How do social movements adapt their strategies to political opportunity structures (POSs)? This is one of the most cited, yet least settled, questions in social movement research (e.g. Koopmans & Olzak, 2004; Walgrave & Verhulst, 2009). A common assumption is that opportunities are perceived, and that movement actors adjust their strategies accordingly (e.g. Meyer & Staggenborg, 1996). There is some evidence to support this idea, yet it is far from conclusive. In particular, it remains unknown how social movements can obtain knowledge about the POS, and how this knowledge is applied in strategizing. By extension, we also do not know when social movements do, or do not, respond to threats or opportunities, or why they choose particular ways to respond. To advance this debate, we propose a new model that combines the ‘perception hypothesis’ with insights from narrative analysis (Polletta, 2006). Specifically, we argue that while movement actors can perceive, and adapt to, ‘real’ opportunities, this process takes place within a wider process in which social movements construct a story about themselves in relation to their environment, as well as their history, present and projected future. This approach reveals the multiple core functions that such narratives simultaneously fulfill, including not only strategic adaptation, but also the identification of actors in relation to opportunities, and the positioning of opportunities and campaigns in the long-term saga of a movement. Understanding perceived opportunities in this way explains how responses to the POS are shaped by more than strictly utilitarian calculations, and importantly, it helps explain why some opportunities are not responded to.
We illustrate our model on the basis of an in-depth case-study of the climate movement’s historic mobilization for the UN Climate Summit in Paris, in 2015 (COP21). Through observations, interviews, and document analysis we were able to develop a profound understanding of the collective construction of narrative, opportunity and strategy. Moreover, the exceptionally broad coalition driving the movement’s mobilization around COP21 ensured that we could directly observe intense, defining strategic negotiations. Beyond these methodological advantages, the COP21 mobilization is part of a long line of well-documented climate summit mobilizations, which allowed us to examine closely how past experience and tradition shape strategic adaptation, whilst being able to assess how relevant changes in the political context are processed. In particular, we will show that the experience of the Copenhagen Climate Summit of 2009 was essential for the formulation of strategies. Finally, the particular time dimension of the climate issue further reveals key insights about the way in which narrative is used to define opportunities in the context of a longer time-frame.