The History of Social Movements - a Global Perspective

Conference 06.09. - 08.09.2012 in Bochum

The History of Social Movements - a Global Perspective

The aim of the conference is to investigate social movements in their
plurality and variety in concrete historical settings, and in their
transnational entanglements. The organizers of this international conference
do not see social movements as directly linked to processes of social and
cultural change and therefore do not adhere to a view that distinguishes
between old (labour) and new (middle-class) social movements. Instead, they
want to establish the concept 'social movement' as a heuristic device that
allows historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to investigate
social and political protests in novel settings. The aim is to historicize
notions of social and political activism in order to highlight different
notions of political and social protest on both the political left and

The conference reacts to what can be described as a recent boom in the
history of social movements. We can observe a development from the crisis of
labour history in the 1980s to the boom in research on social movements in
the 2000s. The rise of historical interest in the development of civil
society and the role of strong civil societies as well as non-governmental
organizations in stabilizing democratically constituted polities has
strengthened the interest in social movements as a constituent element of
civil societies.

In different parts of the world, social movements continue to have a strong
influence on contemporary politics. In Latin America, trade unions, labour
parties and various left-of-centre civil society organizations have
succeeded in supporting left-of-centre governments. In Europe, peace
movements, ecological movements and alliances intent on campaigning against
poverty and racial discrimination and discrimination on the basis of gender
and sexual orientation have been able to set important political agendas for
decades. In other parts of the world, including Africa, India and South East
Asia, social movements have played a significant role in various forms of
community building and community politics. The contemporary political
relevance of social movements has undoubtedly contributed to a growing
historical interest in the topic.

Contemporary historians are not only beginning to historicize these
relatively recent political developments; they are also trying to relate
them to a longer history of social movements, including traditional labour
organisations, such as working-class parties and trade unions. In the longue
durée, it is important to recognise that social movements are by no means a
recent phenomenon and are not even an exclusively modern phenomenon,
although the onset of modernity emanating from Europe and North America
across the wider world from the eighteenth century onwards marks an
important departure point for the development of civil societies and social

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the dominance of national history
over all other forms of history writing led to a thorough nationalization of
the historical sciences. Hence social movements have been examined
traditionally within the framework of the nation state. Only during the last
two decades have historians begun to question the validity of such
methodological nationalism and to explore the development of social
movements in comparative, connective and transnational perspective taking
into account processes of transfer, reception and adaptation. Whilst this
conference does not preclude work that is still being carried out within
national frameworks (for, clearly, there is a place for such studies, given
the historical importance of the nation state in history), it hopes to
encourage comparative and transnational perspectives on social movements.

At the same time as historians have begun to research the history of those
movements, a range of social theorists, from Jürgen Habermas to Pierre
Bourdieu and from Slavoj Zizek to Alain Badiou have attempted to provide
theoretical frameworks in which to place and contextualize the development
of social movements. Social scientists have long been interested in
researching contemporary social movements. History has arguably been the
most empirical of all the social and human sciences, but it will be
necessary for historians to explore further to what extent these social
theories and social science approaches to the study of social movements can
be helpful in guiding and framing the empirical work of the historian in
making sense of the historical development of social movements. Hence the
conference is also hoping to make a contribution to the ongoing dialogue
between social theory and the history of social movements by asking all
paper givers to address the theoretical concerns and frameworks provided by
social movement theory.

The conference falls broadly into two parts: in the first part, world-class
scholars on social movements in different parts of the world give broad
surveys on the state-of-the-art in social movement research in North
America, South America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Far East and
Australia. In the second part of the conference, another set of
internationally leading scholars approach the topic of social movements not
from a geographical but from a thematic angle, attempting to address those
themes in global perspective. These papers incorporate both right-wing and
left-wing social movements and include ‘old’ as well as ‘new’ social
movements. Together the geographical and thematic strands of the conference
will provide a formidable survey of the historical research on social
movement and will be able to set the agenda for this research for many years
to come.

Official Flyer


Contact for further information

Prof. Dr. Stefan Berger

für alle Bilder: © Presse HGR/Thea Struchtemeier