Space in Social Movement Studies: a literature review (part 2, social movement studies facing space)

This literature review represents the second part of the result of my first month of doctorate. At that period, the aim was to establish a review of the interaction between social movements and the question of space “as wide as possible”. I am deeply aware of the considerable flaws of this review and its limitations. I do nonetheless believe it provides a good insight to the learning of spatial concerns for someone originally trained in political science.

2005-11-20 - United Kingdom - England - London - Hyde Park - Speakers' Corner

Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner, c. CGP Grey

3. The use of space in the study of contentious politics

3.1. The theory of “free spaces” as a way to understand the dynamics of minorities mobilisations

Despite the fact that the NSM theory mostly refers to space as a metaphor, a specific concept forged by some of its theoreticians refers to the relation between an actual space and the dynamics of mobilisation. The theory of “free spaces” refers to the use by a transgressive social group of a designated space in order to mobilise members, express claims, discuss ideas and organise actions. For Charles Tilly, this refers to three kinds of situations:

“geographic areas where contentious claim making gains protection from routine surveillance and repression because of terrain, built environment, or legal status, […] segregated institutions in which legal privilege, organizational structure, social composition, or governmental neglect permits otherwise forbidden conversation and action, […] public occasions on which authorities tolerate or even encourage large, extraordinary assemblies in selected sites, thus providing opportunities for both airing of generally forbidden claims and access to large audiences for those claims” (2000)

According to Francesca Poletta (1999), the most known case of the application of the theory of “free spaces” is the study of the black churches in the segregationist American South during the civil rights movements studied by Sara Evans and Harry Boyte (1986): “For the emerging civil rights movement [the churches] provided meeting places to develop strategy and commitment, a network of charismatic movement leaders, and an idiom that persuasively joined Constitutional ideals with Christian ones” (Poletta, 1999). Hence, a “free space” would be defined by several elements: a somehow-secluded or protected place in which a dominated group can evade temporarily surveillance of the state or the dominant social groups in order to organise its actions; a cultural charge that serves the politicisation of the group by challenging the dominant (and, therefore, justificatory) ways of understanding the social world; a long-term connection between the actors practising these spaces in order to free themselves from routine roles.

In understanding the way dominated groups or poor people’s movements mobilise, this concept seems to be quite efficient. Indeed, where resource mobilisation theory can explain how mobilisation entrepreneurs can “invest” their individual resources in a cause in order to mobilise on that cause, the mack of such entrepreneurs in certain mobilisations cannot be explained, in which case “safe spaces” bring an answer. In the case of the 1989 student mobilisation in Beijing, Dingxin Zhao insists on the importance of the safety of the space in order to explain the rise of the movement, by pointing out two ways the universities were, for the birthing movement, a “safe space”. Firstly, the universities were in themselves protected because of the physical and legal protection brought by the brick walls separating them from the city: “After talking to students, I found that the existence of campus walls was important for the development of the movement. Because of the walls, roads on campus are no longer part of the public road system, and police cannot get inside a campus without clear consent from school authorities” (Zhao, 1998). The same kind of phenomenon has been observed by Robert Wilton and Cynthia Cranford (2002) when studying the way in which the particular legal status of a church in the campus of the University of Los Angeles had allowed the demonstrators to act despite a legal interdiction to gather.

Another kind of “safe space” identifiable here is the configuration on the dormitories, which facilitated political discussions between the students. Nonetheless, the author insists on the fact that these behaviours cannot be reduced to the investment of an ideological resource by a politicised actor in a process of ideological inculcation:

“Here, dormitory rooms have a convergence function but not in the sense that students would eventually agree with each other. The same informant continued: “During the debate, I and another student were strongly against his idea, while one student supported him. The rest were in the middle.” Students seldom simply agreed with each other. However, continuing discussions of similar issues, which were often social problems that had no easy solutions, made students more sensitive to these issues, and gradually they came to some consensus on a few basic points as the social problems were prolonged or even worsened” (Zhao, 1998)

Therefore, the conception of an ideological resource (in terms of, but not exclusively, problems, discourses, potential solutions) is not made possible by the importation of such a resource by a politicised actor, but by the interactions inside the “safe space” constituted by the dormitories.

Nevertheless, Francesca Poletta raises several limits in the use of the theory of “safe spaces”, which are rooted in the fact that the concept in itself is not well defined between the authors using it, which can lead it to become more of a metaphor than a concept. We can raise some of these remarks here:

  • The actual spatiality of the “safe spaces” can be questioned, as for some authors space becomes once again a metaphor in order to design a configuration: “Evans and Boyt represent them as physical spaces; the term, they say “suggests strongly an “objective,” physical dimension – the ways in which places are organized and connected, fragmented, and so forth.” However, Scott maintains that linguistic codes that are opaque to those in power are as much a free space as is a physical site of resistance” (Poletta, 1999).
  • The connection between “free spaces” and the everyday life can be raised as well. Francesca Poletta points out that, for some of the authors engaged in this theory, intimacy and rootedness in the everyday allow free speech much more, hence characterising “free spaces” as small and strongly rooted in the everyday practices of the social groups. Yet, she also remarks that some other authors pointed the importance of a rupture with the everyday practices:

“The Highlander Center, federal prisons, and the Christian Faith and Life Community within which New Left ideals were developed have each been labelled free spaces but none can be considered integral to the daily life of pre-existing communities. 1960s feminist activist Pam Allen is explicit: “It is when we come into a long term relationship with people with whom we don’t associate regularly that the old roles we play can be set aside for a space in which we can develop ourselves more fully as whole human beings…. Free Space is free because we do relate apart from our daily lives.”” (Ibid)

  • Lastly and more importantly, the question of the opportunities, that underlie in the concept of “free spaces” is criticised by the author. She argues that what “free spaces” allow, according to the concept’s theoreticians, is not the consciousness of oppression, but the ability of the oppressed to discern political opportunities and take action: “What free spaces do provide is the opportunity to articulate safely “the assertion, aggression, and hostility that is thwarted by the on-stage power of the dominant,” to plot alternatives, and to test the limits of official power” (Ibid). In other words, and still according to the author, the theories of “free spaces” make a confusion between culture and structure, by reducing the first to the second and overlooking structure, thus leading to an equation according which structural closure and structural opportunity leads to mobilisation. An example here that tend to support the author’s idea is Camille Hamidi’s work on the potential politicisation of the members of local associations in France, which was concluded by the fact that not only the co-presence of social actors confronted to the same difficulties in a foreclose and uncontrolled space was enough to lead to a politicisation of these actors, but that what these actors seek in taking part in these meetings defined an “ambience” that could facilitate or block this process (Hamidi, 2006). Therefore an attention to the political work inside these spaces should be taken in account as much, or even more, as their existence.

Despite Francesca Poletta’s strong criticism of the concept, which leads her to affirm that “it is the character of [the associational ties between contexts] that are established or reinforced in those settings, rather than the physical space itself, that the free space concept has sometimes successfully captured” (1999) Cynthia Cranford and Robert Wilton (2002) point out that the author’s proposal leads to a negation of the characteristics of space. Hence they use the concept of “free space” by focusing not on the cultural or structural relationship between such spaces and the birth of a mobilisation, but through the study of the political work of the demonstrators toward or using free spaces: “foregrounding space contributes to debates concerning the meaning and importance of “free spaces” to movements, and to an understanding that sites such as churches, can serve not only as contexts for organizing, but also as sites of active resistance”.

3.2. Space as an enabling context

Space as a focus for claim-making: the pragmatic approach

When defining urban social movements, Manuel Castells identifies these movements by their identification around three goals, which are defined as “purposive desires and demands present in the collective practice of the movement” (1972: 319). These three goals are presented as such: collective consumption trade-unionism, which consists in seeking to improve for a part of the inhabitants of a city an improvement of the public goods; community, in which case the movement aims to defend “communication between people, autonomously defined social meaning, and face-to-face interaction, against the monopoly of the messages by the media, the predominance of one-way information flows, and the standardization of culture” (Id); citizen movement, which seeks neighbourhood decentralisation. This typology is used by the author to support an idea brought earlier in his work, that “[urban social movements] were not only urban-based but urban-orientated. […] So what we have considered to be the “urban problems” of each historical context were not merely pretexts for the triggering of urban conflicts” (Ibid: 69). It also leads him to an important affirmation concerning social movements, that is, that such movements are primarily defined by their goals: “The movements become social actors by being engaged in a mobilization towards an urban goal which is itself linked to the general struggle over the continuous restructuring of society. […] They are not, then, another form of class struggle, gender struggle, or ethnic struggle” (Ibid: 320).

In terms of spatial understanding of contention, this idea has different consequences. It implies indeed that, without negating the existence of structural oppositions in the shaping of contention, the way the actors, individually or collectively, address these oppositions, is through a mediation, and that in the case of urban social movements, this mediation is urban. This idea, according which social problems can be addressed only through social representations, is discussed by Daniel Cefaï (1996) concerning the question of the narration and the everyday practice confronted to a problem:

“The facts are never accessible but in the horizon of the representations one makes and gives himself of them; this “one”, far from being an intellectual person, is a horizon of interactions and inter-locutions in which are constructed a reality and a legitimacy. […] In the pragmatic legacy of J. Dewey, the public problem is more than the product of a “collective labelling”, it is an on-going “collective activity”. Attributions of causality and imputations of responsibility, […] are as many “practical accomplishments” in situations lived and perceived as problematic.”

What the author implies here is that the constitution of a public problem is rooted in the everyday interactions of a given population that, from an individual to a collective “trouble”, conceive a narrative of what constitutes a problem, who is the responsible, who is the victim, and how to solve it[i]. Nonetheless the development of such a narrative requires some kind of network to exist between the actors concerned, as stated by Asef Bayat: “Any collective political act – mobilization – requires some degree of organization, communication, and networking among its actors. For the most part this is constituted deliberately, either formally or informally. […] In both formal and informal cases, the participants would have an active network among themselves in that they become to know each other, talk, meet, and consciously interact with one another” (1997: 16). Nonetheless the author argues that atomised individuals in a similar position can, when facing a common threat, act commonly if they are included in another kind of network, which is passive. The argument of Asef Bayat is that this kind of network requires for such individuals to be brought together by space, while differing from the theory of “safe space” that considers such spaces as a way for a group already constituted to constitute its narratives and organise its actions.

Therefore, there are groups whose collective identity lies in the fact that their potential members are situated in a coherent space, and brought together by a common threat: “The regular “copresence” of individuals in specific and geographically delimited space, if not a sufficient condition for collective action, enhances greatly the share of representations and common spatial routines. […] Even in the absence of pre-existing networks, the spatial configuration can be a vector of collective identification and mobilisation” (Hmed, 2009: 221). In the case of Iranian street vendors, per instance, Asef Bayat describes the way in which this group constituted itself on the basis of a spatial belonging: “Those individual vendors who worked in the same street and saw one another on a daily basis could develop latent communication merely by the fact of their common interest, even though they might not know or speak to one another. When a common threat arrived, they came together commonly and spontaneously” (1997: 149), even though this group was constituted massively of unemployed and unpoliticised actors.

The ecological approach of social movements

While the approaches highlighted so far focus on the ways in which space matters in the definitions of claims and the constitution of a mobilised group, another important part of the research agenda on space concerns the way in which mobilised groups and individuals can use space as a basis for the deployment of their tactics. In several of the case studied, the authors emphasised the way in which the contention was happening over space, and in which specific registers of contention were deployed on space. Charles Tilly categories this situation under the category of spatial claim-making: “In spatial claim making the changing locations, activities, and spatial configurations of people themselves constitute a significant part of contention. Obvious examples include demonstrations, sit-down strikes, sit-ins, processions, and mass meetings” (2000). The author insists that spatial deployment of a mobilisation has an interest since it shapes the future mobilisations (he takes the example of the main places in which the demonstrations during the French Revolution, that still have an impact on the organisation of demonstrations today) as well as it is influenced by the previous ones. In other words, the places in which spatial claim-making occurs have an importance for the movements.

For Javier Auyero, the symbolic of space does not only matter in terms of spatial claim-making, but also in understanding how some movements focus their attention on a certain place: “Göran Therborn show as well how places are “invested by meanings. As such, places structure a field of action. Places indicate attachment, belonging, attraction, revulsion; [they are] objects of identification, ambition and desire”. Objects, as physical grounds, become places to defend or attack, to preserve or to liberate. Better, the politics of contention transform them in stakes” (Auyero, 2006). Studying the MST (Movement of Rural Landless Workers) in Brazil, Wendy Wolford (2003) shows the importance of the representations of the rural population of southern Brazil concerning land and the way these representations were a basis for their engagement in a political mobilisation: “The small farmers who joined MST used the tools of their traditions to carve out a new form of frontier. The political frontier was created by occupying private property that had been preserved for several hundred years through powerful traditions of domination. Small farmers represented this land as both “a gift of God” and a right that every impoverished Brazilian citizen deserved”.

In addition to the role of space in the constitution of claims and mobilised groups, studies tend to point out how spatial configurations are relevant to understand the way mobilised groups act. In Dingxin Zhao’s study, an importance has been given to the paths used by the demonstrators in order to mobilise as many students as possible, and that these paths were defined by the avenues passing between the dormitories:

“They marched inside the dormitory area first. As they were chanting and making noises, more and more students were attracted and came out. The size of the formation swelled from a few hundred to between 5,000 and 6,000, and eventually the students marched out of the campus. This was the first large-scale student demonstration by the students of Beijing University” (Zhao, 1998)

The author insists that the strategies employed by the demonstrators to mobilise new students cannot be reduced to the activation of networks or organisations. He rather argues that the pattern of the University space defined an ecological field in which such ways to protest would be more efficient than others. It is easily understandable that the shapes of the streets, the concentration of the buildings, the function of the district, and other purely physical elements are relevant in order to understand the dynamics of a mobilisation. In the case of Nepal’s revolution in 1990, Paul Routeledge notes that one specific way of action, the blackout, was conceived by taking spatiality in account: “These [blackouts] were often called during the evening curfews that were imposed by the government in an attempt to quell the movement. […] They also enabled increasing numbers of people to show solidarity to the movement and to challenge the curfew and join demonstration swarms under cover of darkness with a reduced chance of being identified by security forces” (1997: 77). The author also notes that the leaders of the demonstrations chose consciously to organise their actions in narrow streets and squares that would be harder for the government forces to assault. Hence, the blackout was not only, in terms of outputs, a symbolic act aimed to support the demonstrators, but a way to create a spatial agency easing the demonstrations. For Dingxin Zhao, ecologies must therefore be taken in account in order to understand the potential for a group to mobilise itself: “The importance of ecology to movement mobilization lies in the fact that, other factors being equal, the mobilizing potential of a population will be different if the same population is spatially arranged in even a slightly different way” (Zhao, 1998).

In sum, space appears as a relevant way to understand the constitution of collective problems, and therefore of potential social movements, by the way in which it can act as a medium for the collective expression of a problem for a given group, but also by the way in which it can be the cement of an otherwise atomised group, that finds its identity when the collective problem appears to its members. It also allows to explain the focuses and tactics of mobilised groups, through the material agency of a given space.

3.3. Space and the resource mobilisation theory

Indigeneity as a spatial political resource

The topic of indigeneity has been used in several political contexts to talk about different social movements and political mobilisations. As pointed out by Barbara Green and Tom Perreault, the definition of indigeneity is almost impossible to give in itself: “Central to this understanding of indigeneity is the discursive production of the indigenous in relation to the national, the dominant, and the colonial, which, as Castree notes, “necessarily rests on an insider/outsider distinction”” (2013). Nonetheless, the two authors recognise that this distinction in itself is not sufficient in defining the concept of indigeneity, which requires to be related to a specific stake, the control of place:

“Castree notes that the politics of indigeneity […] “is pursued by and on behalf of people who claim a certain identity (“indigenous”) for which they seek recognition and which, in turn, can be used as a resource in specific struggles … unlike most other global social movements, indigenism is, in a fundamental sense, about the control of place.”” (Ibid)

It must be noted here that “indigeneity”, in its common sense understanding, relates almost always to an exotic trait or a characteristic of “non-Western” cultures. Nonetheless this understanding is not the one we choose to privilege here, because of its efficiency to understand spatially-oriented mobilisations in Western countries as well. In the case of Paris’ Commune, Roger Gould (1995) notes the importance of the city’s spatial identity in the discourse of the insurgents. The author’s argument here leaves room for both an explanation that takes account of spatial identities as networks that can be activated when a political opportunity occurs, but underlines the importance of the capacity of mobilisation entrepreneurs to work these identities: “The grand scale of urban uprisings owes much, to be sure, to the sudden opening of political opportunity occasioned by state breakdown; but it owes at least as much to the inclusiveness of the collective identities that insurgent organizations are capable of sustaining” (Ibid: 202).

This idea of indigeneity as the result of a political work is present as well in Barbara Green and Tom Perreault’s work. Not only is indigeneity an identity relative to both a space and an outsider, the authors add a third element to their definition, that indigeneity is relative to a discourse which idealises and naturalises this identity. After rejecting physical and cultural determinants to indigeneity (such as the language, location, and socio-economical position), the authors argue that this category is much more understandable when considering it as the result of a political work:

“Quechua and Aymara activists and intellectuals in the Andean west mobilize notions of indigeneity as part of a politicized discourse which promotes (idealized) “Andean values” of reciprocity, communalism, and collective action. […] For these residents who are just one or two generations removed from rural communities and “traditional” lifestyles […] indigeneity is not something relegated to the marginal, the exotic, or the territorially bond. Rather, in this context, indigeneity is a fluid concept that transcends divides of urban/rural and ethnicity/class and articulates a sense of cultural heritage and Andean tradition with nationalist sentiment and class-based opposition to domination by foreign and domestic elites” (Id)

Indigeneity serves, in that conceptualisation, not only as a way to distinguish a community from another, but also as a discursive resource which serves as a basis for a political discourse, always somewhat-related to a specific space: “For both the ayllu movement and the lowland autonomy movement indigeneity has emerged as a central idiom to imbricate multiple political, economic, cultural, and territorial claims” (Id).

Space as an explicit resource

Another way to conceive social movements in relation with an environment is by pointing how the social movements question a legitimate order by challenging a legitimate use of space as well as the everyday routines that reproduced through the institutionalisation of such a space. This idea is connected with a premise of the resource mobilisation theory, that mobilisations and social movements are not episodic events that occur when social structures change abruptly, or when a population reaches, collectively, a certain level of dissatisfaction, but that they are rooted in the everyday life of their actors, who transfer skills, registries and goods and “invest” them in the movement. Therefore social routines and individual representations are relevant to understand the dynamics of mobilisation, thus leading to an interest, in the case of space, for “lived space”, or in other words, spatially-based representations. Per instance, in the case of the mobilisation in the University of Los Angeles, Cynthia Cranford and Robert Wilton (2002) show the importance of such a transgression, and how the dynamics of the social conflict were shaped in part by the attempts of the two parts to impose their control on space:

“In March 1996, both janitors and housing and dining workers held several large and noisy demonstrations in the central plaza of campus, signalling unwillingness to accept their precarious place within the “family.” […] In these protests, workers disrupted the spatial order of campus. The Latino and African American workers were noticeably out of place. Their collective action constituted a fundamental departure from the spatial norms of service employment at the university. […] In response to mass transgression, administrators moved to reinstate control over campus space. Legal counsel for the university obtained an injunction against HERE and SEIU locals permitting only ten workers to assemble in the centre of campus and only five workers to congregate at any campus building.”

In the same way, Paul Routeledge (1997: 84) shows how the Nepal resistance movement “consciously sought to transform urban space into a tool of the revolution”, by gathering in and swarming places in which police was strongly present. Dingxin Zhao (1998) also remarks the importance of the disruption of the spatial routines in the student movement of 1989 in Beijing: “For example, in each university, big character posters and announcements were concentrated and mobilization was initiated only in specific places. These places emerged because they were central to students’ daily life”. For Choukri Hmed (2008), the action of mobilised groups toward space, and especially an oppressive space, in order to challenge social order, can be defined as the transformation of space in a resource for action:

[The spatial characteristics] furnish to the mobilised group a set of resources he must articulate with others in order to begin and continue its fight. […] The originality of these means [in the author’s case] comes from the fact that they come mostly from the institution: by subverting the spatial and institutional agency of the SONACOTRA houses, the inhabitants managed to create an important social movement. The spatial stake for the militants not only consists in gain advantage from the “spatial density” procured by these houses, but also to build a “strong” militant infrastructure by making of the SONACOTRA’s establishments a place of socialisation and diffusion of the means of action.”

Therefore, through its meanings both in terms of everyday life and in terms of political meanings, space can be efficiently understood as a resource for action, not only in the case of what we called the ecological approach of social movements, but also by taking in account the ways in which mobilised groups subvert or sometimes challenge the spatial meanings.


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[i] This idea is developed, on an individual scale in Robert M. Emerson and Sheldon L. Messinger, “The micropolitics of trouble”, Social Problems, Vol. 25, N° 2, December 1977, pp. 121-134. The authors conclude as well that the definition of a problem cannot be understood as the beginning of the solution process, but as rooted into this process through the different interactions with third parties that mark this process.

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