Summary – Networks in Opposition: Linking Organizations Through Activists in the Polish People’s Republic

This is the fourth chapter of Social Movements and Networks, written by Maryjane Osa, and belongs to part 2 of the book – Interorganizational Networks. This summary will highlight only the main findings of the article and will not delve into the case study, only introduce it.

Solidarnosc - Poland's 1980 major trade union/social movement

Solidarnosc – Poland’s 1980 major trade union/social movement. Copyright:

In this chapter, Osa, explains the development of oppositional networks in the absence of democracy; in the case of the communist/Leninist system of Poland during the 1960s and 1970s.

Three factors are, among academics, considered to constitute to the formation of social movements – political opportunity, organisational networks and cultural framing. However, these factors are readily available only in democratic states. “[With] the exception of traditional monarchies, [non-democratic systems] share an important characteristic: these societies lack a mechanism for regular, legitimate transfers of power sanctioned by those subject to the state.”

Ways in which the three factors are limited by nondemocratic regimes:

  1. Political opportunities: the state prevents the institutionalisation of access to decision-makers, media and the court
  2. Organisational networks: civil associations are only allowed in a limited non-political fashion
  3. Cultural framing: “policy debates are attenuated through government control of the media and adherence to the ‘party line’. Since dissenting views cannot be diffused  through the mass media, cultural definitions of issues, actors and events cannot be openly contested.”

Individual networks are crucial in communist regimes for even basic activities, while in liberal democratic systems the market or government would provide these resources.

Networks can help to overcome obstacles to collective action, directly or indirectly imposed by authoritarian regimes:

  • opposition networks provide channels through which communication can circulate uncensored
  • networks use social contacts to raise money etc necessary for mobilisation
  • the larger networks become, the smaller is the risk for the individual when engaging in illicit activities
  • social solidarity and collective identity are strengthened by sharing risk and information
  • as networks become more established, “they begin to substitute for a public sphere”.

Methodology and data

The study looks at two protest waves (1966-1970 and 1976-1981) in communist Poland, and identifies and analyses “the oppositional networks that developed during these confrontations with the regime. Secondarily, [the author] will use the data to speculate on the relationship between oppositional network developments and protest cycles in nondemocracies.”

The questions posed in the analysis: 1. Why are some networks less vulnerable to repression? 2. What network characteristics facilitate movement emergence?


  • We found that the presence of opposition organizations, even when the domain experienced growth, was not sufficient to cause a social movement to form. Examination of the oppositional activity in 1966-1970 showed how the state used its coercive powers and its ability to manipulate extant social cleavages to prevent coalition formation within the domain and the initiation of a protest cycle. By contrast, the second wave showed that networks during the 1976-1980 period exhibited characteristics that rendered the opposition domain less vulnerable to repression and better able to facilitate social mobilization.”
  • Protest was at its peak when interorganisational relations were most developed, most complex. Increase interorganisational ties foster sustained protest mobilization.

Osa makes three more general propositions of networks in social movements “in other cases of high-risk collective action in nondemocracies”:

  1. For a movement to develop, supporting structures must exist prior to larger scale collective action
  2. “To overcome the repressive state’s ability to fragment the opposition, ideologically neutral groups must generate inclusive master frames that allow sectoral differences to remain latent.”
  3. The presence of radical groups can benefit mainstream groups as long as the government sees the mainstream opposition as a less dangerous alternative than those radical groups, allowing the development the movement, limiting the undermining of the mainstream groups.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s