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Civil Society and Social Movements Programme Paper 21: The Social Bases of the Global Justice Movement: Some Theoretical Reflections and Empirical Evidence from the First European Social Forum

19 Jan 2006

  • Author(s): Donatella della Porta


Since Seattle, 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? What is their political socialization?

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.

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 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.

According to the data, the hypothesis that the “social centrality” of individual resources increases the propensity to mobilize is only partially useful in identifying activists’ social background, since the profile that emerged included not only well-educated and predominantly middle-class activists, but also a high number of workers. In line with a second hypothesis, that of the development of “persistent activist careers”, activists’ social background is linked to their participation in previous protest movements and civil society groups - for example, students often had experience in student groups, women in feminist collectives and workers in trade unions. The social bases of the “global” protest reflect the range of social cleavages already mobilized, as a third hypothesis would suggest. Finally, consistent with a 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 appeased.

Donatella della Porta is Professor of Sociology at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

Order CSSM PP 21 from UNRISD, 36 pages, 2005; (US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students).