Value-Added Theory

Understanding Value-Added Theory

The value-added theory developed by social scientist Neil Smelser (1963) is based on the assumption that certain conditions are necessary for the development of a social movement. Smelser called his theory the “value-added” approach based on the concept (borrowed from the field of economics) that each step in the production process adds something to the finished product.

For example, in the process of converting iron ore into automobiles, each stage “adds value” to the final product (Smelser, 1963). Similarly, Smelser asserted, six conditions are necessary and sufficient to produce social movements when they combine or interact in a particular situation.

We’ll spend the remainder of this entry addressing each of the six conditions.

1.   Structural conduciveness

People must become aware of a significant problem and have the opportunity to engage in collective action. According to Smelser, movements are more likely to occur when a person, class, or agency can be singled out as the source of the problem; when channels for expressing grievances either are not available or fail; and when the aggrieved have a chance to communicate among themselves.

2.   Structural strain

When a society or community is unable to meet people’s expectations that something should be done about a problem, strain occurs in the system. The ensuing tension and conflict contribute to the development of a social movement based on people’s belief that the problem would not exist if authorities had done what they were supposed to do.

3.   Spread of a generalized belief

For a movement to develop, there must be a clear statement of the problem and a shared view of its cause, effects, and possible solution.

4.   Precipitating factors

To reinforce the existing generalized belief, an inciting incident or dramatic event must occur. With regard to technological disasters, some (including Love Canal) gradually emerge from a long-standing environmental threat whereas others (including the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant) involve a suddenly imposed problem.

5.   Mobilization for action

At this stage, leaders emerge to organize others and give them a sense of direction.

6.   Social control factors

If there is a high level of social control on the part of law enforcement officials, political leaders, and others, it becomes more difficult to develop a social movement or engage in certain types of collective action.

Value-added theory takes into account the complexity of social movements and makes it possible to test Smelser’s assertions regarding the necessary and sufficient condition that produce such movements. However, critics note that the approach is rooted in the functionalist tradition and views structural strains as disruptive to society.