Networks and Social Movements Essay

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Social movement analysts have treated networks either as important facilitators of individuals’ decisions to become involved in collective action, or as the structure of the links between the actors committed to a certain cause. Movement networks may include both individual activists and organizations, connected through ties that do not just involve the exchange of resources or information, but also shared identities linked to deeper world-views.

Still in the 1970s, many regarded movement participants as individuals lacking a proper social integration. By the 1980s, however, research had showed that social movements participants are usually well integrated in dense networks, consisting both of private ties and of links originated in the context of previous experiences of collective action. Individual networks may affect not only presence or absence of participation, but participation in specific types of activities, its continuation over time, and the amount of risk one is prepared to face. Networks may facilitate the development of cognitive skills and competences, provide the context for the socialization of individuals to specific sets of values, or represent the locus for the development of strong emotional feelings. In general, strong ties should matter more for participation in highly demanding activities, while weak ties might help the spread of movement ideas to broader constituencies.

Network perspectives also help analyzing movements as complex interaction fields including multiple actors. This had already been noticed in the 1970s by scholars interested in subcultural and countercultural dynamics, but has become most visible with the spread of transnational contention and coalition building on issues such as global justice. It is actually very difficult to think of movements as consisting of one organization. When this happens, as in the instance of the Bolshevik party in Russia, it usually means that the transition from movement to bureaucratic organization is complete. Sometimes, the relationships between groups and organizations active in a movement are frequent enough to enable analysts to identify distinctive “alliance” and “oppositional” structures; other times, ad hoc, shifting coalitions prevail. Movements differ from coalitions because their members share an identity which one cannot find in purely instrumental coalitions. As identity is not a given trait but is the product of incessant negotiations between social actors, which often involves ideological conflicts, movement boundaries are rarely stable. However, the segmentation of movement networks might also depend on the diversity of issue agendas between different organizations.

Sometimes, social movements are close to sub-cultural and countercultural networks, based on individual activists sharing in distinctive lifestyles and cultural models. Examples abound in both new” social movements (e.g., gay and lesbian subcultures, alternative scenes, radical intellectual milieus) and traditional working class communities. Communitarian ties not only strengthen identity and solidarity among movement activists; they also represent a specific context for conflicts focusing on the symbolic side.


  1. Diani, M. (2011) Social movements and collective action. In: Carrington, P. & Scott, J. (eds.), Sage Handbook of Social Network Analysis. Sage, London.
  2. Diani, M. & McAdam, D. (eds.) (2003) Social Movements and Networks. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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