Over the years, there has been much debate between sociologists as to the explanations of political actions of New Social Movements. The idea that NSMs have benefited from the recent failure of political parties to respond to the less powerful groups is just one idea mentioned as to the growth of NSMs. Hallsworth defined New Social Movements as “developed to refer to a wide spectrum of non-institutionalised political movements which emerged and then re-emerged in western societies in the 60’s-70”.
The NSM view is more focused on the cultural nature of the movements and sees them as struggles for a foothold for control over the production of meaning and the constitution of new collective identities. This approach also highlights discontinuity by showing differences between new movements and traditional collective actors. NSMs are focused on identity, with many sociologists stating their claim to NSMs.
Touraine, for one, who sees NSMs as looking towards the cultural aspect of people and Inglehart who believes that identity is at the forefront of the NSMs agenda. Aside from these two, the sociologist who I agree with most is Crooke, who views the change to ‘new politics’ and the decline of political parties as crucial to the rise of NSMs. This is supported by the change in the political voting, where people are no longer voting along class lines.
These class lines in today’s society have been much distorted; most people are now middle class, whether it is poor or wealthy middle. It is now hard to put your finger on what is actually working class. The failure of the parties has led to the people with less power to believe they can now have a say in society. This total change of ‘new politics’, where sectional and class interests have declined, making a new access for the emergence of NSMs to become a vital stepping stone in society, such as Earth First.
Postmodernism is a philosophical movement evolved in reaction to modernism, the tendency in contemporary culture to accept only objective truth, leaning away from economic issues. It is widely accepted that the purpose of New Social Movements (NSMs) is to offer the individual an opportunity to reconstruct a personal identity in a post modernist society, to use identification with a wider group as a political process to demonstrate how the state and other institutions attempt to control an individual’s life.
Through using the ‘DIY ‘culture and expressing a ‘post modern’ lifestyle through living a new social movement, individuals aspire to the acceptance of their identities and lifestyles. The emphasis on autonomy and private life shows the influence of liberalism on these movements which can allow for direct action as a means of achieving some form of acceptance or change. It is clear that in the majority of social movements people engage in political protest and direct action to change the world in ways in which fit their notion of a better or ideal society.
Scott argues that NSMs are best seen as part of a continuum that stretches from informal network associations to formal party-like organizations, and on this basis it is possible to analyze class-based movements in terms of activity and identity. Equally, given the greater interest and emphasis in subjectivity and identity in political sociology, there has been a shift in class analysis from merely assigning someone to a class to instead considering the subjective identity involved with the notion of class.
According to Beck’s idea of the risk society, it is also useful to note that class based social movements have always been prominent in the ‘strive’ to avoid the problems created by capitalist production for the individual. There is also growing evidence to show that class is still a necessary form of identification in society. Makintosh and Mooney (2000) note from the ‘British Attitudes Survey’ that “social class can provide us with a sense of belonging; it can tell us who ‘we’ are and who ‘they’ are, hence how to relate to the world around us.
” From this view, less powerful groups like ethnic minorities have the support from NSMs, subsequently creating positive ethnic identities. In Lehmann’s terms it is easy to suggest that class based movements also have an equal opportunity to develop and re-establish a positive identity for themselves, or to preserve an identity which is under growing threat from the process of globalization (clashes between upper and middle classes over fox hunting).
Further, John Westergaard has defended class as a continued basis for identity given widening income inequality and consumer inequalities of choice which, he argues, have led to class-divided life experiences and inequality in concentrations of power. Offe (1985) notes that membership of new social movements is predominantly from the middle class, but that the ‘new middle class politics, in contrast to most working class politics, as well as the old middle class politics, is typically politics of a class but not on behalf of class;.
Touraine (1986) views social movements as a response to changes in the social structure of the advanced capitalist societies, but in particular as identifying a move to a ‘post-industrial society’. Melucci and Offe (1985) note that post-industrial societies no longer have a single economic basis, but produce through the integration of economic, political and cultural structures. The major struggle in these societies is over the control of information and lifestyle.
Also, Melucci (1989) argues that movements have no meaning outside of the perceptions of those involved. “Collective action is focused on cultural codes, the form of the movement is itself a message, a symbolic challenge to the dominant codes”, and therefore orginisation of such movements is a goal in itself, particulary in that they are able to use the struggle over information technology and lifestyle to meet their own ends. To conclude, NSMs engage politically with issues with implications for all of society, not necessarily for people of a certain class.
However, even if we dismiss the idea that class is ‘dead’, there is a certain link between the protest potential of NSMs restating positive identities and the economic interests of memebers and government. Perhaps NSMs are hybrid movements involving not only identity and cultural values but also economic interests. Saying this, there are no homogenous social movements – each involve interests which affect all members, and these interests are cultural, economic, identity and political in nature.