Social Movement Theories Lack Relevance

Social Movements Theories Lack Relevance for Youth Activists

Scholars Too Obtuse and Timid

A study of predictions of the Arab Spring found academics were the most in the dark.[1] From Tunisia in 2010, the recent democracy uprisings spread around the world, each one an unpredicted surprise, no scholar claiming, “I told you so.” The Center for Strategic and International Studies observed, “the fact that no one had even appeared to entertain the possibility of events unfolding in the way they did raised troubling questions about the assumptions made about countries and the strength of the contingency plans put in place to deal with unexpected events.”[2] Another aspect of scholarly ignorance, U.S. Professor Matthew Crosston faults academics for “intellectual presumptuousness that had come to afflict most Western scholars to believe any toppling of a crony-like regime would only be applauded by all players, regardless of long-term consequences.”[3] He observed that none of the 21st century revolutions created successful governments and that Russia has a legitimate interest in Ukraine. (Tunisia is the exception to democratic success.)

Younger scholars disagree with the traditional pretense that researchers can be objective, as they acknowledge subjectivity and value activist research that is clearly written and useful to social movement activists. Jeffrey Juris and Alex Khasnabish, editors of Insurgent Encounters (2013), advocate that involved researchers “generate insights obscured by more objectivist approaches”[4] and be willing to be personally changed by their involvement. They believe that, “Any purported neutral stance is ultimately complicit with the status quo, reproducing domination by allowing the current order of things to go unquestioned.”[5] Transformative research can develop organizational strategies and point out internal dynamics of inequality such as “hypermasculinist and militaristic overtones are impossible to disentangle from the language of insurgency.”[6] Juris and Khasnabish suggest that the activist researcher can serve as facilitator, networker, mediator, accompanier, and independent media producer in social movements, as well as “rethinking knowledge production by questioning academic theories and methodologies and encouraging students to do so.” [7]

In Britain, R.C. Smith charges that leftist academics are bewildered by Occupy horizontal movements because of “a pedagogy and a politics that had failed the oppressed time and again, and has come to be a mere reproduction of dead thought.”[8] He faults academics for not providing a theory of alternative social forms. Smith maintains there’s no theory about current uprisings, so that the most fundamental philosophical challenge of the 21st Century is to articulate a theory about how to replace contemporary capitalism.[9] It would be a “holistic theory of change,” so that “systems of direct domination do not historically re-emerge.” This theory would include recognition of “mutually recognitive politics,” meaning horizontal and democratic, face-to-face, fun, non-capitalist, grounded in alternatives like worker co-ops. Smith says the theory building could start with Occupy’s revolutionary grassroots horizontal practices.

In Participatory Action Research (PAR) researchers aim to influence policy by sharing their findings with policy makers, as I shared drafts of the youth activism books. PAR promotes youth activism and involvement in their communities, as in my fundraising for university students to teach illiterate village children in Pakistan. A professor started a Twitter account #engagedacademics to address some of the issues of irrelevance.

In their book on Understanding European Movements (2014), editors Cristina Flesher Fominaya and Laurence Cox fault current academic writers for being timid in their politics, in contrast to older and braver thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir and Herbert Marcuse who were “public intellectuals,” shaping and shaped by social movements. In addition, the authors criticize current scholars of social movements for not including the voices of movement participants, “history from below,” in contrast to “great man theory.” (The phrase was popularized in an essay called “History from Below” by E.P. Thomson in 1966.) Current scholars also ignore the local context and scholars of revolution. Flesher Fominaya and Cox suggest “perhaps it is time to break free of the idea that it is necessary to use social movement theory [as currently defined by US scholars] to study movements,” partly because it’s ignored by activists. The editors conclude that broader social theory should do a better job of not separating politics and culture and placing movements in their historical setting. In We Make Our Own History (2014), Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen fault social movement theory for ignoring history and not approaching movements as developing and changing.

Journalist and author Nicolas Kristof decided against a Ph.D. and for a law degree because, “A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. . . Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.”[10] That can include women. After my Ph.D. was completed, a history professor on my dissertation committee frankly told me he wasn’t comfortable with women in academia, and had pilled research projects on me that weren’t pertinent to my dissertation to discourage me. As an activist Women’s Studies professor, a provost told me, “You better start praying” to keep my job after I opposed administration policy for my department.

Kristof quoted former Princeton Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter: “All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public.”[11] Here’s an example of academic writing, “While network theory focusing on the macro-level of sociotechnological mediation and interaction tends to overlook the importance of technology production and the power of collective and corporate socioeconomic structures, macro-level scholarship privileging the analysis of political and economic power has a tendency to neglect the agency of individuals.” Australian psychologists also advocate communicating more effectively to “ensure our work is accessible, engaging and relevant.”[12] Canadian Political Science professor and activist Joel Harden added his critique of academic research, including Social Movement Theory, for lack of dialogue with activists and writing in a style that can “often seem lifeless and far removed from the daily setback, breakthroughs, and insights of protest movements.[13] Harden reports the theory is unwilling to “move beyond specialist language,” because to be engaged would be criticized as “unscientific,” lacking in objectivity and rigor. He believes few scholars listen to or support new forms of progressive activism.


Applicable Social Movement Theory Needed

Social movement theory was just beginning to be accepted in academia in the 1970s. When theorist Doug McAdam was an activist student in the late 1960s, the only course he found on movement activism was in Abnormal Psychology.[14] Since World War II, movement activism was considered irrational and aberrant. This changed as New Left activists in civil rights, antiwar and feminist movements entered graduate schools in the 70s. Their resource mobilization theory viewed movements as rational and dependent on organization to acquire resources and support and became the dominant theory by the early 1980s, according to political scientist Sidney Tarrow.

Other scholars reported that, “Few researchers have investigated actual protest organizations and/or spoken with actual demonstrators” in the Global Justice or anti-globalization movement.[15] Western media treats youth movements as if they were spontaneous emotional outbursts rather than organized, when in fact they are campaigns using sophisticated advertising branding techniques. At the same time researchers are criticized for ignoring the impact of emotions like indignation, humiliation, hope and joy.[16]

Although youth-led uprisings are featured in the news (see my chronological list[17]) since the Arab Spring; large student protests in Europe, Chile and Quebec; the US Occupy Movements and revolts in Turkey, Brazil, Ukraine, Hong Kong and South Africa, “youth resistance remains dramatically under-theorized, particularly in terms of theories of change.”[18] Ethnic Studies Professors Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang pointed out in their 2014 book on education that although youth resistance has been a focus of educational research for several decades, they criticize the “currently paltry discussion on theories of change” and report that studies “frequently lack complexity,” just going along with traditional ideas about social change. This tradition includes focusing on males by male scholars and neglecting positive youth participation.

Authors of an article on the Occupy! website point out that “knowing a lot of social movement theory does not make a good activist.”[19] Douglas Bevington and Chris Dixon, Ph.D. activists in the global justice and environmental movements, also criticize research about political social movements for being obtuse and written in jargon for a small academic circle. It isn’t useful to activists so they read theory generated outside of academic circles. Bevington and Dixon call for a movement-relevant social movement theory. It would discover patterns of success and address how activists can find “opportunity structures” to use for their advantage and do “frame alignment” with propaganda and symbols. As well as tactics, relevant theory critiques inclusion and democratic practices within the movement—the role of internal sexism, racism, classism, etc. I would age ageism.

Bevington and Dixon give an example of a useful non-academic theory used by activists called “netwar,” developed by RAND Institute researchers who analyzed the use of decentralized “swarming’ tactics in the 1999 Battle of Seattle demonstrations against the WTO. In his book Another Politics (2014), Dixon identified the North American left as “anti-authoritarian” rather than socialist with three counterculture strands that appeared in the 1990s: antiracist feminism’s intersectionality analysis of multiple oppressions, prison abolitionism, and “reconfigured anarchism” with its emphasis on direct democracy and prefiguring goals for autonomy. He commented on the need to develop long-term plans not just be anti-capitalist, and not overly rely on short-term tactics like direct action and street protests. This is the key failing of the recent youth-led revolutions.

Bevington and Dixon point to Jo Freeman’s 1972 article on “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” as the most influential piece of social movement theory still widely read and used in activist trainings. I would substitute Gene Sharp’s writing on using non-violent tactics to overthrow a dictator as the most influential globally. A retired political science professor who founded the Albert Einstein Institution for the study of nonviolent action in 1983, Sharp is a premier example of an academic developing applicable theory for social change. He’s considered the founder of the study of strategic nonviolent action, influenced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. He said of the Egyptian January 2011 revolution, the protesters’ lack of fear is “straight out of Gandhi. If people are not afraid of the dictatorship, that dictatorship is in big trouble.”[20]

John Holloway is another influential academic, an Irish Marxist autonomist sociology professor in Mexico who says revolution occurs in local cracks in the capitalist system, as modeled by the Zapatistas. The first of the new wave of transnational organizing, the Zapatistas organized international gatherings in Chiapas starting in 1996, followed by global justice movements against neoliberalism at the Battle of Seattle in 1999. The World Social Forums provided another meeting place for young anti-neoliberal activists, beginning in Brazil in 2001.

Bevington and Dixon agree that the researchers shouldn’t be detached but do “dynamic engagement.” I asked them in 2014 if their push for relevant theory produced results. Dixon emailed from Canada,


Our proposal for more movement-relevant research seems to have had some effect in the last few years. I regularly hear from Ph.D. students and professors who have been influenced by the questions that Bevington and I raised, and are seeking to incorporate them into their own work. I’ve also been heartened to see the development of the online journal Interface and book collections such as Learning from the Ground Up: Global Perspectives on Social movements and Knowledge Production (2010) and Insurgent Encounters: Transnational Activism, Ethnography, and the Political (2013), all of which seem to be moving forward the project of movement-relevant research. [I would add this book and Understanding European Movements. Dixon’s blog is listed in the endnote.[21]]


The theories discussed below by Sukarieh and Tannock are “embraced by global elites as a way to promote their own interests and obscure broader divisions of class, race, ethnic, regional and ideological struggle that lie at the heart of the uprisings.”[22] One of the two prominent theories believes that social media is the key to youth activism and its horizontal network also shapes anti-hierarchical youth organizing. This approach is associated with scholars like Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri and Jeffrey Juris. The other dominant theory is demography, the “youth bulge.” In vogue since World War II, it was used to explain the Baby Boomer student movements of the 1960s. US security agencies latched on to demography in the 1990s, concerned about increasing numbers of youth in the Global South and possible unrest due to their high unemployment rates. However, most African nations with youth bulges haven’t had recent rebellions. These two theories don’t address the decline of youth power after the initial uprisings due to “widespread adult discrimination against the abilities of youth as social and political actors.”[23] They add that the common youth studies depoliticizes resistance with the emphasis on style and consumption in youth subcultures as youth agency, discussed mainly in anthologies of localized studies. They recommend more attention to global comparisons, hopefully like my trilogy..

I would in turn fault Youth Rising? for not including even one voice of a young person involved in the uprisings although they criticize the disappearance from much of youth studies writing the “organized, collective, political and ideological movements of the young (and old) that seek to radically transform the social, political and economic order, as distinct from everyday instances of agency and resistance.”[24] They acknowledge that they have not “spent as much time on looking at the experiences, ideas and actions of individual young people and groups of young people in local contexts around the world” as they would have liked.[25]

A group of Occupy Wall Street activists attempted to write what activist Ph.D.s Bevington, Dixon, Harden, Burawwoy and the authors of Insurgent Encounters advocated—movement-relative theory. In their 2013 booklet titled a Militant Research Handbook, they defined militant research as the “place where activism and academia meet.”[26] The Edu-Factory Collective aims for researchers and activists to “build up a transnational network of struggles and resistance” to share “texts of militant research.”[27] They argue that the university system is in crisis, replacing the factory as the place to organize social movements. Radical study takes place in the “undercommons” of the university, as explained by professors Stefano Harney and Fred Moten.[28] Advocacy research champions a cause. Rather than doing participant-observation as ethnographers do, researchers share the goals of the movement. Analyzing what makes a movement succeed, they said the key to militancy is the optimistic belief that change is possible. Their favorite examples of militant research are Colectivo Situaciones in Buenos Aires, Observatario Metropolitano that studies urbanism in Madrid, Mosireen media collective in Cairo, Sarai (Centre for Developing Studies) RAQS Media Collective in New Delhi, and Tidal—the journal of Occupy Wall Street. Tidal believes that “there is no radical action without radical thought,” aiming to transform the existing power structures.

Australian Youth Studies professor Pam Nilan reports a lack of dialogue between scholars in the global North and South and the need to build “international paradigms” while also acknowledging the importance of local influences.[29] She points out that English-speaking academics in the North still dominate study of youth cultures and transitions to adulthood. For example, at the youth sessions at the 2010 international sociology conference in Sweden, Nilan reported the western presenters provided theory while the non-western papers were usually factual, reporting on surveys, etc. In a 2014 conference on “Social movements in global perspectives” the main issue was the domination of research by Western European and North American scholars.[30]

Youth sociology will inevitably and increasingly be the sociology of social change, the sociology of the future, with concern for the environmental issues, according to Australian scholar Rob White.[31] Everyone is impacted by climate change, which White reminds us is the most pressing issue facing the world. It will influence youth identities if they become stigmatized migrants or hopeless victims due to climate change in the Global South. The mainstream news may focus on youth in terms of “moral panic” as they migrate to safer lands because the “criminality of youth is touted as a major social problem.” White points out that recent sociology of youth recognizes that youth identity is complex, malleable, multiple and hybrid.

With much effort in the face of resistance to change in the 1960s and 1970s, academia started to acknowledge racist and sexist bias in curriculum and in faculty and staff development. The new barrier to objectivity is ageism, the neglect of youth voices even in books sympathetic to the challenges they face. Neoliberalism is the other bias that must be exposed in its focus on individual achievement and youth sub-cultures in the face of systemic inequality, rather than social movements that oppose late-stage capitalism. The recent youth-led uprisings do target neoliberalism as the main problem. However, their emphasis on horizontal local organizing in the cracks of capitalism hasn’t developed a plan to replace the old dictators like Mubarak, leaving a power vacuum filled by the military in the case of Egypt. Social theory is needed to address how to develop a truly democratic alternative that acknowledges youth leadership.

Social Movement Theorists Neglect Economics

The main deficit of recent social movement studies is the neglect of the impact of neoliberal capitalism, according to Donatella della Porta in her book Social Movements in Times of Austerity: Bring Capitalism Back into Protest Analysis (2015). She points out that the takeover of free market neoliberalism from the Keynesian welfare state in the early 1970s resulted in the “proletarianization of the middle classes.” Scholars should add the approach of political economics while keeping social movement understandings of the impact of emotional grievances and cleavages.

Canadian professor James Côté also argues for “a new political economy of youth,” a conflict theory that generates radical solutions to material problems. He opposes reformist structural approaches that accept the neoliberal status quo. Schools themselves perpetuate subordination by teaching obedience to hierarchical authority. (Definitions of youth and social movements, social change, revolutions and uprisings are described on the book website.[i] Social movement theories are introduced as well and discussed in Chapter 7.[ii])

Côté faults cultural and sociological studies of youth for ignoring the economic situation, “preoccupied with subjectivities rather than the material conditions” of youth as the proletariat and potentially revolutionary “class.”[iii] He explained that since the 1980s youth studies focused on working class youth cultures instead of analyzing youth as a class or proletariat, disadvantaged economically, to use Marxist terminology.[iv] He regrets that the “political-economy perspective” that looks at root causes and “radical solutions” has been ignored in youth studies thereby strengthening neoliberalism. He warned that, “With few youth-studies theorists speaking for it directly, the neglect of the political-economy-of-youth perspective not only threatens to render youth studies an ‘apology’ for neoliberalism” that caused the “deterioration of youth living conditions.”

Côté criticizes youth studies for ignoring the negative impact of neoliberalism on youth who face an uncertain future while the number of very rich increase and can easily pay for their children to attend expensive universities. He faults Jeffrey Arnett’s theory of emerging adulthood for implying that un- or under-employment is a choice, taking time to “find themselves” in a carefree time without family responsibilities and constraints. Additionally, Côté warns of “growing stigmatization of youth over the past century,” especially in terms of claims of biological inferiority” regarding the adolescent brain as irrational and thrill seeking. The flip side of this trend is increasingly painting adults as superior, responsible, and mature over the last two decades, although I would add that an objective look at the news does not back up this perspective. As 13-year-old Lia said in California, “For those who created this mess in a world of chaos, just like you said to us about our rooms, “Clean it up!”

The editors of a Current Sociology issue on a “new wave of global mobilization” also fault New Social Movement scholars for moving away from “political economic concerns” to focus on culture and identity.[v] This neglect of economics gives “social movement scholars a generalized sensation of helplessness when trying to analyze and explain the 2011-2012 cycle of contention.” However, the New Social Movement interest in the formation of new group identities is applicable to the uprisings that developed a group belief in the human right to dignity, including access to employment. This approach contrasts to earlier social movements where activists identified themselves, not as the people—the 99%, but as workers, students, Marxists, members of political parties, etc. The editors conclude that group identity formation is “absolutely central” in recent uprisings and is shaped by strong emotions such as moral outrage. Researcher Susana Galan stated that although, “emotions have been traditionally banished from political analysis,” she believes they stimulate political activism through outrage, shock, and other feelings.[vi] This led her to study the Egyptian revolution of 2011 through women’s personal blogs, “intimate publics” that connect strangers in a common feeling.



[iii] James Côté, “Towards a New Political Economy of Youth,” Journal of Youth Studies, September 2013.

DOI: 10.1080/13676261.2013.836592

[iv] James Côté, “Towards a New Political Economy of Youth,” Journal of Youth Studies, 2013.

[v] Benjamin Tejeina, et al., “From Indignation to Occupation: A New Wave of Global Mobilization,”Current Sociology, Vol. 61, No. 4, 2013, p. 381.

[vi] Susana Galan, “’Today I have seen Angels in Shape of Humans,” An Emotional History of the Egyptian Revolution through the Narratives of Female Personal Bloggers,” Journal of International Women’s Studies, Vol. 13, No. 5, October 2012.



[1] Ellen Laipson, editor, “Sismic Shift: Understanding Change in the Middle East,” Henry L. Stimson Center, May 2011.

[2] Velani Dibba, “Arab Spring’s Impact on Sub-Saharan Africa,” International Policy Digest, May 11, 2013.

[3] Matthew Crosston, “The Unintended Precedent of Maidan,” New Eastern Outlook, October 5, 2014.

[4] Jeffrey Juris and Alex Khasnabish, eds. Insurgent Encounters: Transnational Activism, Ethnography, and the Political. Duke University, 2013, p. 9.

[5] Jeffrey Juris and Alex Khasnabish, eds., p. 373.

[6] Juris and Khasnabish, eds., p. 367.

[7] Juris and Khasnabish, p. 367.

[8] R.C. Smith, “In Defense of Occupy’s Politics,” Heathwood Press website, November 15, 2013.

[9] R.C. Smith, “In Defense of Occupy’s Politics,” Heathwood Press website, November 15, 2013.

[10] Nicholas Kristof, “Professors, We Need You!”, New York Times, February 15, 2014.

[11] All references in this paragraph are in Nicholas Kristof, “Professors, We Need You!”, New York Times, February 15, 2014.

[12] Elmina Subasic, Reynolds, Reicher, and Klandermans, “Where to From Here for the Psychology of Social Change?,” Political Psychology, Vol. 33, No. 1, 2012.

[13] Joel Harden, Quiet No More: New Political Activism in Canada and Around the Globe. James Lorimer & Co., Toronto, 2013, p. 199.

[14] Mark Engler and Paul Engler, “Can Frances Fox Piven’s Theory of Disruptive Power Create the Next Occupy?,” Waging Nonviolence, May 7, 2014.

[15] Lauren Langman and Dougals Morris, “Internet Mediation: A Theory of Alternative Globalization Movements,” paper, 2006.

[16] Tova Benski and Lauren Langman, “The Effects of Affects: The Place of Emotions in the Mobilizations of 2011,” Current Sociology, Vol. 61, No. 4, 2013, p. 526.


[18] Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, eds. Youth Resistance Research and Theories of Change. Routledge, 2014, p. 17.

[19] Jenny Pickerill and John Krinsky, “Why Does Occupy Matter?” Social Movement Studies, August 6, 2012.

[20] Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution,” The New York Times, February 16, 2011.


[22] Sukarieh and Tannock, p. 108.

[23] Ibid, p. 110.

[24] Ibid, p. 139.

[25] Ibid, p. 138.

[26] Natalie Bookchin, et al., The Militant Research Handbook. New York University, 2013.

[27] Edu-Factory Collective, Toward a Global Autonomous University, Autonomedia, 2009.

[28] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Autonomedia, 2013.

[29] Pam Nilan, “Youth Sociology Must Cross Cultures,” Youth Studies Australia, Vol. 30, No. 3, September 2011, pp. 20 -27.

[30] Eva Gondorova and Ulf Teichmann, “Summer School: Social Movements in Global Perspectives,” Interface Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, May 2015, pp. 351-363.

[31] Rob White. “Climate Change, Uncertain Futures and the Sociology of Youth,” Youth Studies Australia. Vol. 30, No. 3, 2011.


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