Try to write the history of Northern Ireland without the civil rights movement, of the Republic without the women’s movement, of Britain without the labour movement, of Eastern Europe without the movements of 1989, of Western Europe without resistance to fascism, of Asia without independence movements, of South Africa without anti-apartheid, of the US without its own civil rights movement. Or try to imagine a liveable future without a massive ecological movement to make it possible…

And yet so often it is easier – for academics or journalists, for novelists or movie-makers – to talk about the actions of people who are wealthy, powerful and culturally dominant than to talk about the agency of the poor, the powerless and the stigmatised when they come together in social movements to change their own lives and in so doing change the world around them. Yet it is those movements that put the right to vote, the freedom of speech and assembly, welfare states, rights for women and LGBTQ+ people, opposition to racism and the idea of equality on the agenda.

There is nothing surprising about this: when change is badly needed, and “normal channels” have failed to overcome massive wealth inequalities, most people’s lack of power over the decisions that are made in their name, or deep-rooted hierarchies of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and (dis)ability, those affected are likely to act collectively to bring about change. Without power, they have large numbers; without wealth, they can nonetheless disrupt “business as usual”; without cultural privilege, they have greater scope for creative resistance.

This activity – the attempt, together, to shape our own history – is also important in itself. We become citizens rather than subjects, taking liberties rather than pleading for concessions, seeking to shape the circumstances of our own lives rather than cope within arrangements created by and for others. It involves stepping out of apolitical individualism and passive consumerism and into thinking and acting together on a wider and more adult stage.

Why Social Movements Matter is possibly the first book to talk about social movements in general other than for a purely academic audience. It explores how movements work in people’s everyday lives; their historical contribution; the relationship between social movements and the left; knowledge and learning in social movements; and how they have changed the intellectual landscape of the humanities and social sciences.

Dr. Laurence Cox is one of Europe’s leading social movement researchers. Register for his talk at the Old Staff Common Room, Queen’s University on 27th March here.

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