Social mobilizations are concrete evidence of commitment and activism aimed at some form of social transformation, whether in the formal sense of changing laws or by influencing informal social norms. Mobilizations are episodic and shorter-lived than movements, and are often key milestones in the history of movements, providing observable evidence of solidarity, progress, and public awareness built around a particular cause or set of related causes. Mobilizations may receive the conferral of legitimacy through the support of political institutions such as local and national governments, or intergovernmental organizations such as UN agencies. But mobilizations also may challenge and serve to undermine the moral authority and/or political legitimacy of such institutions. They can be understood as means to the ends sought by social movements, and although no single mobilization is sufficient evidence of the existence and scope of a social movement, no movement can be said to exist without one or more forms of observable mobilization.
Mobilization repertoires may vary according to legality/illegality, scale, size, cost, intensity, and purpose. Practices may include mass street demonstrations; protest marches; sit-ins and blockades; occupations of land or buildings; street theatre and performance; temporary public art installations; “culture jamming,” often involving spoofs played with brand icons or other familiar corporate or government symbols; boycotts; petitions and lobbying activities; and “electronic civil disobedience” (also known as “hacktivism”), typically to interrupt service or access to corporate or government websites.
Some forms of social mobilization entail acts of violence, which often are committed to “send a message.” For example, activists may not only break minor laws through such acts as trespassing, which is often the case with nonviolent civil disobedience, but they may also be involved in the theft or destruction of property, kidnapping, hostage-taking, torture, and killing. In modern parlance, non-state actors who use violent means, regardless of their cause, are often labeled “terrorists” by governments to which they are opposed. Whether and when violence is justified as a response to injustice is disputed widely, but the use of violence as a means of social mobilization against extreme injustice by nonstate actors has been defended by many political writers, including Thomas Jefferson, Hannah Arendt, Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre, and John Rawls. But if the definition of “social mobilization” is to be restricted only to political action through nonviolent means, it would deny the legitimacy of all past and future armed struggles for national independence, regardless of how barbaric the colonial conditions may have been.
Social historians date “modern” social movements as far back as the early and mid-nineteenth-century transatlantic (British and North American) movement against slavery. Research on the abolitionist movement reveals a well-developed set of communicative practices that not only were successful in drawing public outrage toward the barbarism of slavery, but also were an early manifestation of transnational social mobilization. Records of speeches, written texts, and other forms of public expression indicate a rhetorical strategy, sustained over the course of many decades, which provided eyewitness accounts of the inhumanity of slavery and the slave trade, and which aimed to bring shame to those responsible while bringing public pressure to abolish the institution of slavery itself. Today, the practices of bearing witness, shaming, and other forms of public pressure remain time-tested mobilization strategies.
In late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe, trade unions and socialist political parties were the seedbeds of important debates about class struggle, and for generations they have defined the image and substance of the most influential social mobilization under capitalism. In Rosa Luxemburg’s 1908 pamphlet “Social reform or revolution?” she argued that reform must be understood as a means to the end of socialist revolution. Luxemburg rejected the view advanced by her contemporaries within the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) who argued that parliamentary reform was a more realistic goal, and instead she argued for more aggressive tactics, including the general strike, as clear demonstrations of the power of the working class to bring about radical social transformation. Naturally, “revolutionary” mobilization strategies came to be seen as quite distinct from “reformist” strategies, and as definitely more threatening to capitalist class power.
In most countries, radical social agendas are less likely to gain favorable attention from and access to dominant media institutions, and consequently, media used for radical mobilization are likely to be smaller scale and/or less costly to operate. Today’s low-cost digital audio and video recording technology, laptop computers, and increasingly global Internet coverage have come to supplement and even replace the working-class press and made it possible for social mobilization to take place at an unprecedented scale and speed. Mobilizations since the late 1990s, targeted against global trade and investment liberalization – for example, protesting the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, the policies of the World Trade Organization, and the “structural adjustment” policies of the International Monetary Fund – have demonstrated political will and imaginative efforts to pursue “global justice” on a global scale. At the same time, parallel efforts have emerged to articulate a broad range of “communication rights” in multilateral forums, summits, and declarations, which is not surprising, given how central the means of communication are to large-scale mobilization efforts at national and transnational levels.
As in previous generations, movement organizers face the risk of repression by governments seeking to prevent, control, disrupt, infiltrate, co-opt, or otherwise undermine social mobilizations through covert and overt means. Some methods used by states are generally recognized as reasonable, such as the uniform application of limits on the time, place, and manner in which demonstrations and marches may take place. However, other techniques used by states can be in violation not only of rights elaborated in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also of a country’s own laws. Various forms of government surveillance, infiltration, and disruption of lawful political activity; unlawful searches and seizures of the property of movement actors; the denial of due legal process (e.g., lack of probable cause for arrest, and unlawful detention); physical abuse, torture, and even killing of activists; as well as ongoing harassment and intimidation, are all ways in which democratically elected governments sometimes violate their own constitutional principles in order to limit or prevent the potential of social mobilizations to draw public attention to actual or alleged injustice.
- De Jong, W., Shaw, M., & Stammers, N. (eds.) (2005). Global activism, global media. London: Pluto Press.
- Della Porta, D., & Diani, M. (2006). Social movements: An introduction, 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Della Porta, D., & Tarrow, S. (eds.) (2005). Transnational protest and global activism: People, passions, and power. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- McDonald, K. (2006). Global movements: Action and culture. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Tilly, C. (2004). Social movements, 1768–2004. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
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