Explain the differences between 'old' social movements and 'new' social movements. Consider the relevance of these differences for an understanding of political geography in the early 21st century.

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arcummings5's profile pic

arcummings5 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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Something important to consider as well when contrasting new and old social movements is the medium through which these movements are conducted and popularized. New social movements rely heavily on the media and technology. Social media has played a monumental role in social movements of the 21st century with the use of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. People are able to use hashtags to find information about any trending issue or topic. In the past, social movements may have been more isolated or spread less quickly due to the nature of communication. 

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Although there is a great deal of debate among political scientists as to how different “new” and “old” social movements are, some scholars see a real difference between the two.  They say that new social movements are different in their goals, in how they are organized, and in the sources of their main support. 

Scholars of the new social movements argue that these movements have different goals than the old social movements.  They say that the old social movements were mainly interested in material issues such as redistributing wealth and political issues such as access to political power.  By contrast, they say, the new social movements are interested in issues that are more social or cultural than they are economic or political.  For example, a new social movement might be concerned with improving the environment rather than with trying to obtain better wages for workers.

Because of this, new social movements draw their support from a different group of people.  Old social movements were generally based on class.  They typically drew their support from the working class because it was that class that was most interested in changing the status quo.  By contrast (some scholars say) new social movements draw their support largely from the middle class.  These are the people who are most likely to have the time and the inclination to care about causes that do not have to do with their economic well-being.  These new social movements are said to be organized loosely and to be mainly local or regional.

The difference between new and old social movements does not have an impact on all aspects of political geography.  Mainly, it makes us rethink the political geography of social movements.  To some extent, it will cause us to decentralize our thinking about the politics of states.  In the past, political geographers would have had to see social movements as largely an urban phenomenon.  These movements would have been linked to places with large concentrations of working class people.  Today, political geographers will need to look to areas with more prosperous, middle class populations to find social movements (if the scholars who believe in new social movements are correct).  In general, political geographers might have to decentralize their thinking about politics.  If social movements are going to be smaller and more local in the future, then political geographers might need to stop looking only to capital cities and other major power centers.  Instead, they might need to conceive of political change coming from various areas scattered around various countries.

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