Urban Studies Social Movements in Cities
Sander van Haperen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0051


How social movements are rooted in specific places has been of interest to scholars of collective action, as well as geography and sociology generally. Social movements, in general, are characterized by the sustained mobilization of people sharing social or political aims. The characteristics of cities, as distinct from rural geographies, play a role in the development of urban social movements, offering concentrations and a diversity of people, resources, and power. Academic literature on the topic examines how cities are conducive to, or constrain, the development of social movements. Although the term urban social movement first appears in scholarly literature in 1972, cities have been key sites of contention at least since industrialization in the 1800s. Cities remained prominent throughout the rise of new social movements and transnational summit protests. In more recent decades, networked movements such as Occupy have renewed questions about inequalities and the right to the city. In short, cities are both a prominent focus and locus of contention. This bibliography focuses on academic literature on the city as the locus and focus of social movements, aiming to provide a selection rather than a comprehensive list. Other, not specifically urban aspects of transnational and domestic social movements are covered in other Oxford Bibliographies articles. This bibliography pays particular attention to works which impacted debates in the field, including contrasting perspectives, as well as diverse methodological approaches.

Foundational Works

Foundational to understanding the city as a site of contention remain Lefebvre 1968 and Lefebvre 1974 on the relationship between space and politics. Castells 1983 has been seminal in the formation of theory on urban social movements (see also Castells 1972 under Geographic Areas), sparking further theorization as in Pickvance 1975 and Lowe 1986. Building on these works, Harvey 2008 and Sassen 2011 theorize cities as a focus of contention and as a locus for understanding contention, for instance with regard to class conflict as shown in Assies 1999 and economic policies in Fainstein and Fainstein 1985, globalization in Hamel, et al. 2000, and networks in Diani 2015. Sampson 2012 examines how life is shaped by space generally, and cities specifically.

  • Assies, Willem. “Theory, Practice and ‘External Actors’ in the Making of New Urban Social Movements in Brazil.” Bulletin of Latin American Research 18.2 (1999): 211–226.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0261-3050(98)00094-1

    Many new social movements rose in Brazil in the 1970s, which Assies explains in terms of class disparities, showing how the emerging middle class became politicized.

  • Castells, Manuel. The City and the Grass-Roots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements. London: Edward Arnold, 1983.

    A radical critique to what he perceived as a lack of empiricism in urban studies, Manuel Castells set out to reinvigorate investigations of the contestation of social conditions in empirical cases such as the Paris commune, San Francisco Latino and gay communities, and squatters in Latin America. In doing so, he put urban social movements at the center of understanding the creation of political and cultural alternatives.

  • Diani, Mario. The Cement of Civil Society: Studying Networks in Localities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781316163733

    A landmark work that studies how movement networks develop between and within cities.

  • Fainstein, Susan S., and Norman I. Fainstein. “Economic Restructuring and the Rise of Urban Social Movements.” Urban Affairs Quarterly 21.2 (1985): 187–206.

    DOI: 10.1177/004208168502100204

    A study of forty years of urban social movements in New York City provides avenues for the contestation of economic policies within the particularities of urban structures, Fainstein and Fainstein show.

  • Hamel, Pierre, Henri Lustiger-Thaler, and Margit Mayer, eds. Urban Movements in a Globalising World. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

    Offers a comprehensive collection of theory, issues, themes, and diverse case studies of urban social movements in light of globalization.

  • Harvey, David. “The Right to the City.” In The City Reader. Edited by Richard T. LeGates and Frederic Stout, 23–40. London: Routledge, 2008.

    An influential work in the right to the city debate, Harvey examines its rise as a “working slogan and political ideal” (p. 40) for urban social movements.

  • Lefebvre, Henri. Le Droit a la ville. Paris: Editions Anthropos, 1968.

    Published in 1968, this pioneering work was foundational to urban studies generally, and has remained central to debates about “the right to the city” in social movements more specifically.

  • Lefebvre, Henri. La Production de l’espace. Paris: Editions Anthropos, 1974.

    Following his argument for urban society as a space for improving the human condition, this work set out a general theory about the relationship between space and politics.

  • Lowe, Stuart. Urban Social Movements: The City after Castells. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-18175-9

    A reappraisal of Castells, and continuation of the call for (comparative) empiricism, Stuart Lowe synthesized contemporary debates about the nature of social movements in cities in light of extensive examinations of the urban experience.

  • Pickvance, Chris. “On the Study of Urban Social Movements.” Sociological Review 23.1 (1975): 29–49.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-954X.1975.tb00516.x

    An early and prominent interlocutor in the field of urban social movements as it was emerging, Pickvance discusses the structuralism prevalent in Castells’ early work.

  • Sampson, Robert J. Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226733883.001.0001

    In the tradition of the Chicago School and on the basis of a decade of research in Chicago, Sampson argues life is shaped to a large extent by the place you live, including health, pregnancy, economic perspective, and migration.

  • Sassen, Saskia. “The Global Street: Making the Political.” Globalizations 8.5 (2011): 573–579.

    DOI: 10.1080/14747731.2011.622458

    In this article, Sassen examines uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa to show how power and powerlessness are shaped in cities.

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