The people who got left behind – are new social movements really de-politicized?

Sitting in a darkened lecture-come-cinema room at 10am on Friday morning during the first week back to university, I was not quite prepared for our introductory lecture to London’s Burning: Social Movements and Protest in the Capital 1830-2003. Despite having a wonderful, innovative teacher who really helps to bring history alive for me, theory is never my strong suit, particularly early in the morning. Slouching in my roomy, but difficult to write on, chair I stared at the screen and tried to follow along as best as possible to the many elements which make up Charles Tilly’s (2004) pioneering social movement theory.

Whilst many contemporary thinkers may dismiss Tilly’s theories as outdated and no longer relevant, I think they allow the construction of a good foundational knowledge in which to think about historical approaches to social movement theory. As a student of both history and anthropology, I am always a big advocate for theorists who emphasise interdisciplinary and pluralized approaches to things. Tilly’s approach provides the foundations for such an understanding of social movements, and one that I feel provides a lot of wiggle room in which to think. Yet, this of course makes it no easier to grapple with his theories of claim-making and public displays of ‘W.U.N.C’ when your mind is definitely set on wondering about breakfast instead.

It wasn’t until we moved on to the section about new social movements, and Alan Scott’s (1990) ‘identity-orientated approach’ that I could begin to make more concrete connections to familiar social movements that my brain decided to perk up a bit. Last year, as part of the module Modern Revolutions in Comparative Perspective, we spent some time learning about the 1960’s counter-culture revolutions such as the Civil Rights Movement, Second-wave Feminism, and the Stonewall Riots. As a young, queer, trans person I am always excited when marginalised identities are included on the curriculum especially as I feel that particular new social movements have had such a profound impact on our political rights and social freedoms in the 21st century.

That’s why I was so surprised when Scott’s identity orientated approach spoke about how new social movements primarily focus on social rather than political purposes. He argues that social movements seek change through altering cultural values and alternative lifestyles rather than political systems. As a result, he believes that one of the criticisms of new social movements is that they pose a danger of de-politicising movements. I find that surprising as I believe the aforementioned new social movements have given us some of our most important political and social progress of the 20th and 21st centuries despite these social movements orientating around identity rather than economics or labour.

I would argue that new social movements are not inherently de-politicized as a result of having identity as their primary focus, rather that they are inherently political because of this. Whilst new social movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, Second-wave Feminism and the LGBTQ movement did have identity at their heart, these movements were not removed from politics. They did not just seek to change cultural values and gain social acceptance in a de-politicized manner but fought tooth and nail, with some losing their lives in the process, in order to gain the same rights and economic liberation that dominant social groups had. The Civil Rights Movement, for example, was not just about seeking change through the removal of racial segregation and discrimination, but aimed to secure equal rights through legal recognition and citizenship rights under the American Constitution. It resulted in a number of ground-breaking pieces of legislation including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.


Second-wave Feminism, building upon the suffrage work of First-wave Feminism, challenged political, economic and social inequalities that women faced through seeking reproductive rights and bodily autonomy, to women’s right to work and receive fair wages. LGBTQ movements sought decriminalisation of homosexuality and the right to wear gender non-conforming clothing, freedom from harassment and violence from police, rights in the workplace, access to treatment for gender dysphoria and the right to legal gender recognition.


Whilst Scott argues that the ‘identity-orientated’ new social movements are primarily social rather than political and are not necessarily economic or labour motivated, I believe that it is a red-herring to separate out these motivations into social and economic as these are intricately intertwined. Therefore, whilst these examples of new social movements had identity as their primary focus, and less of an economic focus, that is not to say that they are de-politicized as these movements are a result of the failure of labour movements to ensure political progress for all people in society.

Economic social movements without identity leave portions of society behind, leaving many of these identity based social movements to catch up with the economic rights that had been won by mainstream labour movements. The very fact that the rights of these marginalised identity groups hadn’t been included in the first place, and thus were fighting to get through the door, is political.


Charles Tilly, Social Movements 1768-2004 (London: Boulder, 2004)

Alan Scott, Ideology and the New Social Movements (London: Unwin Hyman, 1990)


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