Academic journal article Social Justice

Political Consciousness and New Social Movement Theory: The Case of Fuerza Unida

Academic journal article Social Justice

Political Consciousness and New Social Movement Theory: The Case of Fuerza Unida

Article excerpt


THE GOAL OF THIS ARTICLE IS TO ASSESS NEW SOCIAL MOVEMENT THEORY'S treatment of race, gender, and social class with respect to contemporary social movements. In this article, I develop an alternative framework that will address some limitations of new social movement theory by using theoretical concepts derived from discourse theory. New social movement theory addresses limitations in resource mobilization theory, but its post-industrial bias does not adequately account for social inequality (especially in terms of racial, national, gender, and class inequality) in identity formation. Moreover, its evasion of ideology makes it difficult to theorize the operation of power in identity formation. The post-Marxist bent of many (though not all) strands of new social movement theory also fails to take seriously the relationship between social class and identity formation. Finally, new social movement theory models are insufficient in terms of explaining the political action of non-Western actors. This article applies theoretical concepts derived from discourse theory to the case of Fuerza Unida, (1) a Mexican/Mexican-American social movement of former garment workers. In discussing this case, I will compare the explanatory power of new social movement theory and discourse theory. In addition, it will be argued that focusing on language and culture is not only important for sociologists, but also for union and social movement organizers. In sum, the goal of this essay is to assess the extent to which discourse theory can be of use to scholars of social movements who aim to theorize the connections between identity, discourse, and political economy.

New Social Movement Theory and Its Historical Context

In post-World War II America, sociological theories of political action and protest were based on a deviance model (Buechler, 1993). During the 1960s and 1970s, academics sympathetic to the era's large-scale protest movements developed "resource mobilization theory" (Ibid.), which challenged the deviance models of social protest by proclaiming that social movements were not "deviant" but "rational." According to Buechler, resource mobilization theorists argued that social movements consisted of rational actors and were just an extension of traditional politics.

Beginning in the early 1980s, scholars (mostly European) began to discuss "new social movements" (Laclau and Mouffe, 1988; Melucci, 1995; McAdam, 1994).2 New social movements refer to movements and organizations that deal primarily with issues of identity and meaning, in contrast to traditional class-based organizations such as unions or political parties. New social movements that began to form in the post-1968 era, such as the feminist, environmental, and gay and lesbian rights movements, are "new" because of their concern with post-material goals such as creating shared meanings around collective identities and alternative lifestyles.

New social movement theory is distinguished by its emphasis on shared meanings and identity politics over the politics of distribution. Its theorists study "postindustrial societies" and the subject of such theories is, generally speaking, the middle-class actor. The middle-class Western actor no longer worries about the politics of distribution. His concerns now are about identity, meaning, and culture (Buechler, 1995). Although some new social movement theorists have been influenced by neo-Marxism (Castells, 1997), the bulk of the literature focuses on identity and meaning rather than structural issues.

Challenging resource mobilization theory, Johnston, Larana, and Gusfield (1994) stress the importance of the symbolic in collective and individual identity formation within the context of a postindustrial society. In the view of Larana, McAdam, and Gusfield, social justice struggles, whether for national liberation or economic equality, are old struggles that have been displaced by new struggles for identity and meaning. …

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