21.3 Social Movements

Learning Objectives

  1. List the major types of social movements.
  2. Provide evidence against the assumption that discontent always leads to social movement activity.
  3. Describe the stages of the life cycle of social movements.
  4. Discuss examples of how social movements have made a positive difference.

Social movements in the United States and other nations have been great forces for social change. At the same time, governments and other opponents have often tried to thwart the movements’ efforts. To understand how and why social change happens, we have to understand why movements begin, how they succeed and fail, and what impact they may have.

Understanding Social Movements

To begin this understanding, we first need to understand what social movements are. To reiterate a definition already presented, a social movement may be defined as an organized effort by a large number of people to bring about or impede social, political, economic, or cultural change. Defined in this way, social movements might sound similar to special-interest groups, and they do have some things in common. But a major difference between social movements and special-interest groups lies in the nature of their actions. Special-interest groups normally work within the system via conventional political activities such as lobbying and election campaigning. In contrast, social movements often work outside the system by engaging in various kinds of protest, including demonstrations, picket lines, sit-ins, and sometimes outright violence.

A woman with a dollar bill taped over her mouth, holding a sign that says

Social movements are organized efforts by large numbers of people to bring about or impede social change. Often they try to do so by engaging in various kinds of protest, such as the march depicted here.

Conceived in this way, the efforts of social movements amount to “politics by other means,” with these “other means” made necessary because movements lack the resources and access to the political system that interest groups typically enjoy (Gamson, 1990).

Types of Social Movements

Sociologists identify several types of social movements according to the nature and extent of the change they seek. This typology helps us understand the differences among the many kinds of social movements that existed in the past and continue to exist today (Snow & Soule, 2009).

One of the most common and important types of social movements is the reform movement, which seeks limited, though still significant, changes in some aspect of a nation’s political, economic, or social systems. It does not try to overthrow the existing government but rather works to improve conditions within the existing regime. Some of the most important social movements in U.S. history have been reform movements. These include the abolitionist movement preceding the Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement that followed the Civil War, the labor movement, the Southern civil rights movement, the Vietnam era’s antiwar movement, the contemporary women’s movement, the gay rights movement, and the environmental movement.

A revolutionary movement goes one large step further than a reform movement in seeking to overthrow the existing government and to bring about a new one and even a new way of life. Revolutionary movements were common in the past and were responsible for the world’s great revolutions in Russia, China, and several other nations. Reform and revolutionary movements are often referred to as political movements because the changes they seek are political in nature.

Another type of political movement is the reactionary movement, so named because it tries to block social change or to reverse social changes that have already been achieved. The antiabortion movement is a contemporary example of a reactionary movement, as it arose after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized most abortions in Roe v. Wade (1973) and seeks to limit or eliminate the legality of abortion.

An example of a keep coming back chip from Alcoholics Anonymous

One type of social movement is the self-help movement. As its name implies, the goal of a self-help movement is to help people improve their personal lives. These tokens are used at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is an example of a group involved in a self-help movement.

Two other types of movements are self-help movements and religious movements. As their name implies, self-help movements involve people trying to improve aspects of their personal lives; examples of self-help groups include Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers. Religious movements aim to reinforce religious beliefs among their members and to convert other people to these beliefs. Early Christianity was certainly a momentous religious movement, and other groups that are part of a more general religious movement today include the various religious cults discussed in Chapter 17 “Religion”. Sometimes self-help and religious movements are difficult to distinguish from each other because some self-help groups emphasize religious faith as a vehicle for achieving personal transformation.

The Origins of Social Movements

To understand the origins of social movements, we need answers to two related questions. First, what are the social, cultural, and other factors that give rise to social movements? They do not arise in a vacuum, and people must become sufficiently unhappy for a social movement to arise. Second, once social movements do begin, why are some individuals more likely than others to take part in them?

Discontent With Existing Conditions and Relative Deprivation

For social movements to arise, certain political, economic, or other problems must first exist that prompt people to be dissastisfied enough to begin and join a social movement. These problems might include a faltering economy; a lack of political freedom; certain foreign policies carried out by a government; or discrimination based on gender, race and ethnicity, or sexual orientation. In this regard, recall that one of the essential conditions for collective behavior in Smelser’s value-added theory is structural strain, or social problems that cause people to be angry and frustrated. Without such structural strain, people would not have any reason to protest, and social movements would not arise.

Whatever the condition, the dissatisfaction it generates leads to shared discontent (also called shared grievances) among some or most of the population that then may give rise to a social movement. This discontent arises in part because people feel deprived relative to some other group or to some ideal state they have not reached. This feeling is called relative deprivation. The importance of relative deprivation for social protest was popularized by James C. Davies (1962) and Ted Robert Gurr (1970), both of whom built on the earlier work of social psychologists who had studied frustration and aggression. When a deprived group perceives that social conditions are improving, wrote Davies, they become hopeful that their lives are getting better. But if these conditions stop improving, they become frustrated and more apt to turn to protest, collective violence, and other social movement activity. Both Davies and Gurr emphasized that people’s feelings of being relatively deprived were more important for their involvement in collective behavior than their level of actual deprivation.

Relative deprivation theory was initially very popular, but scholars later pointed out that frustration often does not lead to protest, as people can instead blame themselves for the deprivation they feel and thus not protest (Gurney & Tierney, 1982). Scholars who favor the theory point out that people will ordinarily not take part in social movements unless they feel deprived, even if many who do feel deprived do not take part (Snow & Oliver, 1995).

Although discontent may be an essential condition for social movements (as well as for riots and other collective behavior that are political in nature), discontent does not always lead to a social movement or other form of collective behavior. For example, it might be tempting to think that a prison riot occurred because conditions in the prison were awful, but some prisons with awful conditions do not experience riots. Thus, although discontent may be an essential condition for social movements (and other collective behavior) to arise, discontent by itself does not guarantee that a social movement will begin and that discontented people will take part in the movement once it has begun.

An often-cited study that documented this fundamental point concerned the peace movement in the Netherlands during the 1980s (Klandermans & Oegema, 1987). The movement was trying to prevent the deployment of cruise missiles, and a survey of a town near Amsterdam revealed that about 75% of the town’s residents were opposed to the deployment. However, only about 5% of these residents took part in a protest that the peace movement organized against the deployment. Thus, there is a huge drop-off from the number of potential social movement participants (sympathizers), in terms of their discontent with an existing problem or concern about an issue, to the number of actual social movement participants (activists).

Social Networks and Recruitment

This huge drop-off from sympathizers to activists underscores another fundamental point of social movement scholarship: people are much more likely to participate in social movement activity when they are asked or urged to do so by friends, acquaintances, and family members. As David S. Meyer (2007, p. 47) observes, “[T]he best predictor of why anyone takes on any political action is whether that person has been asked to do so. Issues do not automatically drive people into the streets.” Social movement participants tend to have many friends and to belong to several organizations and other sorts of social networks, and these social network ties help “pull” or recruit them into social movements. This process of recruitment is an essential fact of social movement life, as movements usually cannot succeed if sufficient numbers of people are not recruited into the movement.

A crowd of people packed into a small space

Participants in social movement activities are often recruited into the movement by people they know from the many social networks to which they belong.

An interesting development in the modern era is the rising use of electronic means to recruit people into social movement activities and to coordinate and publicize these activities. The “Learning From Other Societies” box discusses a now-famous protest in Iran in which electronic media played a key role.

Learning From Other Societies

Electronic Media and Protest in Iran

Less than a generation ago, the Internet did not exist; cell phones did not exist; and Facebook, Twitter, and other social media did not exist. When activists organized a rally or march, they would typically publicize it by posting flyers (which were mass produced at some expense by using a mimeograph machine or photocopier) on trees, telephone poles, and campus billboards, and they would stand on campuses and city streets handing out flyers. Sometimes phone trees were used: one person would call two people, each of these two people would call two other people, and so forth. Activists would also contact the news media and hope that a small story about the planned rally or march would appear in a newspaper or on radio or TV. Once the event occurred, activists would hope that the news media covered it fully. If the news media ignored it, then few people would learn of the march or rally.

This description of protest organizing now sounds quaint. As the news story about high school protests in New Jersey that began this chapter illustrates, a single Facebook page can ignite a protest involving hundreds and even thousands of people, and other social media and smartphone apps enable us to announce any event, protest or otherwise, to countless numbers of potential participants.

Although social movement scholars have begun to consider the impact of the electronic age on social movement activism and outcomes, the exact nature and extent of this impact will remain unclear until much more research is done. If one needed proof of the potential of this impact, however, events in Iran not long ago provided this proof.

In June 2009, thousands of protesters, most of them young people, took to the streets in Iran to protest a presidential election that was widely regarded as being rigged by and on behalf of the existing regime. When the government tried to stop the protests and prevented newspapers from covering them, the protesters did what came naturally: they tweeted and texted. As a writer for Time magazine later observed, because tweets go out over both the Internet and cell phone networks, “this makes Twitter practically ideal for a mass protest movement.” The protesters’ tweets and texts warned other protesters as well as the rest of the world what Iranian police were doing, and they helped the protesters plan and coordinate their next steps. The protesters also used their cell phones to transmit photos and videos of the protests and the police violence being used to stop the protests; many of the videos ended up on YouTube. When the government tried to electronically block the tweeting and texting, the protesters and their allies outside Iran took electronic countermeasures to help thwart the blocking.

The Time writer eloquently summarized what Twitter meant to the Iranian protesters:

Twitter didn’t start the protests in Iran, nor did it make them possible. But there’s no question that it has emboldened the protesters, reinforced their conviction that they are not alone and engaged populations outside Iran in an emotional, immediate way that was never possible before. President Ahmadinejad—who happened to visit Russia on Tuesday—now finds himself in a court of world opinion where even Khrushchev never had to stand trial. Totalitarian governments rule by brute force, and because they control the consensus worldview of those they rule. Tyranny, in other words, is a monologue. But as long as Twitter is up and running, there’s no such thing.

In short, the Iranian election protests in June 2009 revealed the power of Twitter and other electronic media to shape the dynamics and outcomes of protest. The day when activists had to stand in the rain on city streets to hand out flyers has long passed. Instead, they can tweet and use other electronic media. Social movement scholars, activists, and governments learned an important lesson from the Iranian protests. (Grossman, 2009)

Resource Mobilization and Political Opportunities

Resource mobilization theory is a general name given to several related views of social movements that arose in the 1970s (McCarthy & Zald, 1977; Oberschall, 1973; Tilly, 1978). This theory assumes that social movement activity is a rational response to unsatisfactory conditions in society. Because these conditions always exist, so does discontent with them. Despite such constant discontent, people protest only rarely. If this is so, these conditions and associated discontent cannot easily explain why people turn to social movements. What is crucial instead are efforts by social movement leaders to mobilize the resources—most notably, time, money, and energy—of the population and to direct them into effective political action.

Resource mobilization theory has been very influential since its inception in the 1970s. However, critics say it underestimates the importance of harsh social conditions and discontent for the rise of social movement activity. Conditions can and do worsen, and when they do so, they prompt people to engage in collective behavior. As just one example, cuts in higher education spending and steep increases in tuition prompted students to protest on campuses in California and several other states in late 2009 and early 2010 (Rosenhall, 2010). Critics also say that resource mobilization theory neglects the importance of emotions in social movement activity by depicting social movement actors as cold, calculated, and unemotional (Goodwin, Jasper, & Polletta, 2004). This picture is simply not true, critics say, and they further argue that social movement actors can be both emotional and rational at the same time, just as people are in many other kinds of pursuits.

Another influential perspective is political opportunity theory. According to this view, social movements are more likely to arise and succeed when political opportunities for their emergence exist or develop, as when a government that previously was repressive becomes more democratic or when a government weakens because of an economic or foreign crisis (Snow & Soule, 2010). When political opportunities of this kind exist, discontented people perceive a greater chance of success if they take political action, and so they decide to take such action. As Snow and Soule (2010, p. 66) explain, “Whether individuals will act collectively to address their grievances depends in part on whether they have the political opportunity to do so.” Applying a political opportunity perspective, one important reason that social movements are so much more common in democracies than in authoritarian societies is that activists feel more free to be active without fearing arbitrary arrests, beatings, and other repressive responses by the government.

The Life Cycle of Social Movements

Although the many past and present social movements around the world differ from each other in many ways, they all generally go through a life cycle marked by several stages that have long been recognized (Blumer, 1969).

Stage 1 is emergence. This is the stage when social movements begin for one or more of the reasons indicated in the previous section. Stage 2 is coalescence. At this stage a movement and its leaders must decide how they will recruit new members and they must determine the strategies they will use to achieve their goals. They also may use the news media to win favorable publicity and to convince the public of the justness of their cause. Stage 3 is institutionalization or bureaucratization. As a movement grows, it often tends to become bureaucratized, as paid leaders and a paid staff replace the volunteers that began the movement. It also means that clear lines of authority develop, as they do in any bureaucracy. More attention is also devoted to fund-raising. As movement organizations bureaucratize, they may well reduce their effectiveness by turning from the disruptive activities that succeeded in the movement’s earlier stages to more conventional activity by working within the system instead of outside it (Piven & Cloward, 1979). At the same time, if movements do not bureaucratize to at least some degree, they may lose their focus and not have enough money to keep on going.

Stage 4 is the decline of a social movement. Social movements eventually decline for one or more of many reasons. Sometimes they achieve their goals and naturally cease because there is no more reason to continue. More often, however, they decline because they fail. Both the lack of money and loss of enthusiasm among a movement’s members may lead to a movement’s decline, and so might factionalism, or strong divisions of opinion within a movement.

Tiananmen Square in China

Political repression sometimes leads a social movement to decline or end altogether. The mass slaughter by Chinese troops of students in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 ended a wave of student protests in that nation.

Government responses to a social movement may also cause the movement to decline. The government may “co-opt” a movement by granting it small, mostly symbolic concessions that reduce people’s discontent but leave largely intact the conditions that originally motivated their activism. If their discontent declines, the movement will decline even though these conditions have not changed. Movements also may decline because of government repression. Authoritarian governments may effectively repress movements by arbitrarily arresting activists, beating them up, or even shooting them when they protest (Earl, 2006). Democratic governments are less violent in their response to protest, but their arrest and prosecution of activists may still serve a repressive function by imposing huge legal expenses on a social movement and frightening activists and sympathizers who may not wish to risk arrest and imprisonment. During the Southern civil rights movement, police violence against protesters won national sympathy for the civil rights cause, but arrests and incarceration of civil rights activists in large protest marches looked “better” in comparison and helped stifle dissent without arousing national indignation (Barkan, 1985).

How Social Movements Make a Difference

By definition, social movements often operate outside the political system by engaging in protest. Their rallies, demonstrations, sit-ins, and silent vigils are often difficult to ignore. With the aid of news media coverage, these events often throw much attention on the problem or grievance at the center of the protest and bring pressure to bear on the government agencies, corporations, or other targets of the protest.

As noted earlier, there are many examples of profound changes brought about by social movements throughout U.S. history (Amenta, Caren, Chiarello, & Sue, 2010; Meyer, 2007; Piven, 2006). The abolitionist movement called attention to the evils of slavery and increased public abhorrence for that “peculiar institution.” The women’s suffrage movement after the Civil War eventually won women the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. The labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries established the minimum wage, the 40-hour workweek, and the right to strike. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s ended legal segregation in the South, while the Vietnam antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s helped increase public opposition to that war and bring it to a close. The contemporary women’s movement has won many rights in social institutions throughout American society, while the gay rights movement has done the same for gays and lesbians. Another contemporary movement is the environmental movement, which has helped win legislation and other policies that have reduced air, water, and ground pollution.

Although it seems obvious that social movements have made a considerable difference, social movement scholars until recently have paid much more attention to the origins of social movements than to their consequences (Giugni, 2008). Recent work has begun to fill in this gap and has focused on the consequences of social movements for the political system (political consequences), for various aspects of the society’s culture (cultural consequences), and for the lives of the people who take part in movements (biographical consequences).

Regarding political consequences, scholars have considered such matters as whether movements are more successful when they use more protest or less protest, and when they focus on a single issue versus multiple issues. The use of a greater amount of protest seems to be more effective in this regard, as does a focus on a single issue. Research has also found that movements are more likely to succeed when the government against which they protest is weakened by economic or other problems. In another line of inquiry, movement scholars disagree over whether movements are more successful if their organizations are bureaucratic and centralized or if they remain decentralized and thus more likely to engage in protest (Piven & Cloward, 1979; Gamson, 1990).

Regarding cultural consequences, movements often influence certain aspects of a society’s culture whether or not they intend to do so (Earl, 2004), and, as one scholar has said, “it is perhaps precisely in being able to alter their broader cultural environment that movements can have their deepest and lasting impact” (Giugni, 2008, p. 1591). Social movements can affect values and beliefs, and they can affect cultural practices such as music, literature, and even fashion.

Movements may also have biographical consequences. Several studies find that people who take part in social movements during their formative years (teens and early 20s) are often transformed by their participation. Their political views change or are at least reinforced, and they are more likely to continue to be involved in political activity and to enter social change occupations. In this manner, writes one scholar, “people who have been involved in social movement activities, even at a lower level of commitment, carry the consequences of that involvement throughout their life” (Giugni, 2008, p. 1590).

Key Takeaways

  • The major types of social movements are reform movements, revolutionary movements, reactionary movements, self-help movements, and religious movements.
  • For social movements to succeed, they generally must attract large numbers of participants. Recruitment by people in the social networks of social movement sympathizers plays a key role in transforming them into social movement activists.
  • Four major stages in the life cycle of a social movement include emergence, coalescence, institutionalization or bureaucratization, and decline.
  • Social movements may have political, cultural, and biographical consequences. Political consequences seem most likely to occur when a movement engages in disruptive protest rather than conventional politics and when it has a single-issue focus. Involvement in movements is thought to influence participants’ later beliefs and career choices.

For Your Review

  1. Have you ever taken part in a protest of some kind? If so, write a brief essay outlining what led you to take part in the protest and what effect, if any, it had on the target of the protest and on your own thinking. If you have not participated in a protest, write a brief essay discussing whether you can foresee yourself someday doing so.
  2. Choose any U.S. social movement of the past half-century and write a brief essay that summarizes the various kinds of impacts this movement may have had on American society and culture.


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