Studying Social Movements in the South

I am very grateful for this invitation to present my research in Mobilizing Ideas. As a young scholar, I have been studying social movements, trade unions and other forms of political participation using a variety of methods depending on the research question I needed to answer. Ethnography, life stories and process tracing are the ones I used the most. In this short text, I will focus on the following topics of my scholarly production: 1. Public deliberation and urban movements; 2. The youth condition and political participation; 3. The role of social movements, trade unions and protest on democratization; 4. The struggle of the poor for their socio-political reincorporation; and 5. The multiple scales in the resistance to the globalization of neoliberalism. My aim is to very briefly introduce the core questions and answers I have researched.

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1. Public Deliberation and Urban Movements

My first substantive research was a 13-month ethnographic study of the urban movement that emerged in Buenos Aires during the economic and political crisis that happened in Argentina in 2001–2003. My main two questions were: Why did the social outburst of 2001 in Buenos Aires favor the formation of a social movement? and Why did the crisis lead to the emergence of a movement that organized in the format of neighborhood assemblies deliberating in the public space? I published several articles dealing with the question of the emergence of this movement, the division then built between a sector that defined itself in territorial terms and another that defended a cross-class understanding of the assemblies, and about their relationship with the state and other political actors.

2. The Youth Condition and Political Participation

For many years, I worked in the promotion of youth participation with some small NGOs in Argentina, Oxfam Australia, and the Commission of NGOs in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations. Because of this personal experience, I started thinking about the need of offering some (academic) answers to some (political) questions I had accumulated. I conducted a study with the aim of identifying what motivates youth to participate – and how and where do they tend to do so. I conducted almost fifty interviews with young and adult people from 32 countries in Argentina, Brazil, the USA and France. My questions were: What most frequently motivates political activation of young people? and Why are “new” social movements more attractive than classic actors to already active young persons? The main argument of a book, an article and a series of online essays I published is that since young people interpret the youth condition as transitory, they do not consider youth political participation an end in itself. While the youth condition does not structure political participation or constitute actors and political projects, in these publications I identify some specificities that characterize youth political participation.

3. The Role of Social Movements, Trade Unions and Protest on Democratization

In collaboration with Donatella della Porta, I explored the role of social movements, trade unions and protest on democratization. I wrote a series of articles and book chapters with her, and three sole-authored working papers with the following guiding question: When and how do movements promote democratization? In these pieces, the little-studied relationship between social movements, cycles of protest, waves of strikes and transnational advocacy networks of resistance to non-democratic regimes in democratization processes is explored. In the discussion of these topics, Latin American, Southern European and Eastern European cases are used to illustrate the diverse roles played by social movements, depending on the type of democratization process and the stage in which they mobilize (resistance, liberalization, transition, consolidation, expansion).

4. The Struggle of the Poor for their Socio-Political Reincorporation

In my current work, I study the relationship between the pressure of poor people’s movements for inclusion and the state mechanisms for institutional change that this pressure has produced. In my article “The Second Wave of Incorporation in Latin America: A Conceptualization of the Quest for Inclusion Applied to Argentina” (Latin American Politics and Society, volume 57, issue 1, forthcoming 2015), I address these questions: How did the struggle from below contribute to the end of neoliberalism in Latin America? and How has the socio-political arena been expanded to include the interests of the poor and excluded strata of society?

The starting point for the answer I offer is to put poor people’s movements in the long-term perspective of the societal transformations produced by neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has been defined as crucial to the reformulation of state-society relations in many parts of the world. Neoliberalism has also caused the sociopolitical exclusion or disincorporation of the popular sectors (i.e., the poor and excluded strata of society). However, exclusion was intensely resisted by social movements mobilizing the popular sectors, such as the landless peasants in Brazil, the indigenous in Bolivia and Ecuador, and the unemployed in Argentina, contributing to a resurgence of the left in Latin America.

Neoliberal reforms have also produced a change in the focus of protest in Latin America: now it mainly occurs in the quest for recognition by the state. This quest for recognition is part of what I call the struggle for reincorporation. I use this term because although most actors in this quest present discourses of radical societal transformation, those discourses have actually unfolded as types of collective action that can be deemed “bridging with the state” (apart from the unintended transformations produced by the incorporation of the actors). By “bridging with the state,” I mean types of collective action that aim to (re)connect excluded segments of society with state institutions to recover – or for the first time gain – access to rights and benefits that the state had failed or ceased to secure or provide.

Two important examples of Argentine reincorporation struggles and movements that I have studied are the movement of worker-managed factories and the piqueteros. In the 1990s and 2000s, Argentina suffered the closure of numerous factories. To resist the increased unemployment produced by neoliberalism, workers started to organize in a movement aimed at defending their only source of income: their labor. I analyze in a report and an article the main characteristics of the movement of worker-managed factories in Argentina. I explored how factories were occupied, what motivated the workers’ decision to create co-operatives, what made the factories economically viable, how the community legitimated them, which legal reforms workers achieved to support their struggle, and how they manage their factories.

The piqueteros – a movement of unemployed workers – emerged in 1996 and since then has been one of the main contentious actor in the resistance to the social consequences of neoliberal reforms. The name “piqueteros” (picketers) is based on the type of protest action that brought the movement to the public’s awareness: the picketing/blocking of the country’s main roads in their demand for jobs, unemployment subsidies, food, etc. The piqueteros’ claim to unemployment subsidies, housing, and other benefits is an example of this “bridging” collective action because it reconnects the popular sectors with the state as a provider of some benefits and rights. In my forthcoming article in Latin American Politics and Society, I study almost twenty years of dynamics of interaction between the state and the piqueteros.

5. Multiple Scales in the Resistance to Neoliberalism

The economic dimension of neoliberal globalization implies an increased interdependence of national economies. But, what happens with movements and unions resisting these increased interdependence of the economy? In order to answer this question, I studied how the multiple scales of action of social movements and trade unions work. Exploring different dimensions of this topic, I published a book chapter with Karina Bidaseca and two sole-authored pieces. In one chapter, I analyze the process of diffusion from the North to the South of an alter-globalization social movement organization. I study the gradual domestication of the French Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and for Citizens’ Action (ATTAC) in Argentina due to the difficulties it found to insert the Tobin Tax agenda among local activists. In the second chapter, we analyze how the main coalition against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Argentina was built. Contrary to most claims about the recent wave of global activism, this very successful coalition mobilized to reject the FTAA using classical nationalist and anti-imperialist framings. In the third and more recent chapter, I study how one of the main national trade unions of Argentina managed to deal with international and transnational issues without ever building an agenda for these scales of action. With this chapter, I show how transnational action is possible by actors that have not gone through a process of cosmopolitan cognitive change.

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Many of these topics and movements resonate with the current events in Europe and – to a certain degree – in the United States, too. For instance, the study of the struggles for reincorporation may introduce an alternative view of the relationship between austerity policies, poor (and impoverished) people’s movements, and the expansion and contraction of the socio-political arena. To achieve this dialogue between diverse socio-cultural horizons, an expansion of our academic boundaries towards incorporating a systematic dialogue between the Global South and the Global North is necessary. This is one of my main interests and the goal of a book I co-edited with Marisa von Bülow (Social Movement Dynamics: New Perspectives on Theory and Research from Latin America, Ashgate – The Mobilization Series on Social Movements, Protest, and Culture, forthcoming in 2015).

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Filed under Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research, Essay Dialogues

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