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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements (2000 - 2009)

The Social Bases of the Global Justice Movement: Some Theoretical Reflections and Empirical Evidence from the First European Social Forum



Questions about the social basis of support have re-emerged in the social science discussion of contemporary global social movements, prompted by the apparent heterogeneity in the social background of activists of protest campaigns on issues such as debt relief, international trade rules and barriers, global taxation, fair trade and peace. During the 1990s, political scientists and sociologists expected that post-Fordist social fragmentation as well as postmodern individu­alization would reduce the opportunities for collective action. Since Seattle, however, it has become increasingly evident that, although with different forms and strategies than in the past, social movements have not only remobilized, they have once again become visible “on the street”. How was this possible? And who are the new “cosmopolitan” activists? What is their social background? And what is their political socialization?

This paper discusses the main hypotheses developed in social science research with reference to the social basis for social movements—distinguishing in particular between hypotheses of social centrality, collective identity, social cleavages and class conflict—and considers the relevance of these questions for research on contemporary protest, in particular those mobilized around claims of global justice. Hypotheses are discussed using mainly—but not only—data from a survey of activists from campaigns for debt relief and fair trade, the movement to change international trade rules and barriers and the global taxation initiatives who took part in the European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence, Italy, in November 2002. The interviews allow for the investigation of the social composition of the supporters and sympathizers of the various initiatives that have converged in the so-called global justice movement, with particular reference to age groups, gender distribution, the role of the “new middle classes” and of labour in the recent protest movements, as well as involvement in religious groups and political parties.

The data indicate that the hypothesis that the “social centrality” of individual resources increases the propensity to mobilize is only partially useful in identifying the social background of the activists, since the profile that emerged included not only well-educated and predominantly middle-class activists, but also a high number of workers. Furthermore, there was no overrepresentation of male or middle-aged groups of the population. Moreover, in line with a second hypothesis that stresses the development of “persistent activist careers”, the social background of the activists is linked to their participation in previous protest movements and the civil society groups that developed from these protests—for example, students often had experiences in student groups, women in feminist collectives and workers in trade unions. The social bases of the “global” protest seemed, indeed, to reflect the range of social cleavages already mobilized, as a third hypothesis would suggest. Indeed, following the concerns expressed in the fourth hypothesis, the dominant identification with the “left” of the political spectrum seems to testify to the re-emergence of conflicts based on social inequalities and which had previously been considered primarily appeased.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 15 Dec 2005
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD