Social movements generate a lot of excitement. Many people see them as the most legitimate way of enacting change in society, as they are “from below”, from the people themselves, more ‘inclusive’ and ‘democratic’. Movements that have come around since the 1960s differ from older styles of public pressure where the voice of the poor and the oppressed was expressed through leaders in trade unions or political parties. Examples of the “New Social Movements” in contemporary Latin America include the indigenous movement EZLN (Exército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) in Mexico and the landless workers movement in Brazil, the MST (Movimento Sem Terra). But how truly democratic and inclusive these new movements are is rarely a serious research question, but a mere assumption by scholars and supporters who fall in love with the idea of movements from below.
For almost 20 years, Dr. Judy Hellman, professor of Political Science and Social Sciences at York University, Canada, has written critically about the largely uncritical worship of new social movements that seems to have swept the world. She spoke to Development Roast about her once controversial views (which are increasingly becoming common wisdom) and the past and future of research on social movements in Latin America: