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and methods

Theorie et methodes

Alberto Melucci

The new social movements:

A theoretical approach

1. The theoretical


The theoretical debate about social movements has grown steadily

since the 1960s in response to the development of new forms of collective action in advanced capitalist societies, and to the advent of
explosive social conflicts in the societies dependent on them. The
difficulties confronting theorists in this area are evident from the
impasse experienced by two theoretical traditions which, in their
different ways, have dealt with the subject of social movements:
Marxism and functionalist sociology. The primary concern of
classical Marxist analysis has been to define the preconditions of
revolution by examining the structural contradictions of the
capitalist system. Centering its investigation on the logic of the
system, it has underestimated the processes by which collective action ermerges, as well as the internal articulation of social
movements (mobilization, organization, leadership, ideology) and
the forms through which revolt passes in becoming a class movement. According to this view, the party, as a centralized organization emerges, as well as the internal articulation of social
expression of collective action, and the conquest of the apparatus
of the state remains the first objective of this action. Every form of
action which can not be reduced to the model of the party is thereby
diminished in value or considered to be marginal. If the party
becomes the state, the new power is by definition the faithful interpretor of collective conflicts and demands. The creation of a



totalitarian order and the emergence of Stalinism are, it is maintained, not the necessary consequences of Leninism, but certainly
the outgrowth of its presuppositions. Marxist reflection is beginning to become aware of these limitations and to reexamine the
theoretical foundations from which they arise. The debate which

developed in the 1970s within Marxism has shown that the major
source of difficulty on the theoretical level is the separation of
analysis of the system from analysis of the actors. As an analysis of
the mode of capitalist production, Marxism defines the conditions
under which the system enters a state of crisis. As a theory of
revolution, it lacks the analytic instruments required for defining
the actors and political forms of socio-economic transformation.
In order to extricate itself from this theoretical impasse, the
Marxist tradition must, therefore, move from a structural analysis
of class relations and of the logic of the capitalist system towards a
definition, first, of class action, and, then, of political action.
Reflection on social movements is a crucial theoretical issue that
be avoided.
American sociology, for its part, has tackled the subject of social
movements from the point of view of collective behaviour, i.e. of
the whole spectrum of types of behaviour ranging from the panic to
changes in fashion, from crowd behaviour to the revolution. Much
empirical research on the various ways in which people conduct
themselves in groups has gone into the development and support of
theories of this kind. Studies of collective behaviour thus constitute
an obligatory point of reference; but, at the same time, they display
the limitations of an approach which finds the key to the explanation of behaviour in the beliefs of the actors and which, above all,
places on the same level phenomena whose structural significance
varies immensely, for example, a panic and a revolution. The difference between them, according to these theories, lies solely in the
magnitude of the beliefs which mobilize the respective actions. Collective action, therefore, is always considered to be the result of a
strain which disturbs the equilibrium of the social system. It is this
strain which gives rise to the generalized beliefs which are the
source of the different types of collective behaviour and whose goal
is the restoration of equilibrium. In the analysis of the theorists of
collective behaviour, no reference is made to class relations or to
the mode of the production and appropriation of resources. The
whole inquiry turns on adaptive reactions in the mechanisms which
ensure the smooth functioning of the system.
can not

In advanced capitalist societies, social movements have challenged the optimistic models which foresaw a gradual modernization
taking place without rupture in the existing political and social
systems. In explaining social movements, however, we can no
longer be satisfied with analyses which are confined either to the
logic of capitalist development or to dysfunctions in the systems
integrative mechanisms. The current debate reveals the necessity
of a sociology of collective action which is capable of linking actors
and system, class relations and incidents of conflict.
The theoretical question raised by the analysis of the social
movements found in advanced capitalist societies is that of determining if we are now confronted with a new series of class conflicts. Beyond the interest one might take in the novelty of the
forms and aims of the collective action under discussion, the central problem of a sociology of social movements remains the definition of the conditions under which a class movement can appear. In
the present essay I shall not attempt to provide a satisfactory
answer to this general question. Instead, I shall try to advance a few
steps in the study of these problems by combining theoretical
reflection with some empirical observations on the new social
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=, ..




2. An analytic definition

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In order to leave the rather barren and undifferentiated field of collective behaviour, it is necessary, at the start, to distinguish different types of behaviour. There are some kinds that I do not consider as belonging, properly speaking, to the field of collective action and of social movements. These may be termed examples of
crisis behaviour or (as others call it) of aggregative behaviour
(Alberoni, 1977). What we have in mind here are those ways of
behaving in groups which (a) do not involve solidarity among the
actors; (b) in which the phenomenon can be decomposed down to
the limit of the individual without losing its distinguishing
characteristics and properties; and (c) in which, finally, the
behaviour is oriented exclusively toward the exterior and does not
refer to the group itself. Collective phenomena of this kind are the
response to the breakdown of the social system in a given area and
result from the simple aggregation of atomized individuals,
facilitated by the diffusion of a generalized belief, in the sense in


which Smelser defines this concept (Smelser, 1963). The types of

empirical behaviour that may most easily be classed in this category
are those that the sociology of collective behaviour has analyzed
with the closest attention, that is to say, crowd behaviour, the
panic, etc. Yet, what are involved here are empirical objects whose
analytic significance can be multiple: beyond the response to crisis,
one can discover conflicts about substantive issues. On the other
hand, in the social movements such as I will define them below,
there are certainly dimensions of collective behaviour in the sense
that I have just proposed. The empirical object can never be apprehended as such, and its significance is always the result of the
work of analytic decomposition.
I define collective action in the strict sense as the ensemble of
the various types of conflict-based behaviour in a social svstem . A
collective action implies the existence of a struggle between two actors for the appropriation and orientation of social values and
resources, each of the actors being characterized by a specific
solidarity. This general definition indicates the first level of collective action. To be complete, it requires the addition of a second
condition, which also specifies the second level of collective action.
Collective action also includes all the types of behaviour which
transgress the norms that have been institutionalized in social roles,
which go beyond the rules of the political svstem and/or which attack the structure of a societys class relations.
I call conflict-based action collective action which satisfies only
the first condition. I call a social movement the type of collective
action which fulfills the first and the second condition. In this
sense, a social movement is an analytic construct and not an em-

pirical object.
It should be noted that the second condition is subordinate to the
first. The dimension of what may be termed behaviour &dquo;breaking
off the limits of the system being considered&dquo; can enter the analysis
only if the first condition, the existence of a conflict, is fulfilled. In
this case only can one speak of a social movement. By contrast, the
mere existence of a conflict is not enough to qualify an action as a
social movement. If the conflict does not go beyond the limits of
the political or organizational system under consideration, then one
is dealing, rather, with political competition or a conflict of interests
within a given normative framework. I believe that the term
conflict-based action best corresponds to this type of behaviour.
On the other hand, the fact that rules are broken or that norms are


rejected is not sufficient to identify a social movement; for the latrequires a struggle between two actors seeking the same thing. If
it is solely a question of the breaking of rules, we may speak of deviance, in the proper sense of the word. In deviant types of

behaviour there is a total absence of direct conflict between two acfor the control of some specific resource or value. The actor is
defined by his marginality vis-A-vis a system of norms and reacts to
the control they exercise without challenging their legitimacy, that is
to say, without identifying a social adversary and without indicating what is at stake in his struggle.
The general categories of collective action ought now to be
specified with respect to the different levels of the social structure
Melucci, 1976,
(class relations, political systems, role systems
1977). One may speak of conflict-based organizational action or
conflict-based political action when a conflict occurs within the
limits of a given organization or political system. One may not,
however, speak of a class conflict-based action (in the sense given
here to the term conflict-based action), because, by definition, action undertaken by a class goes beyond the institutional limits of
the system and challenges its fundamental relationships. Since it attacks the foundations of the mode of production, action undertaken by a class always lies, as it were, beyond the norms of the
social organization and the rules of the political game.
As far as social movements are concerned, it is necessary first of
all to consider organizational movements. The types of collective
behaviour found in this case are situated at the level of a given
social organization and are directed against the power governing a
system of norms and roles. The action aims at a different division
of resources, a functional adaptation of the organization, and a
redistribution of roles. But, at the same time, it tends to transgress
the institutional limits of the organization and to go beyond its normative framework. The conflict leaves the organization and moves
toward the political system. Political movements are collective actions which tend to enlarge political participation, and to improve
the relative position of the actor in the societys decision processes.
But political movements do not act strictly within the existing
political system; they seek to surpass the system by opening new
channels for the expression of political demands and by pushing
participation beyond the limits foreseen for it.
The fundamental theoretical problem, however, is that of class
movements. Analytically, I define as collective actions which aim at

the appropriation and orientation of social production (Touraine,
1973). The analytic nature of the definition indicates that no concrete social movement can be reduced purely to the demands made
by a given class; for collective action is always situated within a
given political and organizational framework. It is therefore
necessary to consider two theoretical questions, that of the articulation of the types of class behaviour in a system of roles and in a
political system; and that of the empirical criteria appropriate for
identifying class behaviour.
In an organization, the power which imposes the norms, which
assigns the statuses and roles, and which maintains an equilibrium
between the functioning of the internal mechanisms and exchange
with the environment is never a simple functional authority. Power
in an organization is a transcription of class relations and secures
their reproduction. One may therefore speak of a class organizational movement when the collective action within an organization
not only goes beyond the limits of the organization and contests its
norms but also attacks the source itself of power. What is then called into question is the link between the organization and the interests of the dominant class, specifically, the gearing of the
organizations functioning (which is supposedly neutral) in such a
way that it best serves these interests.
In the political system, the existence of class relations is
manifested by the defense of the limits of the political game, which
is not allowed to disturb the bases of domination, as well as by the
hegemonic control granted to the political forces, which act in a
more direct manner in defending the interests of the dominant
class. Class political movements are collective actions which not
only aim at enlarging political participation, but which also directly
challenge the hegemony of the dominant political forces and their
link with class interests.
It seems difficult to speak of class movements in the pure state,
without any mediation by the political system or by the social
organization. All the same, I believe that the present situation offers us a glimpse of transformations which are beginning to occur
without the aid of such mediation, and I shall treat this topic at
greater length below. In societies which are characterized by a low
level of differentiation, and in which the state played a fundamental role in unification and centralization, social movements could
not be expressed without the mediation of a collective action linked
to the social organization or to the political system. The growing

differentiation of society and the increased autonomy of the different systems which constitute it tend to bring about the separation of class action from its institutional or organizational mediation. One thus witnesses the appearance of nascent pure movements which raise the problem of the control of collective resources
(nature, the body, interpersonal relations) in directly cultural
terms. The lack of any mediation at all also reveals the weakness of
these movements. Nevertheless, they seem to anticipate, in an embryonic fashion, the possibility of wildcat class movements which
will refuse all mediation within the political or organizational
spheres. (Figure 1 illustrates the dimensions of collective action.)

Dimensions of collective action


3. The identification of types of class behaviour

Let us return now to the problem of identifying the various types of
class behaviour, considering that they always manifest themselves
by the mediation of a political system and a social organization in
a concrete society.
How, then, does one distinguish class
movements from organizational movements or political
movements? Obviously, the ideology and the views of the actors
are indicators that must be treated very cautiously and used only
after other conditions have been met. Without claiming to exhaust
the range of possible conditions, I shall employ the following empirical criteria:
(a) First, it is necessary to analyze the mode of production and the
productive structure. It is possible to identify the actors involved
with respect to the production and appropriation of resources? Or
are they definable in an exclusive manner in terms of the system in
which the action occurs (political actors, organizational actors,
with definite roles);
(b) next, the substance and form of the actions are of great importance. A class movement generates actions which challenge the
system of domination. The most significant indicator, in this case,
is the non-negotiability of the movements objectives and the incompatibility of the forms of its action with the mechanisms sustaining both the hierarchy of power within an organization and the
hegemony of the dominant interests in the political system;
(c) the adversarys response. The manner in which the system of
domination intervenes through repression and social control is a
very important indicator of the significance of collective action.
The dominant class reacts in those areas where it sees its interests
threatened and where it cannot allow major errors in the interpretation of the meaning of the collective action. When the action puts
forward class demands, the adversarys response is usually displaced to a higher level than the one which is directly effected. A protest
action in the organizational sphere which directly attacks the seat
of power within an organization provokes the intervention of the
political system and of the states repressive apparatus. A political
movement which goes beyond the limits of participation and
menaces the basic interests of the dominant class provokes the
direct reaction of that class (a freeze on investments, flight of
capital, economic crises, foreign intervention);


(d) It is only at this point that one should consider the way in which
the actors define their action, particularly how they define
themselves as a group and how they identify the adversary and the
stakes involved in the conflict. A class movement tends to describe
the situation, in the language of its cultural system, as a struggle
between he who produces the social resources and he who appropriates them for himself. The stakes in this struggle will always
be, whether directly or indirectly, the control and the distribution
of these resources, that is to say, of the societys mode of production.
One can make the same observations from a different perspective
by analyzing the variations in the dimensions of the conflict
(Oberschall, 1973) as one moves from organizational movements
to political movements, and then on to class movements (see Figure
2). First of all, with respect to the stakes involved in a conflict, one
may assume the existence of an increasing symbolic content and a
decreasing divisibility of the stakes. A class movement fights for
stakes which always directly concern the identity of the actors. Here
it is not simply a matter of material resources or immediate advantages, but also of an orientation of the social production, of a
determination to institute a distribution of the social resources different from the particular one effected by the dominant class. For
this same reason, the more an action turns into a class movement,
the less the stakes are divisible or negotiable. Conflicts within an
organization or within the political system more easily allow the
adoption of partial strategies and partial negotiations. Another
characteristic that should be considered in this connection is the
decreasing reversibility of the conflicts as one moves from
organizational movements to class movements. The resolution of
conflicts becomes all the more difficult as the stakes grow in importance for the groups concerned. Another result is that the
calculability of the situation is diminished. The relationship between costs and benefits is clearer and the calculation of the consequences of the different courses of action is easier when the stakes
are more directly quantifiable and the solutions are predictable.
Finally, the conflict tends toward a zero-sum resolution the nearer
one comes to class movements. In the confrontations between
classes the stakes are not divisible, and the victory of one adversary
means the defeat of the other. This does not happen in organizations and in the political system; for there each party can hope for



partial advantages, and a victory establishes only

balance of losses and gains.

relative im-

With these few remarks I have tried to suggest a method for dealthe subject rather than to develop a systematic scheme.
Within the complexity of empirical behaviour, class action is
always intertwined with other significations and other issues. It is
no accident that the dominant class always tends to deny the existence of class actions and to alter and diminish their meaning
either by labelling them as deviant or by placing them within the
framework of organizational or political problems. Analysis ought,
on the contrary, to treat collective action as a sign and to decipher
its multiple significations.

ing with

4. The




class movement

the question raised at the start. A class

is a movement involved in a conflict over the mode of
production and over the appropriation and orientation of social
resources. However, if we do not wish, as it were, to naturalize
social relationships, we must provide a foundation for class conflict. In determining what this foundation is, our analysis will, at
the same time, indicate the conditions by which new class conflicts
can be identified, because it will have established the logic governing the structure of the formation of movements.
The starting-point of a sociology of social movement is the
assumption that class conflict is a structural, synchronic dimension
of any given system. But the existence of structural antagonism
must be socially established, if one is to avoid attributing it to a
mechanical determinism, or to human nature. Otherwise, class
conflict becomes an orginal, metaphysical dimension of society.
And, in this case, one must fall back on the so-called necessary contradictions of the system (and where do these come from?), with
the result that social relations are reduced to the status of natural
relations and thus deprived of their specific meaning. Or else one
must turn to some sort of anthropological view, to a philosophy of
man, whether this takes a positive form, with the notion of a revolt
through which human nature reappropriates its own essence, or a
negative form, with the view that homo homini lupus or that there
exists a natural inclination to dominate. The opposition between
classes is thus traced back to conflicts or to the essence of man, to
must now return to



of elites and of the masses. Determinism and humanism,

negative, are the negations of sociology.
It is essential, therefore, to accept that conflict is not an original
aspect of social existence, but a fact to be explained in terms of
social relations. This is equivalent to saying that it is necessary to
construct an analytic space which precedes the notion of class relations and from which these relations can be deduced. I call this
space a theory of production or of relationship to an object. Industrial capitalism has accustomed us to link class relations to
material production, to the work involved in transforming nature. I
believe that we must develop a theory of production conceived as a
social relationship to objects and, further, that this theory must be
progressively freed from its historical ties to industrial society and
made to correspond more closely to the conditions of production
prevailing in post-industrial capitalism.
With the sole aim of presenting a clearer statement of the problem and of indicating an appropriate way of treating it, I shall
proceed to give a more formal definition of this analytic space. I
define production as the formation or transformation of objects,
within the framework of certain social relations, by the application
of certain means to a primary material. The analytic components of
production are thus: (a) an action; (b) a raw material; (c) means of
production; (d) a social relation. The formation or transformation
of objects takes place within a social relation and in accord with a
twofold non-social limitation which marks the anti-idealistic
character of the definition; in other words, there exist conditions
representing the system of constraints governing the production.
The natural milieu of the action (the raw material) and the instrumental basis of the action (the means of production) preclude
the view that it is the voluntary product of mans essence. Social
production is a part of nature whose specific feature is that it is,
simultaneously, the product of social relations. Production is a
natural process, a transformation of the environment, but it is also
the production of meaning and of social relations. The relation of
man to his works is the affirmation of an identity, that is to say, the
recognition of the product as the result of the action of a producer.
But the attribution of something to someone is at the same time a
social relationship, and it implies the reciprocity of this recognition. Social identity is the attribution of the condition of belonging
to; it is a relationship within which one both recognizes and is
recognized. Production is the social capacity of recognizing ones





works; it is the will to appropriate and to orient a product. But

this orientation is not founded on human nature or on some sort
of original humanism of work; it is already a social relationship.
Production is a relationship which implies the reciprocal recognition of the (social and personal) identity of the producers and
which permits, on this basis, an exchange to take place. Exchange
and, even more so, the gift, are social relationships which attest
more directly than does pure production to the existence of a situation in which the producer both recognizes and appropriates his
work. Exchange and gift-giving are possible because the producer
recognizes his works as his own and because there is a reciprocity in
this recognition. Production, recognition, appropriation and orientation are the analytic components of production conceived as a
social relationship. To produce also means to determine the orientation of production and of the product on the basis of the
reciprocal recognition of the producers.
The construction of this analytic level, which is meant to
precede the identification of class relations, enables us to reflect on
the process by which classes are formed and on their antagonism,
as well as on the different forms that conflict between them can
take. On the analytic level, the formation of classes can always be
traced back to the breakdown of reciprocity of recognition and
therefore to the separation between production and recognition,
on the one hand, and appropriation and orientation on the other. A
knowledge of the various forms that the breakdown takes can come
only from historical analysis and from the comparative anthropology of human societies. One may suggest, by way of example, a possible account of the historical formation of class relations
without thereby denying that societies display a large variety of
evolutionary paths. An increase in the division of labour arises
from a change in the relations with the environment, such as the expansion of exchanges, the transformation of the natural conditions
of production, the exhaustion or discovery of resources, etc. This
change implies a delegation of responsibility in the direction of
those activities pertaining to the relations of production; which is to
say that it implies the control by one particular group over the
orientation of the resources produced. This delegation of authority
presupposes reciprocal recognition, between the two groups which
thereby emerge. As long as one of them maintains control over the
specific delegated function, the fourfold relationship comprising
production, recognition, appropriation, and orientation is perown


of labour and in the comof the system reduces this control, the relationship breaks
down and reciprocal recognition disappears. Each party recognizes
its own works but refuses to extend such recognition to the other
party, tending, instead, to identify itself with the totality of the
social field.
Classes are born, therefore, in the form of groups struggling to
appropriate and orient social production. Their antagonism, unbalanced by the relation dominant group-dominated group, sets its
stamp on the structure of the social system and is the source of collective action.
manent. When an increase in the division



5. Social movements and social





_, .



Most theories of collective action attribute the birth of social

either to the breakdown of the social system or to the
formation of new interests or of new forms of solidarity and collective identity (Tilly, 1975). Before entering upon a discussion of this
dichotomy, however, we may note a striking fact about the current
theories: most of them, either directly or indirectly, presuppose
change as a given factor. Whether collective action is ascribed to
the breakdown of the system or to the appearance of new interests,
there is always a change whose nature and causes are left unexamined by the model.
The fact that change is taken for granted seems to me to be the
result of a kind of naive historicism which conceives of change as a
natural and continuous process in society and which is concerned
only with the effects of this process. The theories to which I refer
are actually theories of the activation of the factors of collective action, but they tell us nothing about the structural cause of this
phenomenon. They tell us how collective action is manifested but
not why. Some of them are explicitly theories of the activation of
factors; in this case, change is correctly taken as the models point
of departure, as an input to be used in the construction of an explanation. Consequently, one can not reproach such a theory for
not explaining change (Tilly, 1970). But in the majority of cases the
authors claim to give a causal and structural explanation of collective action. The link between change and collective action then
becomes a device by which to hide the lack of a theory of change.
Most of the current theories consider change as a variable which



is external to the explanatory system adopted. This means that

when instances of collective behaviour appear in a social system,
the change which is supposed to be the source of this behaviour is
always assumed to be of external origin (Smelser, 1968; Davies,
1962, 1971; Feierabend et al., 1973; Gurr, 1970; Graham and Gurr
(eds), 1969; Olson, 1968). How should one explain, for example,
the appearance of strain or of rising expectations, on the one hand,
or disequilibrium in the means of responding to such phenomena,
on the other hand? Economic progress is often a sort of deus ex
machina which is made responsible for many transformations. But
it is clear that economic progress, in turn, remains in need fo explanation. There are not many alternatives. Either one appeals exclusively to exogenous causes, reducing change in every case to an
external variable, or else one accepts that change, too, has a cause
internal to the system. In the former case, it is necessary to deny
the growing interdependence of systems and to consider as external,
variables which in reality are inherent in the structure of the system
under consideration. For example, using this approach it is
necessary to maintain that the action of a multinational corporation in a given capitalist country is an external variable simply
because the companys headquarters happen to be located in some
other country. While this may be true from the point of view of the
political system, it is obviously difficult to consider this kind of intervention as an external variable from the point of view of class
relations. In the latter case, one admits to endogenous origin of
change and thus is constrained to account for change by means of
the same categories used to account for collective action. Otherwise, one will construct a contradictory explanatory system which
is incapable of justifying all the variables it introduces.
The current theories, therefore, offer only two possibilities.
Either they attribute change solely to exogenous causes, thereby
flying in the face of reality; or they view change as arising within
the system, and then they are contradictory, since they are not
capable of explaining change by the same categories used in
treating collective action.
From a logical point of view, the central nexus of these difficulties lies, I believe, in a failure to distinguish between synchrony
and diachrony, between structure and change. The theories in question are located, right from the start, in the realm of change (by
presupposing it) and offer a diachronic analysis rather than a structural analysis of the origin of social movements. The same logical


difficulty is found in many Marxist analyses which ascribe the

origin of collective action to the contradiction between the forces of
production and the relations of production. The development of
the forces of production is thought to bring to a head, at a given
moment, the contradiction between these forces and the existing
relations of production. But how does the development of the
forces of production come about in the first place? If one is to
avoid a naive historicism, it is necessary to establish a link between
synchrony and diachrony, between structure and change.
Antagonism between classes is a synchronic dimension of a
system. The struggle undertaken by the dominated class for the
reappropriation of the social production penetrates the social
structure itself. This accounts for the necessity of controlling conflict with which the dominant class is permanently confronted. The
scission, running throughout the entire social order, can be hidden
behind societys apparent integration and can be denied by the
dominant ideology. But the system of domination must constantly
come to grips with the reality of the conflict if it wishes to protect
the bases of its reproduction. If antagonism is a structural component of class society, the necessity of controlling it is just as much

All the same, a concrete society does not coincide with a particular mode of production, nor does it live only synchronously.
Class relations manifest themselves in a political system and in
the forms of social organization. In a real society, synchronic opposition between classes does not give rise to pure types of
behaviour; it must be deciphered in the societys history. As for the
dominant class, its share in synchronic antagonism takes the form
of a systemic action; only rarely manifest in a direct action, it is
much more frequently expressed through the application of the instruments of social integration. The dominant class intervenes
directly only when there exists an explicit threat to the system of
domination. Normally, its action is evident in categories of social
practice, in the control of ideology, and in repressive manipulation.
More important in this connection is the identification of those
forms of behaviour of the dominated classes which indicate the
synchronic presence of conflict. Here I am referring to forms of
action which - before, or indepedently of a collective mobilization
against class domination - are the embryonic testimony of a scission in the society, evidence of the dominant class failure to impose total unity on the society. These forms of resistance, which

may appear in the work situation, in an individuals refusal, or in
popular culture and folklore, are what I shall call deviant symptoms of conflict or symbolic elaborations of latent conflict. The deviant character and the flight into the realm of the symbolic are obviously dependent on the much more powerful opposing action of
the apparatus of domination, which constantly impedes, blocks,
and represses all manifest expression of class antagonism. The
presence of these symptoms allows us to assert the synchronic existence of conflict before, and independently of, the appearance
of those forms of behaviour which, through the necessary mediation of the political system and of the organiztion, openly translate
class conflict in a concrete society.
We have now arrived at the central problem. How does one pass
from a structural conflict to diachornic forms of behaviour rooted
in a political system and in an historical society. The necessity of
controlling conflict obliges the system of domination to intervene
constantly at the different levels of the social structure in order to
hold conflict on them within limits compatible with the fundamental class relations. External factors (increase in the volume of exchanges, changes in the environment) are also elements of disequilibrium that must be controlled because of the effects they may
have on the state of the class relations. The action of the exogenous
elements is therefore never direct. Instead, it affects the system to
the degree that it can unbalance the societys class relations. Hence
external factors also provoke actions at the different levels of the
system, actions which are designed to keep the resulting effects
within the respective limits of compatibility at each level. It is thus by
means of adaptation that internal changes in the political system
and/or the social organization are generated, together with a certain modernization of the relations of production. Disturbances in

the internal equilibrium at each level affected by the changes may

produce contradictions. I define a contradiction as an incompatibility between elements or levels of a structure. The actions required to control structural conflict can create contradictions if the
change thereby introduced is incompatible with other elements or
levels of the system. The contradiction functions like a catalyst on
the latent structural antagonism. It sets in motion (diachronic)
forms of collective behaviour which react to the contradiction and,
at the same time, address themselves to the structural conflict. Collective action and social movements are the expression of class conflict in a concrete political system and/or social organization.


It is necessary at this point to formulate the concept of contradiction more precisely. The significance of structural incompatibility varies according to the level at which it occurs. One may
speak of incompatibility within a given level of society, of incompatibility between levels, and of incompatibility with respect to
class relations. In the first two cases, the contradiction does not
directly affect the class relations. Elements of the political system
and/or of the social organization come into contradiction with
themselves and can mobilize behaviour aimed at reestablishing a
new equilibrium within these systems. In the third case, elements of
the political system and/or of the social organization come into
contradiction with the class relations and mobilize behaviour
originating within these systems which threatens the structure itself
of the class relations. It is in this perspective that the different types
of movements defined at the beginning of this essay must be considered.
We must now turn to the analysis of the relationship between collective action and change. The forms of collective behaviour
originating in certain contradictions come up against a certain state
of the structure (the situation of class relations, the state of the
political system and of the social organization). Collective action
which takes place in these different states can create new contradictions (incompatibilities). There thus exists a second stage in the
response made by the system of domination. This new intervention
can take the form of modernization, of reform, or of repression.
One basic type of response is the development of the forces of production.
At this point, the process may terminate with the absorbtion of
the collective thrust, that is to say, with the introduction of new internal changes. Or else, given the presence of certain determinate
conditions (i.e. of certain structural states), the system may prove
to be incapable of absorbing change. Failure of the political system
to open itself up, a crisis in the social organization, and the formation of new groups linked to a nascent mode of production: these
are factors which can bring about the transition from one structure to another, which is to say that they can cause structural
change. This transition can occur through a sharp break in continuity or in a much smoother fashion, depending on the specific
conditions prevailing at the time.
With these few remarks I have merely sketched out a theoretical
approach to the problem. I may conclude by observing that collec-


tive action is, in reality, both a cause and an effect of change,

though in distinct logical times or stages and on different analytic
levels. It is a cause, on the synchronic level, because the presence of
a conflict which is manifest in deviant and symbolic forms of
resistance, cultural revolt and individual refusal must be monitored
constantly and obliges the system to make continuous adaptations.
It is an effect, in a logically distinct time, because the adaptations
made by the system disequilibrate it and create contradictions
which, in their turn, generate diachronic forms of conduct in the
political system and in the social organization. It is, finally, once
again a cause, in a third logically distinct time, inasmuch as the
thrust of the collective action obliges the system to adapt its
organization accordingly, to reform the political system, and to
modernize the productive structure. Otherwise, in the extreme case,
change causes the system to burst asunder, thereby bringing about
the transition to a new structure.
Everything I have said so far shows that the alternative between
breakdown and solidarity, between collective action which arises
from disintegration and action which is born of solidarity, is, in
reality, a false problem. The forms of class behaviour are, in fact,
rooted in structural conflict, but they are activated by contradictions, which are always ruptures of, or at least states of disequilibrium in, the social order. In social movements there always
exists a link between contradiction and conflict, since these
movements are located at the intersection of structure and change.
The principal theoretical problem thus remains that of
distinguishing these two levels of analysis (and the concepts appropriate to each of them) and, then, of establishing their interrela-

6. The


social movements

Returning to the question raised at the beginning, we may now ask

what changes in the system of production allow us to speak of new
class conflicts. In comparison with the industrial phase of
capitalism, the production characteristic of advanced societies requires that control reach beyond the productive structure into the
areas of consumption,
services, and social relations. The
mechanisms of accumulation are no longer fed by the simple exploitation of the labour force, but rather by the manipulation of


complex organizational systems, by control over information and

over the processes and institutions of symbol-formation, and by intervention in interpersonal relations. The role of science and of information systems is growing in advanced capitalism, but one sees,
at the same time, the development of a capacity for intervention
and transformation which extends beyond the natural environment
and exerts an influence on the social systems, on interpersonal relations, and on the very structure of the individual (personality, the
unconscious, biological identity).
Faced with these changes in the structure of production, one
must try to determine the significance of the new social movements.
More and more, production no longer consists solely in the
transformation of the natural environment into a technical environment. It is also becoming the production of social relations
and social systems; indeed, it is even becoming the production of
the individuals biological and interpersonal identity. This production, which continues, however, to be controlled by a dominant
class, changes the form of the expropriation of social resources.
The movement for reappropriation which claims control over the
resources produced by society is therefore carrying its fight into
new territory. The personal and social identity of individuals is increasingly perceived as a product of social action, and therefore as
that which is at stake in a conflict between the exigences of the
various agencies of social manipulation and the desire of individuals to reappropriate societys resources. Defense of the identity, continuity, and predictability of personal existence is beginning to constitute the substance of the new conflicts. In a structure in
which ownership of the means of production is becoming more and
more socialized, while at the same time remaining under the control
of particular groups, what individuals are claiming collectively is
the right to realize their own identity: the possibility of disposing of
their personal creativity, their affective life, and their biological
and interpersonal existence. The control and manipulation of the
centers of technocratic domination are increasingly penetrating
everyday life, encroaching upon the individuals possibility of
disposing of his time, his space, and his relationships. Personal
that is to say, the possibility, on the biological,
psychological, and interpersonal levels, of being recognized as an
is the property which is now being claimed and defended ; this is the ground in which individual and collective resistance is



The new social movements are struggling, therefore, not only for
the reappropriation of the material structure of production, but
also for collective control over socio-economic development, i.e.,
for the reappropriation of time, of space, and of relationships in
the individuals daily existence. The new forms of class domination
are identified less and less with real social groups and are starting to
share the impersonal character of the various institutions. The new
conflicts and the new movements are not manifested in the action
of a single class, in the sense of a social group identified by a particular culture and way of life. In mass society, in which cultural
models and ways of life tend to become homogenous, conflicts
mobilize the categories and groups which are most directly affected
by the manipulation of socio-economic development. The absence
of a leading actor, however, does not mean that these conflicts have
lost the character of class struggle.
A certain number of characteristics shared by the recent forms of
collective action (Touraine, 1974, 1975; Pizzorno, 1975) seem to
confirm this hypothesis, which sees in the appropriation of identity
the key to understanding the new movements. There is, first of all,
the end of the separation between public and private spheres. Those
areas which were formerly zones of private exchanges and rewards
(sexual relations, interpersonal relations, biological identity) have
become stakes in various conflict situations and are now the scene
of collective action. At the same time, the field of the public and
political is subjected to the pressure of individual needs and
demands. Birth and death, illness and aging have all become critical
points capable of mobilizing collective action. These subjects have
entered the realm of public conflict and have become,
simultaneously, objects whose reappropriation is claimed by
various groups. Sexuality and the body, leisure, consumer goods,
ones relationship to nature
these are no longer loci of private
rewards but areas of collective resistance, of demands for expression and pleasure which are raised in opposition to the instrumental
rationality of the apparatuses of order.
A second characteristic to be noted is the superposition of deviance and social movements. When domination impinges on daily
life, on the rules of existence, and on ways of life, opposition
necessarily takes the form of marginality and of deviance.Advanced societies are witnessing the proliferation of agencies charged
with handling social demands and needs which might generate
conflict: public intervention tends to absorb strains and reduce con-


flicts to the status of pathology by subjecting all those who do no

conform to the norms to preventive therapies or to rehabilitation.
In this situation, social revolt which threatens the mode of production and the orientation of resources easily tends to merge with
marginality and deviance. This is so because such revolts are often
the work of minorities; because they tend to reject the regulated
mediation of the political system and become violent; or, finally,
because the power structures control over the dissemination of information enables it to stigmatize all conflict-based behaviour as
Another important characteristic of the new social movements is
that thev are not focused on the political system. Essentially, they
are not oriented toward the conquest of political power or of the
state apparatus, but rather toward the control of a field of
autonomy or of independence vis-A-vis the system. The new
movements have often been reproached for insisting upon the immediate satisfaction of their demands and for their lack of an
overall stragety. But these traits manifest, in my opinion, the
specificity of the new forms of collective action. The reappropriation of individual and group identity is achieved through the refusal
to accept any political mediation. This obviously raises a crucial
problem for practice and for the development of the movements.
Particularism is the specific form of resistance to a power which
it itself generalized. Solidarity as an objective is another
characteristic of the new social movements. The struggle centres
around the issue of group identity; there is a return to the criterion
of ascriptive membership (sex, race, age, locality) which is the form
taken by revolt against change directed from above. The
movements also have instrumental objectives and seek advantages
within the political system, but this dimension is secondary in comparison to the search for solidarity and in comparison to the expressive nature of the relations found in them.
We should mention, finally, direct participation and the rejection of representation. Since what is at stake is the reappropriation
of identity, all mediation is rejected as likely to reproduce the
mechanisms of control and manipulation against which the struggle
is directed in the first place. Hence the importance of direct action
and of direct participation, in other words, of the spontaneous,
anti-authoritarian, and anti-hierarchical nature of the protests
originating in these movements. Hence, also, the risk of discon-


tinuity and of fragmentation which constantly threatens the



These characteristics are found in various forms in many contemporary movements. I cannot, within the limits of this essay,
undertake an analysis of the specific issues which are essential in
the different movements. I shall restrict myself to indicating two
issues which seem to me to play a fundamental role in several contemporary movements. The first element is the centrality of the
body, for example, in the womens, youth, and homosexual
movements, as well as in the counter-cultural practices which contrast the body to what is often a stereotyped political discourse.
This phenomenon seems to me to possess a multiple significance. In
it we encounter, first of all, the notion of the body as a part of
nature, i.e. the realization that man is a part of nature and
therefore has the possibility of experiencing this body as a basic
dimension of existence and not as a fall; and this implies, at the
same time, the possibility of taking possession of the nature which
he is. Then there is the notion of the body as the seat of desires,i.e.
the acceptance of drives and deep-rooted needs as aspects of daily
existence and not as obscure forces of evil. Finally, there is the notion of the body as the nexus of interpersonal relationships, i.e. the
discovery of communication and of affectivity, which sexuality expresses and manifests. The body in its different significations
becomes the cultural locus of resistance and of desire; it stands opposed to rationalization and it authorizes delirium.
But the body is, at the same time, an object upon which the concerted integrative and manipulative efforts of the system of
domination are focused. A medicalized sexuality entrusted to the
experts, a body which has become a scientific object, an eros
reified in the rules of fashion and in the exigences of industry: advanced capitalism requires the notion of such a body, a body as object, deprived of its libidinal and aggressive charge, of its capacity
for eros and delirium. The body becomes a resource for use in the
production of merchandise and in social reproduction. Its demands
must be satisfied, provided that they are compatible with the exigences of economic and social development and that they do not
impede the advance of controlled rationalization. The body as
libido must be neutralized and deprived of its potential to menace
the system. There is no place for play and for eros, but only for the
regulated pleasure of a sexuality which has become a kind of gymnastic training for orgasm.

The second element which seems to me to be fundamental in
many movements is the presence of what I shall call a regressive

utopia with a strong religious component. This phenomenon is, on

the one hand, a constant factor in the origin of movements. In the
formative phase, the group defines its identity by referring to a
past, to a global myth of a renaissance which is often of a religious
kind. But, on the other hand, the phenomenon possesses a
specificity which seems to me to be closely linked with the new
social movements. The demands they make regarding identity and
daily life are becoming increasingly less political. Moreover, the
growing secularization of society means that the legitimation of the
established order is not of a sacred type, but is linked more and
more with instrumental rationalization. In this situation, the appeal
of religion, freed from the ritual and organizational apparatus of
the churches, becomes one of the possible components of the new
movements. The religious component, functioning as a global myth
capable of providing a foundation for the construction of an identity, can become the cultural form of resistance to the instrumental
rationality of the apparatus of domination. The desire for total integration, which I call integralism, is the essential characteristic of
regressive utopias, and it can be seen at work in the reduction of
reality to the unity of a global principle, in the abolition of the different levels and of the appropriate instruments of analysis, and in
the identification of the entire society with the sacred solidarity of
the group. There exist several versions of regressive utopia: communal integralism, politico-religious integralism, and mysticoascetic integralism. What is common to all of them is the fact that
the basic concerns of the movement (which revolve around the
reappropriation of identity) are transcribed in the symbolic
language of a global myth of renaissance. As a result of the
regressive and evasive aspects of these concerns, the movements in
which the religious component predominates are more easily
manipulated by the power structure, and their protest tends to
dissolve into individual flight and into myth.
7. Towards


of social movements?

The notion of nature has been reintroduced in advanced capitalism

as a cultural definition of needs, which are presented as escaping
the grasp of the power structure. Nature becomes a sort of non-

social raw material, in contrast to a social realm which penetrates
all aspects of life in society. But there can be no doubt that we are
dealing with a cultural definition of needs, and more specifically
with the form given by post-industrial culture to the new demands
created by the new structure of production. The body, desire, the
unconscious, identity: these are modes of social representation of
that domain which, in the individual, resists domination and rationalization. Hence, this recovery of nature is, at the same time,
the realization that the nature which we are belongs to us, that it is
not external to social action. And this means that it can be
employed in a manner contrary to the one preferred by the existing
order and its apparatus of rationalization. This explains the ambiguity of the notion of nature and of needs which is found in the
new movements: it signifies both the rejection of a social realm
manipulated and controlled by the apparatus of the existing order
(the cultural image of the spontaneity and purity of primary needs)
and the assertion of the social realm as the locus of action which
consciously produces mans existence and his relations with other
men (demand concerning the right to life, to pleasure, and to

Sociology is marked by this same ambivalence. On the one hand,
it creates a conscious awareness of the way a society produces itself
and maintains, against the heritage of metaphysics and of the
philosophies of history, that social action produces social systems.
But, on the other hand, when it is not a mere apology for the existing order, it takes the side of movements for change. It translates
their languages and problems, and it is often engaged in their struggles. I do not intend to enter here upon the debate about the role of
sociology. I shall simply point out two important tasks for
sociological reflection.
A sociology of class relations and of social movements must, in
the first place, seek to develop an understanding of changes in the
mode of production in advanced capitalist societies with a view to
better defining the novelty of the issues raised by these movements.
But it is even more necessary for it to pursue theoretical research on
classes and the conflicts between them. The problem brought up at
the start of the present essay is, I believe, of fundamental importance. If class relations are original features of society, if there exists no analytic space which precedes them, then the theoretical
possibility of raising the question of change in these relations is
eliminated. And in this case, the question of the possibility of a


conscious intervention in the mechanisms of class formation and

reproduction (and not of the advent of a mythical classless society)
is not one that can be raised within the limits of scientific discourse.
I believe, on the contrary, that this question has a scientific status
and that the very fact of bringing it up for discussion ought to have
an influence on the institutional organization and the role of
sociology. There exists a task of scientific anticipation that a
sociology of social movements can not evade. If sociology is not to
be the prophet of defeat or of the institutionalization of the new
movements, it must tackle, in a scientific manner, the problem of
change in class relations and of control over the mechanisms of
the formation and reproduction of classes, i.e. of the actors in
this kind of transformation. Between longing for a utopian,
conflict-free classless society, pacified and fully responsive to individual and group demands, on the one hand, and simply describing the reproduction of the class system, on the other hand, there is
perhaps room for discussing, scientifically, the possibility of a
society which acts on its class relations in such a way as to reduce
their ascendancy and control their reproduction.
The second question concerns the effects of the new social
movements on the methods and practice of sociology. The new
demands pertain more and more to the individual
to his innermost being, his needs, his unconscious. Sociology ought to integrate in its analysis (and adapt its methods to) problems which
have traditionally been thought to lie in the domain of psychology
and psychoanalysis. The problems of the individual and of the unconscious have become collective problems because they are linked
either with the manipulation of power or with the cultural form
that the new movements are assuming. Sociology should take these
new dimensions of analysis into account and develop appropriate
methods for handling them, within the framework of its own
language and categories. The situation is admittedly a difficult one,
because the dominant class is already carrying out a converse
ideological manoeuver. There is an increasing trend toward nondifferentiation and the reduction of problems to the level of the individual. In other words, the dominant class is attempting to
psychologize and medicalize the social realm in order to drain all
potential for conflict and collective action stemming from problems of identity. It is necessary, therefore, to counteract this
tendency by sociologizing the individual, by giving to the problems of daily life, of relations, and of the unconscious the dimen-

sion which in fact belongs to them in a programmed society. In
other words, it is necessary to show that these problems are what
are really at the heart of the new class conflicts.
This task, however, demands a considerable effort on the
theoretical plane, as well as the elaboration of methods of analysis
and of ways of acting directly in the social realm. It is necessary
carefully to scrutinize the various aspects of the movements so as to
distinguish between what pertain to the new class conflicts and
what derives from organizational disputes and political struggles. It
is equally necessary, though, to scrutinize the heritage of the
categories and methods of a number of different disciplines
(sociology, anthropology, psychology, and psychoanalysis) in
order to elaborate suitable ways for the sociologist to intervene in
the ambiguous territory of the new social movements.

Alberto Melucci (born 1943) is Associate Professor of Political Sociology at the

University of Milan. He is engaged in research on new social movements and collective violence in Italy. Recent publications: "Dieci ipotesi per Ianalisi del
nuovi movimenti" ("Ten hypotheses for the analysis of new social
movements"), Quaderni Pracentini 65-66 (1978); "Appunti su movimenti, terrorisrimo, societa italiana" ("Notes on movements, terrorism, italian society"), Il
Mulino 256 (1978). Authors address: Institute of Sociology, Faculty of Political
Sciences, University of Milan, Via Conservatorio 7, Milan, Italy.


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