Michel Wieviorka: Global Sociology of Social Movements

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Towards a Global Sociology of Social Movements Today

English | Pour une sociologie globale es mouvements sociaux d’aujourd’hui (French)

Michel Wieviorka

Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS),
Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (FMSH), Paris


Sociology is now global.

This observation has in fact at least three distinct and complementary meanings.

The first is that this subject is no longer the monopoly of the West alone and that the hegemony of the West has been demolished. True, the English language is omni-present and the publishers or major journals remain, as they say, ‘Anglo-Saxon’, mainly North American, British and Dutch. True, the ‘soft power’ of the United States also continues to operate through the social sciences, in particular from the platform of their academic system. But in other parts of the world the social sciences are vibrant and capable of intellectual autonomy; we witnessed the first instance in Latin America, then in Asia and now this is beginning to be the case in Africa. One might say that the social sciences have become globalised, extending geographically throughout the world.

To say that sociology is global, also means that its developments cannot be understood if we restrict our observations to the context of the nation-state or even of the region. To grasp these developments we have to go beyond what Ulrich Beck referred to as ‘methodological nationalism’ and develop a vision of the origin, circulation and future growth or regression of its paradigms, the choice of objects and methods and theoretical discussions. In a way, even the term ‘international’ should in many respects give way to that of ‘global’ so as not to restrict the global dimensions of our activities to the linkage of what is taking place in the context of the nation-State alone.

And, thirdly, to describe sociology as being global is to admit that the ways of thinking in this subject are becoming global, by which I mean that they recognise the existence for the analysis of a set of levels which extend from the most general, at world level, to the most restricted, the local level, and pass through the regional and the national. This is ‘thinking globally’. Each level retains its possible autonomy and a researcher may very well focus on only one of them. But that should not prevent the study of the facts or social relations on other scales and consideration of the articulation of the levels.

This threefold globalisation of sociology in no way means that sociology is restricted to considering its objects uniquely from the viewpoint of different systems ARTICULATED TO VARYING DEGREES and even less that it remains dominated by structuralist-type approaches. On the contrary, and this is not a paradox, this threefold globalisation encourages us to consider what may appear to be very distant from it namely the most unusual, the most personal: the individual, the particular subject (the private person), their passions, desires, calculations, fears, or emotions including the most intimate. For, if individualism is gaining ground all over the world, if the social sciences in the past thirty years, have been rediscovering the individual subject, subjectivity and, better still, the processes of subjectivation and de-subjectivation, it is because globalisation, generally speaking, weakens the previous systems, certain States, certain institutions, old social movements and that, in the face of globalisation, finally the first form of resistance or of action originates in the personal conscience of individuals. The latter can then choose to become involved, define themselves in terms of a collective identity, mobilise for a cause, recognise themselves in a religion: the point of departure, in a world which is globalising, is a highly subjective personal choice.

Consequently, the sociology of ‘struggles for a better world’ should be envisaged from a new perspective. In the 1960s and 70s, two main trends set the tone both of which proposed to focus on social movements in a framework which was basically national. On one hand, the ‘mobilisation of resource’ theories and those related to them saw social movements as being instrumental action, in fact essentially political, with actors endeavouring to break into an institutional system, extend their influence there and weaken that of their opponents. Charles Tilly was undoubtedly the founder and the best representative of this type of approach. On the other hand, for Alain Touraine and his close associates the term ‘social movement’ served to distinguish analytically one particular meaning in social struggles, that which ultimately aimed at controlling historicity, the most central values of community life.

It must now be admitted that this theoretical conflict has to be reviewed, to take into consideration the fact that our societies are no longer industrial, or even ‘post-industrial’, that the most important protestors have changed and that they act locally while they themselves think in global terms. It must also be noted that the failure of this type of actor, their absence and their impotence can lead to their inversion, to the rise of social anti-movements, for example to global terrorism. It should also be noted that the cultural or religious dimensions of the action are often a more mobilizing force than their specifically social aspects. To put it in a nutshell, if we consider that social life is produced and constructed through its conflicts and consequently, if we aim for the development of a global sociology of social movements, we must make a determined effort to update.


Michel Wieviorka is Professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and President of the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, both in Paris. He has been President of the ISA (2006-2010).

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