Social Movements

Social Movements 1768-2008, by Charles Tilly, Lesley J. Wood, Boulder: Paradigm Publisher, 2008; 195 pages.

Charles Tilly confessed in the preface to first edition that he was “generally trying to avoid the term “social movements” because it sponged up so many different meanings and therefore obscured more than it clarified” (p ix). But when he was preparing detailed catalogues of contextual events for periods from the 17th to 20th centaury in Western Europe and North America, he changed his mind and penned this book. The collected catalogues made him clear that major shifts in means by which ordinary people made collective claims on others – their contentious repertoires – occurred in those regions between 1750 and 1850 were the initial forms of social movements.

This book is historical survey of social movements from their origin in 18th century to the 21st century, closing with speculation about future of social movements focusing on possible narratives of seven discussion questions formulated for each chapter.

One of the authors, Tilly passed away before 2nd edition* of the book was published. In second edition authors incorporate some movements from 2004 to 2008 including the cases of environmentalism and anti-Olympics movements in China, struggles in Burma and Tibet as well impact of electronic media technologies on social movements

First chapter deals with some of popular definition of social movements. The popular definitions of social movements by German sociologist L.V. stein, who first introduced term “social movement”, and by Davis, McAdam, Scott and Zald are included in the chapter. Similarly, they highlighted Marx’s and Engels’s interpretation of historical movements and proletarian movement mentioned on Communist Manifesto (1848), which argues “all previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The Proletarian movement is the self conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority” (6). Similarly, worthiness, unity, number, commitment (WUNC) display “form of statements, slogans or labels” (4). Towards historical explanations of social movements authors build nine main arguments from page 12-14. These nine arguments are: (i) from 18th century origins onward, social movements have proceeded not as solo performances, but as interactive campaign; (ii) social movements combine three kinds of claims – program, identity and standing; (iii) the relative salience of program, identity and standing claims varies significantly among social movements, among claimants within movements, and among phases of movements; (iv) democratization promotes the formation of social movements; (v) social movements assert popular sovereignty; (vi) as compared with locally grounded forms of popular politics, social movements depend heavily on political entrepreneurs for their scale, durability and effectiveness; (vii) once social movements establish themselves in one political setting, modeling, communication and collaboration facilitate their adoption in other connected settings; (viii) the forms, personnel and claims of social movements vary and evolve historically; and finally (ix) the social movement as an invented institution, could disappear or mutate into some quite different form of politics.

Second chapter is on origins of the social movements and explains how social movements originated in 18th century from England and US. These movements emerged “against the background of profound political and economic changes” (25). In this context authors focused on four catchwords which are essential for changes in England. These four catchwords are war, parliamentarization, capitalization and proletarianization. Chapter clearly mentions that “social movement was not innovated by inventing anyone of these elements but by converting, expanding, standardizing and combining them into disciplined vehicles for expression of popular demands” (21). 1780 was the beginning of challenge to the legality of slavery in Great Britain and North America. In this regards, general boycott of sugar grown with the labor of slaves in 1791 and 1792 (p 33) sets major role for the emancipation of slaves and resulted in adoption of act in 1833. Therefore, antislavery movement can be termed as major social movement of this century. In last section, earlier mentioned nine arguments were revisited by concluding that “social movements emerged out of struggle engaging many parties, with each campaign centering on the repeated efforts of a shifting coalition to achieve a relatively well defined set of political changes” (p. 35).

Third chapter is brief account of social mobilizations of nineteenth century. Authors begin with major foundation of social mobilization known as ‘French revolution’ of 1848. This revolution shaped different events in France between 1848 and 1880s. On May Day in 1890 great series of annual workers demonstration in Lyon which is “first great international display of workers solidarity” (p 41). Furthermore, authors resemble Belgium’s independence movement of 1838-39 with French revolutionary movement. The period from 1831 to 1918 was the era of different movements. Similarly, this chapter also talks about the “Chartists” movement of Great Britain and argues that the events after the incorporation of Ireland with England, Wales and Scotland from 1820s and early 1830s “set social movements firmly on the political map, the United Kingdom, including Ireland, became a major creator of social movements” (p 45). Similarly, in 19th century UK, USA, France and Belgium, parliamentary sessions and deliberations focused on many social movements’ (p 53). In those movements freedom of speech was central concern whereas institutionalization of national election was also one of the major sources to promote social movement in these countries. The impact of French Revolution on Switzerland from 1789 onward where revolutionary movements took place in several parts is also included in this chapter. After democracy in 1848, opportunities were created for social movements in Switzerland. The social movements in Argentina from 1880s onwards and finally internationalization of social movements is also covered. The internationalization of social movements happened in three ways, “a. social movements responded to change produced by international contacts such as flows of migrants; b. seeking to outflank national authorities, social movement entrepreneurs deliberately organized across international boundaries; and c. international connections among rulers and claimants to rule also affected social movements activity as rulers and claimants sought external validation of their politics” (p 63).

Expansion and transformation of social movement in twentieth century has been assessed in fourth chapter. This chapter begins with glory of ‘Bolshevik Revolution’ of Russia along with other leftist movements. The authors argue that “social movements a new type held out the hope of breaking the bureaucratic stranglehold” (p 70). New social movement expanded into the area of social movements including people’s mobilization. This expansion of movement includes feminism, homosexual rights, psychedelic drug, indigenous peoples, which did not map easily into postindustrial oppression (p 70). Similarly, Authors deals substantially with the crises and transitions of 1989 like Poland Solidarity movement, demolition of Berlin Wall, huge demonstrations in Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Romania as well as China’s Tiananmen incident. Later on, in this chapter they focused their interest on movements and media. They mainly concentrated on influence and role of media in social movements. They mention about several social movement as evidence on which media plays major role in success or reshaping movements. In this context expansion and development of means of communication including radio, television, electronic messaging, opinion polls, and worldwide proliferation of the press all triggered shifts in campaigns, social movement performances and Worthiness, unity, number and commitment displays.

The case of Marburg mentioned in the book suggests the importance of local implantation of social movements into different national social movements which may address regional or national issues employing familiar idioms, known symbols to spread social movement. Finally they argued that “twentieth century’s social movements had become available as vehicles of popular politics throughout the democratic and democratizing world” (p 94). Later, in this century adoption of “cultural form and technical means” (p 94) are major elements to bring change in the forms of social movements than that of nineteenth century social movements.

Chapter five is bulk of assessment on social movements of twenty-first century. In this chapter the issues from environmental protection campaigns to globalization and finally anti-globalization movements are covered. This chapter starts with new development of technology which is being used in social movements. The use of cellular phone is one of major shift in social movements. Use of Short Message Service (SMS), other social networks like Facebook, twitter, web sites, chatting oulets, electronic discussion list, YouTube, blogs, email, internets in social movements is covered interestingly. In this regards, the authors took the cases of Burmese movement which used blog to upload the photographs and videos, anti-Musharraf ringtone in cellular phone as well as mobile text messages.

Similarly, internationally organized networks of activists, international nongovernmental organization and international visible targets such as multinational corporations and international financial institutions are also responsible to bring significant changes in 21st century social movements. Globalization is also source of change in social movements because “globalization produces connection among centers of power: commercial connections among financial nodes, coercive connections among military forces, cultural connections among religious or ethnic leadership clusters and combination of the three” (p 101). Moreover, social movements are internationalized.

Sixth chapter’s argument is democratization and de-democratization and proliferation of social movements. This chapter begins with definition of democratization as “modern democratic form of authority which can provide the most effective system of managing society and state, simultaneously keeping political stability in the country and ensuring all constitutional laws and freedoms of our citizens” (p 123). This chapter argues that if there is little or no democratization, there will be lesser or no popular social movements however by no means do all social movements advocate or promote democracy.  A pro-democracy movement may lead to anti-democratic consequences; an example would be anarchists ultimately promoting the fragmentation of democracy-seeking coalitions. Conversely, an anti-democracy movement may promote democratic outcomes by stimulating democratic counter-action by other citizens or self-serving countermeasures by public officials; an example would be unsuccessful anti-immigrant movements (p 128). Furthermore they argued that proliferation of social movements promotes democratization either as “explicit programs or as by-product of their action they broaden the range of participation in public politics, equalize the weight of participants in public politics, erect barriers to the direct translation of categorical inequalities into public politics, and or integrate previously segmented trust networks into public politics” (p 142). For this they give example of Great Britain during late 1820s to 1830s social movements which promoted democratization. On the contrary, “social movement promote de-democratization when they narrow the range of participants in public politics, increase inequalities among participants in public politics, translate existing categorical inequalities more directly into public politics and or insulate trust networks from public politics” (p 142). In this regards, NGO and electronic communication are mainly responsible for de-democratization because they introduce fresh inequalities into international public politics.

The last chapter focuses on future of social movements. There is further change in social movements occurred from the earliest days. Such changes are in campaigns, repertoires, and WUNC displays. In this context 21st century bring new program, identity, and standing claims in new issues for campaigns, that the century’s first few years leave almost unimaginable and supposable. For instance animal rights activists mounted campaigns to gain citizenship rights for the great apes. Finally, writers mentioned their six arguments connected herewith the future of social movements as well as possible future with four scenarios i.e. internationalization, decline of democracy, professionalization and triumph. They conclude this chapter with the triumph of social movements at “all scales would benefit humanity” and “signals the presence of democratic institutions and usually promotes their functioning” (p 157).

This book is account of emergence of social movement in 18th century movements to its changing forms up to 2008. From Eighteenth century movements, French revolution and its impact on Belgium, Chartist Britain, USA, Movements in Argentina to new form of movements like immigrants rights due to the globalization, anti-Olympics campaigns in China, environmental movements, and protests against USA’s invasion on Iraq are rigorously analyzed and presented in this book. Similarly, use of blog and social networks like Facebook and Twitter in social movement activities by activists and youths for support of their social movement is also very precisely dealt in the book. The use of media and social networking sites was also important in recent “occupy wall street” campaign and also in “Arab Spring”.

The major contribution of this book is to disseminate information about how social movements emerges from 18th century and grew from certain part of universe especially in Europe to all over the world. Similarly, most of the political scholar said that contemporary era is the era of democracy and democratization. But in this context, authors present how democracy, democratization and de-democratization create great opportunities to expansion of social movement all over the world.

The book lacks on certain ground while analyzing the social movements mixed with vested interests of political groups without considering the basic characteristics of the movements. For example India’s Babari Masjid incidents are depicted as social movement which I do not agree. It was religious congregation motivated by vote bank politics. Though this incident had certain aims, organization, and mobilization of people, it was not a sustainable movement leading to positive change rather this give rise to discontent and lead to the religious riots. Similarly, the book over emphasized on the technology as prime factor for the expansion of social movements in contemporary time but they did not explain clearly that these technology are also causes of weakening the social movements because instead of collective presence/attendance of people in collective mobilization they are involved in virtual presence by social network or internet or means of communication. The technologies are not themselves the agent of social movements rather they are only the means.


Authors of this book depict the changing picture of social movements from 18th century till 2008. The changing forms of social movement from political inequalities and injustices to the environmental rights and human rights are beautifully presented in the book. Book rigorously explained that, the impact of the new technologies as well as democratization process in one hand creates opportunities to social movements but on other hand they are also underpinning for decline of social movement. Glories of French revolution, Bolshevik revolution which are major social movements to change the structure of the system of their contemporary times are now not found all over the world. The movements of first decade of 21st century are like quasi types of movements which are occurring within the societal systems but not for the structural change in system. For example the animals’ rights and immigrants’ rights movements are only limited within the frame of legitimate existing system but have any strength of overall structural change of system. Due to this now most of social mobilizations are changing into sporadic protest because of lack basic characteristics of social mobilization.

I am inspired by the method of writing. This kind of book covering such a wide timeframe comprehensively is rare in practice. Thus, the book is a worth reading by the social science scholars – especially students of social movements, practitioners and activists of social movements. Similarly, inclusion of sufficient examples and lucid language adds to the beauty of the book.


*The third edition of this book Social Movements 1768-2012 is already published.

Anil Belbase, Chairperson, GiPS.


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