Theoretical background: Collective action and social movements theory

Fethullah Gülen

1. Introduction

Theories about social movements and collective action are useful and necessary. They enable us to describe and explain such movements – how they form and mobilize, what they try to achieve, how they are mobilized against, why and how far mobilization or counter-mobilization succeeds or fails – and, to some degree, evaluate policies and strategies in the light of particular outcomes. Self-evidently, the terms and concepts, the discourse, that we bring to bear must be appropriate and effective for the particular social movement we are studying. Theories neither arise nor operate in a vacuum; they have a history, they change in response to the realities of the subject-matter. In this chapter, I survey the three main contemporary theories that make up the general framework within which I have approached the task of describing and explaining the Gülen Movement. The survey is critical – that is, I try to explain how these theoretical approaches arose and in what particular respects the intellectual tools that they provide are unsuited to the job of explaining social movements like the one we are studying. I also suggest that a syncretic approach, combining particular features from the different discourses, should and – as I hope to demonstrate in later chapters – does yield better results, namely more accurate and complete description and greater explanatory efficacy.

2. Historical overview of collective action and social movements theory

Theories about social movements have changed markedly since the 1940s, and especially over the last couple of decades.[1] Buechler has suggested that the changes reflect ‘changes in socio-historical contexts’ and in ‘the experiences’ that led theorists to re-think ‘the definition of their subject-matter’[2] That different types of movements emerge in different social conditions,[3] and the variations in how they are identified,[4] will be discussed more fully in later chapters. Here, we shall focus from a historical perspective on the three leading contemporary approaches in social movement theory – Resource Mobilization Theory, Political Opportunity Structure Theory and Frame Theory.

The main point of theorizing about a social movement is to ‘account for the specificity and autonomy of social action’, to ‘give a foundation to its collective character as something different from the sum total of aggregate individual behaviours’.[5] The roots of contemporary approaches lie in six classical traditions: class struggle ( Marx), collective conscience ( Durkheim), a sum of individual cost–benefit calculations (Mill), charisma and bureaucracy ( Weber), interaction of individuals (Simmel), and crowds ( Le Bon).[6] The enduring influence of the classical approaches has been in creating the different worldviews of the research traditions to which they gave rise. Both Durkheim and Weber highlighted the significance of religion, but in social movements studies proper there is little emphasis on the study of religious movements: that emphasis has to be looked for in the quite distinct research traditions of theology and anthropology.[7]

2.1. The ‘classical’ approaches

Up to the 1960s, the major sources for sociological understanding of social movements were: Marxist theory, Psychological theory, and the Collective Behavior tradition. The Marxist intellectual tradition is one of the most persistent and still leaves its mark on the study of collective phenomena. This may be due to the fact that many leading social theorists come from a Marxist background and to the (Marxist) student movements of the 1960s and 1970s.[8]

The psychological theories placed particular emphasis on studying anti- Semitism, paranoid conspiracy theories, and authoritarian personality structures and exaggerated deference toward them in the movement adherents. It is important to note that psychological theories and those of the collective behavior tradition developed almost during the same periods, are not mutually exclusive, use similar explanatory instruments, and have important features (and advocates) in common.

The empirical content of movement actions was viewed as a manifestation of deeper conflicts, structural strains experienced, dissatisfaction and breakdown. Thus, social movements were seen as secondary, potentially dangerous, irrational in their ideas, a temporary aberration in the otherwise smooth-flowing social system.[9] Therefore, collective behavior theory failed to develop an effective alternative to the psychological theories, one capable of explaining how mobilization happened, and producing a theory of social change.[10] The theory was attacked in the 1960s when it was found not to fit the student movement; a paradigm shift followed to the Resource Mobilization approach in the mid-1970s to mid-1980s. ‘Like all such shifts, this one raised new questions and marginalized old ones; in the process, the roles of strain and breakdown theories were effectively driven underground.’[11]

2.2. The contemporary approaches

The 1950s and 1960s saw collective action that mostly ignored the conventional avenues for political participation, and advocated causes/ideas, like civil rights, freedom, and peace, that were not self-centered. Participants included those who were educated middle-class; religious communities; and, in both America and Europe, academics. Also noteworthy were the role of voluntarist and Church organizations, and the new significance attached to ‘knowledge’ (as opposed to ownership of the industrialized means of production). Most social scientists, rejecting the labeling of such participants, under collective behavior theory, as politically and socially ‘underclass’ or ‘irrational’, were persuaded that a new approach was needed. Attention turned from the psychology of the individual and societal stresses – respectively, the ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ levels – to the organizations around which movements cluster – the intermediate or ‘meso’ level. The new generation of sociologists who came to the field during this period were deeply affected by the student movements of the time, and this affected their conceptualization of social movements.[12]

Contemporary treatments of collective action and identity build upon classical and social-psychological foundations. Classical approaches, such as Marxist theory, Psychological theories and the Collective Behavior tradition, are macro-oriented. They underline the importance of the emerging large structures, the resulting strains, and the reactions to them in the formation of organized movements. There are differences and divisions within such perspectives, especially between European and North American social psychology, but both suggest that collective behaviors and identities are produced by interaction and socio-cultural stresses. The inter-war and post-war periods gave rise to some politically motivated scholars, theories and publications, especially in the Collective Behavior tradition, which sees collective actions as (potentially dangerous) temporary aberrations in the otherwise smoothly-flowing social system.

Disillusioned by the class-based ideology, lack of revolutionary consciousness, and undemocratic tendencies and practices in socialist movements or states, activists and scholars in post-industrial societies started to focus on non-class-based action and movements for change. Among contemporary approaches, Resource Mobilization theory – while largely ignoring ideology, origins, structure, and political style – sees the emergence and development of movements as arising from the availability and use of resources. It looks primarily at how networks of people, professionals, leadership, permanent organizations, incentives, and cost–benefit calculations come together to generate direct, measurable impacts on political issues. This emphasis is generally accepted as reflecting the American federal system and the opportunities it provides to organizations and supporters. It draws attention to the institutional locations of mobilization (SMOs) but ignores cultural variables.

Political Opportunity Structure theory studies the impact of structure on collective action, or vice versa. It highlights the role of the political system, the larger social environment and culture, in the emergence, dynamics, and outcomes of social movements. It argues that social movements must be studied within their particular, societal, political and cultural contexts, and it is able to show how ‘open’ or ‘closed’ political systems affect the nature and tactics of collective actors, how they create new possibilities, or provoke or radicalize forms of collective action.

Frame Theory studies the role of the shared assumptions and meanings held by actors in interpreting events and redressing problems. It seeks to explain collective action in terms of the motives, beliefs and discourses manifested by actors. It focuses on how frames are produced and utilized during different phases of a movement, and on how ideas, sentiments and culture affect the repertoires of action and contention. It points to the functions of ideology, its ambivalence and implications for supporters, counter movements and authorities. It argues the pertinent role of language, leadership, social movement organizations and the media in framing processes.

3. Conclusion

A number of intellectual disciplines, traditions and theories focus on the emergence and success or failure of specific movements, explaining them in terms of structural stresses, resource mobilization, political opportunity structures and framing processes. Different societal, political, cultural and conjunctural events, trends and factors influence the possibilities for collective action. These are in constant interaction and have also caused shifts in perspectives and paradigms in social movement studies. Therefore, it is important to be flexible and sensitive in characterizing social movements, especially in the case of multi-purpose or general movements which are not classbased, not adversarial, and not oriented to particular material objectives.

It is hard to classify any collective action into only one category, as classifications depend on different phenomena: situation, opportunities, organizations, worldviews, and human factors, including supporters, adversaries, and authorities. Some aspects are no longer local and national but, instead, international or even global. Aims and claims for change are more measured in style and may have culturally, rather than politically, radical dimensions. Through their participation in collective action, people are expressing something that cannot be expressed within the confines of conventional politics. The networks and organizations are more decentralized, professionalized, and less formal and less hierarchical. The tactics employed are both conventional and unconventional but less risky for participants, though unconventional tactics and direct action may still be held in reserve as part of an action repertoire. Collective action provides and revolves around cohesion and normative frameworks based upon collective conscience. This enables a mutuality in relationships within society and enables individuals and groups to relate in terms of shared values, morals and goals.

The theories we have discussed focus mainly on First World and national contexts. Third World settings and scholars are severely underrepresented in the discipline. If Talcott Parsons’ stress on cultural backgrounds were taken seriously, it would mean that the theories do not necessarily fit well to a context outside Judeo-Christian culture. Nevertheless, a theory developed in one context could have at least some validity for another. The question should be how far such theories are adequate to other contexts. For an answer to that question, empirical testing is important. To date quite a few studies have tried to take into account the global perspective, but these are concerned only with gender, sexuality or environmentalist movements. There has been little research into peaceful, faith-inspired social movements arising from Islamic backgrounds.

Thus, the theories have quite narrow historical perspectives and indeed are heavily oriented to the explanation of short-term, spontaneous actions or ‘protests’. The root metaphors of collective action have changed with advances in communications. Transnational or worldwide movements can be in different stages in different countries, highly institutionalized in one country and, at the same time, still in a formative stage in others. People understand and interpret the world, its affairs and issues, no longer in a single fixed way, but in competing and shifting types of explanations – a change no doubt facilitated by the diffusion of internet services. It is obvious that the old conceptualizations and paradigms cannot encompass and deal with some aspects of the emergent realities. Confronting cases and competing perspectives drawn from a number of different national contexts require scholars to adopt more comparative, eclectic and synthetic approaches and to deploy a profusion of useful analytic tools.

Definitions or categorizations of social movements are shaped by any combination of contextual influences, including the historical setting, political and cultural understanding, the social and intellectual milieu, the cognitive praxis, of the individuals doing the defining and categorizing. Among scholars it is agreed that there is no agreed definition of collective action and social movements that would satisfy the different approaches dominant in any epoch or fit well the different realities being studied. Contemporary accounts of what a social movement is are likewise subject to contextual influences.

They focus on selected concrete features of a movement; they vary with the frame of reference, the relative weight of the levels of analysis, and their various relations, combinations and overlaps. The following list will give some sense of the range of conceptualizations of social movements suggested in recent years:

a social movement is a purposive and collective attempt of a number of people to change individuals or societal institutions and structures (Zald & Ash, 1966);13[13] a social movement is a set of opinions and beliefs in a population which represents preferences for changing some elements of the social structure and/or reward distribution of a society (McCarthy & Zald, 1977);[14] social movements are 1) informal networks, based (2) on shared beliefs and solidarity, which mobilize about (3) conflictual issues, through (4) the frequent use of various forms of protest ( Della Porta & Diani, 1999);[15] social movements are conceptualized on three or more of the following axes: collective or joint action; change-oriented goals or claims; some extra- or non-institutional collective action; some degree of organization; and some degree of temporal continuity (Snow et al., 2004);[16] the concept of a social movement comprises three analytical dimensions: the mobilization of a collective actor (i) defined by specific solidarity, (ii) engaged in a conflict with an adversary for the appropriation and control of resources valued by both of them, (iii) and whose action entails a breach of the limits of compatibility of the system within which the action itself takes place ( Melucci, 1999);[17] new social movements are a self-understanding that abandons revolutionary dreams in favor of the idea of structural reform, along with a defense of civil society that does not seek to abandon the autonomous functioning of political and economic systems – in a phrase, self-limiting radicalism (Cohen, 1985);[18] social movements in the 1960s were structured as segmented, polycentric, and ideologically integrated networks ( Gerlach & Hine, 1970);[19] a social movement is a sustained and self-conscious challenge to authorities or cultural codes by a field of actors – organizations and advocacy networks – some of which employ extra-institutional means of influence (Gamson & Wolfsfeld, 1993);[20] social movements are sustained challenges to power-holders in the name of a disadvantaged population living under the jurisdiction or influence of those power-holders (Tarrow, 1996);[21] social movements are more or less organized attempts by relatively powerless groups to change politics or society (Vanneman, 2005).

In the definitions just listed, the common themes – such as challenging or protesting against power-holders, seeking structural reform, using extra-institutional means (transgressing legal or other accepted boundaries) – derive from a very specific wave of collective actions in western Europe and North America in the late 1960s and their aftermath. These conceptualizations are very much still in use. However, I contend that they have a number of major drawbacks or weaknesses:

  1. They are too narrow to include all or most social movements, and too broad to distinguish between different types of movements.[22]
  2. They do not adequately describe the continuity between the structural location of the actor and the cultural and intellectual world by which it is identified and mobilized. The sociology of collective actors is now dealing increasingly with movements that cannot be referred only to one specific social condition.[23]
  3. They differ among themselves in terms of what is emphasized or accentuated.[24]
  4. ‘Much of the social movement literature either searches for generalizations across movements at different times and places, or focuses on single movements at one particular time and place.’[25]
  5. The conceptualizations draw far too much upon contexts in which oppositional or protest movements are rooted (an indication of the explicit bias of the majority of the students of collective phenomena bring raised in the late 1960s and 1970s).
  6. Because, in discussing the variables for social movements and SMOs, researchers ‘prefer to think of causes in terms of competing “schools”, “perspectives”, or theories that are pitted against one another in pseudocontests over correctness’,[26] they tend to mask some of the features of the very phenomena they are seeking to clarify.
  7. They overlook the presence of non-political elements in emergent movements, and totally ignore[27] themes such as philanthropy, altruism and voluntarism, which help explain the dynamics of participation in activities that do not directly benefit those taking part.[28]
  8. Finally, the conceptualizations fail to address the reasons why (and how) faith – Islam in our case – meets the need for cultural or political empowerment.

There are contemporary movements throughout the world which concern themselves with forms of action, content and meanings that are qualitatively different from the tradition of struggle frequently seen in European societies. They do not fit into the conventional categories of the workers’ movement of industrial capitalism and modern leftist movements. There is a sharp discontinuity between contemporary issues and events and those of the past.[29] Along with inequalities or changes that are economic and political, there are changes and meanings that arise and gain prominence from diverse contractions of the fields in which cultural and moral values can be expressed. There are movements emphasizing or motivated by a different array of factors, including values, such as equality, freedom, dignity, altruism, good life, ecology and morality.[30] There are needs and issues which basic human rights, ethics and culture legitimate but the socio-political structure fails to implement.[31]

In this vein, Earl briefly notes: ‘Many leading theorists have argued that NSMs [New Social Movements] are less directed toward policy outcomes and instead are more concerned with contesting cultural values and beliefs.’[32] Then, Koopmans – in pointing out that some movements ‘by incorporating such innovations in their established repertoires […] not only introduce an element of novelty in their interactions […] but may also, if successful, establish a new recombination of identities, tactics, and demands that can in turn inspire other movements’[33] – draws attention to a very important dimension of the Gülen Movement’s intercultural or educational repertoires of action and SMOs, its understanding of civil society, pluralist participatory democracy and their compatibilities with Islam, and its transnational altruistic services.

To sum up: there are contemporary social movements that do not restrict themselves to expressing a conflict, and/or do not push the contentious action or conflict beyond the limits of the system of social relationships within which the action is located – that is, they do not infringe the rules of the game; their objectives are by no means non-negotiable; nor do they contest the legitimacy of power or of the system in which they emerged. Such movements, which share the characteristic of being nonconflictual, may arise out of various religious or secular traditions.[34] They are not necessarily temporal, or discontinuous, or informal and non-institutionalized, or exclusivist with limited self-understanding. Conceptualization and description of such movements needs, accordingly, to be cautious and sensitive, especially in the case of multi-purpose or general movements which cannot be identified as class-based, materialistic and contentious.

No doubt, the differences and nuances can be explained by reference to the incompatibilities of the various theories, the different approaches by sociologists to their subject and a number of other interrelated historical, cultural, intellectual and political factors. The different roles played by movements in the political formation of societies, the different meanings given to the notion of movement in different political discourses, philosophies of history and theories of knowledge, have also affected the ways in which movements have been conceptualized. Another very important factor is the personal relation of the researchers to the movements under investigation, that is, the nature and degree of empathy/animosity that the sociologists bring to their subject-matter.

Since 1992, efforts by several European and American theorists have been underway to bring various theories of social movement together, and to bridge the gap in understandings and find a common ground. In doing this they found that they were limited to ‘research rooted in core democracies’ and ‘comparing cases across this relatively homogeneous set of polities’.[35] The subject of this study, the Gülen Movement, is a collective actor that has emerged outside those ‘core democracies’. In the effort made in subsequent chapters to explain its rise, operations and outcomes, I hope to show that it is necessary, and possible, to go beyond the approaches that can only deal with collective action that is restricted in location, politically oriented, contentious and adversarial, and with narrow material objectives. Indeed, approaches that characterize and explain social movements in those terms may be seen as over-generalized for many cases, not just the particular movement studied here. It is then possible to hope that this book may highlight the aspects and dimensions of collective action that have typically been understated or ignored altogether.

[1] Garner, 1996:44.
[2] Buechler, 2004:47.
[3] Mamay, 1990.
[4] Byrne, 1997:39–40; Aberle, 1982:315–16; Giddens et al., 2004; Macionis, 1995:617.
[5] Melucci, 1999:14.
[6] Browning et al. 2000:59.
[7] For more on the origins and identities of the ‘classical’ approaches, and differences about them, see Tilly, 1978:12–51; McAdam et al. 1988:696; Mayer, 1991:49; Jackall & Vidich, 1995:vii; Swatos, 1998; Neuman, 2006:79–109.
[8] Snow, 2004:381; Williams, 2004:91–115, at 92–3; Melucci, 1999:287–9; Della Porta & Diani, 1999:2, 11.
[9] Buechler, 2004:50.
[10] Mayer, 1995:171; Scott, 1995:5–11, 45; Eyerman & Jamison, 1991:23.
[11] Buechler, 2004:51.
[12] Byrne, 1997:39, 40; Eyerman & Jamison, 1991:23–4; Melucci, 1999:288.
[13] Zald & Ash, 1966:329.
[14] McCarthy & Zald, 1977:1217–18.
[15] Della Porta & Diani, 1999:16.
[16] Snow et al., 2004:6.
[17] Melucci, 1999:29–30.
[18] Cohen, 1985:664.
[19] Gerlach & Hine, 1970:49–50.
[20] Gamson & Wolfsfeld, 1993:115.
[21] Tarrow, 1996a:874.
[22] For more, see Chapter 1.2.
[23] Melucci, 1999:84; Della Porta & Diani, 1999:1–2.
[24] Snow et al. 2004:6.
[25] Koopmans, 2004:40.
[26] Lofland, 1996:177.
[27] Göle (1997c) in Bozdogan & Kasaba, 81–99.
[28] Melucci, 1999:31, 50, 99; Göle, 1997c (online text); Edwards & McCarthy, 2004:120.
[29] Melucci, 1999:113.
[30] Edwards & McCarthy, 2004:120.
[31] Oberschall, 1993:337.
[32] Earl (2004:513) lists the theorists: Cohen (1985), ‘Strategy or Identity’; Melucci (1985), ‘The Symbolic Challenge’; Offe, 1985:817–68; Pichardo, 1997:411–30. For more, see §3.2.1.
[33] Koopmans, 2004:25.
[34] Zunes, 1999:41–2.
[35] For list of scholars involved see McAdam et al. 1996b:xi–xii.

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