Working Paper

Mobilising Citizens: Social Movements and the Politics of Knowledge

Published on 1 January 2007

This paper reflects comparatively on a series of case studies of citizen mobilisation in both north and south, arguing that the politics of knowledge are now central. The cases focus on issues ranging from genetically-modified crops, vaccines, HIV/AIDS and occupational health, to struggles around water, housing, labour rights and the environment.

In different ways, each has asked: who mobilises and who does not, how and why? How are activist networks constituted, involving what forms of identity, representation and processes of inclusion and exclusion? What forms of knowledge – including values, perceptions and experiences – frame these movements and how do citizens and ‘experts’ interact? What resources and spaces are important in mobilisation processes? The paper offers a synthesis of some of the major theoretical perspectives, lines of argument and issues emerging the case studies’ responses to these questions.

In the first part, it engages social movement theory with theories of citizenship. It draws out four overlapping perspectives on processes of mobilisation which are all important to understanding the cases, and which point towards an understanding of ‘mobilising citizens’ as knowledgeable actors engaged in a dynamic, networked politics across local and global sites. In the second part, the paper explores three key emergent themes: knowledge and power; cultures, styles and practices of activism, and the increasing array and complexity of arenas in which citizens press their claims, including legal spaces and the media.

We argue that if contemporary processes of mobilisation and their implications for citizenship are to be understood there is a need to expand and enrich debates about social movements from a diversity of literatures. Today’s dynamics of public controversy, debates about risk, and the forms of mobilisation and 04 protest arising requires putting the politics of knowledge centre-stage in our attempts to recast democratic theory and notions of citizenship, especially in today’s global context.


Image of Ian Scoones

Ian Scoones

Professorial Fellow

Publication details

published by
Leach, M. and Scoones, I.
IDS Working Paper, issue 276
978 1 85864 627 8


Related content