Theories of Political Opportunity Structure

Social movement scholars using what is sometimes called the political process approach (Rucht, 1996; Tarrow, 1996; Rootes, 1999; Kriesi, 2004; Meyer, 2004; Van der Heidjen, 2006) focus attention on the influence of the “political opportunity structure” on social movement goals and strategies. They argue that the belief that a problem exists and is potentially solvable by a movement does not automatically lead to the rise of a social movement. For a movement to appear, external conditions (the political opportunity structure) must make success seem likely enough to attract volunteers and donors. While some advocates of this theory define the word “political” rather narrowly, others construe it more broadly to include social and economic conditions that affect the likelihood of movement success.

Researchers and theorists using the political opportunity approach have sought to identify key dimensions of political systems that help to explain the emergence, strength, ideology, goals, and strategies of social movements. For example, either extreme openness of the political system to new ideas and proposals, which makes it unnecessary to form a movement to advance new ideas, or a substantial threat of repression can discourage movement formation. Environmental NGOs in relatively repressive regimes might therefore prefer behind-the-scenes lobbying, public education that does not challenge the status quo, and practical projects to benefit the environment rather than involving themselves in a confrontational movement. Other researchers have suggested that nations with federal political structures spawn social movements with strong regional organization, while centralized states, such as France or Cameroon, are more likely to have purely local or nationally organized movements. Movements in countries with an independent and influential judiciary and legislature are more apt to file lawsuits and engage in interest group tactics to influence the parliament than those in countries where these branches of government are weak. Finally, states differ markedly in their ability to respond effectively to various kinds of demands. Particularly in the aftermath of structural adjustments, many developing countries have relatively limited capacities to actually provide services, enforce laws, or influence events outside the capital. In such situations, movements may find it unproductive and unappealing to spend time and resources attempting to influence government policy or programs.

In addition, various characteristics of the more general political environment have been identified as influencing movement and SMO goals, strategies, and success. These include the existence of traditional political cleavages based on religion, ethnicity, tribe, or class; the availability of alliance partners for social movements; the extent of divisions within elites; and the stability of the ruling party or coalition.

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