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 right.

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 movements.

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