The Politics of New Social Movements - Why is it difficult to define a "new social movement"?

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The Politics of New Social Movements   EUC308

Why is it difficult to define a "new social movement"?

When one thinks of "new social movements" (NSM's) it is fair to say that a number of images may spring into peoples' minds.   To some, Swampy chaining himself to a tree will automatically be imagined, for others, they may think of the anti-globalisation protests in Seattle or on the streets of London.   The fact is that both of these ideas come under this broad title and it is for that reason that it can de difficult to define exactly what is meant by an NSM.   This essay will attempt to address why NSM's have come into existence, which sections of society choose to become involved and how these groups operate.   Having done this, the essay will then attempt to show why defining an NSM is problematic.

It is fair to say that most people who choose to participate in NSM's do so because they feel that conventional politics does not or has not dealt with the issues that they feel are important.   It is, therefore, the aim of the NSM's to highlight these issues and bring them to the attention of either the politicians or the general public in the hope that government policy will adopt a different strategy.   It has been said that "one repeated motif in the discussion of new social movements is the view that they are, in contrast to older movements, primarily social or cultural in nature and only secondary, if at all, political." (Scott, 1990:16).   What Alan Scott is saying here is that the main ideas behind social movements are the attempts to change the way society exist as a whole and not necessarily the way people view their politics.   Being part of a social movement is not just a way of thinking; it is a belief in a certain ideal that transcends all aspects of your life.   In this way, it can be said that NSM's are expressive in their views as opposed to political parties, who are instrumental.   An NSM is not necessarily motivated by achieving a pre-set goal but by the belief itself.   This is one reason that can explain why members or 'adherents' of social movements are fully prepared to make self-sacrifices, such as imprisonment, for their cause.   One important ramification of this is that the adherents to social movements are prepared to step outside the law to achieve their goals.   This creates a very serious dilemma for governments because if people are prepared to act illegally then the threat of legal action will not act as a deterrent.   In other words, if people have a strong enough will then in the end, there is nothing to stop them.   As Russell Dalton and Manfred Kuechler wrote "the new social movement approach claims that many NSM's intentionally remain outside the institutionalized framework of government." (Dalton et al., 1990:14).   The NSM's prefer to remain in this position to avoid being forced to compromise their goals.   What this suggests is that NSM's actively promote criminal behaviour and rationalize it by saying that it is for a good cause.   However, in a survey conducted by Alan Marsh in 1977, it was found that 55 per cent of the people questioned believed that "it is justified to break the law to protest about something you feel may be very unjust or harmful." (Byrne, 1997:4).   Although these activities are illegal, the majority of people are prepared to act as such anyway.   This illustrates the complications that arise when one tries to define NSM's.   On the one hand, you could say that they choose to be troublemakers, committing crimes and illegal protests, but on the other hand, you see that in fact a substantial proportion of the population shares their views on the appropriate course of action.

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A major difficulty with trying to define NSM's is to distinguish with what exactly we are dealing.   What is meant by this is what sort or group of people or section of society do we class as a new social movement?   For example, we would class feminists and green activists as social movements but this also leads to difficulty in defining what an NSM actually is.   In terms of ideology, feminists and green activists have little in common yet they would both fall into the category of NSM's.   A very extreme example of this is ...

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