The Anthropology of Political Movements

“Social movements, it is argued,emerge out of the crisis of modernity; they orient themselves towards the constitution of new orders, and embody a new understanding of politics and social life itself. They result in the formation of novel collective identities which foster social and cultural forms of relating and solidarity as a response to the crises of meanings and economies that the world faces today.” -Escobar, 1992

Arturo Escobar pointed out that social movements had been “invisible” to anthropology while sociology, history, political science and philosophy, for example had been paying attention to everything that can be studied about social movements. As a result, anthropology had found itself at a crossroads in direction: to incorporate the study of collective and groups as they are a function of change and adaptation to the new rather than as a function of the old, static and pre existing systems and orders.

Perhaps it is easier to study that which is standing still!

It is most obvious that social movements are viewed through a limited political prism, as politics, law and government are the common fields of battle. But social movements can also happen on cultural, religious, normative and value laden battlefields. In an era of great prosperity, like the 1990s, cultural, intellectual and social movements were developing, with like minded people establishing a whole new world of sub societies, some with their own laws, rules, enforcement powers and sanctions. The Crips, Bloods, Goth, Punk, Nortenos, Tongs and others who are labeled “gangs” were actually social movements that created whole societies with generational passing on of norms,education, values, economics, rules and leadership within the main cultures of Latin America, Asia Africa, Europe and North America.

Although there have been efforts to understand political anthropology, but it was through observation of static systems. Anthropology might have missed an incredible opportunity to observe the nature of social movements as engines of change in society rather than observing that which is static and unchanging. Islam, for example is a static religion, but became a social movement that led to a permanent presence throughout the world, with a great acceleration during the 60s through 2000.

Anthropology is the only science that can do what it does: to observe while participating in extended periods of daily life of societies and groups. It makes perfect sense that this approach would be priceless in observing and collecting information about social change through studying a particular social movement, especially since the foreseeable future will involve change and adaptation to change in the majority societies and cultures of the world.

There is no way out. Change is here and change will be happening for the foreseeable future, so it must be studied in light of humans and societies who adapt to change.

The current conflict between change and resistance to change, or even demands to revert to past social orders and systems is something that should be examined from all social science perspectives and with respect to the small group. It is, after all, the small group that, if successful, will become the large group that eventually gets change incorporated into society. These days, that can happen rapidly and with global consequences.

Finally, the “hybridization” of fields of study is a promising change in education. After a long, dry spell of over specialization, anthropology is now being incorporated into everything from botanical and medical study to political and economic fields. The prefix “ethno” is becoming a given, rather than a rare or eccentric way of learning. With this trend, at least some of the anthropological approaches to study will be incorporated into other fields, including those that follow political, social and other group movements.