Social Movements Essay

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Even though discussions of contemporary social problems rarely take up the topics of social movements, protest campaigns, strikes, riots, insurgencies, and other forms of collective action, in fact, a close relationship exists between these phenomena and social problems. Often precipitating riots, for example, is police violence, which is commonly identified as a high-priority social problem in poor urban communities. Also, given the statistic of several million U.S. homeless, one does not have to look far to find social movement organizations bringing the claims of the homeless to the public forum and offering solutions. Numerous environmental problems come to the public’s attention and get on the political agenda through the protest and lobbying campaigns of environmental movement organizations.

Yet the social problem-social movement relationship is neither straightforward (a view that might propose that social problems automatically give rise to social movements) nor simplistic (that is to say, that social movements articulate practicable solutions to social problems). Social movements are complex phenomena made up of numerous and often very different social actors that propose variant—and sometimes conflicting—solutions to perceived injustices. Some social problems link more closely to social movements than others, and some widely recognized social problems would not have come into public consciousness at all if not for the efforts of social movement activism. For example, drunk driving legislation passed in many states largely through the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), a particularly effective social movement organization. On the other hand, social problems do not always have social movements associated with them. For example, no groundswell of citizen protest against smoking tobacco or the corporations that produce tobacco products evolved, despite the huge social costs of tobacco-related illness. Rather, policy change has come slowly and mostly through institutional channels rather than popular mobilization.

Although formal organizations (such as MADD) often play important—sometimes central—roles in social movements, they are not social movements per se. A social movement is a much broader phenomenon that typically encompasses many groups and organizations. Much like a social problem, a movement is a complex and diverse social phenomenon that includes various perspectives, strategies, and foci. For example, the environmental movement embraces numerous ways of thinking about environmental problems. Within the movement, constituent organizations and individuals focus on different facets of environmental claims, solutions, and activist strategies: degradation of rainforests versus alternative fuels, direct action versus lifestyle choices, Greenpeace versus the Sierra Club or World Wildlife Federation. The definitive characteristic of a social movement is that numerous and variegated actors— individuals, groups, and formal organizations— engage in collective actions over time to bring about social change. This recognition of a need for social change lies at the heart of the social problem-social movement relationship. To put this observation somewhat differently: Why change an aspect of society if there is not a problem?

Implicit in the idea that social movements represent efforts to bring about social change (or prevent it—although this is less common in practice) are three basic themes. First, social movements are organized attempts to solve social problems. This view must consider whether the assessments of the aggrieved population adequately provide solutions to social problems they face. It must also factor in the intermediate political and media-related processes by which a population’s claims are negotiated and practically translated into policy decisions, thereby introducing other actors into the equation, such as politicians, interest groups, countermovements, and media gatekeepers. Second, social movements affect social problems by defining them in certain ways. This topic is related to the first, because how a movement defines a problem—or frames it—has much to do with how successful the movement will be in achieving its goals. Third, sometimes the state labels social movements as social problems and makes them the focus of repression or eradication. Although in the West, movements and protests are standard fare in the political process, elsewhere they pose challenges to the state—the most powerful and most salient arbiter of what is a social problem and what is not.

Social Movements Propose Solutions to Social Problems

Claim making is a process that is central to both social movement analysis and the analysis of social problems, but the relationship within the movement of the claims that it makes and the policy solutions that may result is neither straightforward nor obvious. About 50 years ago, when the study of social movements became institutionalized in the social sciences, scholars working in the collective behavior tradition claimed that social strain and widespread grievances— racial injustice, low wages, rapid price increases, for example—were the causes of social movements. A serious social problem experienced by enough people, under the right conditions, would generate enough popular discontent that a social movement proposing a solution would arise. In this view, the linkage of social movements and social problems was strong, and researchers focused on imbalances or strain in social structure as places where panics, riots, protests, and social movements were likely to occur. This viewpoint often saw social movements as collective responses to social problems and vehicles of proposed solutions. Social movements and protest campaigns were relatively uncommon, uninstitutionalized responses to social breakdown. Thus while some claims might be made through political channels and party politics, only a particular genre of social problems lent itself to social movement mobilization: grievances of those who did not have access to institutional channels, namely, marginalized and unintegrated members of society.

As a social movement research agenda progressed, it became clear that much more was involved in social movement development than individuals collectively acting upon the seriousness or scope of a social problem. In addition to the claims that mobilize core participants, the ability to bring the claim to the public forum in a way that draws a wider circle of supporters is critical for social movement success. Much like a social problem marketplace, where numerous claims compete for limited public attention, social movement scholars recognized that while society supports a wide array of aggrieved groups, each with their own set of claims and proposed solutions, only some groups can be successful. Research showed that the key difference between success and failure was the level of resources that the movement could bring to bear: The greater a movement’s resources, the more likely that its claims and solutions would find a place in the public forum. To put it another way, neither the seriousness of the movement’s claim nor the practicality of its solution determined the course for a movement’s development and the success of its agenda. Rather, its material resources (money, buildings, equipment), organizational resources (networks, official contacts, efficiency and commitment of participants), and cultural resources (reputation, media portrayal, slogans, and strategies) were critical elements of successful mobilization.

Insofar as social movements propose solutions to social problems, then, the success of solutions depends on intentional, goal-directed, planning and implementation of strategized courses of action by organizations, networks, and their leaders. These activities have the immediate objective of mobilizing broader organizational and material resources for the sake of collectively promoting a group’s solutions within the public forum. Moreover, within a social movement, different groups have different proposals and different resource levels. These groups cooperate, compete, negotiate, sometimes defect or withdraw, and compete for media attention. Just as within the social problems marketplace, numerous groups within a social movement competitively promote their agenda. Each group’s relative resource levels in part determine which emphases, foci, agendas, and solutions will be heard.

In addition to resources, social movement groups must contend with institutional actors in business, government, and—increasingly—at the transnational level. In democratic states, these are the key players by which all policy change is mediated. Also, in democratic states there are established channels for grievance articulation—political parties and interest group politics—and whether solutions to social problems come from social movements or from institutional political actors depends partly on the structure of political opportunities that are relevant for a given issue or problem. In the Jim Crow South, claims against the injustices of racial segregation could not be addressed via institutional political channels. Leaders of the civil rights movement were forced to take the path of protest and movement mobilization to win concessions, with many of their actions aiming at the federal level, where small political openings existed in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

The shape and accessibility of political institutions and the accessibility of political channels are key determinants of (a) who will be proposing solutions to social problems; (b) what social problems will enter the public forum; and (c) how those solutions to social problems will be codified into law, namely, how far will the final political solution deviate from the social movement’s original proposals. The solutions that social movements offer to social problems and the policy responses, if any, that result from movement mobilization are the result of complex, negotiated interaction among many different institutional and noninstitutional actors.

Social Movements Define Social Problems

Social movement researchers recognize that how a social movement defines its claims is a key element in understanding its success or failure. Also, because social movements are often key players in public policy debates, how a social problem is defined, or—in the lexicon of social movement analysis—how it is framed, in part determines the shape and substance of the social problems marketplace and, eventually, the policies that result. Finally, among the various groups and organizations that comprise a social movement, the ones that show special talent for framing claims in ways that strike a resonant chord among the populace are more likely to have their particular slant on the problem aired publicly and therefore will have greater influence on policymakers.

The framing of a social problem functions much the same way as a frame around a picture: attention gets focused on certain elements and away from others. For example, the problem of across-the-board low wages among hotel service workers might be portrayed as worker exploitation by greedy hotel chains or as ethnic discrimination or as gender discrimination or as denial of union-organizing rights. All these are components of the larger problem and different groups—AFL-CIO, Latino/a community organizations, university anti-sweatshop groups, the Catholic Church—may emphasize one or another, depending upon their particular perspective (or, one might say, according to their own frame of interpretation). However, a particular mix of issues and foci may be able to attract greater public sympathy and increase the likelihood of wage increases. For example, one might frame the protests in terms of legal, first-generation immigrants struggling to support families and pursuing the American Dream rather than class exploitation. For want of a better term, the analyst might trace how this “American Dream” frame (a) privileges certain constituent social movement groups over others; (b) gives them media access to promote their claims and—as a scarce commodity—closes media access to other groups; and (c) opens doors of access to officials and politicians who might be in positions to do something about the problem. Strategic framing does not define away the social problem or even cloak it as something else, although this may seem to be what occurs. Rather, strategic framing can take advantage of cultural and political predispositions of the public to increase the likelihood that the problem gets attention, both by the public and by those in power. There is, however, a delicate balance to be struck: a social problem can be eviscerated by a frame that seeks too broad an appeal. If a social movement’s demands are watered down so much that the achieved concessions satisfy no one, the movement may not be able to count on the support of its members.

While social movements define social problems, and while there even may be internal contention— “frame disputes”—among social movement groups and organizations about the shape of a frame, other key players in the social problem marketplace typically offer up counterveiling frames. The state is always in a powerful position to have its counterveiling frames made public, and businesses, business associations, and interest groups often are players in the battle over framing social problems. But especially relevant to how social movements affect social problems is the role of countermovements—mirror images of social movements that actively oppose change-oriented claims and solutions.

Some analysts suggest that counterveiling frames fall into four categories: denial, disagreement over causes, debate over possible solutions, and discrediting claims and solutions by questioning the character of the claims makers. Because collective identity is a key element in movement unity and purpose, movement participants will likely not accept the attacks, but these can have adverse effects on how the larger public responds to the movement’s claims.

Movement-countermovement debates over framing social problems do not end here. Several researchers have pointed out that social movements spend significant time and resources responding to their opponents’ counterframes. The picture that emerges is a dark dance among key players in any social problems arena that goes beyond charges and countercharges typical of political contention in the party system. Rather, the keen observer will find that nuanced, strategized, and sometimes highly professional media campaigns come into play, as can be seen in the recursive framing and counterframing of the abortion debate over the past 30 years: abortion as a medical issue counter-framed as taking a human life, which is reframed as a rights issue and a matter of choice, and then reframed again as “It’s not a choice, it’s a life.” This sequence is but a gloss of the on-the-ground framing battles, not to mention how these rhetorical duels are played out via various media—television, public forums, print media, church meetings, flyers, documentaries, Web sites, and so on—such that high resource levels (e.g., Planned Parenthood versus the Catholic Church) and media expertise are important determinants of who wins. Although not as highly paid (and sometimes volunteering their skills), “spin doctors” are as much elements of social movement contention as they are in political contention and elections.

Social Movements as Social Problems

Media strategies aside, political elites are the main players in the processes that define social problems. Depending on the nature of the state, those in power can classify a social movement as a serious challenge to political authority—at one end of the spectrum—or a benign, taken-for-granted participant in the give and take of open democratic political contention—at the other end. The consequences of how political elites define a movement are much more serious than those of a framing debate. Indeed, the level of repression that a movement receives is probably the best measure of how political elites problematize a social movement. It is fair to say that, depending on the movement, the state can mete out repression that ranges all along the spectrum. Repression can be brutal or soft, situational or institutional, and occur prior to mobilization—as part of intelligence gathering and covert action—or occur in real time—when protesters are in the streets. The degree of state repression may reflect a combination of all these dimensions and depend on the openness of the state, the level of the challenge (local or national), and its intensity or scope (revolutionary or policy specific).

Two general factors interact to determine in part whether a social movement gets repressed. First, the openness of the political process is directly related to whether the challenges from social movements are defined as legitimate. Open political systems, as in the liberal democracies in the West, allow space in the public forum for social movements. Second, the degree to which the movement threatens political authority is an important determinant of the repression it receives. In open political systems, a local movement that mobilizes against the construction of a huge superstore would most likely be seen as a legitimate expression of local interests. In closed, authoritarian systems, a similar movement might be repressed. For example, in the Baltic republics of the former USSR, local neighborhoods sometimes mobilized to oppose the siting of large factories or mines. Central economic planners in Moscow conceived these projects and mandated the immigration of a large, foreign labor force whose influx would change the ethnic and linguistic composition of the region. Opposition to these plans was seen as a challenge to the communist state’s authority, and movement leaders were often arrested, marches prohibited, and media access denied.

Another dimension that determines repression is the size of the movement. Poland’s Solidarity movement posed a clear and direct challenge to the dominance of the Communist Party and key tenets of its ideology, yet Solidarity’s scope and popular support mitigated against its full repression—at least for a time. Conversely, in Western democracies, it is not uncommon that small political organizations espousing radical ideas and confrontational tactics are repressed, often through infiltration, agent provocateurs, and illegal “Dirty Harry” operations. Political elites in both democratic and authoritarian states have wide latitude in determining whether a social movement gets defined as more or less problematic, but as a general principle, a movement that challenges the political authority of the ruling elite or the legitimacy of the state is labeled a social problem. In authoritarian Burma, the democracy movement is labeled as a tool of Western neocolonialism and is repressed. Most likely, this occurs to a wider spectrum of movements in closed political systems. Yet in open systems too, movements are labeled problematic: in the United States and United Kingdom, Islamic charities—players in global Islamic radicalism—that channel money to Hezbollah, al Qaeda, or Hamas—are labeled terrorist threats, closed down, and assets seized. But even in this latter example, if violence is eschewed, Western democracies often give legal guarantees of free speech and association. Although these may offer protection against more draconian forms of repression, they are not guarantees against subtle (sometimes secretive) preventative state interventions, such as surveillance and limiting access to the public forum.


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