Social movement

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Social movements are a type of |group action. They are large informal groupings of individuals and/or organizations focused on specific political or social issues, in other words, on carrying out, resisting or undoing a social change.

Modern Western social movements became possible through education (the wider dissemination of literature), and increased mobility of labour due to the industrialisation and urbanisation of 19th century societies. It is sometimes argued that the freedom of expression, education and relative economic independence prevalent in the modern Western culture is responsible for the unprecedented number and scope of various contemporary social movements. However others point out that many of the major social movements of the last hundred years grew up, like the Mau Mau in Kenya, to oppose Western colonialism.

Political science and sociology have developed a variety of theories and empirical research on social movements. For example, some research in political science highlights the relation between popular movements and the formation of new political parties as well as discussing the function of social movements in relation to agenda setting and influence on politics.

For lessons on the topic of Social Movements, follow this link.


Charles Tilly defines big social movements as a series of contentious performances, displays and campaigns by which ordinary people made collective claims on others [Tilly, 2004]. For Tilly, social movements are a major vehicle for ordinary people's participation in public politics [Tilly, 2004:3]. He argues that there are three major elements to a social movement [Tilly, 2004]:

  1. Campaigns: a sustained, organized public effort making collective claims on target authorities;
  2. Repertoire: employment of combinations from among the following forms of political action: creation of special-purpose associations and coalitions, public meetings, solemn processions, vigils, rallies, demonstrations, petition drives, statements to and in public media, and pamphleteering; and
  3. WUNC displays: participants' concerted public representation of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitments on the part of themselves and/or their constituencies.

Sidney Tarrow defines [Tarrow, 1994] a social movement as collective challenges [to elites, authorities, other groups or cultural codes] by people with common purposes and solidarity in sustained interactions with elites, opponents and authorities. He specifically distinguishes social movements from political parties and interest groups.


The term "social movements" was introduced in 1850 by the German Sociologist Lorenz von Stein in his book "History of the French Social Movement from 1789 to the Present (1850).

Charles Tilly claims that the "social movement" did not exist before the late eighteenth century: although such elements as campaigns, social movement repertoire and WUNC displays has a long history, only recently had they been combined together into a proper social movement. The "social movement" was invented in England and North America during the first decades of the nineteenth century and has since then spread across the globe.[Tilly, 2004]

Tilly argues that the early growth of social movements was connected to broad economic and political changes including parliamentarization, market capitalization, and proletarianization. [Tilly, 2004] Political movements that evolved in late 18th century, like those connected to the French Revolution and the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791 are among the first documented social movements, although Tilly notes that the British abolitionist movement has "some claim" to be the first social movement (becoming one between the sugar boycott of 1791 and the second great petition drive of 1806). The labor movement and socialist movement of the late 19th century are seen as the prototypical social movements, leading to the formation of communist and social democratic parties and organisations. From 1815, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland after victory in the Napoleonic Wars entered a period of social upheaval. Similar tendencies were seen in other countries as pressure for reform continued, for example in Russia with the Russian Revolution of 1905 and of 1917, resulting in the collapse of the Russian State around the end of the World War I.

In 1945, Britain after victory in the World War II entered a period of radical reform and change. In the post-war period, Women's rights, Gay rights, peace movement, American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968), anti-nuclear movement and environmental movements emerged, often dubbed the New Social Movements. They led inter alia to the formation of green parties and organisations influenced by the new left. Some find in the end of the 1990s the emergence of a new global social movement, the anti-globalization movement. Some social movement scholars posit that with the rapid pace of globalization, the potential for the emergence of new type of social movement is latent -- they make the analogy to national movements of the past to describe what has been termed a global citizens movement.

Culture theory

Culture theory builds upon both the political process and resource-mobilization theories but extends them in two ways. First, it emphasizes the importance of movement culture. Second, it attempts to address the free-rider problem.

Both resource-mobilization theory and political process theory include a sense of injustice in their approaches. Culture theory brings this sense of injustice to the forefront of movement creation by arguing that, in order for social movements to successfully mobilize individuals, they must develop an injustice frame. An injustice frame is a collection of ideas and symbols that illustrate both how significant the problem is as well as what the movement can do to alleviate it,

"Like a picture frame, an issue frame marks off some part of the world. Like a building frame, it holds things together. It provides coherence to an array of symbols, images, and arguments, linking them through an underlying organizing idea that suggests what is essential - what consequences and values are at stake. We do not see the frame directly, but infer its presence by its characteristic expressions and language. Each frame gives the advantage to certain ways of talking and thinking, while it places others out of the picture." (Ryan and Gamson 2006:14)

A few things we know about injustice frames (from Ryan and Gamson 2006):

  • Facts take on their meaning by being embedded in frames, which render them relevant and significant or irrelevant and trivial.
  • People carry around multiple frames in their heads.
  • Successful reframing involves the ability to enter into the worldview of our adversaries.
  • All frames contain implicit or explicit appeals to moral principles.

Chores are cool. In emphasizing the injustice frame, culture theory also addresses the free-rider problem. The free-rider problem refers to the idea that people will not be motivated to participate in a social movement that will use up their personal resources (e.g., time, money, etc.) if they can still receive the benefits without participating. In other words, if person X knows that movement Y is working to improve environmental conditions in his neighborhood, he is presented with a choice: join or not join the movement. If he believes the movement will succeed without him, he can avoid participation in the movement, save his resources, and still reap the benefits - this is free-riding. A significant problem for social movement theory has been to explain why people join movements if they believe the movement can/will succeed without their contribution. Culture theory argues that, in conjunction with social networks being an important contact tool, the injustice frame will provide the motivation for people to contribute to the movement.

Framing processes includes three separate components:

  • Diagnostic frame: the movement organization frames what is the problem or what they are critiquing
  • Prognostic frame: the movement organization frames what is the desirable solution to the problem
  • Motivational frame: the movement organization frames a "call to arms" by suggesting and encouraging that people take action to solve the problem.[1]

See also


  • David F. Aberle 1966. The Peyote Religion among the Navaho. Chicago: Aldine. ISBN 0806123826
  • James Alfred Aho. 1990. Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism. Washington: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0295969970
  • Herbert G. Blumer 1969. "Collective Behavior." In Alfred McClung Lee, ed., Principles of Sociology. Third Edition. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, pp. 65-121.
  • Mark Chaves. 1997. Ordaining Women: Culture and Conflict in Religious Organizations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674641469
  • Graeme Chesters, & Ian Welsh. Complexity and Social Movements: Multitudes at the Edge of Chaos Routledge 2006. ISBN 0-4154-3974-4
  • Susan Eckstei, ed. Power and Popular Protest: Latin American Social Movements, Updated Edition, University of California Press 2001. ISBN 0-520-22705-0
  • Anthony Giddens. 1985. The Nation-State and Violence. Cambridge, England: Polity Press. ISBN 0520060393
  • J. Craig Jenkins and Charles Perrow. 1977. Insurgency of the Powerless Farm Worker Movements (1946-1972). American Sociological Review. 42(2):249-268.
  • Diana Kendall, Sociology In Our Times, Thomson Wadsworth, 2005. ISBN 0-534-64629-8
  • William Kornhauser. 1959. The Politics of Mass Society. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0029176204
  • Donna Maurer. 2002. Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment? Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 156639936X
  • Armand L. Mauss. 1975. Social Problems of Social Movements. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
  • Denton E. Morrison. 1978. "Some Notes toward Theory on Relative Deprivation, Social Movements, and Social Change." In Louis E. Genevie, ed., Collective Behavior and Social Movements. Itasca, Ill.: Peacock. pp. 202-209.
  • Immanuel Ness, ed. Encyclopedia of American Social Movements, 2004. ISBN 0-7656-8045-9
  • David Snow, Sarah A. Soule and Hanspeter Kriesi, ed. Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, Blackwell, 2004.
  • Charlotte Ryan and William W. Gamson, The Art of Reframing Political Debates. Contexts. 2006; 5(1):13-18.
  • Smelser, Neil J. 1962. Theory of Collective Behavior. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0029293901
  • Tilly, Charles. 1978. From Mobilization to Revolution. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1978.
  • Suzanne Staggenborg, Social Movements, Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-19-542309-9
  • Charles Tilly, Social Movements, 1768–2004, Boulder, CO, Paradigm Publishers, 2004 262 pp. ISBN 1-59451-042-3 (hardback) / ISBN 1-59451-043-1 (paperback)
  • Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement: Collective Action, Social Movements and Politics, Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-521-42271-x

Further reading

  • Marco G. Giugni, How Social Movements Matter, University of Minnesota Press, 1999, ISBN 0-8166-2914-5
  • Rod Bantjes, Social Movements in a Global Context, CSPI, 2007, ISBN 978-1-55130-324-6
  • Michael Barker, Conform or Reform? Social Movements and the Mass Media, Fifth-Estate-Online - International Journal of Radical Mass Media Criticism. February 2007. [2]

External links