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Tarrow: Power in movement

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Tarrow. 1998. Power in movement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Social movements are "collective challenges, based on common purposes and social solidarities, in sustained interaction with elites, opponents, and authorities" (4). Riots and other flashes in the pan aren't a social movement--it isn't a movement unless it is "sustained."

The main theory: "contentious politics emerges in response to changes in political opportunities and constraints

Individual participants may have diverse incentives ("material and ideological, partisan and group-based, long-standing and episodic," 10). A change in "political opportunities or constraints" allows contentious politics to emerge. Participants will use "known repertoires of action" (riots, strikes, barricades--things used in the past, generally). These actions may be episodic outbursts. However, they can be converted into a sustained action against "powerful opponents" (a "social movement") if [1] they are based on "dense social networks and connective structures" and [2] they "draw on consensual or action-oriented cultural frames" (pg 10). These "cultural frames" can themselves be an important arena of conflict: the movement often conflicts with the media and the state to "frame" the issues being contested [reminds me of Keck and Sikkink] (21-22).

Movements are dynamic and hard to control--because they are a loose association of individuals. Internally, the movement cannot control its participants. Externally, political opportunities and constraints continue to shift (23).

Cycles of contention: As one movement widens and "information spreads about the susceptibility of a polity to challenge," additional activists and also "ordinary people" may "begin to test the limits of social control" (24). In other words, one movement's success creates greater [perceived] opportunity for other movements. When the resulting "cycles of contention" spread to an extreme, revolution may occur. "The difference between movement cycles and revolutions is that, in the latter, multiple centers of sovereignty are created, turning the conflict between challengers and members of the polity into a struggle for power" (25).


Political Opportunities and Constraints (Ch. 5): Tarrow argues "that contention is more closely related to opportunities for � and limited by constraints upon � collective action than by the persistent social or economic factors that people experience" (71). Nevertheless, "changing opportunities must be seen alongside more stable structural elements � like the strength or weakness of the state and the forms of repression it habitually employs" (71). The dimensions of opportunity are increasing access, shifting alignments, divided elites, influential allies, and repression/facilitation. Three main dimensions of the state can create opportunities: state strength, prevailing strategies, and repressiveness. We should consider however, that the interaction of opportunities and mobilization is dynamic; opportunities can create mobilization, but mobilization can create opportunities, as well. In addition, opportunities are not static either; they can exist for brief periods of time, and then close again; or, the political changes because of the influence of mobilization can lead to demobilization.


Acting Contentiously (Ch. 6)--Violence, Disruption, or Convention: Contentious acts can take many forms, and they must be considered as strategic actions in pursuit of rational goals. Contention can be considered as "public performance" to air disputes with the government and the status quo; the particular forms of contention include violence, disruption, and convention. Violence is one of the most visible forms of contentious collective action and should be "understood as a function of the interaction between protestors' tactics and policing" (95); while violence can be impressive and clearly show discontent, it has shortcoming of scaring off possible sympathizers to a cause. Disruption, as a form of contentious action, is merely the threat of violence, but it need not actually threaten public order. This can be done through non-violent direct action, such as sit-ins, marches, rallies, constructing barricades, blocking traffic, etc. In general, disruption loses its power as the movement progresses as formal organization moves away from it, police and elite counteract it, and individuals within the movement lose interest in collective action. Conventional forms are created as certain tactics become more regularized and accepted, for instance, strikes and demonstrations. Conventional acts have the added benefit of increasing familiarity with acts that may put individuals at ease enough to join in. These various forms of action can be considered the "repertoire of contention" (101), and change within four categories: "the institutionalization of disruptive forms of contention, innovation at the margins of inherited forms, tactical interaction with police and other actors, and paradigmatic change" (101). The three forms of contention combine "properties of challenge, uncertainty, and solidarity" (104).


Framing Contention (Ch. 7)--Symbols and Frames: Tarrow suggests that "social movements attempt to replace 'a dominant belief system that legitimizes the status quo with an alternative mobilizing belief system that supports collective action for change,' movement leaders proffer the symbols of revolt to gain support and mark themselves off from opponents" (106). While symbols must be "new" (otherwise they are simply in agreement with the status quo that contentious politics are trying to change), they cannot be so new that they do not resonate with the individuals they are intended to mobilize. Leaders construct "collective action frames" that accentuate grievances in order to mobilize (even where the grievances existed without action before) by magnifying injustice and creating emotional pivots. The media can be used to transmit these symbols and frames, in a move towards constructing consensus (at least among those taking part in the action and who are meant to be mobilized). Still, we must consider that created cultural frames and "inherited cultural frames are combined with strategic choices within the process of contention" (117) to evolve within contentious acts themselves. To move beyond one-time contention into social movements, lasting frames and symbolisms must be constructed that maintain those already mobilized and mobilized new adherents; these must amplify shared values and goals, while papering over differences that could lead to demobilization.

Possible Critique: While Tarrow explains the need for mobilizational frames and symbols, and posits that these will evolve through the process of collective action and contentious politics, he does not provide any systematic way to predict which types of frames or symbols will be chosen or transformed, nor which ones may be the most successful.


Mobilizing Structures (Ch. 8)--Hierarchy, Autonomy, or Both?: We can think of "mobilizing structures" as a resource which allows contentious acts to be sustained as social movements, and which "bring people together in the field, shape coalitions, confront opponents, and assure their own future after the exhilaration of the peak of mobilization has passed" (123). In other words, these structures institutionalize collective action. Tarrow finds that there is "no single model of movement organization" (137) and that the type of organization can have profound effects on the success of the movement. A formal hierarchical organization can more easily sustain interaction with allies, authorities, and supporters, but hierarchies that fully internalize their base (i.e. grass-roots activists) lose much of their capacity for disruption (i.e. contention), an output better suited to autonomous, horizontally organized mini-groups where each individual is a full participant (consider the anarchists); autonomous groups, however, encourage a lack of coordination and continuity. Tarrow "suggests a delicate balance between formal organization and autonomy--one that can only be bridged by strong, informal, nonhierarchical connective structures" (137). As such, the most successful movements will have this "informal connective tissue operating within and between formal movement organizations" (137). Simply put: you need both!!

Possible critique: While Tarrow explains that you need both formal centralization and autonomous decentralization, he does not provide a mechanism for how you might get either, or how you might get them to interact through "connective tissues."

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Tarrow, Sidney (author)Comparative PoliticsSocial MovementsCultureSocial Capital

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