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This is the first book I’ve read on social movement theory as a distinct discipline. It was frequently cited as a reference in “Mobilizing Islam”, which is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, but I went into this book somewhat skeptical that social movement theory would really offer a useful framework for analysis, and was not particularly convinced by the book’s presentation. Part of the problem is that the book does not actually offer a particularly clear explanation for just what a “social movement” is as distinct from “institutions”, “organizations”, “interest groups” or “social networks”. I haven’t read widely enough to be able to precisely trace the intellectual pedigree of this particular school of thought, but generally speaking I think the book suffers from being overly enamored by the subjects of its study and the need to hold them up as something new and “of the people”, in contrast to other established political organizations. (I’d say the contemporary analogue in the policy world is the love for the “civil society organization”.)The focus here is overwhelmingly European / American, and it’s a very late 90s in terms of its perspective on globalization and transnational movements.Social movements are “those sequences of contentious politics that are based on underlying social networks and resonant collective action frames”, according to one definition offered by the author. I’d say “contentious politics” is really redundant, and all political organizations draw on underlying social networks, so what we’re left with here is a lot of discussion about how movements try to mobilize supporters with particular messaging or protest techniques. The discussion of how various protest movements usually draw on, and occasionally innovate on, a “repertoire” of protest tactics was interesting if not always especially clear. (The focus seemed much more on the history and tactics themselves than from the perspective of organizational strategic choice or technological evolution.) I glazed over most of the theoretical discussion about movement use of symbols and “frames”, but the points about how movements seek to socialize members were useful (Han does this better, though). The section on how expanding access to literature and communications created new opportunities for mobilization was quite good, as well. I would have liked more on the political system’s “opportunity structure” and how new challenger organizations interact with elites and provide signals to other challengers of regime weakness (Bueno de Mesquita and Smith do this better).There’s lot of interesting things to be said about how less hierarchical, more loosely bounded, or less formalized political organizations are created, seek to sustain themselves (in terms of resources and mobilizing activist members), and interact with other organizations in the political system in an attempt to advance their claims. This book touches on many of these aspects, but not in a systematic enough way for me to get much out of it; instead, it seems primarily dedicated to special pleading for “social movements” as a particular privileged category, rather than trying to fit them into a more generalizable political framework. I’ll keep checking out titles in this field, but this one at least was more useful for its parts than the whole.

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