Social Movement

What Is Social Movement?

A social movement is a collective movement making a relatively deliberate, organized attempt to achieve a change or resist a change in a social system. The following historical events constitute social movements.

  • In 1096, thousands upon thousands of Europeans, urged on by Pope Urban II, marched to Jerusalem to “wrest that land from the wicked race.”
  • In 1789, large bands of French citizens fought government forces and eventually overthrew the government.
  • In 1955, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a dozen other ministers founded the Montgomery Improvement Association, which succeeded in dismantling the segregated bus system in Montgomery, Alabama.
  • In 1971, a group of protesters, calling themselves Greenpeace, organized a campaign to prevent environmental degradation. Greenpeace now claims 2.9 million supporters (contributors) and is involved in 40 countries across Europe, the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific.

Social movements, like other forms of collective behavior, often arise spontaneously in response to some problem, such as unfair government policies, societal ills, or threats to personal values. They are, in a sense, very large support groups, seeking to improve the lives of both members and nonmembers (de la Roche, 1996).

Social movements are not short-lived, however. Over time, social movements tend to gain new members, set goals, and develop leadership structures, until eventually they change from spontaneous gatherings of people into social movement organizations, or SMOs.

SMOs have all the structural characteristics of any organization, including clearly defined goals, rational planning, and bureaucratic leadership structures.

Types of Social Movements

Social movements, like crowds Opens in new window, vary in their longevity and their goals. They are classified on the basis of their goals and the amount of change they seek to produce (Aberle, 1996; Blumer, 1974).

1.   Reform Movements

Reform movements seek to improve existing institutions, often through civil disobedience and demonstrations. The U.S. civil rights movement Opens in new window, for example, sought to change existing laws that gave unfair power to Whites, but the movement did not challenge the basic democratic principles of the country. Grassroots environmental movements are another example of reform movements, which seek to improve society by changing some specific aspect of the social structure.

Members of reform movements usually work within the existing system to attempt to change existing public policy so that it more adequately reflects their own value system. Examples of reform movements (in addition to the environmental movement) include labor movements, animal rights movements, antinuclear movements, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the disability rights movement.

2.   Revolutionary Movements

Movements seeking to bring about a total change in society are referred to as revolutionary movements. These movements usually do not attempt to work within the existing system; rather, they aim to remake the system by replacing existing institutions with new ones.

The revolts in France in the late 1700s, for example, were revolutionary movements, for the protesters sought to overthrow the monarchy and replace it with a democracy.

Revolutionary movements range from utopian groups seeking to establish an ideal society to radical terrorists who use fear tactics to intimidate those with whom they disagree ideologically. Movements based on terrorism often use tactics such as bombings, kidnappings, hostage taking, hijackings, and assassinations (White, 2003).

3.   Religious Movements

Social movements that seek to produce radical change in individuals are typically base on spiritual or supernatural belief systems. Religious movements, also referred to as expressive movements, are concerned with renovating or renewing people through “inner change.”

Fundamentalist religious groups seeking to convert nonbelievers to their belief system are an example of this type of movement. Some religious movements are millenarian—that is, they forecast that “the end is near” and assert that an immediate change in behavior is imperative.

Relatively new religious movements in industrialized Western societies have included Hare Krishnas Opens in new window, the Unification Church Opens in new window, Scientology Opens in new window, and the Divine Light Mission Opens in new window, all of which tend to appeal to the psychological and social needs of young people seeking meaning in life that mainstream religions have not provided for them.

4.   Alternative Movements

Movements that seek limited change in some aspect of people’s behavior are referred to as alternative movements. For example, early in the twentieth century the Women’s Christian Temperance Union Opens in new window attempted to get people to abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages. Some analysis place “therapeutic social movements” such as Alcoholics Anonymous Opens in new window in this category; however, others do not, due to their belief that people must change their lives completely in order to overcome alcohol abuse (Blumberg, 1977).

More recently, a variety of “New Age” movements have directed people’s behavior by emphasizing spiritual consciousness combined with a belief in reincarnation Opens in new window and astrology Opens in new window. Such practices as vegetarianism Opens in new window, meditation, and holistic medicine are often included in the self-improvement category.

Beginning in the 1990s, some alternative movements have included the practice of yoga Opens in new window (usually without its traditional background in the Hindu religion) as a means by which the self can be liberated and union can be achieved with the supreme spirit or universal soul.

5.   Resistance Movements

Resistance movements, also referred to as regressive movements, seek to prevent change or to undo change that has already occurred. Virtually all of the social movements previously discussed face resistance from one or more reactive movements that hold opposing viewpoints and want to foster public policies that reflect their own beliefs.

Examples of resistance movements are groups organized since the 1950s to oppose school integration, civil rights and affirmative action legislation, and domestic partnership and affirmative action legislation, and domestic partnership initiatives. However, perhaps the most widely known resistance movements includes many who label themselves “pro-life” advocates—such as Operation Rescue Opens in new window, which seeks to close abortion clinics and make abortion illegal under all circumstances (Gray, 1993; Van Biema, 1993). Protests by some radical antiabortion groups have grown violent, resulting in the death of several doctors and clinic workers, and creating fear among health professional and patients seeking abortions (Belkin, 1994).

Social Movement Theories

What conditions are most likely to produce social movements? Why are people drawn to these movements? Social scientists have developed several theories—including relative deprivation theory Opens in new window, value-added theory Opens in new window, resource mobilization theory Opens in new window, etc.—to answer these questions.

Relative Deprivation Theory

The relative deprivation theory Opens in new window proposed that people who are discontent when they compare their achievements with those of others consider themselves relatively deprived and join social movements in order to get what they view as their “fair share”, especially when there is an upswing in the economy followed by a decline.

Value-Added Theory

Value-added theory Opens in new window emphasize that certain conditions (such as follows) are necessary for a social movement to develop:

  • Structural conduciveness, such that people are aware of a problem and have the opportunity to engage in collective action;
  • Structural strain, such that society or the community cannot meet people’s expectations for taking care of the problem;
  • Growth and spread of a generalized belief as to causes and effects of and possible solutions to the problem;
  • Precipitating factors, or events that reinforce the beliefs;
  • Mobilization of participants for actions; and
  • Social control factors, such that society comes to allow the movement to take action.

Resource Mobilization Theory

Resource mobilization theory Opens in new window offers that a variety of resources such as money, members, access to media, and material goods i.e., equipment, are necessary for a social movement; people participate only when they feel the movement has access to these resources.

Social Construction Theory: Frame Analysis

Social construction theory is based on the assumption that social movements are an interactive, symbolically defined, and negotiated process involving participants, opponents, and bystanders, frame analysis is used to determine how people assign meaning to activities and processes in social movements.

New Social Movement

The focus of new social movement is on sources of social movements, including politics, ideology, and culture. Race, class, gender, sexually, and other sources of identity are also factors in movements such as ecofeminism and environmental justice.