Meaning in Movement. An Ideational Analysis of Sheffield-Based Protest Networks Contesting Globalisation and War

Thesis submitted for the award of PhD, University of Sheffield, 2006.


Since the late 1990s millions of people have been involved in political protest actions contesting globalisation and war. The two issues are interconnected by the continuing involvement of many of the same individuals, organisations and networks making political claims in opposition to relevant institutional actors. Social movements involved in these protests include a marked diversity of political worldviews.

This thesis analyses the worldviews informing particular instantiations of those movements. Social movements must be understood as continuous, dynamic processes which, at times, occur as large-scale public events. Participants’ political beliefs are formed, tested and reconstituted in continuous debate and action with their peers and opponents. Meaning results from the interrelations between concepts in larger ideational structures. Interpreting the worldviews presented by social movements therefore involves piecing together various ideational elements into reasonably coherent, interlocking structures that make sense of the statements and behaviour of social movement participants. It is through extended participation within social movement groups that discursive processes can be observed. An ethnographic methodology therefore forms the empirical basis on which this thesis develops an hermeneutic project that elucidates the meanings of social movements.

The activities of Sheffield-based participants in movements contesting globalisation and war offer the opportunity for an ideational study grounded in everyday activities and discourse. Three significant justificatory worldviews are identified: revolutionary socialism, direct action and radical liberalism. Understanding these belief structures as overlapping, in conflict and in competition will be valuable in interpreting particular phases of contemporary movement activity. The latter is demonstrated in detailed case studies of the anti-war and social forum movements. These cases illuminate complex connections between the local and global spheres of social movement action, offering understanding of how beliefs identified at the local level reflect claims made by broader social movements.

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