Systemic Practice and Action Research

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 101–137 | Cite as

The Self-Organization of Social Movements

  • Christian Fuchs
Original Article

The New Social Movement Approach and the Resource Mobilization Approach are the dominant approaches in social movement research. They focus either on macro-aspects and externalism or on micro-aspects and internalism. This paper suggests that the notion of self-organization is one way of taking into account both internal and external, structural- and action-based aspects of social movements and that it allows a dynamic concept of protest. The emergence of social movements is not determined, but a complex result of crisis, resource mobilization, cognitive mobilization, self-production—searching for singular laws of the emergence of movements is an expression of one-dimensional, linear, and deterministic thinking. Protest and social problems are non-linearly related. Social movements are part of the civil society system, by producing alternative topics and demands, they guarantee the dynamic of the political system. Existing system-theoretic approaches on social movements (Luhmann, Japp, Ahlemeyer, Hellmann) are rather uncritical and ignore the productive relationship between human actors and social structures in processes of social self-organization. Social movements are dynamic communication systems that permanently react to political and societal events with self-organized protest practices and protest communications that result in the emergence and differentiation (production and reproduction) of protest structures (events, oppositional topics, alternative values, regularized patterns of interaction and organization). The dynamic of social movements is based on the permanent emergence and mutual production of protest practices and protest structures. The self-organization of a social movement is a vivid process, it is based on the permanent movement and differentiation of actors and structures that communicate public protest, a social movement is only a movement, as long as it communicates protest and moves itself. In critical phases of protest new social systems of protest emerge whose form, content and effects are not determined, but dependent upon old structures, i.e., old structures enable and constrain new structures. The emergence of new protest issues, methods, identities, structures, and organizational forms starts as singular innovation, if it is widely imitated then it spreads within the protest system and transforms the system as a whole. In terms of Hegelian dialectics this means that novel qualities sublate the old structure of the total system, i.e., the system is transformed, reaches a higher level, incorporates old qualities, and creates new qualities. In critical phases protest can spontaneously and quickly spread and intensify itself. This reflects the idea of complexity thinking that small causes can spontaneously have large effects. The notion of self-organization as the idea of the networked, co-operative, synergetic production of emergent qualities and systems should be employed in order to arrive at a dynamic concept of protest. In order to reflect the increasing complexity of society and the emergence of a stratified knowledge society, a multidimensional model of class that is structurally coupled to the concept of social movements is suggested.


social movement self-organization protest social system 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ICT&S Center—Advanced Studies and Research in Information and Communication Technologies & SocietyUniversity of SalzburgSalzburgAustria

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