In his compelling book, Social Movements in Latin America, Ronaldo Munck manages to both explore the diverse debates on social movements in Latin America and set an ambitious agenda for research. Drawing on Julio Cortázar, Munck refuses to ‘constantly seek order and rational explanations for the sometimes inexplicable outbursts of the desire for freedom’, yet at the same time his cognitive mapping of social movements across Latin America and his detailed engagement with actually existing movements produces a thoughtful and nuanced analysis from a Latin American perspective. Focusing chapters around theory, actors, spaces and issues allows the separate ‘pieces’ of the ‘mosaic’ to emerge across the region. He thoughtfully interrogates accounts of ‘the actually existing social transformation process’ (p. 24) – from scholars, activists, activist scholars – and while he resists neat and necessarily incomplete theoretical frames, his careful interrogation of the ‘emancipatory political grammar[s]’(p. 27) of movements across time and space provides both context and prompts questions. The book provides a necessary and critical intervention in debates on social movement research.
I have been asked to reflect on this text with reference to movements I am familiar with and to think through possibilities for future research. Rather than engage with a range of movements and pressing issues, which Munck does comprehensively in the text, I have decided to focus on a group of Salvadoran women and attempt to grapple with what I think are pressing concerns for activists in contexts of high violence. With this in mind, for me the most important challenge posed by Munck’s analysis is to think about the ways in which ‘Latin American subaltern knowledge[s] can make a genuine contribution to the current search for social order that is sustainable and equitable’ (p. 24). Among other questions, this throws up three interconnected issues that Munck identifies as central to social movement research: relational accounts of agency, the spaces(s) of action, and the relationship between power and resistance. Much of my own research has been in Central America, mainly in urban San Salvador, and more recently in the rural area of Chocó in Colombia. While very different political, economic and socio-cultural spaces, both are shaped by an intense violence that intersects with social, political and economic relations in multiple ways. Reflecting on both contexts demands attention to these intersections and the ways in which multi-faceted violence dynamises and limits the space for action for movements.
Central to debates on social movements has been the continuous interplay between a necessary focus on the agency of movements and the structural forces that shape both the need for activism and the terrain on which it takes place. Munck adeptly argues, for example, that the ‘presentation of the mosaic of social movements needs to be dynamic and historicised’ and can ‘only ever be understood within the totality of the relations they exist within. Their strategic choices, too, are relational’ (p. 120). I agree that this dynamic and historicised account of social movements as relational articulates both a necessary agenda for research but also presents a challenge for researchers. How can we capture this dynamism across time and space? To what extent would it even be possible to explore ‘the totality’ of relations in complex and changing contexts, especially ones marked by multiple violences? I ask these questions out of a genuine desire to grapple with how the evolving complexities of violence and violent actors shape the spaces for action of social movements across the region.
Munck invites us to think more critically about agency and I agree that his relational account of social movements is particularly provocative in this sense. A relational account necessarily places agency within dynamic ‘webs of social relations’ (Cumbers et al., 2010). Such an articulation rejects dominant (liberal) conceptions of ‘agency’ that refer to an individual’s capacity for action, unconstrained by structural social and political dynamics (Ahearn, 2001). Instead, it acknowledges an analysis of agents and structures as ‘co-determined’ (Wendt, 1987), situated (Williams, 2015) and therefore dynamically ‘entangled’ within wider social relations (Muñoz, 2016). This speaks clearly to Munck’s proposition that power and resistance are co-constituted and constantly negotiated.
Since 2007, I have been working with groups of women in El Salvador who are campaigning to prevent gender violence. While these groups certainly articulate with the wider feminist movement in El Salvador – often channelled through NGOs – around issues such as reproductive rights, sexuality, women’s rights, and labour rights. These activists prioritise the ‘local’ as their space of action. This is both a strategy and a necessity. Their relationship with their ‘local’ place can be both ambivalent and negative for many activists, a factor which is perhaps less well interrogated in existing debates on place-based struggles. There is a clear logic to focusing on building strategic relationships in local communities, but there is also risk given the potentiality of violence. A growing body of work by researchers such as Julia Zulver (2016) labels the feminism’ of women such as these ‘high risk’, specifically foregrounding the dangers they face in order to engage in resistance in contexts of high violence. While this of course demands a deeper interrogation of structural conditions and the wider political economy of violence (see True, 2012), here I wish to think about the immediate space in which women act and how this affects the very possibility of action (Hume and Wilding, 2020).
For many women who live on the urban margins, this local space of action – a deeply violent one – is where activists must face domination from multiple sources – within their households, from gangs and other violent actors in their communities, including police harassment and collusion to the aggression and discrimination they face from local state bureaucracies (see work by Neuman 2016; Fuentes 2020). The constant negotiation between a highly dynamic and multi-sited violence that shapes and limits the spaces in which these women act and how they make ‘strategic choices’ demand our attention both in terms of the temporality of movement politics and the dynamic strategising this entails. In El Salvador, women I have engaged with organise in their local communities in ‘citizen windows’ to promote critical thinking and concrete actions to prevent violence against women and girls. These might range from organised capacity-building processes to accompanying women to health centres and police stations. Their actions are informed by a politics of solidarity and women often face threats from local violent actors. Strategies have changed over the years in response to the different forms of domination by local violent actors, which at times has necessitated a more muted and less visible resistance as control of territories becomes more constraining. Their strategies and ‘emancipatory political grammars’ are necessarily adaptable and creative given the context in which they operate. Women resist nonetheless. They engage and challenge the state on multiple levels and forge quiet connections with women in other neighbourhoods to build solidarity across spaces. Munck’s call for attention to actually existing social transformation processes over time therefore is particularly salient in this regard.
One potentially fruitful way with which to take this forward is to explore the potential of these more marginal and at times muted emancipatory political grammars for radical and emancipatory politics. The work of Cindy Katz (2004) calls attention to ‘small acts’ that may not overtly challenge hegemonic power but can constitute an ‘attempt to recalibrate power relations’ through a continuum of actions. These small acts may not sit centrally within an emancipatory political grammar articulated by some of the more well-researched and high-profile movements. They constitute perhaps more of a ‘quiet politics’:
This quiet politics involves the ways in which everyday decision-making by individuals and communities can gradually, episodically, change dominant hegemonic norms and understandings, providing new opportunities for social change (Hankins, 2017: 503).
Attending to these ‘quiet’ political acts reinforces Munck’s reminder of the ‘importance of Latin American subaltern knowledge to contribute to the current search for social order that is sustainable and equitable’ To what extent might the concept of ‘quiet politics’ be useful to draw attention to those actions of movements in complex and violent contexts that go unnoticed or are deemed ‘inaudible’? Indeed, to what extent can current social movement research capture this work as emancipatory?
Attending to these mosaics of ‘small acts’ as political and listening out for the quieter articulations of change foreground the actions of these women as emancipatory, reflecting their ‘political will’ and ‘commitment’ to engage (Askins, 2015: 476). Importantly, it forces us to engage with the ‘totality’ of relations that mediates agency. This is particularly important in contexts where the sources of domination are multiple, such as those in which Central American women organise to challenge violence.
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Author: Mo Hume
Mo Hume is a Professor of Latin American Politics at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on how multiple and overlapping forms of violence are perceived by those who live in (post) conflict contexts. She has carried out extensive fieldwork in Central America, particularly El Salvador, where she also spent several years as a development worker in a local women’s organisation. She is currently Principal Investigator on an ESRC-Newton Caldas which focuses on struggles for socio-environmental rights along the Atrato River in Colombia.