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Social Movements and Struggles for Participation

Lead universities: UoC, UNSAM and JNU

Prof. Dr. Barbara Potthast (UoC)
Prof. Dr. Juan Suriano (UNSAM)
Prof. Dr. Ariel Wilkis (UNSAM)
Prof. Dr. Arunima Gopinath (JNU)


Among the different agents that interfere in the negotiation and production of a polity, social movements are an important factor. Social movements are groupings of individuals of various size and degrees of organisation which act together based upon a common ideology to achieve a common goal. They usually do not accept their ‘place’ in the existing ‘socio-spatial order’ and sometimes do not accept the ‘system’ as a whole. They are seen as protagonists of social change, be it within the framework of some sort of cooperation with the state apparatus, or in the form of insurgent practices.

At the beginning of the 20th century, for instance, ideas of workers’ and women’s rights transformed many Latin American societies. The grass-roots movements that emerged comprised new civic actors, for instance the women, who dominated the tenant strikes in Argentina (1907) and Mexico (1922-25) (Suriano 1983). In recent social movements (not only in Latin America), women also often represent the majority of the active participants, although not of the leaders (Potthast & Helfrich-Bernal 2009, Potthast 2012). From the end of the Second World War onwards, movements that fought for political or economic independence from colonial powers shaped African and Asian societies and continue to impact regimes of governance up to the present (Desai 2012). While the ‘governance’ approach usually considers civil society as featuring a certain complementarity between the state (and the economic) apparatus and certain civil society groups and organisations, the focus on social movements seeks to analyse the role played by disruptive, often anti-systemic forces and energies.

In Latin America, social movements began earlier than in the other (former) European colonies and thus allow a long term historical analysis. From Argentine anarchists and women´s movements at the beginning of the 20th century (Lobato & Suriano 2003), to youth movements in the sixties and seventies (Manzano 2014) or jobless former middle class protestors, the so-called piqueteros, at the beginning of the 21st century (Pereyra & Svampa 2003), Brazilian movements of land- or homeless people (Karriem 2008), or indigenous movements with very diverse agendas (Vom Hau & Wilde 2010, Briones 2005), a plethora of social movements in Latin America have developed various practices of political activism. They have presented alternative approaches, both short and long term, to problems as diverse as those related to public policies (housing, transportation, urban agriculture, public safety and unemployment, among others). In addition, over the last three decades Latin America — following a global pattern — witnessed a major cultural and political change. Ethnicity has gained salience in political activism, state policies, and public discourse (Castells 1997, Stavenhagn 2002, Yashar 2005).

Indigenous movements have been demanding self-determination and autonomy and envisioning more inclusive nations that recognise ethnic, cultural, and linguistic difference. In many countries, constitutional reforms have adopted pluri-ethnic understandings of nationhood which grant legal status to indigenous communities and establish collective rights. These changes mark a dramatic departure from previous discourses and political practices, although the political and economic implications of multicultural state policies and efforts are still under debate. What do these initiatives actually mean for the experience of citizenship and the wellbeing of the respective people? How do the new politics of recognition relate to political participation and inclusion, and the redistribution, transfer and generation of material benefits?
Similar questions can be raised for South Africa, where social activism was a critical force in bringing down the Apartheid state. Civil society activism continues to play a major role in the negotiations on access to social spaces and services. Yet, the political visions of activists and theorists across the South African political spectrum are deeply divided between radical anti-neoliberal critics and more liberal forces that champion civil society and new forms of participatory governance (Oldfield & Stokke 2006). Within all these movements, gender relations are an important issue and will be addressed specifically (For women in militant movements in India, see e.g. Roy 2012).