Do broad coalitions lead to broad social movements?

By Mario Diani

Coalitions are usually strongly associated with social movements in both common sense and theoretical thinking. It is difficult to think of social movements if not in terms of “nested coalitions,” linking different campaigns into broader projects. At the same time, while social movements cannot exist without coalitions, the reverse does not always apply: coalitions occur regularly without growing into large scale movements. Many coalitions are indeed purely instrumental and strictly focused on specific, often very narrow, goals. That’s hardly exciting news: the analytic difference between coalitions and movements has been elaborated on several times in the past, including in my own work (Diani 2015; Diani and Bison 2004). Still, I am not sure we are really grasping the most important implications of such difference. Let us think in particular of the conditions for coalition building and success, which are central to the present exchange. Apart from explicitly mentioning movements, it is pretty obvious that these issues are crucial to the analysis of social movements too. But does this mean that the conditions that facilitate the emergence of coalitions are also conducive to the emergence of movements? I do not think this is necessarily the case. Not only that: I also suspect that some of the conditions that facilitate coalition building might actually discourage social movement formation. I refer in particular to the capacity to form broad, encompassing coalitions that include a variety of participants, stakeholders, etc., and to the widespread assumptions about the desirability of such coalition heterogeneity.

In order to understand why this may be the case let me just recall why “movements” and “coalitions” represent different “modes of coordination” of collective action (Diani 2015, chap. 1). Both share the fact that decisions about resource allocation are not confined within the boundaries of single organizations, but instead incorporate a multiplicity of actors involved in variably dense webs of exchanges and negotiations. At the same time, coalitions differ from social movements in that the latter imply deeper levels of what I call “boundary definition” (i.e., broader solidarities and identities, the commitment to a longer-term collective project, etc.). That is not required of coalitions, which may focus on the pursuit of specific goals without requiring actors to alter their identities in significant ways. This does not mean of course that coalitional dynamics may not evolve into something different, or that any concrete episode of collective action may not combine a multiplicity of logics of action, with some actors operating on a more instrumental basis than others. This has been repeatedly illustrated by analysts of coalition processes (van Dyke and McCammon 2010; McCammon and Moon forthcoming). But the analytic difference needs to be recognized, perhaps more than it has been so far. So does the fact that coalitions and movements operate on a quite different time perspective.

If the perspective outlined above is correct, then the essential imperative of coalition building is maximizing the capacity to attract a range of organizations (as well as individual participants) that are not only as large as possible, but also as diverse as possible in order to secure the most extended support for a specific cause in the short term. In the language of extension and intension, mobilizing messages need to be inclusive and manage to accommodate groups and individuals with an extended range of beliefs and attitudes (high extension); this tends to go along with a relatively limited intension (namely, a limited capacity to forge strong, deep bonds between participants that go beyond the specific issue). The effort to accommodate a highly diversified constituency does not necessarily imply low levels of emotional commitment: to the contrary, emotionally charged events may largely facilitate the development of broad coalitions. However, when we’re speaking of rational calculations of emotions, the amount of elements to be shared by participants is usually fairly limited.

Social movements, on the other hand, tend to operate on a longer time perspective, and are based on more sustained, concerted efforts. They also imply a more systematic attempt at shifting the balance of power, which in turn requires a more specific identification of opponents and allies. Of course, this does not mean that movements are necessarily more homogeneous than coalitions in reality. It means, however, that they are perceived as being more homogeneous because they are associated with a stronger master frame, which enables otherwise different types of actors to recognize themselves as part of a broader collective effort. In other words, the mobilizing messages behind successful movements are the opposite of what lies behind successful coalitions: they are strong in intension (deeper cognitive and emotional content) and weaker in extension (they appeal to—relatively—more limited constituencies).

The question is obviously where we strike the balance between mobilizing messages that are broadly appealing but relatively shallow, and messages that are sharper but relatively limited in scope. The main social movements of modernity, working class and nationalist, were remarkably successful at reaching such balance, but that was in a context in which (a) some classes or national groups were, right or wrong, perceived as carriers of a long-term historical project of emancipation; (b) in public discourse, more significance was given to collective concerns than individual ones, despite all the growing individualism of the bourgeois era. Neither condition seems to apply now. The emphasis on various forms of identity politics and the shifting balance between individual and collective needs even among activists, which Melucci (1989) (among others) identified decades ago, does not facilitate the construction of social movements comparable to those of the (even recent) past. It remains to be seen whether the ongoing crisis of financial capitalism will substantially affect such conditions and pave the way for new forms of aggregation—in particular, for new balances between individual or small group identities and broader commitments, For the moment, it seems to me that the building of broad coalitions should not be taken as an automatic indication that new types of large-scale social movements are in the making. Not only that: the two processes might even be antithetical.



Diani, Mario. 2015. The Cement of Civil Society: Studying Networks in Localities. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press.

Diani, Mario, and Ivano Bison. 2004. “Organizations, Coalitions, and Movements.” Theory and Society 33 (3-4): 281–309.

McCammon, Holly, and Minyoung Moon. Forthcoming. “Social Movement Coalitions.” In Oxford Handbook of Social Movements, edited by Donatella Della Porta and Mario Diani, 326–39. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Melucci, Alberto. 1989. Nomads of the Present : Social Movements and Individual Needs in Contemporary Society. London: Hutchinson.

van Dyke, Nella, and Holly McCammon, eds. 2010. Strategic Alliances: New Studies of Social Movement Coalitions. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

1 Comment

Filed under Coalition Building, Essay Dialogues

One response to “Do broad coalitions lead to broad social movements?

  1. Pingback: Intra-movement ethnic/racial conflicts – Race, Politics, Justice

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