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Understanding European Movements: New Social Movements, Global Justice Struggles, Anti-Austerity Protest

1 Comment 🕔25.Sep 2013

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Cristina Fletcher Fominaya, co-editor, along with Laurence Cox, of Understanding European Movements: New Social Movements, Global Justice Struggles, Anti-Austerity Protest, is the co-chair of the Council for European Studies Social Movements Research Network and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. In this interview with CritCom, she shares her thoughts about social movements research in Europe. Her new book Social Movements and Globalization is forthcoming from Palgrave MacMillan in May 2014.

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1. Understanding European Movements is a truly interdisciplinary volume, bringing together sociologists, historians, political scientists, geographers, and more. Is interdisciplinarity a particular feature of social movement research in Europe? What are the advantages or disadvantages to this interdisciplinary approach?

I think that as the CES social movement network itself testifies, social movement research in Europe spans a wide range of disciplines and workshops and research events tend to be open to that. I think the advantage of that is that, in principle, it opens up a wider range of theoretical, methodological, and disciplinary lenses that can lead to richer dialogues, collaborations, or to rethinking our own disciplinary conventions and received categories. Ultimately, that leads to richer research, because it means that even if you are primarily concerned with politics, for example, you realize it makes little sense to think about politics without thinking about history or culture. I think that kind of awareness really comes through in the contributions to the book regardless of the discipline of the contributors. I have found that research networking events are really stimulating in this sense. The potential disadvantages of interdisciplinarity are that sometimes the disciplinary differences between the kinds of questions being asked or the methods used make true interdisciplinary collaborations difficult. It can also lead to wheel reinvention or the use of multiple terms to describe what is essentially the same thing, so people can end up talking past each other rather than in dialogue. Despite something of an interdisciplinarity fetish in the academy, true interdisciplinary collaborations are actually hard to find. What you tend to get is multidisciplinarity. It is kind of like the difference between an album of ‘global music’, where each track is by artists from a different country or style, versus one where you might find a track with a blend of African kora and Celtic bagpipes sung in Portuguese, and another that blends rap with Italian folk. In the case of the book, interesting exchanges took place between collaborators from different disciplines and editors since we peer reviewed and then did a lot of editorial review. Laurence and I are both sociologists, but he has a background in History and I have one in International Relations, so we are kind of interdisciplinary by nature anyway.

2. The book focuses on European social movements in a variety of settings and across time. How do you and the other contributors balance the local, national, and global dimensions of the social movements you study?

This depends on the questions you are asking. What is striking about reading the book as a whole is that we simultaneously have a recognition that Europe can be understood as a space of cross-national diffusion and that national contexts can really shape mobilization in very specific and important ways. Sommier and Fillieule’s chapter on France, for example, highlights the very national dimensions of the ‘global’ justice movement there, as does Morena’s, whereas Osterweil shows how previous autonomous movements in Italy shaped the Global Justice Movement there. My chapter on the British anti-roads movement takes the arrow in the other direction by looking at how a national movement influences and is a precursor to a global movement. Membretti and Mudu look at the connection between the local and the global in their exploration of Italian social centers and the alter-globalization movement. Sergi and Vogiatzoglou show some commonalities between the Greek and Tunisian cases, following a cross-national comparison in the Mediterranean context. In contrast, Scholl’s, Rivat’s and Owens et al.’s chapters really highlight Europe itself as a space of diffusion between activists, repertoires, issues, and even identities. So there are many approaches to this balance between the local, national, and global in the book.

3. Within Europe, how important are the North/South and West/East divides when analyzing and theorizing social movements?

Again, it depends on the questions you are asking. In the context of the crisis, for example, there are some important regional differences between North and South in how the crisis is affecting people, levels of economic confidence, and perceptions about the EU, all of which can shape anti-austerity mobilization. Around 75–80 percent of people in the North, like Germany and Sweden, expressed confidence about their economy, whereas 1 percent of Spaniards and 2 percent of Greeks did. Spaniards and Greeks also felt very disillusioned by the EU and were pessimistic about its future. While that can easily be explained by how differently they are experiencing the crisis, and by the imposition of austerity measures by the Troika, it was interesting to see that people in Ireland, another crisis country which was very hard hit, were optimistic about the future of the EU, so there were some regional North/South differences that might help explain the very different levels of protest in Ireland and Spain, for example.

In terms of the East/West divide, Gagyi’s chapter on understandings of autonomy in Hungary and Romania shows how important these differences can be, how a process of cultural and political translation takes place to adapt the idea of autonomy used in the West by social movement actors to a set of local and national narratives, interests, and relations between political actors in the East. All of which of course is shaped by strong differences in political histories between the Eastern and the Western blocs. But it is important not to overstress regional differences. Continuing with the example of the crisis, national differences between levels of impact of the crisis transcend regional divides: just look at Iceland, Ireland, Spain, and Greece. And in the case of the different levels of protest in Ireland and Spain, I suspect political history, mobilizing traditions, levels of public support for protest, and other differences will explain that more than regional differences per se. I hope to find out, as that will be the focus of my research over the next few years.

4. The last part of the book focuses on the recent protests that have been taking place across Europe. What challenges do researchers face while working on these ongoing movements? Are there any advantages to studying an ongoing issue?

As someone who has just finished writing about the global wave of protests in the last chapter of my own book on social movements and globalization, I can say the biggest challenge is that events overtake you and knowing when to stop writing is really hard! Every time I thought I had finished my book, something like Occupy Gezi Park in Istanbul would happen and I would feel compelled to write about that. The challenge is to separate what is essential or important from the more fleeting or ephemeral, and to not just narrate but actually analyze, which can be hard to do because the events are so close. For me, it is easier to do this if I have a point of comparison, so in my case I compare the current wave to the Global Justice Movement, and to precursors to the Global Justice Movement to find elements of continuity and rupture, or I think about regional and national differences. The advantage of studying ongoing events – apart from the fact that it is exciting and people are actually interested in what you have to say – is that they force you to question long-cherished views. As scholars, we can become wedded to our pet ideas and theories. So I continually ask myself whether I am analyzing events based on the facts or based on past events or theories I am comfortable with.

The other advantage of this current wave of protest is the comparative dimension – for example, what, if anything do the protests in Iceland’s parliament square have to do with what happened and is happening in Tahrir? Are they just too different to be usefully analyzed or are there some real connections between them? Having a roughly contemporaneous set of mobilizations across a wide geographical area is tremendously exciting and stimulates fresh analysis.

socialmovementsLooking at the European case studies, the strength of the chapters in that part of our book is that, in keeping with how we designed the book, they all ground their analysis of the present with an understanding of the political and social movement histories of the cases they are looking into. Romanos looks at collective learning and how earlier movements influenced the Indignados in Spain. In contrast, Calvo gives us a good insight into who the protesters actually are, which shows the incorporation of new, previously politically inactive people to the movement. So the book offers a fascinating set of readings that help make sense of these very diverse yet connected set of mobilizations from Iceland to Spain to Greece and Tunisia, but always set against the chapters that have come before on earlier movements in Europe. I was very excited to be able to include Júlíusson and Helgason’s chapter on Iceland, which is such an important case and still understudied.

5. Conversely, how do the methods that scholars use to study historical social movements differ from the kinds of work they do to study current or ongoing social movements?

Well, I think that depends on the questions you are asking and how far in the past the movement in question is. Historical work poses a whole set of challenges for social movement scholars. Memory work on movements is fascinating, because memory is such a powerful force, but people don’t just remember, they also forget. So that raises a whole set of challenges, as people’s narratives of the past are compared with other’s memories and records of the times. Daphi’s chapter explores this in a cross-national comparative perspective. Also, public memories are constructed that are almost always in tension with submerged or grassroots memories, especially in the case of highly conflictual events, as important mobilization cycles or events are. So the outcome of those mobilizations obviously influences the accounts you find of them. Who is telling the story? With what purpose? It is not a simple question of validating grassroots memories either, against official narratives, although that can be important and necessary. Social movement actors are also embedded in a complex set of relations. For example, some might want to glorify their involvement, delegitimize an opponent, overstate the legacy of the movement or the role of their own organization in it, etc. Another challenge is not imposing our understanding of the present on the past when people had a different set of worldviews, experiences, resources, technologies, etc.

6. You and your co-editor, Laurence Cox, also edit Interface: a journal for and about social movements, which publishes articles in many languages in an effort to avoid the monolingualism you critique in the introduction to Understanding European Movements. Could you explain the connection between this book and the journal?

Well, really the connection is that Laurence and I have worked closely together on the journal since we founded it (along with other people) and we have also worked closely together on the CES network, which we also founded, and so it was natural for us to decide to do a book together that treated some of the themes we are interested in, such as paying attention to history, culture, and specific political contexts when analyzing contemporary social movements.

Because of our long-standing focus on European movements, and our connection to CES, it made sense to do a book with a European focus. In terms of overlaps between the two projects, they are both about engaged scholarship, they both combine activist and academic and activist/academic scholarship, and aim to be relevant not just for scholars but for activists and people who are just interested in understanding more about social movements. Interface is open to contributions from any discipline and that was also the case with the book. Interface is a very heterogeneous project with a diverse range of editors working on any given issue. A book allows you to structure a set of writings with more internal coherence than journals do, because of the close relation between the editors and the contributors throughout the whole process. We were delighted that the vision we had for the book was realized through the excellent contributors who really ‘got’ what we were trying to do. In fact, we had a lot of wonderful abstracts for chapters we couldn’t include for space reasons, which was a pity. We should have done a trilogy!

7. In the introduction, you and Laurence Cox argue for the need to have more activist scholars or public intellectuals, and you give several examples from the past, including Simone de Beauvoir. How do you and the contributors to the volume combine scholarship and activism in your own work?

Well, there are many contributors to the book, and each one would probably answer that question differently. It is such a personal thing and one that also reflects epistemological standpoints and biography to a certain extent – i.e., how available you are to be active in social movements, how receptive your work environment is to activism, your family situation, etc. It is true that many social-movement scholars are also activists or have been at some point. How each person separates or combines their activism or identification with the movement and their scholarship is very complex. To me, engagement and activism can be two different things. For some scholars, they are the same thing, for others not necessarily so. For example, within any given network there are usually many different groups focusing on a specific issue or with particular tactical or ideological preferences, sometimes with conflicts between them. You can engage with all of those groups and try to understand them and how they work with each other, without actively participating in all of them or any of them necessarily. Separating your sympathy, identification, and your own participation with critical analysis can be difficult (and some would argue quite strongly that it is not necessary to do so). It is a question of reflexivity and making the choices that feel right to you. Up to now I have mostly studied movements I am very sympathetic to and was very happy to feel a part of.

But for me the key is not to just adopt the perspective of the movement’s master narratives, romanticize them or be simply celebratory. I don’t think acritical adoption of movement narratives is very useful to movements or to scholarship. On the other hand, some scholars writing about social movements seem to have never actually spoken to an activist or come into contact with a movement, which is quite problematic! Fortunately, they are a small minority. There are many useful ways to study movements and not all involve deep engagement with them – survey and quantitative data can be really valuable, although unless it is grounded in qualitative understanding of movements it can be very badly designed and lead to erroneous conclusions or reliability issues. I think that is a good example of where there needs to be more cross-methodological collaboration. Historical work is another example, although one can be deeply engaged there too in a different sense. Another example is scholars who study movements that they are opposed to, which can produce very valuable work. There is a real need for more scholarship on extreme right-wing movements, for example, and for most scholars that would be very separate from their personal activism in terms of actually participating in or supporting those movements.

I can’t speak for Laurence, but as far as my contribution to the introduction, the issue for me was not to be prescriptive about how scholars of social movements position themselves in terms of their own activism, beyond feeling that for many questions scholars want to answer it is necessary to have a profound knowledge and engagement with social movements themselves. The larger issue about pointing out the connection between de Beauvoir or Marcuse and social movements, for example, was to highlight the way their political commitments and engagements with movements informed their theoretical work, and vice versa. It is an aspect that is so often ignored when people teach social theory, both in terms of the role social movements play within the theory as a mechanism for social transformation, and the role the theorists’ engagement with movements has played in their own intellectual work and development of theory.

You raise the issue of activist scholars and public intellectuals – these are related but not the same thing. Being a public intellectual from a sociological perspective at least is about positioning yourself on the side of the social, the collective, the human, and you can do that in many ways. Through teaching (e.g., through community learning programs), through public speaking, and through writing, by asking certain kinds of questions. So, for example, when politicians and economists talk about the crisis exclusively in terms of the economy, public sociology talks about the human experience and costs of the crisis, and the social and collective responses to it. It speaks about critical knowledge that is produced by social movements that challenge the status quo and the hegemonic interpretation of the causes and consequences of the crisis. To quote Paolo Freire: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

One example would be the imposition of austerity measures, which increase human suffering and actually slow economic recovery, according to recent research. Anti-austerity activists help highlight the human cost of the crisis, and social-movement scholars can bring those claims together with research to validate those claims. Since media often distorts movement messages, and social movements themselves are often criminalized, or disparaged by political elites, a social-movement scholar speaking publicly about social movements and offering a different interpretation from what people hear in the media is also a form of public sociology, and that can be done from an activist/scholar or a public scholar position. When I am invited to speak about social movements, it is clear to me that I cannot speak for movements (which are, after all, made up of a complex set of actors, inner tensions, contradictions, etc.), but I do feel I explain from my perspective the kinds of claims movements are making, and why, and how they are important and worth understanding, and people really respond to that, whether they are activists, policymakers or members of the ‘public’. When I delivered the keynote address for a symposium on youth political participation in Tunis after the revolution, I was speaking to members of the League of Arab States and EU policymakers, as well as young people involved in different civil-society initiatives in Europe and the Arab world. I used the opportunity to speak very strongly against the repression of our youth in social movements in Europe and around the world. To me, that was public sociology, combining my talk on youth participation in European social movements with speaking out against human rights violations and defending the right to protest as a basic human right.

8. Are there any areas or fields that you find are more open to this sort of convergence of activism and academic research?

Well, certainly the whole convergence of activism and research has a great debt to feminist epistemologies and the experiences of the women’s movements, which have reciprocally influenced each other and the academy. Also, ethnic and post colonial studies, sexuality studies, and of course anarchist, socialist, and Marxist traditions – essentially fields that take human liberation and social transformation as core elements of inquiry. In terms of disciplines, anthropology, education, peace studies, and sociology have certainly produced a rich tradition of participant action research, but in Spain, for example, political science has too, which is not the case generally in the US as far as I know, so this really varies by country as well.

9. Where would you place European social-movement research within the field of social-movement research more globally? In other words, how well integrated is European social-movement research into the rest of the world’s work on the subject and what do you see as the chief tasks facing Europeanist scholars who are interested in better integrating their work into these larger intellectual currents?

Well, I feel that European social movement scholarship is really coming into its own. We have for many years had excellent European social-movement scholars who have worked hard to establish research centers in Europe and who have mentored and encouraged a whole generation of new scholars working in the area. Donatella della Porta stands out here for her work at EUI, Dieter Rucht at WZB in Berlin is another example, and there are many others. I think social-movement scholars working in Europe are producing very exciting and innovative work, and are open to the world in terms of their strong connections to Latin America, North Africa, the United States and beyond. You mention the challenges of better integrating their work into the rest of the world’s work. I think the reality is that US social movement scholarship is still very dominant even within European scholarship, although that is really changing now and the ‘rest of the world’ is still severely under-represented. Clearly, US social-movement scholarship has indeed produced a large body of really excellent work and should absolutely be read and used, but also used critically in terms of assessing its relevance beyond a particular empirical context. I was very lucky to be trained at Berkeley by wonderful scholars, but the more I thought about the European autonomous movements I studied, the less I felt many categories of analysis in US social-movement scholarship enabled me to speak meaningfully about those movements with regard to the questions I was asking. It was a challenging time for me intellectually because I was trying to find a language that made sense to me in terms of the movements I was studying and the questions I was asking about identity, culture, and meaning, questions that were not really central to the literature I was initially reading. The fact is that empirical realities shape theoretical constructs, and despite important reciprocal influences, the US social movement experience is very, very different from the European one, in all sorts of ways that matter. The US civil rights movement, for example, looms really large as an empirical base for a lot of US social-movement scholarship, but that movement was not particularly relevant to me in thinking about horizontal British anti-roads protesters or Spanish autonomists! That is not at all to say I did not find any of it useful. I routinely use and draw on work on framing, transnational diffusion and all sorts of things by US scholars. The point is not to advocate an ethnocentric approach to theorizing, which would be completely ridiculous, but rather to question the claims of universality behind a lot of theory and to encourage scholars to adopt a critical approach that is open and searching in terms of the fit between theory and empirics.

Recently, forums like the CES have really brought US and European social-movement scholarship into dialogue with each other in wonderful ways. That is really exciting and can only enrich US and European scholarship. The challenge, more broadly, is to incorporate scholarship from beyond Europe and the US, to foster an exchange with the rich diversity of social-movement experiences and knowledge produced by movements around the world. Journals like Interface and Social Movement Studies, which I am also an editor for, are really fostering an exchange between scholars working in different areas of the world, but there is still a very long way to go. Resource disparities and linguistic barriers between the global north and south still need to be addressed, and that is a really difficult challenge in the current academic climate of corporatization and austerity measures. Open access (the real kind, not the pseudo version being pushed for by certain publishers, institutions, and governments) is one crucial arena around which all scholars should be mobilizing. We should be able to share knowledge freely, and we need to develop an alternative system that enables us to do this.


Cristina Flesher Fominaya is a sociologist and writer who teaches at University of Aberdeen. She has an MA and PhD in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, and a BA summa cum laude in International Relations from the University of Minnesota. Along with Laurence Cox, she co-founded and co-chairs the Council for European Studies’ Research Network on European Social Movements. Cristina’s new book “Social Movements and Globalization” is forthcoming from Palgrave MacMillan in May 2014. 

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