Social Movements: Sequences vs Fuzzy Temporality

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This chapter will pull together some of the most important threads of theoretical development in the field of social movement studies in order to construct – and then critique – a sequential understanding of social movements. I will draw most heavily from the dominant approaches in the self-identified subfield of social movements, especially that associated with the ‘contentious politics’ framework (hereafter CP; McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001; Tilly and Tarrow 2007), but I will also be arguing that alternative approaches typically demonstrate a similar rootedness in temporal sequences.
Conceptualising movements sequentially is both heuristically useful and explanatorily powerful. But by presenting the key concepts in this way I will also reveal two systematic weaknesses with this approach. First, I will point to an excessively simplified temporal sequence that (at best) is suitable for the analysis of waves of protest. Waves are generally recognised as including multiple movements, but it is the wave-form sequence that is so often taken as ‘social movement theory’. Disentangling waves and movements is a first step to appreciating the temporalities within which movements move. Second, I will examine our conceptualisation of ‘social movement’ itself as an object of study and will point to fuzzy boundaries. This is hardly a new complaint (c.f. Melucci 1989), but I will illuminate the way that the sequential approach relies on our ability to identify a rather definite and bounded set of actions and actors as a social movement. But neither the conceptual definitions we utilise nor the messy reality of empirical applications allow such a stable object to emerge from study. Movements’ temporal boundaries are revealed as just as fuzzy as their spatial or ideological boundaries. This point touches on a deeper neglect of the temporal dimensions of both social movements themselves and of the fields in which they move. I will ultimately argue that there has thus far been a failure to apprehend the fact that movements are involved in multiple sequences across distinct timescales, and that their own temporal conditions continuously interact with others. To answer the challenges set forth here I argue that a more nuanced understanding of time is required, for which I develop four concepts: timescale, timescape, velocity and vector. Vector and velocity indicate directions of travel, speed of transformation and relative forces. They may apply to movements themselves or their analytically distinct components: the cultural vectors produced, for instance, by new framings or tactical innovations. Simultaneously we should attempt to recognise the other vectors at work in any conflict: economic vectors of increasing precarity, for instance, or political vectors toward greater institutional distrust. Together an analysis of vectors suggests an appreciation of the timescape within which movements move and interact.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Handbook of Social Theory
Subtitle of host publicationVolume II: Contemporary Theories and Issues
EditorsPeter Kivisto
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages26
Publication statusPublished - 3 Dec 2020

Publication series

NameThe Cambridge Handbook of Social Theory


  • Social Movement Studies
  • Social Theory
  • Temporality
  • Contentious Politics


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