Social movements as unfinished processes

Compared to other types of political actors, social movements are much more fluid, chaotic and difficult to define. It is for this reason that the Italian scholar Alberto Melucci urges us to study the process through which social movements are produced rather than consider them as a ‘finished’ product. For Melucci, social movements are never ‘finished’ –  they are diverse, open-ended and always changing. As he notes,

“Addressing the problem of how a collective actor takes shape requires recognition of the fact that, for instance, what is empirically called ‘a movement’ and which, for the sake of observational and linguistic convenience, has been attributed an essential unity, is in fact a product of multiple and heterogeneous social processes. We must therefore seek to understand how this unity is built and what different outcomes are generated by the interaction of its various components.” (Melucci 1996: 20).

In one of my favourite Occupy Wall Street tweets, we can see the same attitude of questioning, the same openness to the fact that a movement like Occupy may be constantly changing:

occupy tweet

Focusing on communication can help us understand the ‘multiple and heterogeneous social processes’ through which social movements are produced. This is because viewing social movements as communication phenomena focuses our attention on the interactions and communication practices with which activists organize, coordinate and create the identity of the collective. But how can we study social movements from a communication perspective? This post offers some ideas…


Melucci, Alberto (1996) Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age. Cambridge University Press.