Review: Strangers at the Gates

By Eitan Y. Alimi

Sidney Tarrow. Strangers at the Gates (Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Sidney Tarrow. Strangers at the Gates: Movements and States in Contentious Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Students of social movements and contentious politics will surely find Sidney Tarrow’s Strangers at the Gates a valuable academic asset. Always combining knowledge and insights from several social science disciplines and sub-disciplines, and typically managing a remarkable balance between a theoretically informed comparative perspective and an in-depth, nuanced analysis of single cases, Tarrow’s Strangers at the Gates provides readers with the opportunity to learn about a truly rich array of social movements and episodes of contention. This in itself provides more than enough justifications to coin Strangers a “must read” book.

But there are two equally important additional reasons why I have enjoyed reading this book and believe others will enjoy reading it too. First, the book seeks to embed social movements and the study of contention in history, which essentially means moving beyond a truncated historical background of a given movement to boring into the historical origins and development of movements. Such a historical approach and the positioning of the study of movements within a broader field of actors offer readers a rare opportunity to learn about the sources and evolution of movements’ uneasy and ambivalent relationships with political parties and political institutions (hence the title Strangers at the Gates) and, by extension, with other actors and groups, be they allies or opponents, operating inside or outside the state. The payoffs are numerous. We get a nuanced analysis of social movement outcomes and impacts—how they are the result of a dynamic process of interactions, adjustments, and negotiations between and within the actors and parties involved, and why sometimes these outcomes are beyond movements’ stated goals and oftentimes beyond policy changes (there is a full chapter devoted to how contention shapes contentious language in France, the U.S., and Ireland, to name only a few). Additionally, we learn about movements’ challenges to institutional realms other than state authorities, such as corporations, the church, and the military (see especially chapter 3 on the dialectical relationship between state formation and movement structuring in the U.S.).

The second reason concerns the book’s embeddedness within the broader Dynamics of Contention research agenda which, shortly after its publication in 2001, gained the status of “you can like it, dislike it, but you cannot ignore it.” “Strangers,to be sure, stands on its own right, and yet it is evident that as a member of the McTT triumvirate, Tarrow, just as McAdam and the late Tilly, was fully aware of the unfinished agendas DOC has left behind. Readers will be captivated by the refinement of a central mechanism, political opportunities, and how it is applied in a richly informed historicized manner to a variety of contentious episodes and movements in democratic and authoritarian contexts (although the treatment of this aspect has left he who writes this recommendation with a taste for more). Equally captivating is the historically nuanced analysis of known processes, such as radicalization and diffusion, in the 1960s and 1970s cycle of contention.

In sum, those who are able and determined (and fortunate) enough to produce a successful book are quite familiar with the “burden of success”: Can you produce another one without it being evaluated in the shadow of its predecessor? Given the success of Tarrow’s Power in Movement, which has already taken an honorable seat in the social movement literature canon, this was certainly a formidable challenge. Whether or not Strangers at the Gates would acquire the same status is too soon to know, but it surely has what it takes.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Great Books for Summer Reading 2013

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