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Special Issue: Organizational Practices of Social Movements and Popular Struggles: Understanding the Power of Organizing from Below

This special issue departed from the recognition that the study of social movements (SMs) in the field of organization studies (OS) has been largely influenced by theories constructed to analyze business organizations and their interactions with formal and informal SM organizations (SMOs). It was also informed by our own trajectories, represented by our individual and shared academic work and activism as well as by the learning process we have undertaken together with the participants of a series of conference streams we have organized over the past few years.

Having gone through the process of reviewing and selecting papers, we are very glad to present the four articles that constitute this special issue. Even though not all explicitly articulate the theme of organization, they bring to light the power of organizing from below and organizational practices as a means for transforming social reality.

In “From state fetish to community fetish: a spatial analysis of 15M and Podemos in Spain,” Ibán Díaz-Parra and Beltran Roca Martinez address the dialectics between state and community fetishism and have as main theoretical concept the notion of spatial projects, based on Henri Lefebvre and Neil Brenner. They focus on the transformation of spatial projects and strategies in three different moments: the consolidation of autonomist and new social movements (NSMs) in Spain after the 1980s; the development by the 15M movement of ephemeral territorialities, spatial practices, institutions and scales; the view of politics as being independent of the political arena of the state (community fetishism); and finally, the emergence of Podemos and multiple initiatives after 2014 that turned social unrest into the participation of activists in the state spatial project, responding to the limitations of community fetishism and the alternative spatial project in the context of social and political tensions of the Spanish crisis.

Remaining in the Spanish context, but firmly located in the field of OS, Ruth Simsa and Marion Totter analyze, in “Social movement organizations in Spain – being partial as the prefigurative enactment of social change,” some organizations founded or strengthened following the emergence of the 15M movement movement. The authors’ main concept is SMO and the theoretical contribution includes the appropriation of the propositions of Ahrne and Brunsson (2011) on complete and partial organizations, showing a positive interpretation of partial organizations that can illuminate the analysis of organizational practices that reject hierarchy and aim the political participation through self-organization and egalitarian structures. This is one of the contributions of the article: taking an established theory that defends the need of complete organizations, which includes all elements of formal organization such as membership, hierarchy, rules, monitoring and sanctions, the authors, based on the knowledge produced from below, that the denial of these aspects is precisely what defines the SMOs practices they studied.

The next article is a theoretical one, written by researchers from the field of SM studies. In “Repertoires of knowledge practices: social movements in times of crisis,” Donatella della Porta and Elena Pavan claim that SMs contribute to produce social and political change through the elaboration and the experimentation of alternative epistemologies, that is, systems of ideas, theories and strategies about the status quo and how to change it to achieve movements’ aspirations. Their aim is to contribute to the discussion on the implications of movements in terms of challenging existing conceptions of democracy by further elaborating on how contemporary progressive SMs function as laboratories of democratic innovation. As some authors have outlined, these movements form collective spaces of knowledge production and contribute to produce social and political change. They not only impact activists’ biographies and/or generate policy or cultural change, the activists who produce them also elaborate and experiment alternative epistemologies.

Finally, we have an article focusing specifically on qualitative research practices in the study of movements from below. Orestis Varkarolis and Daniel King develop the concept of responsive action research (RAR) in “Voicing researched activists with responsive action research.” Based on participatory action research, the research method they craft is designed for engaging with, and making the research produced of benefit to, those studied. This responsiveness has become an important feature of research from a critical perspective within NSM. RAR is more an ethos/attitude than a set of methodology offered to the engaged scholars who seek to offer ways of working that develop research which is both theoretically meaningful but done in a manner that is of benefit to practitioners.

In conclusion, the articles in this special issue constitute a contribution both to the fields of OS and SMS, as well to the activists engaged in their everyday struggles. The papers engage with debates that are contemporary and very much needed today, addressing issues from the organizational and spatial practices of SMs to the relationship with the state apparatus and to epistemological and ontological dimensions. Methodologically, it is important to highlight that all papers address, even if indirectly, the way we research and interact with activists or activist researchers. We hope you, the reader, enjoy reading these texts and take this special issue as an invitation for further engagements with the organizational practices of SMs from below.

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