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Ideology and Social Movements – Introduction

Sociology 288 is designed to introduce you to the study of social movements from a sociological perspective.

Typically, when sociologists talk about social movements, they discuss the labour movement, the feminist movement, or the “new” social movements that have emerged in recent decades. In this course, we are less ambitious—at least at first. We begin with a theoretical introduction to social movements in Unit 1, and move on to examine particular aspects of the world of social movements. In Unit 2, we look at homework, both as a social issue and as a potential social movement. As you will see when you read the monograph assigned in Unit 2, our taken-for-granted notions about the usefulness of homework (it builds good study habits, it builds character, etc.) are, especially when it comes to young children, often diametrically opposed to the difficult reality, and fail to take into account the family disruption that homework can cause. And while, at first glance, it may not seem like a serious issue, when you consider the social and emotional consequences that often attend an overemphasis on homework, it becomes important enough to take action on. And as you will see, movements around excessive homework have developed from time to time, as parents and educators have criticized and condemned the practice.

Our unit on homework is important, not just because it provides an example of an issue that is close to home, but also because it begins to point to the importance of belief and ideology in the construction and mobilization of social movements. We discuss this theme further in Unit 4, where we consider the question of competition. Most of us have adopted the idea that competition is something that is good for us, good for careers and good for the economy. We think of it as both a fact of nature (where “survival of the fittest” is thought to be a rule of life) and the basis of our capitalist societies. As we will see, however, neither of these things is necessarily the case. In fact, when you look at the social and psychological research, there little evidence to support the idea that competition is anything other than destructive. Nevertheless, as a society, we pretty much worship competition. The media spend a lot of time glorifying it, almost to the point of religious experience—witness the biennial homage known as the Olympics. Very little is ever said about competition’s negative impacts, although from time to time you will see the media bear witness to its physical and emotional costs (see, for example, Schwartz, 2009).

So how does that happen? How do we become convinced of the reality and beneficence of something despite the fact that contrary evidence is right before our eyes, or at least potentially so?

Well, this is the role of propaganda or, as you likely know it, public relations, and in Unit 3, we take an in-depth look at the field of public relations to see just “what’s up with that.” As we learn, people with money and power spend a lot of both on public relations to ensure that “the masses” think and see the appropriate things. The book we use, A Century of Spin, does not cover homework and the ideology of competition per se, but it does highlight how PR is used to manipulate political, economic and social opinion, and to affect the conditions of our lives. From there, it is a short jaunt over to see how PR and the media are used to support other key ideologies.

In our unit on propaganda, we also introduce what can be called the “corporate social movement”: a social movement organized by corporate power, using the money and resources available to large corporations, to influence politics, government and social opinion in favour of corporate interests. A Century of Spin provides a textbook on how corportions organize and direct public opinion, thereby creating mass action and movement in the direction advocated by small special interest groups. What is most ironic about the whole PR industry is that, while most of the world is being sold the “benefits” of competition, the people who run PR and other institutions of social control are all about cooperation and coordination of effort.

So where does this leave us?

By the end of Unit 4, we will have developed a basic understanding of social movements and considered one example of how resources may be mobilized. We will also have seen how ideology penetrates deep into our home lives, and we may have developed a sense of just how difficult it is to organize a social movement in opposition to dominant interests in society. The question isn’t just about getting people together; it is about breaking through propaganda and programming to get people even to consider the possibility of alternative social arrangements. This idea is highlighted in our consideration of homework. It takes lot of effort to get an individual who has been convinced of the advisability, and even necessity, of homework, to open up to ask questions about it.

Nevertheless, and as difficult as it might be, resistance does happen, as we see in Unit 5. Resistance is often most intense, and most effective, around those issues that impinge on the livelihood of people, and in the book Stolen Harvest, we see this fact quite clearly. The book describes how people in developing nations mobilize to resist the incursion of market organizations, corporations and economic arrangements that sacrifice majority interests for minority enrichment. It is not easy of course, especially considering the might and power against which these social movements are arrayed, and the power and reach of corporate propaganda, but it is not impossible, as Vandana Shiva demonstrates.

In Unit 6, we discuss the effects of the Internet on potential social movements, considering the question of whether, because of its potential for democratizing media, the Internet provides an opportunity for the global mobilization of people around key political and economic issues.

By the end of this course, you will have a good understanding of movements, both corporate and social, how they emerge and how they are suppressed. Throughout the course, our emphasis is on ideology, the penetration of ideology into public consciousness, and the way ideology and “public relations” are implicated in the definition of reality, the exaltation of corporate movements and the suppression of social movements. By the end of this course, you will also have a sense of the potential power of the Internet for returning a sense of balance to the “democratic” arena. Of course, with the proliferation of pornography and fluff on the Internet, the noise level can be hard to get through—but it is not impossible. The Internet may prove a viable alternative to corporate controlled mainstream media, allowing for the formation and mobilization of social movements.