Social Movements Essay

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Although scholarly definitions vary, common usage portrays social movements as sustained and intentional efforts to foster or retard social changes, primarily outside the normal institutional channels encouraged by authorities. Sustained implies that movements differ from single events such as riots or rallies. Their persistence often allows them to develop formal organizations, but they may also operate through informal social networks. Intentional links movements to culture and strategy: people have ideas about what they want and how to get it, ideas that are filtered through culture as well as psychology. Movements have purposes, even when these have to do with transforming members themselves (as in many religious movements) rather than the world outside the movement. Foster or retard: although many scholars have a Whiggish tendency to view movements as progressive, dismissing regressive efforts as “countermovements,” this distinction seems arbitrary and unsustainable (not to mention the unfortunate effect that different tools are then used to analyze the two types). Noninstitutional distinguishes movements from political parties and interest groups that are a more regular part of many political systems, even though movements frequently create these other entities and often maintain close relationships to them. Most movements today deploy some tactics within mainstream institutions – and “noninstitutional” protest is itself often quite institutionalized.

For most of recorded history, intellectual observers have feared and derided the action of the irrational mob,” a view which persisted in one form or another into the 1960s. At that point, scholars began to form more sympathetic views of the movements they saw around them, of African Americans, students, women, and others. In Europe and the United States, theories developed which saw social movements as a natural response to the rise of cities, nation states, and national political arenas (especially the work of Charles Tilly), or as an historical effort to control the distribution of material goods, cultural understandings, or the direction of social change (in Alain Touraine’s work). Increasingly, protestors were portrayed as reasonable, pursuing normal political ends through non-institutional means. The last several decades has seen, instead of dismissal, an explosion of fine-grained empirical research into just how they do so.

Several variables help explain who is recruited into emerging movements. One is biographical availability”: the lack of spouse, children, or demanding jobs that frees people for the time commitment of participation. More important is whether the potential recruit already knows someone in the movement. In many movements, a majority of participants are recruited this way. In “bloc recruitment,” entire networks can be coopted for new purposes. The messages transmitted across networks are also important:¬† recruiters and potential participants must align” their frames” to achieve a common definition of a problem and prescription for solving it. As important as this cognitive agreement are the moral visions and emotions that propel people into action. Fear and anger must be transformed into indignation and outrage.

In addition to people (both leaders and followers), an emerging movement usually needs some infrastructure to carry out its activities. It requires basic means of communication and transportation: a bullhorn to address a large crowd, a fax machine or Internet access to reach supporters, carpools to get people to a rally, a place to meet. Financial support allows organizers to purchase what they need.

What do movements do? Tilly suggests that a society contains a repertory of collective action, from which protestors inevitably draw, depending on local senses of justice, the daily routines and social organization of the participants, their prior experience with collective action, and the repression they are likely to face. Most social movements in a society will conduct the same activities, since that’s what they have learned to do through trial and error. New tactics, outside the repertoire, may take opponents and authorities by surprise, but protestors themselves may bungle them due to lack of experience and know-how. At the extreme, those who face extreme surveillance and few legal rights, are restricted to ”weapons of the weak” such as sabotage, pilfering, poaching, or even jokes and gossip.

Movements can have a variety of effects. Few attain their stated goals, but they may shift cultural understandings by bringing attention to new social problems or emerging constituencies. They may also affect policy makers, who try to mollify them by satisfying some of their demands. If nothing else, they may make a new issue respectable. And even when social movements have little impact on the world around them, they almost always affect their own members, shaping their political values and activities.


  1. Alain T. (1981) The Voice and the Eye. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  2. Charles T. (1978) From Mobilization to Revolution. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.
  3. Sidney T. (1998) Power in Movement. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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