The Changing pattens of Political Action

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  • Created on: 16-01-13 14:46

The decline of the ballot box

The emergence of new social movements has brought with it changing patterns of political action. Conventional politics - defined in terms of representative democracy - is based on the notion of political action through the ballot box.

However, there is evidence that faith in theis declined during the second half of the twentieth century: for instance, the turnout at the 2001 general election was on 59% compared with 83% 50 years earlier.

Hallsworth (1994) argues that NSMs offer an alternative political order based on forms of mass participation in which people become more engaged with the decisions that affect them and which goes further than putting a cross on a ballot paper.

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The decline of the ballot box

NSMs are likely to resort to direct action. Whilst the formed groups usually limited themselves to institutional methods and resorted to direct action - such as strikes - only when all else failed, NSMs readily adopt direct action methods.

These range from demonstrations and sit-ins to mass trespass and fire-bombing. Hallsworth (1994) places them on what he calls a 'continuum of legality' and cites CND cutting the perimeter wire of a nuclear base as an example of mild disobedience and the ALF fire-bombing department stores selling fur coats as an example of more violent direct action -both are illegal.

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The Decline of the Ballot Box

The actions of contemporary social movements have been facilitated by technological developments such as satellite broadcasting, mobile phones, and the internet.

Giddens (2006) points out how - at the press of a button - grass-roots activists across the world can meet online to exchange information and coordinate action. He suggests that it is the ability of supporters of NSMs to work together in the pursuit of international political campaigns that most undermines institutional politics at the same time as it promotes non-institutional politics. Giddens cites the example of the wordwide protest movement against the Iraq war in 2003 as cear evidence of the ability of NSMs to mobilise instantly when an event occurs and to respond with concerted political action.

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Theoretical explanations of political action

  • Marxism
  • Feminism
  • Pluralism
  • Postmodernism
  • Collective Identity Theory
  • Globalisation
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Classical Marxist theory has tried to explain the political actions of social movements. The Marxist sociologist Castells (1983) was insprired by the protest movements in European cities 1967-9, and originally argued that these resulted primarily from the same class conflict - between capital (bosses) and labour (workers) - as earlier protests.

However, the fact that the student movement played a large part in these events made him modify his explanation, and he later suggested that such urban social movements were caused by a new source of inequality based less on production and more on consumption,

In the final version of his theory, he admitted that such political action owed little to class as such and was a result of community-based urban social movements.

Many of the urban riots of the late twentieth century might indeed be explained using Castells' approach. According to him, urban soial movements united those people who wished either to defend or challenge their local environment and public-service provision. As such, they were made up of consumers of varied class backgrounds who were united by their collective consumption; they were capable of acting together to support a local hospital or oppose a new road scheme. Although Castells focused on urban movements, he believed they could also arise in other areas and posed a serious threat to the capitalist social order if they escalated from riots into revolution.

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However, even in its developed from, Castells' theory has its shortcomings. His notion of collective consumption cannot explain all forms of non-institutional political action; different sections of the community depend on public-service provision to varying degrees.

Saunders (1983) criticises Castells for overestimating the radical nature of urban social movements, claiming that middle-class people are better able to protect their interests.

Urry (1990) plays down the radical nature of urbal social movements by pointing out that they are as likely to be made up of middle-class NIMBY's ('not-in-my-backyeard') as of radical protesters intent on drastic social change.

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Feminist criticisms of Marxist accounts of social movements are encompassed within those made about the political sphere in general - politics seems to be a male domain in which women are not fully included. In spite of the existance of Marxism feminism, feminist critics argues that the role of women in political action is conspicuous by its absence.  

The Marxist theory Habermas is taken to task by feminists for the fact that his major study of communicative action says next to nothing about gender - he discusses politics as if it is gender neutral.

Feminists believe that as in other spheres of life, gender identity has not been given due credit in the sociological analysis of political action.

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Whilst many feminists campaign for equality bebtween the sexes, others assert that it is more important to emphasise gender difference.

Gilligan (1982) argued that because men and women and different, the feminist movement should concentrate on the things that make women special. Indeed, because women are not a homogenous type themselves but are divided by class, ethnicity and so on.

Butler (1990) goes on to assert that the umbrella term 'women' should be abandoned. Women's identities are manifold but only specific actions are able to highlights the differences.

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Feminism - Greenham Common

A notable instance of political action that did highlight one such identity was the peace camp at Greenham Common - set up and run by women to protest against the installation of nuclear weapons. The camp symbolised an explicitly feminist stance and would never have have happened if life had not have moved on from private to public patriarchy, according to Roseneil (1995).

She argues that because women has gained certain freedoms in terms of public employment and welfare opportunities, they were also freed from private family ties. They now had the financial freedown to live at the camp, where - for the first time in their lives - they had a sense of real participation in decision-making and gained a new consciousness of men's domination of political and social life.

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Greenham Common & Sexual Identity

As well as being a community of women, the peace camp was partly a community of lesbians which leads on to the issue of sexual identity in social movements. 

This is seen clearly in the gay movement Queer Nation, set up in Greenwhich Village, New Yotk in 1990. Its aim was to eliminate homophobia through a variety of tactics involving direct action: one tactic was to subvert the language of its 'oppressors', as in reclaiming the word 'queer' as positive rather than negative in the name it adopted for iteself. Following a bomb attack on a gay bar in NY, the movement mobilised a thousand protesters in a few hours' it soon spread across the USA and began a campaign of outing closed gays in positions of influence to end what it saw as hypocrisy in society.

Mirroring the feminist movement, some in the gay movement wanted to abandon the simple straight/gay distinction and instead view sexual identities as manifold and equally acceptable. As far as any social movement is concerned, however, such a tactic raises the danger of fragmentation: Nash (2000) warns that this action may divide a movement and prevent it from gaining wider recognition in society. If the aim of political action is to generate solidarity within a social movement so that it can achieve its goal, dividing it to recognise manifold identities is not the best way to go about this.

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Some of the harshest critics of NSMs attack them for precisely this reason.

Sociologists who adopt a pluralist view (and believe the range of political parties and pressure groups in modern societies is accepted by the majority as legitimate), see no place for NSMs.

Hirst (1993) dismisses them as such fragmented and loose associations as to be relatively powerless in relation to governments. He doubts that their political actions will ever bring about radical change - if anything, they are only capable of making changes at the edge of society. In his view, NSMs have nothing worthwhile to offer society.

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Many people today do not accept the legitimacy of the existing political institutions - far from it, they are deeply suspicious of the governments. Many people have little trust in what they are told by government and scientific experts. 

Today, life seems more uncertain and public awareness of this has grown - the age of reflective modernity has arrived.

Where industrialisation and capitalist production were once taken for granted, they are now subject to reflexivity (they are thought about and reflected upon). 

Thus the German sociologist Beck (1992) suggests that in what he calls a risk society, people are more likely to adopt political actions associated with NSMs. Environmental movements can be understood as a response to this perception of risk.

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Collective Identity Theory

A growing number of sociologists believe that the world has moved on from maternity to postmodernity. In what has become known as the collective identity theory, social movements are not so much a response to coping with risk but instead a way for members to develop a self-image.

Melucci (1989) suggests that for supporters of NSMs, the issue they are campaigning for matters less than participation in the lifestyle that goes with it - this serves as a sogn to others and is a mark of identity.

Being a member of an NSM helps an individual to develop a collective identity, and the movement itself develops a group self-image as a result. However, collective identities are not fixed, but fluid - groups with positive self-images confer high self-esteem on their members (although stigmatised groups can have the opposite effect)

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Collective Identity Theory - Melucci

For Melucci, collective identity is a two-way process that is constructed and negotiated in the course of an individuals membership of an NSM. By way of evaluation, collective identity theory can be seen as an advance on earlier social movement theories, because it fills the gaps in resource mobilisation theory and others that focus more on political action.

Melucci's view of social movements is both postindustrial and postmodern, in that he emphasises the way they have moved on from material material to cultural concerns as central to understanding them as forms of political action. 

In this respect, his ideas are supported by Touraine, who also believes that in order for political action by social movements to be effective it is necessary for their supporters to develop a collective identity and alternative lifestyle.

They differ in that touraine also believes that social movements should aim for a take over of the state; Melucci only regards them as informal networks of individuals linked ny cultual contact but not by shared interests or ideology.

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Fukuyama would agree with Melucci that shared ideology is unimportant - but only because he belueves that 'ideology is dead'. Fukuyama holds that with the arrival of globalisation comes the end of ideology and a worldwide system of politics based on liberal democracy. 

Class is also dead from this perspective, but other sociologists do not accept this - Marxist theories see plenty of evidence of continued class differences in postmodern society.  A number, for instance, see class conflict continuing but on a global scale. Globalisation is simply another name for Americanisation and the global imperialism that goes with it.

Lash and Urry (1987) argue that nation states are now threatened by global capitalism, in the form of multinational and transnational corporations. These companies contract out their production to countries where labour costs are lowest, usually in the developing world, where national governments are so desperate for economic investment that they offer little protection to their factory workers, who often earn below subsistence wages.

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Klein (2000) uses the term 'sweatshops' to describe the factories where branded goods are made cheaply for sale in the West. In the West too, working conditions have declined in the persuit of profit.

Ritzer (1996) uses the terms 'McJobs' to describe the growth in low-paid and insecure employment which is becoming the norm here.

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The threat posed by global capitalism spawned the anti-capitalist or anti-globalisation movement, although the former is more appropriate: the movement is only opposed to the negative features of globalisation and actually builds on some of the positive ones, particularly the growth in global communication.

The movement is made up of a diverse range of supporters with wide-ranging concerns but a shared belief that the problems the world faces are caused by global capitalism.

Callinicos (2003) believes that they are all motivated by a feeling that the worlds problems are linked in some way to capitalism.

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