Cooptation, Continuity, and the Diffusion of Collective Action: Kuwaiti Civil Society after the Arab Spring

By Geoff Martin
Submitted to Session P3179 (Political Change in the Arab Spring, 2012 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
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Before the winter of 2011, there was little reason for scholars to think that states in the Middle East would become pressured by the greater forces of civil society mobilization. Decades of repression and cooptation seemed to make these regimes highly resistant to civil society mobilization (Bellin 2004, Heydemann 2007, Anderson 1987; O’Donnel, Guillermo and Schmitter 1986). This assumption, that civil society groups in the Middle East were irrevocably undermined and coopted by the authoritarian state (Diani 2008), disappeared with the mobilization of many ‘weak’ civil society groups during the Arab Spring. In Kuwait specifically, this mobilization is especially pertinent to observe in early 2012, considering the increase in nonviolent political action by numerous Social Movement Organizations (SMOs) through collective street actions, unified symbols for democratic reform, and sustained and effective parliamentary lobbying. These series of events has led me to the question: How and under what conditions have ideological frames diffused between SMOs in Kuwait?

In the most relevant theoretical literature (Social Movement Theory) to comprehend these increased levels of collective action, scholars disagree over the conditions under which SMOs can be tied to one another. This is largely due to the differing concepts of diffusion, which greatly influence academics’ method to studying ties between civil society groups and how that generates the particular environment for collective action (McAdam 1995, Tarrow 1993, Staffenborg, Meyer and Whittier 1994). The tentative hypothesis of this paper is that increased mobilization efforts in Kuwait relate to new methods of indirect diffusion in general ideological discourse (through new print press and internet sources), that broaden collective action between SMOs. This allows groups to mobilize and unite around similar ideological frames without the more traditional direct diffusion connections emphasized in previous literature on social movements.

A comparative case study of nine SMOs involved in contentious politics in Kuwait will test this hypothesis. It will look at three different types of SMOs: 1) government subsidized SMOs 2) human rights NGOs and 3) youth organizations. The study of each organization will have two main parts: 1) An analysis of indirect and direct networks connecting them to other SMOs, interviews with activists, and participant observation and 2) observation of the overarching frames which SMOs use to mobilize support through interviews with activists and a content analysis of their policies as well as press and internet sources.

This paper represents an academic contribution by refocusing perceptions of collective action.