Political Science 101 For Those Confused By The Occupy Movement

by Gina Ronning

The Occupy movement has been a catalyst for much needed national discourse on the issues of corporate greed and political corruption. More importantly, this discourse is coming from those most affected by the actions of self-driven profiteering businesses, which have long sought to silence this discourse. However, unsustainable practices will inevitably fall apart, and it is during this time of instability, those who thought they were immune from such practices start to feel its affects; hence, the birth of the Occupy Movement.

But, what is the Occupy Movement? Well, it’s not a political movement, at least not yet, and here’s why: The definition of a political movement can best be understood through what it is not. Though the terms ‘political’ and ‘social’ movements are often used interchangeably, scholars and political/social scientists alike seem to distinguish the differences between them based on their duration, what the movement focuses on, how a focus is chosen, as well as the populations and or groups involved (1).

A political movement could be considered “-a social movement in the area of politics.”  A political movement may be organized around a single issue or set of issues, or around a set of shared concerns of a particular social group (2).  Additionally, political movements are “an expression of the struggle a specific social group and its desire to seek political space and benefits (2).” The Occupy movement is neither a united social group, nor does it represent specific issues of any one social group.

Currently, the Occupy movement could be considered a social movement. Social movements, in contrast to a political movement, ‘are large informal groupings of individuals, groups, or organizations focused on specific political or social issues’. The Occupy movement could also be considered what might be termed a ‘radical reformist’ social movement (3). ‘Radical’ social movements are dedicated to changing fundamental value systems in fundamental ways, and a reformist movement seeks to advocate for specific policy reform, such as removing corporate personhood. The Occupy movement currently is a blend of both of these. Though it is not guaranteed, political movements often come later as a result of a particular social movement.

What makes this movement’s identity confusing for many is the overarching claim that the Occupy Movement assumes within its language. “We are the 99%!” This statement assumes a single social group, but in reality, the concept of the “99%” is not a singular, monolithic social group that any one movement can claim. So the Occupy movement speaks like a political movement, but behaves like a radical reformist social movement. Make sense?

Determining the ever-elusive ‘success’ of any given movement relies on our understanding of its purpose. If a social movement simply seeks to change a consciousness or value system of a people, its success must be measured through qualitative measurement, but in a culture of immediate gratification, results are expected in the now. Yet in order to make an accurate determination of how many people have actually changed their political and social views, is a monumental and highly subjective venture. However, long-term, stable policy reform comes from a change in public consciousness, and this type of change is neither quick, nor easy. Policy change and or reform is often a reflection of social and political change, which is why we look for it when we attempt to measure the “success” of a movement, a grave mistake in a painstakingly long process.

(1) Bostic. Philip, J. (Date Unknown). Social Movement.
(In) Learning to Give. Indiana University.

(2) Tilly, Charles. (2004). Social Movements, 1768–2004.
Boulder, CO, Paradigm Publishers, 2004.  262 pp

(3) Aberle, David F. (1966). The Peyote Religion among the Navaho.
Chicago: Aldine.

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