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People motivate collective action when they face what they perceive to be unjust, in an attempt to rectify a depriving situation. Social scientists define collective identity as being people who share common interests, experiences and solidarities. This collective identity can provoke group action, which can drive a social movement. German philosopher Karl Marxargued that unity among workers eliminates differences among the employees and creates solidarity among group members (Bantjes, 2007, p. 19). Contrary to Marx, contemporary trends of social movements, such as the gay movement, feminism, and anti-corporate globalization have proven that Marx’s suggestion is not always the case today. Increased education among the general public and the development of advanced forms of communication and transportation allow people to learn from other social movements, which they can support or oppose. Today, the employment field is much more diverse, people are able to participate in a wider field of interests, and information is readily available. Because of this, people posess several complex aspects to their identity than just proletarian or bourgeois. Despite the many advantages gained from diversity, should protest group solidarity depend on the elimination of differences?

In order to create a collective identity in a social movement, clear boundaries are required to define the group’s identity. For instance, the queer movement contains lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals. In fact, the queer movement simplifies complex sexual identities of people under the ambiguous umbrella of “sexual minorities.” It is similar to refer to those of many races as “people of colour,” which becomes an inclusive and difference-erasing shorthand for a long list of ethnic, national and racial groups (Gamson 1995 p. 395). Some people argue that each subgroup should hold their social movement separately to accommodate the views and goals of each subgroup. Gamson adds that “identities are indeed much more unstable, fluid, and constructed,” (1995 p. 395). Each social movement requires a collective identity to set boundaries that define a group and develop an awareness of the group’s unique and shared values. This type of focus could lead to actions that address the group’s problems.

It is normal for people to have multiple identities that change over time. Poletta and Jasper explains using Gould’s concept that “identities come not from fixed categories like race, class, gender, or nation, but from common positions in networks,” (2001, p. 288). Now many more aspects should be revised and considered for collective identity. After all, every person has a different identity, which is hard to be converted into simple unified categories. To create a collective identity of a movement, it is important to estimate to what degree participants share similar values. For example, the participants of the queer movement are lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendereds. But the problem of this collective identity is that members within it do not share a strong sense of belonging than a collective identity group for specific lesbians, gays, bisexuals, or transgendereds. It will be impossible to organize social movements without setting clear boundaries with exact goals, and it is difficult to claim that the goals of gays are always necessarily the same as those of transgendereds, for example.

Creating a collective identity is also challenging the idea that people’s shared interest is simply not enough to motivate individuals to participate. People are driven into movements out of a sense of deprivation or inequality, particularly in relation to others or to their own expectations. But first of all, participants see others who have more access to power, economic advantage or status, and they strain to gain power for themselves for these benefits. But when the situation doesn’t improve, people are likely to rebel because their expectations have outgrown any results they were expecting. Nevertheless, people hesitate to join collective identity groups because they can give them disadvantages in their daily lives. It is human nature that people opt to freeride. Those who participate in the early stage usually face a high level of hostility and challenge. It is true that many pioneers of social movements face imprisonment, threats and violence. The great social movement pioneers and leaders – Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Mohammad Ghandi, and San Suukyi – faced systematic restraint and suppression. Most social movements fight for vested rights, but people who benefit from inequality become upset. Poletta and Jasper argue that “creation of strong movement usually leads to a backlash of those portrayed as the enemy may be angered or frightened into counter organization,” (2001 p. 297). People fear that they might face an ordeal if they side with underdogs; therefore, they tend to wait until a significant event occurs before joining the fight.

I think the only way to encourage people to participate is to create a stronger solidarity among the group members. In other words, emphasize the importance of belonging to the organization. The individual needs to show that they are beneficial, in order to be considered one of the members. Also, it is important to have charismatic leadership to lead the group, or an incident that makes a impact on society. The civil rights movement in the United States started with Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus, and Martin Luther King Jr’s charismatic leadership that stimulated African Americans to recognize the importance of collective identity and collective activities. Consequently, a strong collective identity and activity created a miracle and fueled social change. I think Nazis also used strong leadership to promote what they considered to be racial superiority. It should be noted that the Germans before World War II were obsessed with collective identity, which was based on Aryan ethnicity. It is true that “…collective identity [is] the relation between identity and an individual’s calculus of self-interest,” (Poletta and Jasper 2001 p. 299). It will be a huge challenge for social movement activists to persuade people to join a common identity.

The pitfall of Marx’s idea is that it was developed to describe the conflict between proletariats and the bourgeois. In today’s world, people have unlimited access to worldwide news via the Internet and access to education, creating broader types of identities. Also, collective identity is shown in a much narrower and more detailed scale compared to the past. Society has become too complicated to be understood completely, and to fall into broad categories. Marx argued that the elimination of differences among workers will eventually create solidarity, but I don’t think similarity necessarily creates solidarity in present social movements. Development in communication, transportation and media now show live broadcast to the world, depicting global movements in detail. Media especially contributed “… to the U.S. civil rights movement throughout the 1950s and early 1960s,” (Bantjes 2007 p. 68). Bantjes goes on to say that civil activists used media to collect supporters and advertise their purposes (2007, p. 69). Media brings social movement into the public, to which viewers gain access. For instance, Arab Spring was highly affected by the media, which caused the continuous liberation of Arab countries. People’s cell phones are now used as a broadcasting station to post quick reports about issues and events. As media and social networks prevail, people start having varying perspectives on a single issue. Also, the media is used as a tool to recruit new members, inciting audiences to become involved in social movements. Consequently, huge numbers of people start creating sub-divisible groups for efficiency. In the military, we divide troops into divisions, regiments, battalions, companies and squads for efficiency.

People’s level of involvement, opinions about the issues and ways to approach to them are diverse. During the 1950’s civil rights movement, many African American leaders had different approaches and perception about their inequality. Furthermore, people participating in animal rights movements are also divided into various groups. These sub-groups result from different approaches and interpretations of the issue. I use the term sectarianism, in which subdivisions occur due to different denominations of the class, region or factions of a political movement, to identify differences within collective identity groups. When looking at the European Union, every member shares some common characteristics, such as geographical region, though they are considered to be separate countries. Social movement about an issue is not performed by a sole identity group but rather though a cooperation with multiple activist groups. Unorganized mass is slow and inefficient; therefore, dividing people into groups enables each cluster to be swift. Multiple groups sharing common interests compete and cooperate to meet common goals. I think people share stronger collective identities for the purpose, rather than identity and belonging to the subdivision group. For instance, when working in an environmental social movement and choosing environmental NGOs to work for, I would join a group that fits my perceptions, characteristics, beliefs, and accessibility, more that joining for the notion of being a part of a group. The problem of collective identity is that it doesn’t have a fixed boundary. For instance, I could belong to a collective identity to share common interests in global environmental protection theory while also belonging to an NGO’s environmental protection theory. It seems like it is a system of chain of command like in the military: soldiers belong to the nation but also to the division or regiment they serve. It is important for people to prioritize their collective identity to decide which collective identity is greater than the other. But in my opinion, collective identity for the macro level is more important.

I think these differences among participants promotes social change. Difference among participants doesn’t always mean conflict or disintegration. It promotes diverse strategies to be used. In military, troops get stronger when infantry, artillery and airforce is combined, rather than having the sole infantry. Everyone has different abilities and backgrounds to be considered. It is true that many social movement groups face conflict with other groups during the process of social change. Although, it is usually not a destructive process, it is a process of adjusting their opinions in order to achieve a collective goal. For example, Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. both worked for the civil rights movement, but they had different approaches to accomplish the goal: Malcom X used Islamic influence and ideas compared to Martin Luther King Jr. using a peaceful approach. Their religions, jobs, education, and approaches were different, but they both greatly contributed to the civil rights movement. When we use people with different abilities at the right position, synergies happen and result in a surplus outcome. It shows that differences actually promote diversity of tactics in social movement theory. In Arab Spring, a person only shared the common aspect of being a citizen of an Arab country, but still proved successful movement to create change in society. In Arab Spring, it was very effective that people from various sectors of countries united to protest against the government. If only a portion of people were on strike, it would have been impossible to achieve the victory. It was possible because different participants from different areas paralyzed their country’s system, which caused isolation of the government.

Despite differences among participants and subgroups having advantages, differences among participants also has disadvantages. First, it is harder to bureaucratiz as a collective identity. It is essential to be bureaucratized to perform social action. Strong charismatic leaders are needed in order to make successful social movements. Many movements are created around some charismatic leader as a symbol or representative of the movement. We need a bureaucracy to build frameworks, morale and to make decisions. The leader gives motivation, guidance, confidence and acts as a negotiator with external forces.

Due to the diversity among participants, it will be extremely hard to elect a charismatic leader. People will have different agendas to recognize a person’s leadership. For instance, when I was in Afghanistan, people had a hard time finding the charismatic leadership to fight against feministic equality. They had several feministic identity groups promoting equality in sex, but their activity was unorganized due to the non existence of a bureaucracy to fight as a whole. They held several meetings to find out a way to act as a collective activity, but without bureaucracy it was nearly impossible to elect a co-president of feministic groups because they had different economic and social backgrounds. Secondly, group disintegration happens and a lack effective cooperation. It also applies to subdivision groups that each subdivision group cannot challenge alone, due to their inability to react. Collective action is required, rather than individual small movements. This leads to the final aspect of disadvantage that takes severed damage or even scatters after the backlash of “…enemi[ies]… angered or frightened into counter organization,” (Poletta and Jasper 2001 p. 297). For instance, during the 1990s when social movement groups were criticizing the multinational corporations, corporations responded to them by suiting unimaginable amounts of compensation to fight against movement groups. This disintegrated several activist organizations into dust. In South Korea, Samsung suited union workers for $30 million and was able to successfully eliminate union from their corporation until now. In the 1990s, Samsung Union was not smart enough to cooperate with the human rights movement and other union groups; therefore, they lost the suit and was disintegrated. It shows that a single activist group usually cannot continue after a backlash from powerful exterior forces. However, differences among participants doesn’t necessarily disintegrate solidarity. Only partial aspects differences matter to solidarity. There are many aspects of “differences” and only a few aspects relate to group solidarity. Group consciousness, recognizing the importance their purpose to change, is more important. People in Arab Spring had greatly prioritized the purpose of their collective actions, rather than considering the differences among themselves. Its only purpose integrated the entire nation to bring flowers in Arab.

To conclude, many social movements were successful without the elimination of the differences of participants. It seems group consciousness of recognizing the importance of the social movement activities and motivations for the changes are tremendously important for solidarity and, furthermore, the achievement of goals. The elimination of differences is only one of many ways to bring solidarity to a group. Difference between participants will create diversity and a mosaic in developing ideas of social movements. For me, I think social movement is like a car operating with people’s purpose and passion as fuel, bureaucratics as wheels, a charismatic leader as the steering wheel, and participants as different bodyparts of the car. It is important for these members to recognize that they belong to a system, and their purpose is to move humanity to a better place. To achieve this purpose, it is crucial to tolerate the differences and work together for a greater cause.

Bantjes, Rod. (2007), Social Movements In a Global Context. Canadian Scholars’ press Inc.
Toronto: ON.

Gamson, Joshua. (1995). Must Identity Movements Self-Destruct? A Queer Dilemma*.    Social problems, 42, 390-407.

Poletta, Francesca & Jasper, James M.. (2001). Collective Identity and Social Movements.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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