Account for the rise of European New Social Movements in the post-war period

Essay, 2006

12 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Account for the rise of European New Social Movements

in the post-war period

The Civil Rights Movement in the USA, women’s movements all over the world, peace and anti-war movements, environmentalists, gay and lesbian rights groups… The rise and fall of various new social movements (NSM) can be observed throughout the last decades. But what is new about NSM compared to former social movements? Why did they rise in the post-war period? Why do people support a political cause? Why do they choose non-institutional means of influence?

This essay will define NSM in contrast to former social movements examining closely the post-war circumstances and the period’s impact on the rise of NSM all over Europe. The German green party Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Die Grünen) will be pointed out as a special example of a NSM that became a party and therefore a political institution. The conclusion will focus on the rise and fall of NSM and give a future outlook.

Social movements are large informal groupings of individuals or organisations with a common interest, who focus on specific political or social issues to carry out a social change (see website 1). They are distinguished from other collective actors by having (the threat of) mass mobilisation as their prime source of social sanction, and hence of power (see Scott 1990, p.6).

The term NSM refers to those movements which have come up in many western European societies since the mid-1960s. NSM differ from traditional social movements which previously centred on economic concerns, e.g. the labour movement. In contrast, NSM have a tendency to emerge mainly more from a middle class than from a working class background and are located within the civil society instead within the polity. NSM’s interpretations treat NSM as symptoms of the contradictions of the modern super-bureaucratic society for they express the tension between human autonomy and the growing regulation of post-industrial society (see website 2). In brief, NSM are produced by the new contradiction between the individual and the state. According to Habermas this contradiction is reflected in new conflicts which “no longer arise in the areas of material reproduction; they are no longer channelled through parties and organisations... Rather, the new conflicts arise in areas of cultural reproduction, social integration and socialisation” (Habermas 1981, p.34).

New about NSM is a greater emphasis on collective identity and changes in lifestyle and culture rather than on developed ideologies and pushing for specific changes in public policy or economy. They focus on universal human interests instead of class interests. NSM are characterised as being transfunctional, fluid, open natured, inclusive, non-doctrinal and non-ideological orientations with a socio-cultural focus, non-institutional forms and an innovative nature, having a self-limiting character, an emphasis on non-violent means, and discontinuity (see Pakulski 1991, p.25f.). NSM can be subdivided into five categories of constraints: “values, past experiences, a constituency’s reference group, expectations, and relations with target groups” (Freeman 1991, p.228). Modern societies do not have a clear centre which produces fixed identities, but rather a plurality of centres that produce a variety of flexible identities. According to Ernesto Laclau the centre of social class has been displaced. Dislocation offers many different places from which new identities can emerge and where new subjects can be articulated (see Laclau, 1990, p. 40). The structure of NSM can be compared to networks and is less formal and hierarchical than the structure of the former social movements. Communication networks are the basis of NSM. The networks must be composed of like-minded people whose backgrounds, experiences (e.g. the shared historical and (post-) war experiences) or locations in the social structure make them receptive to the ideas of a specific NSM (see Freeman 1999, p.8). Therefore NSM act more directly profiting from cultural and communicative innovations, e.g. the Internet.


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Account for the rise of European New Social Movements in the post-war period
University of Nottingham  (Nottingham Trent University)
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ISBN (Book)
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European, Social, Movements, post war
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Katrin Schmidt (Author), 2006, Account for the rise of European New Social Movements in the post-war period, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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