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New social movement theory (NSMT) emerged in the 1980s in Europe to analyze new movements that appeared from the 1960s onward. They were ”new” vis-a-vis the ”old” working-class movement of Marxist theory. By contrast, new social movements are organized around race, ethnicity, youth, sexuality, countercultures, environmentalism, pacifism, human rights, and the like. NSMT is a distinctive approach, albeit with significant internal variations.
NSMT analyzed new social movements as historically specific responses to new social formations such as post-industrial or post-modern society. These theorists were as interested in the changing contours of the larger society as with the new movements that responded to them; the ”newness” referred to social formations as well as protest forms. NSMT also reflected the cultural turn in social theory, emphasizing symbolic contests in the cultural arena over instrumental struggles in the political sphere.
NSMT’s emphasis on collective identity has been popular in US social movement theory. For NSMT, no group identity (including class) is objectively given, and every collective identity must be socially constructed before collective action is possible. The ”old” issue of cultivating class consciousness has been replaced with the ”new” one of constructing collective identity itself. In fluid new social formations with multiple and transient identities, the construction of collective identity is a major accomplishment and a prerequisite for other movement objectives.
Additional themes in NSMT theory include their middle-class social base, their symbolic, post-material goals, their quest for autonomy, their politicization of everyday life, and their preferences for decentralized and participatory forms of movement organization.
The most common criticism of NSMT concerned its claim of a sharp disjuncture between old labor movements and new cultural movements. The most incisive critiques found that many of the supposedly distinctive features of new social movements were vital to the ”old” labor movement, including cultural symbols, collective identity, and self-determination.
NSMT entered US sociology through selective cooptation. The grand theorizing of European NSMT couldn’t take root in the pragmatic, positivist soil of US sociology. The latter ignored NSMT’s most distinctive claims about links between social formations and types of movements. Instead, NSMT was reduced in elementarist fashion to new variables alongside familiar ones. A decontextualized concept of collective identity then became very popular in mainstream research alongside mobilizing structures and framing processes. For these reasons, the story of NSMT remains entangled with larger differences in theoretical style between European and US sociology.
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