When Protest Makes Policy: How Social Movements Represent Disadvantaged Groups

By Reid, Sophie | Melbourne Journal of Politics, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

When Protest Makes Policy: How Social Movements Represent Disadvantaged Groups


Reid, Sophie, Melbourne Journal of Politics


When Protest Makes Policy: How Social Movements Represent Disadvantaged Groups

S. Laurel Weldon, Ann Arbour, University of Michigan Press, 2011. 231pp.

ISBN 9780472117482

$113.99 (hardcover)

The introduction of When Protest Makes Policy opens with reference to the 1999 'Battle in Seattle' protest against the World Trade Organisation, and the claims made then by the protesters to represent the marginalised people of the world. More than ten years on, this book has been published in a year virtually book-ended by eruptions of high-profile civil society protest movements--most notably the uprisings across the Middle East and the 'Occupy' protest movement throughout the US and other countries--calling for the establishment or reinvigoration of democratic processes. This book is therefore timely in its meticulous examination of the role of social movements in enriching those processes.

Whereas the bulk of work on social movements focuses on their role in increasing participation, Weldon breaks new ground by instead considering their role in terms of representation. The basic argument of the book is that social movements play an important role in representing disadvantaged groups politically, and therefore these groups should be formally encouraged to self-organise. In opposition to the view that the presence of group members in the legislature is always the most effective way for disadvantaged groups to influence policy, Weldon demonstrates that the more disadvantaged a group is, the more important civil society representation becomes to their substantive representation in policy-making.

Weldon draws on extensive analyses of data about social movement organizations, legislatures and policy to build theoretical inferences about how effective social movements are in achieving substantive policy results for their respective groups. She compares representation by social movements with political parties, labour unions and interest groups, and finds consistently that the more marginalized a group is, the more important civil society-based representation becomes. Although based in a Canadian/US context, she also makes sure to draw on data from a wide variety of other countries in different regions to establish the general applicability of her arguments.

Chapters one to four consist of case studies focusing on the policy influence of contemporary social movements pertaining to different groups-women, women workers, workers and women of colour. Weldon pays particular attention to the difficulties inherent in representing a highly diverse group, and is sensitive to the complexities that arise from the intersection of groups. The first chapter, focusing on the women's movement, establishes that social movements can and do play an important role in representing disadvantaged groups in policy-making processes, and that this role is equally (in some cases more) important as the presence of group members in the legislature (for instance, because it can represent a broader range of perspectives than party politics may allow). The following chapters apply and extend these insights in the context of different movements. For instance, she finds that the strength of labour unions is more significant for policies pertaining to provision for families when those provisions do not challenge established gender roles (such as maternity leave), whereas women's movements are influential in the implementation of policies aimed at changing gender roles (such as parental leave for parents of either gender) (p.80). Globally, in both the North and South, the women's movement seems to do more for women worker's than labour unions do, but civil society organizations also play a more important role for working men in the South, compared to the North (p. …

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