Social Movements and Social Transformation: Understanding the Challenges and Breakthroughs
What is the role of social movements in bringing about, or failing to bring about, political and social change? Cristina Montiel and I recently edited a special issue of Peace and Conflict: The Journal of Peace Psychology, inviting answers to this question. In addition, we aimed to explore how social movements engage in, respond to, or challenge violence, injustice, and inequality.
This blog post begins to summarise the special issue, which is available online to those with access (or by contacting the papers’ authors or via ResearchGate). There were ten articles in total, and each one a gem, if I may say so. I thought I would explore the papers in two or three blog posts, of which this is the first. The introduction to the special issue also summarises all these articles to begin our understanding of the challenges and breakthroughs of social change.
How can we break through conflict?
In the first paper, Ben-David and Rufel-Lifschitz talked through three approaches that created social change in Israel. They used three case studies of environmental, LGBT, and religious organisations. (It should perhaps be noted that none worked directly on the conflict with Palestinians; as I write this post in May 2018, Israel has been racked again by bloody protests in which troops have shot dozens of protestors. It feels like we are far from positive change, and growing further away. But all the more reason, perhaps, to explore some of the recommendations that have created a sense of progress for other social movements in Israel.) Ben-David and Rufel-Lifschitz articulate the following recommendations to break through conflict: rejecting simple binaries and adopting a complex view of identities; committing to a moral compass (resisting retaliation in the face of state or opponent violence); and using small and symbolic acts, carefully timed, to build trust and attract reciprocation. The paper generates a sense of hope and inspiration, which can be rare emotions!
Leaving violence behind – Challenges for violent groups
Ferguson, McDaid and McCauley, reviewed five challenges violent groups face in order to leave violence behind. Their paper described how loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland accomplished these tasks. The challenges were: changing the cultural glorification and subjective inevitability of violence; making the decision as a group to cease physical attacks; resisting pressure from group members and others to restart violence as the peace unfolds and in the transition; developing an activist culture for political non-violence; and learning to trust progress with former enemies. One of many interesting points made by the authors was that it was essential to retain formerly violent group members as key members during the transition to peace. Formerly violent group members bring legitimacy to the change because of their moral authority as former warriors. This is needed to defeat the calls to restart violence from younger members and outsiders. Ferguson and colleagues argued that attempting to disengage disillusioned members prematurely from violent extremist groups could slow the pace of change and undermine the sustainability of the transition.
Violence by and against the police: Case studies from South Africa and Portugal
Also dealing directly with violent actors were two papers examining police violence towards protesters, through analysis of incidents in Portugal (Soares, Barbosa, Matos, and Mendes, 2018) and South Africa (Kiguwa and Ally, 2018). These were rich and fascinating analyses involving the views of police, community members, and protestors. One of the points that struck me the most was the symmetry between arguments that legitimise police violence towards protestors and delegitimise protestors’ violence towards the police in these two different contexts. For example, protestors’ behaviour was seen as a trigger or provocation for police ‘defense’ of the police and the community, but neither direct nor structural violence by the state was seen as a legitimate trigger for protestors’ aggression. This kind of asymmetry seems relevant in many contexts.
There is much more that could be said about each of these papers, and perhaps there will be an occasion to engage more deeply on another day – but it gives me great pleasure through this post to begin to share the messages more widely. I hope that interested readers will explore these papers and the other great work of these authors.
- Winnifred Louis
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