Movements have half-lives

Social movement scholarship, especially in the US over the last decade, has focused on a host of smaller movements. I’m part of this trend as well, studying movement-based efforts to address contemporary slavery and trafficking. But lately I’ve been wondering—what’s the half-life of the average mini-movement?

the decay curve for a radioactive substance (BBC)

 

I’ve been trained in two different traditions: the international relations literature on civil society’s boomerang effects (Sikkink, etc) and the (largely domestic) social movement literature on political opportunity. Somehow the first tradition—with its institutional focus on human rights, international institutions, and state power—focuses on the relationship between states and publics in creating and implementing norms. And the second tradition—with its focus on domestic political and economic trends and shifting public opinion—focuses on the relationship between issue framing, movement resources, and political opportunities to blend money and message for movement success.

Scholarship in both of these traditions have focused on big movements: the International civil society and human rights literature is largely rooted in the Shoah, and has remained focused on genocide, women’s rights, torture, etc. The Domestic social movements literature has been largely focused on the civil rights movement, women’s rights movement and LGBTQ movement. This scholarship has considerably advanced our understanding of social change at the domestic and international level. But what a focus on these big movements has overlooked is the fact that there are tons of mini-movements that capture attention and energy in Europe, America, South Asia (especially India), and around the world.

Mini-movements are often spin-offs from larger and more established movements. It is also possible that they emerge entirely on their own, without the supportive structure of existing movement structures. In the United States I’m thinking of popular campaigns against sweatshops that captured the energy of scholars, students and publics through the 1990s. In the UK the 1990s saw a tremendous amount of attention poured into the Fair Trade campaign to remove exploitative labor from commodities and the Rugmark campaign against child labor in the carpet industry.

These mini-movements directed attention to larger and more categorical issues, labor rights, women’s rights, migrant rights, domestic migration, etc. The institutions responsible for these categories—groups like the International Labor Organization, International Office on Migration, UN High Commission on Refugees, etc—serve as support or targets for these mini-movements.

Mini-movements rarely last longer than eight years. Or that’s my guess. After eight years or so the original champions of this particular approach move up or move on. Moving up entails a shift into government agencies, donor entities, or international institutions, while working on similar issues. Moving on entails a shift into another (usually more established) movement, into academia (to “better understand the complexity of these dynamics”), or out of the movement scene entirely (i.e., into the private sector).

Mini-movements serve as an excellent means for channeling enthusiasm, attention, personnel, and money onto “new” issues. As movement entrepreneurs establish better links with institutions, and as they get older and look for greater career stability, and as publics tire of the Newness of the Issue, the formerly “new” issue either disappears, or is integrated into more established institutional efforts.

Lots of social movement scholarship, especially in the US over the last decade, has turned its attention to these movements. I’m part of this trend as well, studying movement-based efforts to address contemporary slavery and trafficking. But lately I’ve been wondering—what’s the half-life of the average mini-movement?

Not very long is my guess.

My partner is an international development professional. She says that I’m wrong: that it’s the public attention that comes and goes, and we shouldn’t mistake the public’s loss of interest in a movement’s issue for the waning of an issue itself. She points to child labor, which captured the public’s attention for a lot less time than it has been on the radar of activists, institutions and donors. Maybe she’s right.

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One response to “Movements have half-lives

  1. Pingback: June 2012 News « The Fruition Coalition

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