Social movement research, class and protest


There are many things going on in Social Movements in Latin America. Mapping the Mosaic. I especially appreciated the critical discussions of cultural political economy, of autonomy, of left critiques of progressive but extractivist governments, and the plea to account for the messiness of politics when we analyse social movements. I also welcome the historical perspective and case study approach, and I realise that no book that covers movements of workers, peasants, communities, women, indigenous peoples and for the environment will describe each of them in as much detail as would be possible with a more limited focus.

Of course, the point is to show the mosaic, while also highlighting how identities overlap constantly: women are workers, peasants, neighbourhood activists, indigenous peoples, environmentalists; peasants are workers, territorial activists, indigenous peoples, women, environmentalists, and so on.

It wouldn’t make sense to criticise the book for its mosaic approach, but I’ve been asked to think about an agenda for future research on social movements. So, I would advocate for a mix of this kind of approach with further indepth studies. My disciplinary background as an anthropologist makes this inevitable, but I think it also comes from a slightly different perspective on the purpose of comparison. For me, comparison is not so much about the possibility of generalisation, or of the generation of a framework that would enable consistent evaluation across different contexts and movements.

Rather, by placing detailed analyses of different cases alongside they can hopefully illuminate each other, suggesting questions that we might pose of our material in common (Lazar, 2012). In that spirit, here I depart from what I know about those social movements that I know best, which cross (broadly speaking) Argentina and Bolivia, especially labour movements in those two countries, but also to some extent a bit further afield.

As I think about the ways that I would like to take Ronnie Munck’s agenda forward, the first aspect I would like to highlight is class. I’ll then move to a discussion of social protest versus social movement.

My first observation is that movements of workers are changing as the workers change, in perhaps two significant ways. First, as Munck points out, precarious workers in the informal sector are an important constituency for regional labour movements, even though the traditional trade unions are often not doing very well at mobilising them. However, there are some signs that could give hope: in Argentina, there are very important initiatives for unionisation of workers in the popular economy – as Maria Inés Fernández Álvarez’ work with CTEP (Centre for workers of the popular economy) shows (e.g. Fernandez Alvarez, 2019) – and in the platform economy (e.g. the union ASIMM which mobilises messengers and delivery cyclists). Interestingly, both these organisations operate along quite traditional grounds and are associated with the traditional Peronist trade unions rather than the more autonomist labour movement. Meanwhile there are smaller independent initiatives, including with such informal and hard to reach groups as migrant garment stitchers.

In Brazil, the domestic workers union has been very […]