activists remain anonymous. This group proved to be a very particular kind of movement—an informal network that did not address the public directly, but opened up a space for manoeuvre and political action. The group targeted the elite by disclosing compromising information about them or their activities. Simone described how the activists worked clandestinely and individually, not engaging simultaneously in the same protest activities. But they still operated in cooperation.

The silences of protest

This posed the question of how much collectivity is needed for an informal network to be designated a social movement. The same question arose when talking about consumer boycotts in the context of Japan. Julia Obinger (University of Zurich) proposed that one should study the nature and relative weakness of these boycotts as a form of social protest. Bobby Luthra Sinha (Centre for African Studies) offered a similar but slightly different perspective with examples from India and South Africa. She described two small but very active movements: a nature conservation movement in Rajastan and the Anti-drug movement in Durban. These micro-movements showed how the non-visible actions of micro-movements may still be regarded as vibrant “inner discursive spheres” that need to be observed in order to understand the nature of these mobilisations.

To conclude, many of the workshop’s case studies called into question dichotomies that are commonly applied in the field: contentious – non-contentious; political – economic; collective – individual. Even if most of the presentations explored the margins of the classical social movement theories (such as resource mobilization or the political process model) and found them too rigid, those theories still provided many interesting approaches for the study of very different cases of protest.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 4/2015, pp. 16–17)

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