Conceptualising Success and Failure for Social Movements

By Saeed, Raza | Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Conceptualising Success and Failure for Social Movements


Saeed, Raza, Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal


1. Introduction

The American Civil Rights movement, one of the most significant movements of the twentieth century, altered the socio-political landscape of the United States. Set against racial segregation and socio-political deprivation of the African-American people, it is claimed to have made an everlasting impact on race relations and 'Black and White consciousness'. (1) Almost half a century later, the ripple effects of the movement continue, and recently the ascendancy of Barack Obama to the office of the President of United States was hailed as the biggest victory for the Civil Rights movement yet, which finally signalled for some activists that the 'scourge of race' has been overcome. (2) Conversely, though, considering that strained race relations still exist in some parts of the American society, and the economic deprivation, lack of education and rampant crimes that confront the African-American community, it is argued from other corners that the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement stands against 'glaring failures' (3). Interestingly, these polemical viewpoints are not limited to this movement alone. In the current year, when many are celebrating the centenary of Gandhi's Hind Swaraj--the 'inspired' and 'heroic' work that laid the foundation of Gandhian struggle, (4) and initiated the philosophy that saw the mighty British Empire collapse in just under four decades--there are also those who consider him a reactionary who failed to achieve any real change in the status quo. (5)

The contrasting perspectives of successes and failures, on these struggles and others, compel us to contemplate how one particular social phenomenon can be considered a feat by some and a defeat by others; the same event can be, and is, perceived as a hurdle, setback, opportunity or an end. What this questions at the least, then, is the basis and objectives of our conceptions of success and failure. Can these categories be applied to an entity as complex as a social movement? Does the issue lie in the black-and-white nature of this classification or does it emerge from the application of a problematic criterion? Generally considered as mutually exclusive concepts, can the notions of success and failure co-exist in a continuum? While embarking on a brief inquiry into these questions, the paper would bring to light the gaps present in the success/failure conceptions present in the social movement literature. It would then argue that these conceptions specifically, and the concepts of success or failure generally, are inherently inadequate to apply to struggles and movements.

The first part of the paper will outline our definitional perimeter, by recognising and highlighting the theoretical paradigms associated with social movements. The next part will discuss some of the most acknowledged criteria used to gauge the success or failure of struggles. In the third part, the paper will focus on broader societal impacts of movements that are not widely acknowledged by these criteria, but nonetheless are essential for the understanding of this phenomenon. This journey will take us to the understanding that concept of success and failure has an inherent inability to grasp the essence of struggles.

2. Outlining the Perimeter

2.1. Definitional Issues

The study of social movements is challenging because it is not a term that refers to a singular, monolithic or unchanging entity; rather, it is a 'convenient fiction for a generally varied and diverse collection of activities'. (6) Some scholars argue that social movements generally have two essential facets: orientation towards social change, and non-institutional or outsider status, (7) while some add the element of collective or joint action to these facets. (8) Other theoreticians focus on the nature of movements, and categorise them into self-help, social reform and religious movements, (9) or divide them into 'respectable, peculiar and revolutionary movements'. …

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