Imagine: the state is your ally… *

By Jan Willem Duyvendak, University of Amsterdam

Conspicuously absent from Dutch approaches to social movements is the so-called New Social Movement Approach of influential figures such as Alain Touraine and Alberto Melucci. Even though some have argued that the NSM approach was the “European contribution” to the field of social movements par excellence, most Dutch scholars contributed instead to Anglo-Saxon traditions. One can speculate why certain approaches resonate so strongly in some countries and less in others. Here, I want to hypothesize that the Dutch political culture of openness toward protest and protestors has been mirrored in the popularity of scholarly approaches that emphasize the importance of political opportunities and resources. It is not that the Netherlands have been less influenced by “May 68,” by the huge cultural transformations of the 1960s and the 1970s that would explain the absence of the NSM-approach in the Netherlands. On the contrary, the Dutch “new” social movements have been far stronger than their French and the Italian counterparts. The literature shows, however, that these huge cultural changes have been possible due to rather specific political conditions. It is this specificity of the Dutch political context – the openness to and the “absorption” of social movements by and in the Dutch state- that explains the popularity of paradigms that focus on (perceptions of) opportunities.

However, this openness, in which “the state” often positions itself more as an ally than an adversary, fuelled one of the main criticisms of an overly structuralist Political Process Approach for positing a rigid distinction between states/ governments and social movements. Studies of many Dutch social movements, such as the women’s and the LGBT movement, point to large intersections between states and movements and the implications of these intersections for theorizing political opportunity structures. In more recent work, scholars at the University of Amsterdam (Broer & Duyvendak 2009, 2011; De Graaff & Broer 2012; Grootegoed, Broer & Duyvendak 2013) have further challenged core assumptions of the structuralist PPA, inspired by the work of American scholars who have emphasized the importance of emotions and culture in social movement research (Jasper 2011). In their work, these UvA researchers show how in the policymaking process itself political subjectivities are formed that enable people to fight precisely those policies. Often, however, it is no so much dissonance that is the outcome of the political process but resonance: policymakers and people have the same definition of the situation and no mobilization occurs. Or something else happens, as Robert Davidson (also UvA) shows in his recent work on the LGBT-movement: the Dutch government – both national and local- mobilizes together with social movement organizations in order to change public opinion to become (even more) favorable regarding homosexuality. In such a context, “the state” as an enemy just doesn’t make sense. To understand protest and social change, we rather “break the state down” (Duyvendak & Jasper 2015) and look at the precise forms of cooperation and conflict that develop regarding concrete topics in highly peculiar settings.

* This short essay draws heavily on Jan Willem Duyvendak, Conny Roggeband and Jacquelien van Stekelenburg “Politics and People: Understanding the Dutch Research on Social Movements”, forthcoming 2016.                                                                     


Bröer, C. & J.W. Duyvendak (2009). Discursive opportunities, feeling rules and the rise of protests against aircraft noise. Mobilization: An International Journal, 14: 337-356.

Broer, C. & J. W. Duyvendak (2011). Sensing and Seizing Opportunities: How Contentious Actors and Strategies Emerge. In: J. Goodwin & J. Jasper (eds. ) Contention in Context. Political Opportunities and the Emergence of Protest. Stanford: Stanford California Press, pp. 240-255.

Duyvendak, J.W. & J. Jasper (2015) (eds.), Breaking Down the State. Protesters Engaged with Authorities. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Graaff, M.B. de & C. Broer (2012) ‘We are the canary in a coal mine’: Establishing a disease category and a new health risk. Health, Risk & Society, 14: 129-147.

Grootegoed, G. C. Broer & J.W. Duyvendak (2013). Too ashamed to complain: cuts to publicly financed care and clients’ waving of their right to appeal. Social Policy and Society, pp. 1-12.

Jasper, J. (2011). “Emotions and Social Movements: Twenty Years of Theory and Research.” Annual Review of Sociology 37:285-304.