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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.

Scroll down for chapter summaries, or download the full thesis (2.5MB .pdf).

1. Understanding Social Movements: Towards a Theory of Interpretative Frames

This chapter begins with a quick tour of social movement theory since the 1950s. In particular I look at the ways that academics have tried to understand the role of ideas within social movements.

The main focus here, though, is to look at a body of research that examines the ‘interpretative frames’ that protesters and activists use to understand the world around them. We are all constantly engaged in processes of learning that reinforce or recreate our own set of beliefs and values. The concept of ‘interpretative frames’ is supposed to capture the way that these beliefs and values are structured. We become emotionally attached to certain ways of looking at the world so that new information is often framed within those beliefs we previously held. So, if you already believe that all government is the self-interested exercise of power in order to further enrich the powerful, you’re more likely to interpret, say, the Iraq war in this way.

The main contribution this thesis tries to make to the theoretical debate is to clarify the nature of these interpretative frames. Scholars have tended to see them as quite superficial, as if you could express different political opinions depending on which way the political wind blows. While may be true of the expression of beliefs, I doubt it is true of the holding of those beliefs. More importantly people’s beliefs and values – and especially activists’ beliefs and values – inform their decisions to act in certain ways. As most activists realise, people with particular politics will have a particular take on how to change the world. Academics have tended to separate ideas and action in their analyses, so that is one thing this thesis tries to put right.

Add in a bunch of fairly esoteric conceptual work and this chapter gets to the point of describing the ‘orientational frame’ as that set of beliefs that offers someone a view of the world, of their place in it, and of the ways in which social change might be achieved. So, it becomes possible to describe and analyse relatively stable structures of ideas that exist (in a particular sense) beyond any individual’s expression of them.

The key point to remember throughout is that it is not possible simply to write down a programmatic set of beliefs and pidgeon-hole people according to whether they fit or not. In the rest of the thesis I do identify three sets of ideas that tend to cling together (and also have relationships with socialism, anarchism and liberalism). However, these ideas are stuck together with the weak glue of shared culture, particular understandings of history, and trends in the sorts of experiences activists are likely to encounter. On exposure to these orientational frames (or structures of ideas) activists will interpret them in ways that depend on the individual journey they have taken through their political (and indeed non-political) lives. As such many people will rightly refuse to be pigeon-holed or categorised. Nevertheless, the ‘orientational frames’ can be discussed independently of individual interpretations. This chapter closes by explaining exactly how that can be achieved.

Download C1: Understanding Social Movements

2. Identifying the Research Subject: The ‘Movement of Movements’ as Cycle of Contention

This chapter does some more theoretical work. This is important, academically speaking, because my work takes a position mid-way between distinct approaches from US and European scholarship on social movements. Within the European strand of work, one of the most important things going on from the mid-1960s was the development of a politics of protest that seemed more concerned with new identities than with the more obviously materialist politics of labour movements. But, recent protests against the economic effects of globalisation pose a problem for that way of thinking – aren’t the recent struggles really about the distribution of goods and money?

With this question in mind this chapter explores the recent history of protest. I describe some of the links between the anti-/alter-globalisation struggles, the attempts to create positive alternatives in the social forums, and the incredible eruption of protest around the war on terror. In this way I introduce the specific subject of study for the remainder of the thesis. That is, as well as trying to understand the way ideas are used and structured within social movements I’m trying to understand the specific story of recent protest against globalisation and war. By looking at the different versions of the history of recent protest found within the movements themselves, I also give an introduction to some of the differences between the three sets of ideas (the three ‘orientational frames’) described later.

Download C2: Movement of Movements

3. Inside the Guiding Star: The Revolutionary Socialist Frame

The power of socialism as an ideology, and its more specific trotskyist flavour, has ensured the continuing existence of active Trotskyist groups throughout post-war British history. But the leading British Trotskyist organisation, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), typically polarises opinion. As a result, movement analyses of contemporary protest tend to focus soley on the SWP, or else entirely ignore or argue against the SWP and its kindred spirits. Yet a more objective view must include the various revoluntionary socialist organisations alongside the diversity of other key players within recent protest.

The revolutionary socialist frame identifies a set of ideas whose interconnection flows partly from the history of communist and Trotskyist activism in the UK. This chapter offers a brief discussion of that history, singling out those periods that seem to have had a lasting effect on the beliefs and behaviour of Trotskyists today. For instance, Trotskyists have had to broaden their understanding of the social base of revolution. This results from both the need for Trotskyist organisations to come to terms the strength of the students’ movements, womens’ movements, movements of sexual identity and so on, and the simultaneous economic restructuring that shrunk the industrial working class base. While Trotskyist discussion often continues a focus on the power of the working class, Trotskyists can now be found agitating and recruiting in universities as much as in the industrial workplaces.

Nevertheless, at the core of the revolutionary socialist frame lie a range of ideas that will likely be espoused wherever a society can be described as capitalist. These include:

  • a class-based analysis of exploitation;
  • the value on equality of political power, justified through human nature;
  • the need for a sudden (and perhaps violent) moment of change;
  • the need for a vanguard organisation at the centre of a mass revolutionary movement; and
  • a belief in the scientific truth of Marxism.

Beyond that core of beliefs spin-off a range of less central and/or more practical ideas about society and how to change it. This chapter explains these, and importantly their interconnections, in some detail. Despite the focus on Trotskyism in this introduction, I also argue that these ideas are more broadly influential. Many people who are not members of such organisations utilise many of the core arguments in their political discussions. Indeed, some ideas, such as the value on power equality, seem ubiqitous throughout contemporary movements. Certainly, this idea is widely espoused. But, equality is coloured with different hues depending on the context of surrounding beliefs.

Download C3: Inside the Guiding Star

4. Anarchy and Ecology Confront Authority: The Direct Action Frame

The direct action frame draws much of its character from it connection with a particular approach to creating social change, rather than any more theoretical ideology. Nonetheless beliefs concerning the tactics for action demonstrate a particular value set that shares much in common with anarchism.

The chapter examines the development of direct action in the UK by briefly examining periods of protest for nuclear disarmament in the late 1950s, for environmental protection in the 1970s and against road building during the 1990s. It becomes possible to see a growing militancy over those years, as well as the development of increasingly sophisticated action practices and a deepening of the political and philosophical messages of direct action.

By offering greater detail about contemporary direct action it becomes possible to specify that political content. Briefly, these ideas include:

  • a high value on individual freedom with, as a flip side, a high stress on responsibility for one’s actions;
  • a distrust of authority, seen as self-serving;
  • a stress on taking forms of action that do not depend on mediation by a third party to be effective;
  • a value on the creation of open political spaces for learning, empowerment, and governed by the respect for others’ liberty;
  • a developing critique of capitalism that sees the current structures of political economy as responsible for a great variety of social, political and environmental ills; and
  • an understanding of democracy as requiring in-depth, free and unmediated participation by all effected by the relevant decisions.

Download C4: Anarchy and Ecology Confront Authority

5. In Search of a Just Political Economy: The Radical Liberal Frame

A significant section of the constituency of contemporary contention is connected with neither the traditional organisations of the far left, nor with small groups intent on carrying out direct action for immediate change. The radical liberal frame is one apparently utilised by many in the movements who are more likely to be supportive of a range of well-known non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Greenpeace, Oxfam or War on Want. While these organisations’ primary operations are not directed at mobilizing a membership to take part in street demonstrations, they nevertheless often provide an urgent desire for social change.

Increasingly, over the past few decades, such NGOs have developed a set of intellectual tools that provides an understanding of western governments as culpable for social and environmental injustice, and the potential efficacy of massed populations in changing their governments’ behaviour. On this basis, the radical liberal frame emerges from a wide range of particular issue-focused critiques rather than either a body of theory or a particular approach to social change.

The radical liberal frame expresses the way that certain core beliefs appear to come together to justify an increasingly radical approach to holding governments to account, while seeking to achieve concrete gains in the immediate future. Some core ingredients of the frame include:

  • A strong moral position centred on a (broadly egalitarian) understanding of justice.
  • Critique of those in power focused on the abuse of that power.
  • A positive evaluation of empirically grounded understanding and subsequent critique of any belief system that appears to be dogmatic.
  • A belief in the potential of social change activities that work with, rather than against, current institutions of power.
  • A strong belief democracy, justified on the basis of sharing relevant knowledge.

C5: Seeking a Just Political Economy

6. Conflict and Convergence Between the Three Frames

Despite their different political flavours, the three frames set out above deal with a number of very similar issues. This is hardly surprising given that each worldview developed over the same period, within the same political and social context and in relation to the same emerging problems and opportunities. So, we find that each frame addresses themes such as democracy, power, economic and political institutions and the appropriate methods for social change.

This chapter outlines some of the points at which each frame, or a particular combination of them, find agreement on certain points. However, I stress more explicitly those places where sharp divergence in understanding is evident, since these points help to draw the boundaries around each frame, aiding understanding of their contents and extents. The chapter also stresses the tactical and strategic differences, more often than the philosophical. The strategic and the philosophic aspects are completely intertwined, since to provide a plausible strategy for social change one must base it on a plausible understanding of the social structure that is the target of that change. However, since proponents of the different frames mostly come into contact in the planning and carrying out of political action – it is in the realm of strategy that their divisions are most easily perceived.

In exploring the points of agreement and disagreement we find out, among other things, what exactly is meant by radicalism or reformism (depending on who is using the word), why the united front tactic of trotskyist organisations is so divisive, and how the notion of direct action has come to be applied in apprently inappropriate situations.

Download C6: Conflict and Convergence

7. A Given Unity: The UK Anti-War Movement, 2001-2003

From the moment that George W Bush announced the beginning of a ‘War on Terror’, activists from across the world decided to oppose it. They did so on many different grounds, but came together in coalitions struggling against, first, the invasion of Afghanistan, and second, the invasion of Iraq. By 15th February 2003 these movements had created the largest popular opposition to war ever seen.

Within the UK anti-war movement of the time, all three of the frames described above can be seen to be influential as providing activists with particular critical understandings, motivations for action, and methods for acting. Of overriding importance, I argue, was the way that the different frames brought people with different political worldviews, into a broad agreement on an analysis of the war on terror. Commentry on the anti-war movement tends to brush away the any internal conflict, and while this chapter does emphasise a significant degree of unity, it is also sensitive to more difficult internal dynamics. Respondents characterise some anti-war movement activities as lacking space for debate and this proved problematic for two reasons. First, we see that conflict over appropriate methods to oppose the war was rife, creating significant tensions between adherents to different frames that has clearly also been transposed into the social forum movement. Second, since the movement as a whole lacked a broadly shared, detailed analysis of the reasons for war, it had difficulty coping with the moment of the invasion of Iraq. The fact that the three frames had only come into agreement on quite superficial critiques without dealing with more fundamental disagreements contributed to the strategic difficulty of questions such as whether to support the armed resistance inside Iraq once invasion became occupation.

Download C7: A Given Unity

8. The Challenge of Diversity: The Social Forum Movement, 2001-2005

Seeking positive solutions to problems identified by alter-globalisation activists, a wide range of organisations participated in organising the first World Social Forum in Brazil in January 2001. A self-proclaimed ‘open space’ for dialogue to prove that ‘another world is possible’, this massive gathering provided world-wide inspiration for hundreds of local groups. While not as numerous in the UK as other European countries, local social forums sprang up in part as a channel for the energy and new-found resources of the anti-war movement. As such, the social forums retained the multi-faceted character of the anti-war movements, with strong representation from a wide array of political positions.

This chapter is, in part, the story of Sheffield Social Forum (SSF) in particular. Here we see, represented in microcosm, many of the debates also being held at national, regional and even the global level. These debates are hardly played out on a simply local level, however, as SSF engaged in UK-wide and European networks of local social forums seeking to influence the direction of the third edition of the European Social Forum. Again we see the utility of the three frames identified throughout this thesis in aiding understanding of the thoughts and actions of significant groups of actors contesting neo-liberal globalisation and the idea of the social forum itself. This chapter raises the possibility that the self-consciously ‘open space’ of the social forums have enabled a new combination of ideas to come to the fore, one which draws on both revolutionary socialism and radical liberalism.

Download C8: Challenge of Diversity