Part of series: UCU Teach Out

What makes a successful social movement?


~1,500 words


Last modified: March 13th, 12,018 HE

We were talking about a good, old-fashioned book burning.

Workshop participant

The first event of the (hopefully) final week of the UCU-organised strike, and thus the Teach Out programme, was a workshop by Dr John Childs, Lecturer within the Lancaster Environment Centre. It was an opportunity to reflect upon what we mean by a social movement […] the utility of trying to rely on academic theory to organise [one].

We started by looking at some definition of what a social movement is, such as Tarrow’s idea of collective challenges by people […] with common purposes and solidarity in sustained interactions with elites, opponents and authorities. We also looked at Tilly’s identification of the three key elements of a social movement as being: campaigns, or the idea that it’s not a social movement if it doesn’t last; repertoires, or the tools and tactics employed during the campaign; and WUNC, or worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment. Tilly, it seems, was rather cheating when he said three key elements.

How, then, do we create a social movement that encompasses different agendas, different cultural backgrounds and so forth? We were asked, in groups, to come up with 10 examples of social movements. The suggestions ranged from the Arab Spring to the Zapatistas (although there was the notable exception of Brexit, and no-one thought to suggest the fa as a counterpoint to Antifa), and included a brief digression into the merits of hashtag movement—in short, I argued that there are few, and that they are easy to join in with, but accomplish very little. We were then given 20 minutes to design out own social movement, on the topics of either taking the university back towards a public higher education system or decolonising the curriculum.

My group ended up with the former, and we came up with the campaign Public Good not Private Profit, which we created along the WUNC ideal. Primarily, we were focused on how to increase the U (and the concomitant N). I pointed out that faculty representation amongst the strikers and the Teach Out audiences had been heavily skewed against the STEM faculties (in a recent email, my own Head of School relayed that it would be untrue to say there is no impact on [the School of Computing & Communications], but we are comparatively lightly affected compared with other departments and faculties), and we discussed that the causes of this. We boiled it down to the emphasis on quantifiable, empirical evidence within such fields, and the rhetorical focus of many of the more social science disciplines. I suggested that those more radically-inclined faculties put their money where their mouths were and actually implement the flatter, more democratic systems of organisation that they have spent the past three weeks yearning wistfully for. When they have produced the increases in student and academic satisfaction that they apparently should, then that evidence can be brought to the empirically-minded faculties. Nothing convinces a computer scientist like identifying that their current solution is sub-optimal.

The second group on the same topic went for the catchier title of Wisdom not Wealth and proposed a campaign centered around demands for no fees, living grants and no entry requirments, intended to return education from a profit-based business to a rights-based system—they also advocated the abolishment of VCs in favour of universities run via democratic self-management. We had a brief aside here to discuss why both groups had commented that students nowadays were so apathetic, and our theories largely boiled down to a mix of defeated fatalism and the fact that, having predominantly having grown up during the time of austerity politics and constant cuts, they considered such things to be normal.

Then we moved onto the two decolonisation groups. The first called themselves Burn it, Level it, which was a sign of things to come. They began by stating that, whilst the British Rhodes Must Fall campaign can be considered to have failed tactically (in that the statue still stands over Oriel College), the fact that the points they had raised were still being discussed demonstrated an overall strategic win. They then discussed reorganising libraries in some way—someone referenced the Radical Librarianism movement—before (hopefully) facetiously suggesting book burnings. That they then suggested marking certain books as being only able to be taught in a critical sense made me doubt that facetiousness.

The fourth and final group had thought about how to raise awareness in those without such a critical component in their discipline (such as, presumably, my own, although I would be hard-pressed to describe programmers as non-critical). This overture of inclusivity then, bizarrely, led to the suggestion that all old white man professors should be forced to do post-colonial studies when training to become lecturers (and another paragon of tolerance here helpfully chimed in that such munificence should not be restricted to just the old ones). Just as I was beginning to lose faith, however, a third retorted that a few pockets of people think decolonising the curriculum is worthy; others think it is pointless, or even wrong. Some sense now spoken, we returned to Dr Childs.

He summarised the four main disciplines within social movement theory: collective behaviour; resource mobilisation; political process; and new social moment theory. The European systems, he added, tend to be more focused on the philosophy of history, whereas the US systems are more empiricist. This Europe–US split was, he added, interesting to note in the light of the previous discussions about curricula decolonisation.

According to the collective behaviour theory, movements emerge as a reflexive response to grievances. The theory portrays protests and movements as irrational mob behaviours in which members were previously isolated. The theory is best represented by Smelser’s value added/strain theory, which claims six things to be necessary for a social movement to form (and none of them are acronyms this time): structural conduciveness; structural strain; the growth and spread of a generalised belief; precipitating factors (e.g. the shooting of Michael Brown, which precipitated the Ferguson unrest); mobilisation for action; and the operation/failure of social control.

The second theory, resource mobilisation, considers individuals to be rational actors, who choose to maximise utility. It asks that question of why participate if you benefit by not participating. That there were an awful lot of white faces listening to King’s describe his dream should really be all you need to know that this theory is probably bollocks.

The third, political process, states that the formation of social movements is primarily affected by political opportunity—in short, by increasing political pluralism, a decline in repression, a division within the elites and increased political enfranchisement. The big criticism here is that movements like the Arab Spring and the US civil rights movement continued, despite facing repression, and that the theory treated movements like a homogeneous whole. This theory is, Dr Childs, explained, a prime example of the US approach. Uh-oh, I thought. I know where this is going.

As predicted, the new social movement theory evolved from Marxism. It considers the label new social movement to apply to movements such as the peace movement, environmental movement, second-wave feminism, anti-psychiatry movements, etc.—new here referring not to chronological age, but to the post-class nature of these movements. These movements, it claims, have eschewed materialistic qualities in favour of a focus on human rights, seek cultural change rather than policy change and generally bypass the state. These are driven by the new class of those marginal to the labour market, such as students during the 60s–70s. The criticisms are that these new movements are not so new, are almost entirely leftist and are very middle class.

We finished by looking at the successes and failures of trade unionism—in particular, the UCU’s strikes. One audience member said he was unsurprised to find that Lancaster’s UCU branch had the highest vote in favour of the strikes out of all those in England & Wales. Even if we win this hands down, he said, a lot of something elses will have to change. One audience member criticised the lack of strategy towards the beginning of the strikes, which led onto a discussion of whether picket lines were really relevant if they were no longer a physical barrier to entry for the site of employment. One said that the value was in the publicity; with the picket lines, passers-by were afforded the chance to see academics doing ridiculous things, and enjoying themselves for a change.