Review of Social Movements in Iran: Environmentalism and Civil Society by Simin Fadaee Routledge

Social Movements in Iran: Environmentalism and Civil Society. Simin Fadaee. London: Routledge, 2012. ISBN: 9780415693578

Since 1990s, social scientists have been increasingly engaged in a discussion of the limits of applicability of mainstream sociological theories. This paradigmatic shift from uncritically accepting Western cases as universal and neutral to a demand for global representativeness appears to be of more significance than merely a tribute to political correctness, but reveals inherent conceptual and methodological limitations of traditional Western-centered approaches. This issue became a central part of the agenda in the last several months, due to a debate between Michael Burawoy, the president of the International Sociological Association, and Piotr Sztompka, one of former presidents of ISA (in 2002-2006). This debate on the role local traditions can and ought to play in global sociology revealed that “the West and the Rest” dilemma is far from being solved.

Against this background, the appearance of any publication testing applicability of Western sociological theories to non-Western settings is of utmost importance. In this regard, the book “Social Movements in Iran. Environmentalism and Civil Society” by Simin Fadaee is able to offer much more than the title suggests. Its genre, as defined by the author herself, is an intermediary between a case study of some contemporary environmentalist social movements in Tehran and Rasht (the largest town in the Northern Iran, the region with particularly intense tourism, damaged environment and high ecological consciousness) and a more comprehensive volume about the history of Iranian social movements apart from environmentalism. With a closer look, a reader discovers that the original case study is presented only in one of the six chapters. The rest of the book is dedicated to explaining various types of relevant context. This somewhat unusual structure is, in my opinion, due to two reasons – the wide target audience of the book and its interdisciplinarity.

The author’s intention apparently was to make the book accessible for all those who are interested either in contemporary Iranian history, environmentalism, and/or the sociology of social movements. In addition, the book addresses several other topics, such as democratization mechanisms, gender inequality and Islamic fundamentalism, while raising more general issues of multiple modernities, post-industrial societies, and globalization. This wide variety of subjects requires diverse theoretical competence, which the author conveys to her readers, rather than expecting it from them. In fact, meaningful reading of the book requires little prior knowledge besides some general notion of the contemporary sociological agenda; and therefore can be recommended for use in the classroom, probably as an additional reading assignment.

The disciplinary identity of the book is also quite unusual and falls between sociology and history, the two branches of knowledge with heretofore complicated interrelations. On the one hand, the very idea of the publication as the first step in writing a history of social movements in Iran suggests a historical orientation, and in fact, the author pays more attention to particularities, both in time and space, than is usually done in sociological case studies. On the other hand, however, a large part of the text is dedicated to purely theoretical material, with little historical examples, and the conceptual apparatus of the research is quite representative of contemporary sociology. The case study mostly relies on sociological methods, especially in-depth interviews with environmentalist activists, while the historical part of the research is based on earlier works on Iranian history and does not include attempts to augment or reexamine primary sources. Also, the references include many names familiar to any sociologist (Alexander, Beck, Blumer, Castells, Eisenstadt, and Touraine, to mention only a few examples), but hardly any publications in historical science that are not directly related to Iranian history of the twentieth century. In general, the disciplinary affiliation of the book can be defined as historical sociology, similar to its classical works, e.g. the cited Barrington Moore, except that the focus is not so much on the mechanisms of social change as historical process, as on multiplicity of culturally diverse types of social systems coexisting and interacting in time.

This disciplinary diversity, combined with the need of accessibility of the publication for the wide audience, results in regular and drastic changes of perspective throughout the book. The authors seems to zoom in and out from the “global modernization” (to use the title of the prominent and highly relevant work by Martinelli, which one is surprised to find missing in the references) to Iranian inner matters, including some culturally specific vocabulary, and back. Thus, the first chapter “Theoretical background” (pp. 12-36) provides an introduction of the key ideas of the Touraine/Melucci model of social movements. The main point of this theory lies in differentiating between the old and new social movements, characteristic, respectively, of industrial and postindustrial societies. Although the active participation of the masses in politics and a broader framework of social change has been widely discussed and studied as a characteristic feature of modernity ever since the beginning of the twentieth century, much of what has been said no longer applies to the  new type of social movements that started to appear as early as the 1960s. First, these movements have a less clear and more diverse assortment of supporters than the old ones. Instead of representing interest of a particular social class or a professional/occupational group, these movements appeal not to social strata, but to individuals and their increasing aspirations to liberate themselves from social bonds. Second, the ideology of these new movements is less related to a specific political or economic agenda from a point of view of a particular interest group and closer to universalist concerns, e.g. environmentalism, driven by the move towards postmaterialism, a characteristic of post-industrial societies. Third, the goals of new social movements are not easily operationalized. Instead of trying to change social institutions and alter the existing distribution of power, their activists aim at increasing popular awareness of new concerns, e.g. protection of the natural environment, and introducing new fields of meanings, individual lifestyles and practices of everyday life. In general, Fadaee regards the The Touraine/Melucci model as an important theoretical contribution to the research of social movements, by criticizing it for embracing a universalist approach, sharing this drawback with much of the earlier sociological theories. In particular, the author suggests that the Western European periodization of macrosocial change, with a sharp division between traditional, industrial and postindustrial societies, is not wholly applicable in non-Western cases.

In the second chapter, “Grand Social Movements of Iran in the Twentieth Century” (pp. 37-74), the author provides empirical justification of this assumption by drawing on an Iranian example. The main objective of this chapter is to show that the four major Iranian social movements (the constitutional movement of 1905-1906, the movement for nationalization of oil of 1951, the Islamic revolutionary movement of 1979, and the reform movement of 1997) should not be understood as separate occurrences, but as pinnacles of the integral process of social transformation. Thus, a reader will be interested to discover the reason why antifundamentalist reformists widely used the slogan “God is great”. From the insider’s perspective, this slogan creates associations with the previous mass movements of 1979, the most successful of the four, and thus not only provides legitimization, but also implicitly conveys the expectations of eventual victory.  Moreover, the author suggests that, even though all these movements generally resemble the ideal type of an old social movement, the reform movement is different from the previous three by its two-layered structure. In addition to the first layer of political program and struggle, the reform movement allegedly possesses a second level of meanings, represented by new discourses, narratives and counternarratives.

In the third chapter “Civil Society Discourse as the Background for Social Change” (pp. 74-89) the previously postulated second layer of the reform movement is specified and elaborated. Initially, the scope widens again, bringing to the forefront key discursive constructs underlying Western European social movements, most notably civil society and democracy, and tracing paths of their adoption and adaptation in the contemporary Iranian society. Thus, one of the new discourses of the reform movement is based on the concept of “dialogue among civilizations”, introduced as a tolerant and inclusive opposition to Huntington’s famous notion of the clash of civilizations, but also to Iranian fundamentalism, which, same as Huntington’s theory, rests on alleged incompatibility of Western and Islamic civilizations. The discourse of dialogue among civilizations was introduced by the president Khatami and popularized worldwide at the United Nations convention in 2001. Other discourses and counternarratives listed in the chapter acquire the sense of novelty not in global, but only in Iranian context. They have evolved around concepts of modernization as secularism, inclusive citizenship as opposed to division between “from us” and “not from us” or, respectively, proponents and opponents of Islamic revolution, and other discursive constructs. The author traces relations of these new sets of meanings to emergence of new organizational forms of resistance, such as social networks, and structural changes in Iranian society.

The fourth chapter, “From a movement for Civil Society towards a Movement for the Environment” (pp. 90-120) presents results of a case study of Iranian environmentalist activists. Transcripts of semi-structured interviews give evidence of the inner diversity of these movements, both structurally and ideologically. Contrary to what one might expect from a country with strong traditions of hierarchically organized power, environmentalists organizations are multifaceted, decentralized and allow different types of participation, which makes contemporary Iranian environmentalism akin to new social movements in the West. However, the crucial difference, according to Fadaee, lies in the causes and implications of environmentalism. In industrial countries such movements appear for purely ecological reasons as a result of the threat to the environment, while in developing countries, including Iran, environmentalism is closely related to other social movements within the discourse of the civil sphere and provides an overtly non-political form of struggle for democracy and modernization.

The fifth chapter tests “The Relevance of the Touraine/Melucci Model in the Iranian Context” (pp. 121-144). In general, the model, especially its two key concepts of modernity and civil society, is found relevant for the Iranian case, as an example of a social movement in a non-Western society. However, the author refrains from making this relevance equal to complete applicability. In particular, the model is criticized for implicitly regarding societies as separate and close entities similar to the ideal type of a nation-state. Fadaee argues that this limited view is no longer representative of the globalized world, where societies coexist in constant flux and interaction, many boundaries become blurred, and power is to a large extent relocated from nation states to subnational and supranational institutions. Most importantly, the chapter contains an overview of an innovative configurational approach to theory-making and application. This approach rests on simultaneous study of abstract concepts and structural organization of particular societies. This enables a general theory to be flexibly adjusted to each particular case, reveal its heuristic potential and probably be expanded in response to initially counterintuitive empirical data.

The final short chapter “Conclusions” (pp. 145-147) provides what can be regarded as a result of applying this configurational approach to the Touraine/Melucci model. It contains some significant methodological insights of a very general nature. For example, it is suggested that a post-industrial society is not an absolute, but a relative term, so that a society does not merely move from industrial to postindustrial periods, but can be characterized by a certain degree of the post-industrial. This is especially relevant for non-Western societies, which, when viewed from a European perspective, present a complicated combination of post-industrial, industrial and even traditional preindustrial elements. Another suggestion is that due to globalization mainstream sociological theories will become more relevant for non-Western societies, and that their adaptation seems to be mutual.

In general, the author of “Social Movements in Iran” proposes a relatively mild position regarding the limitations of Western theories and their eventual applicability, and on the whole this optimism seems to be justified throughout the book. However, having read it all, the reader is left wondering which peculiarities of the Iranian case are common for other non-Western countries, as is tacitly suggested by “the West and the rest” approach, and which are specific solely to this country, or maybe to the region. The book would benefit, if it were to include at least a brief comparison between Iran and other non-Western countries and conclusions of its particular type of “non-Westerness”. Another drawback of the book is its lack of methodological rigor. The frequent non-reflective use of vocabulary of discourse and narrative analysis is in contrast with refraining from the use of these methods in analyzing data of qualitative interviews constituting key empirical materials.

Notwithstanding these flaws, the book provides a rich and diverse material on a par with the most up-to-date trends in the contemporary social research. Most surprisingly, Fadaee has managed to present an insider’s perspective on a non-Western country to a global reader without succumbing to temptations of exotization or partisanship, instead, she treats both her subject and readers with respect and genuine interest.


Reviewed by Marharyta Fabrykant, Belarus State University
Edited by Martin Pflug

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]