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How are Social Movements Directed?

Movements, and certainly social movement organizations, typically have some form of leadership structure, though in a large and amorphous movement that leadership structure may be implicit and not formalized.

Leadership structures can be tightly organized and hierarchical, or loosely organized and horizontal. Often, the key question is who participates in decision-making processes, who implements decisions, and who supervises implementation? Are decisions taken by an individual or small leadership group, or are they taken in a more collaborative manner by larger populations? To whom will leaders be accountable, and will mechanisms of accountability be enforced? If so, how?

Decision-making within a single organization is often simpler than decision-making within a larger and more complex movement. Consider Black Lives Matter, the example used in a previous paper. Leadership decisions are one thing in, say, the Minneapolis chapter of BLM, and quite another within the larger and more complex national movement, which is made up of multiple organizations and amorphous networks. The Minneapolis entity has established leadership channels, but the national movement does not, as was recently made apparent through a series of public disputes. Some multi-organizational movements may be clearly unified around a single set of leaders, but in most cases, organizations struggle with one another for the power to make decisions, mobilize resources, and frame messages for the movement overall.

Leadership structures in movements and movement organizations can be hierarchical, participatory, or a mix of the two. The Bolshevik and Maoist Communist parties of the 20th century are some of history’s better known examples of top-down social movements, while the Occupy Wall Street (New York) or Gezi Park (Istanbul) movements are more recent examples of decentralized, participatory and horizontal movements.[1]

To complicate matters further, both hierarchical and participatory leadership structures can co-exist in different organizations within the same movement. Consider, for example, two leading rights advocacy groups, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. In the former, there are no individual chapters with the power to vote on leaders and policies; instead, Human Rights Watch decisions are typically made by a unified leadership team. In Amnesty International, by contrast, national chapters vote on organizational policies in an annual global assembly which instructs an international secretariat that holds executive power. Thus, while HRW’s decision-making structure is streamlined like that of a private corporation, Amnesty’s is confederal and quasi-parliamentary. And yet, these two dissimilar leadership structures co-exist within the same international human rights movement.

Furthermore, both hierarchical and participatory styles of leadership can be internally heterogenous. Some hierarchical movements, for example, are built around the leadership of a single individual, such as the Turkish Fetullah Gulen movement.[2] Others may be constructed around a rotating leadership team, such as the Christian Scientists.[3] And while some hierarchical leaders control their movements through relations of personal loyalty—consider the contemporary Palestinian national authority[4]—others utilize an individual leader’s extraordinary personal charisma, as was true for the Palestinian movement under Yasser Arafat.[5]

Participatory movements can also come in different shapes and sizes. One study, for example, identified three major participatory styles among US movements, including (1) A “deferential” style, in which participants with equal power deferred to members with greater expertise on a given issue; (2) A “tutelage” style, in which leaders guided less knowledgeable members through discussions that encouraged each one to reach their own decision and vote accordingly; (3) A ”friendship” style, in which members took informal decisions in small, intimate groups.[6] All of the movements included in the author’s study were participatory, to some extent, but the precise meaning of that term, and its precise implementation, varied.

From the outside, it is often difficult to discern a given movement’s true decision-making process. In rare cases, an organization’s leadership structure is laid out in an official document and reality conforms to the document’s theory. In most instances, however, there are no such documents, or those documents that do exist do not tell the full story. In such cases, researchers must discover real decision-making structures through painstaking qualitative research.

Importantly, leadership structures are only partially constructed by movement members themselves. More often than not, social movements and social movement organizations inherit or borrow leadership styles from predecessor groups or the surrounding environment, giving little opportunity for leaders to consciously choose one leadership style over another. The Zionist movement, for example, borrowed from Russian and Polish nationalist movements, unions and political parties in the early 20th century, as it was those areas of the world that supplied most of the Zionist movement’s early members. The Palestinian national movement, by contrast, borrowed from the surrounding Arab political environment, leading to a very different cluster of leadership styles. Social movement organizations are not always intentional and deliberate about their leaders. Instead, leaders and leadership structures often emerge through implicit processes of borrowing, learning, and environmental adaptation.

The requirement for some form of leadership structure confronts all movements and social movement organizations. The preciseform leadership and authority take in any given movement or organization, however, vary dramatically.

[1] Zeynep Tufekci (2018). Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. Yale University Press. [2] British Broadcasting Corporation. (July 21, 2016). “Turkey Coup: What is the Gülen Movement, and What does it Want?” BBC, available online at

[3] For the contemporary Christian Science board, see

[4] Tariq Dana (2020) “Crony Capitalism in the Palestinian Authority: A Deal Among Friends,” Third World Quarterly, 41:2, 247-263.

[5] Ali Jarbawi and Wendy Pearlman (2007). “Struggle in a Post-Charisma Transition: Rethinking Palestinian Politics after Arafat.” Journal of Palestine Studies 36 (4): 6–21.

[6] Francesca Polletta (2002). Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements. Chicago University Press.

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