Social Movement Theory from Latin America

By Ana Velitchkova

Social Movement_Rossi.PPC_v8.qxd:PPC
Rossi, Federico M., and Marisa von Bülow, eds. 2015. Social Movement Dynamics: New Perspectives on Theory and Research from Latin America. Farnham: Ashgate.


Social Movement Dynamics, edited by Federico Rossi and Marisa von Bülow, is the latest collection of works demonstrating how the study of social movements in Latin America can offer important additions to social movement theorizing centered on the Global North. The volume builds on the political process tradition but enriches it in significant ways through the creative use of theory. For example, Ann Mische’s chapter on Brazilian youth publics weaves together several strands of cultural and relational theorizing to offer an account of how activists with multiple and competing identities and interests reach collective understanding and engage in collective action. Publics, according to Mische, are not spaces of free expression, as others have argued, but spaces where particular “styles of communication” are enforced and where participants suppress identities and interests conflicting with these styles. Mische finds that tensions, dilemmas, and conflicts regarding such suppressed performances fuel the dynamics of civic life among Brazilian youth activists. Ligia Tavera Fenollosa borrows from William Sewell’s eventful sociology to conceptualize social movements as events. This lens allows her to identify Mexico’s earthquake victims movement as one event among a series of contingent and consequential happenings that led to the democratization of Mexico City. Tavera Fenollosa’s approach thus moves forward the study of the unintended outcomes social movements may have.

Several contributors to the volume question the necessarily contentious character of social movement actions, particularly with regard to movements’ relations with the state. Federico Rossi, for instance, offers the concept of “repertoire of strategies” to broaden the analysis of actions social movements in a given historical moment may take and consider non-contentious actions, such as “state colonization,” among others. Rossi complements this conceptual innovation with a second one, “stock of legacies,” which mirrors Schutz’s concept of “stock of experience” at the level of the group and reflects the historical knowledge accumulated by and constituting the repertoire of strategies of a given group. These two concepts allow Rossi to make sense of the diversity of participants in the Argentine piquetero movement. Rebecca Abers and Luciana Tatagiba, in turn, document feminist health activism inside the Brazilian state. Referring to the work of activists who choose to join state agencies to pursue movement goals as state employees, they write of “institutional activism.” Abers and Tatagiba find that prior militancy provides institutional activists with a variety of resources, such as knowledge, connections, and prestige. At the same time, prior militancy limits what institutional activists can do as they find themselves accountable to multiple constituencies, Abers and Tatagiba argue. Abers and Tatagiba conclude that institutional activists thus face multiple tensions as they negotiate movement demands with the demands of their jobs. As a third example of how movements are not necessarily opposed to states, Rose Spalding traces the anti-mining movement in El Salvador and finds it aligned with the Salvadoran state to challenge transnational corporations engaged in investment disputes in front of international tribunals.

Non-contentious relations between movements and states are not limited to Latin America. “Repertoires of strategies,” “institutional activism,” and movement-state coalitions are useful concepts for investigating other cases, outside Latin America as well. In the U.S. context, for example, Tea Party militants have alternated between a repertoire of contention and a repertoire of strategies and have engaged in institutional activism at all levels of government.

Another important line of thinking represented in Social Movement Dynamics relates to the study of social networks and transnational activism. Spalding’s chapter on the Salvadoran anti-mining coalition offers a rich and careful analysis of the domestic and international dynamics of this mobilization. Spalding’s case involves a political process characterized by open domestic opportunities and by closed international opportunities. In the so-called “domestic loop” (domestically focused activism), Spalding calls attention to the existence of two types of transnational allies referring to “lateral transnationalism” (South-South horizontal coalitions) and “domesticating INGOs” (able to offer support while adapting to and minimally disturbing domestic organizations). Following the success of this broad domestic coalition, Spalding identifies a second stage of mobilization, at the international level, which she calls the “deleveraging hook.” At this stage, Spalding finds the Salvadoran anti-mining coalition benefited from the support of “power-node INGOs,” powerful international non-governmental organizations that specialize in high-level international politics. Adrian Gurza Lavalle and Marisa von Bülow develop a typology of institutionalized broker organizations tasked with coordinating interactions in large social movement coalitions. Based on a comparative study of the organizational ecologies of Mexico City and São Paulo, Gurza Lavalle and von Bülow distinguish among “multisectoral bodies,” “associational hubs,” and “peak associations.” Gurza Lavalle and von Bülow’s types differ along several dimensions, such as membership boundaries (from loose to rigid) and brokerage roles (moving along a role ladder including translation of ideas, coordination of resources, articulation of positions, and representation).

To summarize, Social Movement Dynamics offers a rich contribution to the dynamic understanding of political processes. To the study of the internal dynamics of mobilizations, the volume offers an analysis of the process of coalescence and disturbance of collective understandings and collective action (Mische) and a typology of movement strategies that captures not only contentious but also non-contentious actions (Rossi). It shows how external dynamics can be studied in multiple ways. Non-contentious relations with the state can take center stage (Abers and Tatagiba; Rossi; Spalding). Grievances must be given historical particularity, for example, focusing on the state and developing a typology of threats (Almeida). Transnational coalitions vary depending on the configuration of opportunities at the domestic and at the international level (Spalding). Broker organizations take particular shapes in the context of organizational ecologies (Gurza Lavalle and von Bülow). Finally, the volume recognizes the importance of temporality (Spalding; Tavera Fenollosa) and of unintended outcomes (Tavera Fenollosa). It cannot be expected that a single volume would cover all dimensions of collective action, particularly in a region rich in social mobilizations. Certainly, many other mobilizations could have been considered. What the volume does, however, it does well.

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Filed under Great Books for Summer Reading 2016, Uncategorized

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