Can You See a Grassroots Movement from the Top of the Ivory Tower?

The latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly has a thought-provoking article on Srdja Popovic, “the secret architect of the Arab Spring.” After participating in the movement to oust Slobodan Milošević in 2000,  Popovic did a brief stint in Parliament and then started the Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), which trains activists who are interested in generating grassroots change in their home countries. Trainees have included the Egyptians who engineered the uprising in Cairo in early 2011,  helping to kick off the wave of protests known as the Arab Spring.

CANVAS encourages tactical innovation and promotes the power of bottom-up change. The quote below suggests that these emphases aren’t shared by incumbents of other institutions — including academia:

… [F]or all his method’s success, Popovic feels that those who should be paying the most attention—academics, politicians, journalists—instead continue to view politics largely as a game played by governments and decided by war. “Nobody, from very prominent political analysts to the world’s intelligence services, could find their own nose when the Arab Spring started. It is always this same old narrative: ‘It happened in Serbia by accident. It happened in Georgia by accident. It happened in Tunisia by accident. But it will never happen in Egypt.’ And this is the mantra we keep hearing—until it happens.”

Social movements scholars have written volumes on the Civil Rights Movement and other nonviolent and grassroots movements for change– though admittedly after the fact. It has historically proven difficult to predict when masses of people are going to rise up and cause grand power shifts like we saw with the Arab Spring. But does that mean that social movements scholars, like other academics (as this quote would suggest) take too much of a top-down approach to understanding social change? If so, what ought we to do differently?

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