Social Movements & Violence Research Paper Starter

Social Movements & Violence

(Research Starters)

This article explores the relationship between social movements and political violence. The relationship between state repression, political regime and collective violence is discussed. The use of strategic violence by social movements is also discussed, including how sabotage and symbolic action are used as a low cost resource by otherwise poor movements. Similarly, social movements use performative violence as a way to build collective identities and indicate membership in certain countercultures. Finally, a discussion of the need to understand social movement violence as well as the shortcomings of the sociological model for studying this phenomenon is presented.

Keywords: Action Repertoire; Collective Violence; Direct Action; Performed Violence; Political Violence; Regime; Repression; Sabotage; Social Movement Organization (SMO); Symbolic Violence


Anyone who has ever encountered a protest, rally, strike or other type of action associated with a social movement (either through participation or observation) knows that there is often an association with these types of actions and violence. Oftentimes police are seen warily watching over these events. Historically, as Tilly (2004) points out, the creation of professionalized police forces comes directly from the rise and growth of social movements. Further, one may even hear violent sounding rhetoric coming from protest speakers and participants. There is often a palpable sense of "us against them" in the rhetoric of social movements. Many have likely noticed police officials and politicians calling for calm and order ahead of (or during) major protest events such as political party conventions and other large political meetings. Similarly, the media will often remind people of the potential for violence during major protest events as well. As Greaber (2002) points out:

In the corporate [owned] media, the word 'violent' is invoked as a kind of mantra — invariably, repeatedly — whenever a large [protest] action takes place: 'violent protests', 'violent clashes', 'police raid headquarters of violent protesters', even 'violent riots'… (p. 66).

Social movements, then, are often associated with violence, either through their rhetoric or actions. They are often portrayed as violent by authorities and the media. Are social movements inherently violent? If not, why are they so often associated with violence? If so, what is the relationship between violence and social movements? In order to address these questions it is important to understand what is meant by the term 'social movement' as well as the term 'violence.'

Defining Social Movements

Social movements can take many forms and address any number of issues. Despite this, scholars have noted many similarities among them. Social movements are comprised of groups of individuals that come together, usually to address some perceived grievance. Social movements can be localized or widespread. Not only do social movement participants share the same goals, they often share a particular set of understandings of the world and action repertoires. Oftentimes a number of groups and organizations make up social movements. These groups are called Social Movement Organizations (SMOs). Tilly (2004), states that all social movements display key characteristics:

  • The campaign, all movements carry out sustained actions with an orientation towards specific goals
  • Social movement repertoires, a standard set of actions that are used by social movements i.e. protests, rallies, etc., and
  • Displays of worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment (WUNC). WUNC displays are carried out by social movements and (SMOs) in order to legitimize themselves in the eyes of potential adherents and target authorities.

Identifying these characteristics can help scholars more easily understand how social movements function and interact with opponents, authorities and the public.

Defining Violence

Although violence may seem like a relatively simple term to define, in the case of social movements it is more complicated. With regards to social movements, any violence that occurs should be thought of as collective political violence, or relational violence — that is, violence born out of interactions between groups and individuals. Usually these groups are engaged in some sort of contentious politics, or claims making, which means groups that are engaged with each other in some sort of conflict oriented relation and/or are asking one or another group to address some demands or grievances (Tilly, 2003). What it does not refer to is personal, day-to-day, violence. Political violence is a specific type of collective violence. Della Porta explains:

Political violence is mainly symbolic: the cultural and emotional effects that it produces are more important than the material damage (2008, p. 226). Political violence then is the use of physical force in order to damage a political adversary…violence may emerge intentionally or accidentally … in general, political violence consists of those repertoires of collective action that involve great physical force and cause damage to an adversary in order to impose political aims (1995, p. 2).

The term violence is controversial among social movement adherents. Definitions of what constitutes violence run the spectrum. Some believe that violent language is violence and oppose the use of violent or aggressive language altogether. Others believe that property damage and destruction is not violence because it does not harm humans or animals, while still others feel that self defense against the violence of the state is justifiable because it is the lesser violence (Christiansen, 2011; Graeber, 2002; Plows, Wall & Doherty, 2004; Juris, 2005). This article focuses on what would fall under della Porta's definition of violence. It will focus on harm towards humans and destruction of property with coercion or force as the intent. Although it is arguable that violent language is a form of violence or that property damage is not, the above definition is a more widely accepted definition. Some discussion of less harmful or coercive forms will also be addressed.

Further Insights

The Relationship Between Social Movements

Are social movements inherently violent? For many years sociologists seemed to say yes. Many of the earliest studies of social movements and collective behavior focused on the seemingly negative aspects of collective behavior, including riots and lynching (e.g. Hopper, 1950; Le Bon, 1896). After the mass uprisings of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s in the U.S., many sociologists began to refocus their attention to the more potentially positive aspects of social movements. They also began to study them in a more systematic way in order to understand their processes, adherents, and relationships with the public, media, and authorities. Indeed, as McAdam, Sampson, Weffer, & MacIndoe (2005) observe, the especially widespread and violent social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s have distorted the fact that most social movements are more localized and to a degree, non-spectacular. Although scholars have noted that the vast majority of social movements and social movement actions are not violent, and are even mundane, there is still the occasional spectacular outbreak of violence that draws widespread attention. As a result, more recent scholars have begun to refocus on the relationship between violence and social movements. So when and why does violence occur at or within social movement actions? Scholars have noted various types of violence that occurs as well as reasons that it occurs.

Political Regimes

Oftentimes different types of violence occur in different contexts. For example, scholars have noted that different types of political regimes offer different political opportunities for social movements (e.g. della Porta 1995, 2008; Gamson, 1974; Piven & Cloward, 1977). A political opportunity is the opportunity that a social movement sees and takes advantage of in order to push their agenda. It has been noted that the more closed and unresponsive a political system, generally the greater the levels of violence that occur. Similarly, as opportunities close and authorities become less responsive to social movements, violence often increases. For example, Opp and Roehl (1990) find in their study of the anti-nuclear movement that as repression from police increased, movement adherents who were the most integrated into the protest movement became more radicalized, while those who were less integrated tended to become less involved. This means although the state increased its violence and repression against the movement, it did not diminish the movement; it only hardened those that remained and increased the likelihood of further violent interactions between protesters and police. Della Porta (1995) found a similar situation in a study of social movement violence in Germany and Italy. As the state and counter movements mobilized in reaction to widespread movements in the 1960s and 70s, many left-libertarian movement groups became radicalized and went underground in order to carry out terrorist campaigns against the state. In both of these situations, as...

(The entire section is 4118 words.)