Social Movements And Charismatic Leadership

When thinking about a social movement, the first image that comes to the people’s mind is usually one: the person or the people leading that given movement, identifying the movement throughout the personification of it into an individual figure, who bares the perks and the graves of each action of a consolidated movement. Could be a spokesman, in the case of temporary movements, or a leader, when it comes to consolidated ones.

The main aim of my research paper is to develop a connection between the analysis of the personal traits of the dominant figure and the success of a social movement. To do so, I will mainly focus both on the charismatic leadership theory and on the formation path of social movements, diving in depth into social movements theory: this is going to be the theoretical framework for my work which will be later applied to the case study of the Five Stars Movement, which I consider to be consistent enough to confirm my hypothesis. For this analysis I will focus on the born of the Movement and on its first ideals and its first organizational structure: I will not analyse the present situation of the Movement which actually turned in an effective political party which now became the establishment against which it was struggling in its infancy. This is a controversy I will avoid discussing here, rather focusing on the dynamics between Grillo as a leader, the collective identity founded on the grievances and the success of the movement.

Research question and hypothesis

Considering the social movements field, the efficacy of a social movement and the presence of a highly-charismatic leading figure at its top result tightly connected. Driving from existing literature, such as Barker, Johnston and Lafalette’s “ Leadership and social movements”, the question which arouse is the following: “how does the presence of a strong leader influence the success of a social movement?”. The basis for this research question is the idea that charismatic leaders are capable to convey and transform shared emotions leading the movement in a successful way, leveraging on feelings and acting as emotional catalysators. The hypothesis therefore assumes the interdependency between the variables “grade of strength of the leader” and “success”. This means: the more charismatic the leader, the more successful the social movement. The first variable is expressed through the psychological analysis of the leadership style of the leader, with a focus on discourses, language, mediatic influence, followers, charisma.

The second variable can be expressed through various levels, such as: 1. The time criterion, in the meaning of the temporal duration of the movement at its peak moment; 2. The effective number of people who feel to all extents to belong to the movement; 3. The influence the movement has on the social and political system.

Social movements and collective identity

The discourse regarding identity formation is social movements is really broad and has been analysed in relation to various dimensions and extents. It is nevertheless tightly bound to the historical framework surrounding the evolution of social movements. To allow conceptual clearness, a definition of “social movement” has to be stated. To the extents needed in this research paper, the political process perspective to social movements results to be the most valuable. As Charles Tilly states, social movements are a “sustained series of interactions between power holders and persons successfully claiming to speak on behalf of a constituency lacking formal representation, in the course of which those persons make publicly visible demands for changes in the distribution or exercise of power, and back those demands with public demonstrations of support” (from C. Tilly, “Social movements and national politics”; CRSO working paper No. 197; 1979). Departing from this definition it is easy to gain the main conceptual bullet points when it comes to social movements theory. Social movements, rather than groups claiming something or protesting against something, are interactions between two or more groups, characterized through different and in the majority of the cases opposite identities. On one side the power holders, or the established elite, namely the ones who own the ruling power and the authority to decide on behalf of the second ones, i.e. the so-called “constituency lacking formal representation” in Tilly’s definition. This second component of the interactional path between the two groups is concretely speaking the grassroots, the protesters who emerge in opposition to the ruling power, driving their claims from the feeling of non-representation in the current political system.

This identification of two different group with conflicting messages clearly implies the concept of “identity”. At the basis of the formation of a collective identity lies a concept well debated from the beginning of social movements studies: the idea of what Collins calls “high ritual density”. This is going to result useful for my analysis thanks to the capabilities of this approach to the mobilization theory to explain how a group of people comes together and mobilizes, recognizing between the members of the group a certain level of affinity which will eventually evolve becoming a shared identity. Three bullet points constitute the basis of this high ritual density, and those are the physical dimension which results in bodily awareness of one another and a shared focus of attention, which lately, instead of remaining just on the level of pooling, turns into mutuality, merging the physical and the emotional dimension and arising a sense of commonality first of all. What happens lately when these three conditions are fulfilled is a process of emotional transformation, which is inherent to every social gathering where commonalities between the members can be found. According to Collins, the process of emotional transformation is a double layer process, involving at a first lever the amplification of the initiating emotion which causes the emotion at the individual level to grow bigger and stronger when shared with other individuals, and on a second level what he calls the “Emotional Energy”. This second kind of emotional transformation converts the initiating emotion into intra group solidarity, creating a strong bond between the individuals and persuading them to recognize themselves as members of a group, not only as individuals who share similarities with other individuals. Having come to this point, results useful to define what a collective identity is: following Francesca Polletta and Jasper, a collective identity is both the awareness of pre-existing bonds, interests and boundaries between the participants and the creation of concrete communities, in the sense of perception and construction of a new and solid shared and mutual identity on the basis of the awareness beforehand quoted. As a concept, it is fluid and relational because of the dynamic nature of social movements which, as stated above, have to understood as interactions between collective subjects. Therefore, it is important to state that boundaries drown between the intra and the extra group are not defined, perpetual and already given but always developing (Taylor and Whittier, 1992).

After defining the concepts of Emotional Energy generically and what means substantially the concept collective identity, a further point which arises is how concretely the collective identity within a group with mutual focus of attention and similarities grows. Every affect-loaded event which brings people together elicits a process of emotional communion or perceived emotional synchrony, composed by emotional contagion and synchrony with others, that supports fusion of identity. Specifically, collective social gatherings are creating identity, by transforming the “self” into the “we” and provoking more intense emotions while raising awareness about the sharing of the experience of collective emotions. Collective identity involves the ability to distinguish the (collective) self from the “other” and to be recognized by those “others”. A central characterization is the boundary work, which involves creating a reciprocal identification between group members that simultaneously express commonalities and differences with reference groups.

How is a movement capable of transforming and amplifying emotions leading them to almost guide the unity of the movement and playing a key role in the formation of the collective identity? Here is where the concept of grievances in relation to framing work has to be introduced in the already mentioned dynamics regarding collective identities. Collective identities and grievances understood as emotional process are recognized to be in a bilateral relationship the one with the other, since collective identities increase the awareness of shared grievances and shared grievances reinforce collective identities due to all the above mentioned. It’s useful therefore to introduce the concepts expressed by the relative deprivation theory, since grievances lead to a greater participation in social movements and shared grievances cooperate in the formation of collective identities to the extent to which they arise negative mutual emotions.

Relative deprivation is a more useful concept rather than absolute deprivation because the scenario under which grievances tend to emerge with most power is under conditions of relativity: following Walter Runciman, the pre conditions which allow the insurgence of grievances are the combination of an object X and a person A. Person A does not own an object X, but knows that a third person does. Therefore, A desires to obtain X and considers the goal attenable. (Relative deprivation and social justice : a study of attitudes to social inequality in twentieth-century England, University of California Press, 1966). Under condition of absoluteness, for example absolute poverty, there would be no confrontation subject with whom person A could compare hisher situation and grievances therefore are less likely to surge.

According to the relative deprivation theory, the perceived discrepancy between expectations and reality leads to grievances which link the emergence of social movements and the acts of contentious politics to the feeling of deprivation. Grievances could be understood as a sense of indignation about how the authorities treat a social or political issue (Klandermans, 1997) and are involved in three of the major models in social movements literature which focus on their role in answering to the question “how and why do people mobilize?”: the above mentioned relative deprivation theory, the resource mobilization theories (which however considers grievances not as a structural explanation but as a ubiquous concept) and a third model affirming that grievances are important but their effects depend on social structures.

Collective identity per se, even if based on mutual awareness and shared grievances is still not enough to be considered the sparkle of the mobilization. To be effective and turn into concrete and organized acts of contentious politics has to be politicized. This means that the members of a given groups should intentionally and deliberately engage into collective action with a goal in mind and the awareness of the outcome’s influence on the future (driving from Simon and Klandermans). At this point, the collective identity of members is enhanced to politicized collective identity, but in order to do so three conditions have to be satisfied. Group member should be fully conscious of their shared group membership, their common opponent and then be able to triangulate these two points with the wider societal context: this clearly highlights the dynamic and transformational process which characterizes the collective identity formation. The shared group membership can be interpreted as the awareness of shared grievances, which have to be understood as necessary for the engagement in political struggles. This aggrieved feeling then necessarily needs an external enemy to blame for the complaints and to accuse, fostering the group identity through the identification of the other. After the self and the other identification, claims for compensation have to be leveled against the recognized enemy.

The above-mentioned variables (self-identification as member of a group, shared feelings and grievances, extra group identification and blaming of the other) form part of the collective identity building as well as the presence of a leading figure in the context. Following Reicher and Hopkins (1996) leaders could be seen as “entrepreneurs of identity” in the sense that through the (voluntary or accidentally) imposition of someone as leading figure the group members feel in a certain sense obliged to follow hisher example through a process of imitation driven by the will of being accepted as part of the group. This fosters the formation of a collective identity through the homologation of behaviors and thoughts.

Leadership theory and charismatic leaders

Under the condition of an aggregate of persons who share common tendencies and predispositions such as a social movement (Turner, 1964) results almost necessary at an organizational matter the distinction of an individual or a group of individuals limited in number which stand out of the masses and take control over the group. Preexisting opportunities such as grievances or collective identity are di per se not enough to trigger a contentious action and they are not sufficient to mobilize people: they do not ensure nor the masses’ organization neither the joining of movements. What, or better who, is then needed is a figure capable to convey the emotional energy and transform the preexistent conditions into something more. Leaders have a fundamental role in this process. Indeed, as Goldstone affirms, the lack of a skilled leadership may lead to the total waste of the preexistent opportunities. Leaders therefore are the strumental tool which converts the potential conditions for the mobilization into effective and actual social movements (A.D. Morris and S. Staggenberg; 2004).

Leaders, apart from setting the organizational goals and designing the strategies to reach them, have a fundamental role in the framing process. It could be indeed said that leaders are the main actors in charge of the movement’s framing process: the identification of challenging groups and adversaries and the specification of unjust conditions and grievances are conveyed and amplified through the image of the spokesperson, which mainly cooperates in the formation of frames and also collective identities.

For my research, I decided to focus on charismatic leadership theories.

Charismatic leaders are indeed capable of provoking and amplifying specific feelings addressing them towards already fixed aims leveraging the rhetoric, the ideological symbolism and the value system. The feelings a leader is capable to raise and amplify are not standard emotions but have to be consider as what Algoe and Haidt call moral emotions: they differ from all day emotions because they are in continual dynamic in relation with the reference group and they settle the individuals’ behavior in the context of the group. There are several moral emotions who serve to merge the individuals into the collectivity through the role of the leader (for a more detailed list of those: “Charismatic leadership: eliciting and channeling follower emotions” by T. Sy, C. Horton and R. Riggio): the principal ones are admiration and awe in the regards of the leader. Admiration brings to imitation behaviors and to the creation of an intra-group morality, while awe diminishes the individual dimension in favor of a sensation of communality and sharing. Charismatic leaders are defined by R. Riggio as “individuals who are both verbally eloquent, but also able to communicate to followers on a deep, emotional level”: this means that a leader, to be charismatic can not just be a good speaker but has also to convey a valid and emotionally dense message which in the end captivates people emotionally and inspires them.

What distinguishes a charismatic leader from a non-charismatic one is an issue which has been tackled in the last two decades a lot, with a shifted focus from one aspect to another in the various research: psychological, emotional and structural aspects are prominent in the analysis of leadership styles and therefore it is relevant to bear them in mind when tackling the issue. To the extent I need, I will mainly treat the typical personality and behavioral traits which distinguish a charismatic leader from a non-charismatic one, driving mainly from “Personality and charismatic leadership” by J. House and M. Howell which in my opinion considers all the most important aspects of a trait-based analysis of the leadership.

An individual has to be prone to cover the role of leader: there are personality traits inherent in individuals which elicit herhis possibility to cover a prominent role in the organizational structure of a social movement and are more likely to form a charismatic leadership style.

The first author to consider charisma as a modality of leadership was M. Weber in 1947. Departing from the figure of Jesus Christ he points out the main features that a charismatic leader is supposed to own in order to drive the masses and he considers charisma as the real characteristic which leads to power. However, Weber does not focus on the personality traits and never draws up a list of characteristics: his definition of charismatic leader is relational and supported mainly from the idea that the followers have of a leader. Of course, he needs to stand above the masses and own some extraordinary capabilities to elevate, but these have to be recognized by the followers who divinize him: this is considered as the reflection of the relation between leader and followers. This relational feature is of course necessary for the rising of a leader, but later theoretical works have shown that it is not enough.

The personality traits which are widely considered to be defining of a charismatic leadership style are the following and will be further analyzed in the case study. For now, a list will be drowned up and consists of intelligence, self-confidence, high level of activity and energy, task-relevant knowledge, oratory skills, successful verbal and bodily language management. 

01 August 2022
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