Introduction to Sociology/Social Movements

I remember when I first became active in social movements seeking racial, class, gender, and sexual equality for all in the 1990’s. While I would like to say I did this for moral or practical reasons, my teenage mind had yet to consider such reasoning. Rather, like most people, I became involved due to emotional pulls based on my own life experiences.

I first learned about movements while I attended support groups for transgender people seeking to reconcile their gender with their religious beliefs. In so doing, I learned very quickly that the problems I thought were mine alone were actually shared by many people. Instead of continuing to believe I was damaged, I learned in those meetings to recognize the ways existing social structures damage certain groups, which led me to become active in protests and other social movement activities seeking to make life better for those living in the margins of society.

While special to me, my experience is rather common (as the histories of people like Alice Paul and Bayard Rustin illustrate). Like me, most activists begin fighting structural inequality because they feel the pain of oppression in their own lives, but it is due to their efforts that many of us walk around everyday without knowing that: women were starved almost to death by the American government so other women could vote; African-Americans were beat, killed, set on fire, and tailed by the FBI so they could vote and go to school; sexual minorities were institutionalized, imprisoned, and killed on public streets so they could have jobs, families, and educations; or that once upon a time something as simple as a lunch break or a fire escape were unheard of in most American workplaces.

Like I did as a teenager, ask yourself what rights do you have that other people died for, and what rights do other people currently lack that you could be helping them achieve?



Social movements are any broad social alliances of people who are connected through their shared interest in blocking or affecting social change. Social movements do not have to be formally organized. Multiple alliances may work separately for common causes and still be considered a social movement.

A distinction is drawn between social movements and social movement organizations (SMOs). A social movement organization is a formally organized component of a social movement. But an SMO may only make up a part of a particular social movement. For instance, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) advocates for vegan lifestyles along with its other aims. But PETA is not the only group to advocate for vegan diets and lifestyles; there are numerous other groups actively engaged toward this end (see vegan).[1] Thus, the social movement may be a push toward veganism (an effort with numerous motivations)[1] and PETA is an SMO working within the broader social movement.

Modern social movements became possible through the wider dissemination of literature and increased mobility of labor due to the industrialization of societies. Organised social structures like modern day armies, political societies, and popular movements required freedom of expression, education and relative economic independence.

Giddens[2] has identified four areas in which social movements operate in modern societies:

  1. democratic movements that work for political rights
  2. labor movements that work for control of the workplace
  3. ecological movements that are concerned with the environment
  4. peace movements that work toward, well, peace

It is also interesting to note that social movements can spawn counter movements. For instance, the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s resulted in a number of counter movements that attempted to block the goals of the women's movement, many of which were reform movements within conservative religions.[3]

Types of Social Movements


Aberle[4] described four types of social movements based upon two characteristics: (1) who is the movement attempting to change and (2) how much change is being advocated. Social movements can be aimed at change on an individual level (e.g., AA) or change on a broader, group or even societal level (e.g., anti-globalization). Social movements can also advocate for minor changes (e.g., tougher restrictions on drunk driving; see MADD) or radical changes (e.g., prohibition).


Stages in Social Movements


Blumer,[5] Mauss,[6] and Tilly[7] have described different stages social movements often pass through. Movements emerge for a variety of reasons (see the theories below), coalesce, and generally bureaucratize. At that point, they can take a number of paths, including: finding some form of movement success, failure, co-optation of leaders, repression by larger groups (e.g., government), or even the establishment of the movement within the mainstream.

Whether these paths will result in movement decline or not varies from movement to movement. In fact, one of the difficulties in studying social movements is that movement success is often ill-defined because movement goals can change. For instance,, a website founded in the late 1990s, was originally developed to encourage national politicians to move past the Clinton impeachment proceedings (see here). Since that time, the group has developed into a major player in national politics in the U.S. and developed into a Political Action Committee or PAC. In this instance, the movement may or may not have attained its original goal - encouraging the censure of Clinton and moving on to more pressing issues - but the goals of the SMO have changed. This makes the actual stages the movement has passed through difficult to discern.


Social Movement Theories


A variety of theories have attempted to explain how social movements develop. Some of the better-known approaches are outlined below.

Deprivation Theory


Deprivation Theory argues that social movements have their foundations among people who feel deprived of some good(s) or resource(s). According to this approach, individuals who are lacking some good, service, or comfort are more likely to organize a social movement to improve (or defend) their conditions.[8]

There are two significant problems with this theory. First, since most people feel deprived at one level or another almost all the time, the theory has a hard time explaining why the groups that form social movements do when other people are also deprived. Second, the reasoning behind this theory is circular - often the only evidence for deprivation is the social movement. If deprivation is claimed to be the cause but the only evidence for such is the movement, the reasoning is circular.[9]

Mass-Society Theory


Mass-Society Theory argues that social movements are made up of individuals in large societies who feel insignificant or socially detached. Social movements, according to this theory, provide a sense of empowerment and belonging that the movement members would otherwise not have.[10]

Very little support has been found for this theory. Aho,[11] in his study of Idaho Christian Patriotism, did not find that members of that movement were more likely to have been socially detached. In fact, the key to joining the movement was having a friend or associate who was a member of the movement.

Structural-Strain Theory


Structural-Strain Theory proposes six factors that encourage social movement development:[12]

  1. structural conduciveness - people come to believe their society has problems
  2. structural strain - people experience deprivation
  3. growth and spread of a solution - a solution to the problems people are experiencing is proposed and spreads
  4. precipitating factors - discontent usually requires a catalyst (often a specific event) to turn it into a social movement
  5. lack of social control - the entity that is to be changed must be at least somewhat open to the change; if the social movement is quickly and powerfully repressed, it may never materialize
  6. mobilization - this is the actual organizing and active component of the movement; people do what needs to be done

This theory is also subject to circular reasoning as it incorporates, at least in part, deprivation theory and relies upon it, and social/structural strain for the underlying motivation of social movement activism. However, social movement activism is, like in the case of deprivation theory, often the only indication that there was strain or deprivation.

Resource-Mobilization Theory


Resource-Mobilization Theory emphasizes the importance of resources in social movement development and success. Resources are understood here to include: knowledge, money, media, labor, solidarity, legitimacy, and internal and external support from power elite. The theory argues that social movements develop when individuals with grievances are able to mobilize sufficient resources to take action. The emphasis on resources offers an explanation why some discontented/deprived individuals are able to organize while others are not.

Some of the assumptions of the theory include:

  • there will always be grounds for protest in modern, politically pluralistic societies because there is constant discontent (i.e., grievances or deprivation); this de-emphasizes the importance of these factors as it makes them ubiquitous
  • actors are rational; they weigh the costs and benefits from movement participation
  • members are recruited through networks; commitment is maintained by building a collective identity and continuing to nurture interpersonal relationships
  • movement organization is contingent upon the aggregation of resources
  • social movement organizations require resources and continuity of leadership
  • social movement entrepreneurs and protest organizations are the catalysts which transform collective discontent into social movements; social movement organizations form the backbone of social movements
  • the form of the resources shapes the activities of the movement (e.g., access to a TV station will result in the extensive use TV media)
  • movements develop in contingent opportunity structures that influence their efforts to mobilize; as each movement's response to the opportunity structures depends on the movement's organization and resources, there is no clear pattern of movement development nor are specific movement techniques or methods universal

Critics of this theory argue that there is too much of an emphasize on resources, especially financial resources. Some movements are effective without an influx of money and are more dependent upon the movement members for time and labor (e.g., the civil rights movement in the U.S.).

Political Process Theory


The way that Political Process Theory is similar to resource mobilization in many regards, but tends to emphasize a different component of social structure that is important for social movement development: political opportunities. Political process theory argues that there are three vital components for movement formation: insurgent consciousness, organizational strength, and political opportunities.

Insurgent consciousness refers back to the ideas of deprivation and grievances. The idea is that certain members of society feel like they are being mistreated or that somehow the system is unjust. The insurgent consciousness is the collective sense of injustice that movement members (or potential movement members) feel and serves as the motivation for movement organization.

Photo taken at the 2005 U.S. Presidential inauguration protest.

Organizational strength falls inline with resource-mobilization theory, arguing that in order for a social movement to organize it must have strong leadership and sufficient resources.

Political opportunity refers to the receptivity or vulnerability of the existing political system to challenge. This vulnerability can be the result of any of the following (or a combination thereof):

  • growth of political pluralism
  • decline in effectiveness of repression
  • elite disunity; the leading factions are internally fragmented
  • a broadening of access to institutional participation in political processes
  • support of organized opposition by elites

One of the advantages of the political process theory is that it addresses the issue of timing or emergence of social movements. Some groups may have the insurgent consciousness and resources to mobilize, but because political opportunities are closed, they will not have any success. The theory, then, argues that all three of these components are important.

Critics of the political process theory and resource-mobilization theory point out that neither theory discusses movement culture to any great degree. This has presented culture theorists an opportunity to expound on the importance of culture.

One advance on the political process theory is the political mediation model, which outlines the way in which the political context facing movement actors intersects with the strategic choices that movements make. An additional strength of this model is that it can look at the outcomes of social movements not only in terms of success or failure but also in terms of consequences (whether intentional or unintentional, positive or negative) and in terms of collective benefits.

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." (p. 14) [13]

A few things we know about injustice frames:[13]

  • 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.

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

New Social Movement theories


See Wikipedia's page on NSM theories.

Examples of Social Movements


Additional Reading


Schrock, Douglas, Daphne Holden, and Lori Reid. 2004. “Creating Emotional Resonance: Interpersonal Emotion Work and Motivational Framing in a Transgender Community.” Social Problems 51: 61-81.

Benford, Robert and David Snow. 2000. “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.” Annual Review of Sociology 26:611-639. Benford, Robert. 1993. "Frame Disputes within the Nuclear Disarmament Movement." Social Forces 71:677-701. Croteau, David, and Lindsi Hicks. 2003. "Coalition Framing and the Challenge of a Consonant Frame Pyramid: The Case of a Collaborative Response to Homelessness." Social Problems 50:251-272. McAdam, Doug, John McCarthy, and Mayer Zald. 1996. Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings. New York: Cambridge University Press. Cunningham, David. 2004. There's Something Happening Here: The New Left, The Klan, and FBI CounterIntelligence. Los Angeles: University of California Press. Earl, Jennifer. 2003. "Tanks, Tear Gas and Taxes: Toward a Theory of Movement Repression." Sociological Theory 21:44-68.

Armstrong, Elzabeth and Suzanna Crage. 2006. "Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth." American Sociological Review 71:724-751.

Polletta, Francesca, and James Jasper. 2001. "Collective Identity and Social Movements." Annual Review of Sociology 27:283-305. Polletta, Francesca. 1998. “‘It Was Like a Fever….’ Narrative and Identity in Social Protest.” Social Problems 45: 137-159. Taylor, Verta. 1996. Rock-A-By Baby. New York: Routledge. Rohlinger, Deana. 2006. "Friends and Foes: Media, Politics, and Tactics in the Abortion War."Social Problems 53:537-561. Roscigno, Vincent, and William Danaher. 2001. "Media and Mobilization: The Case of Radio and Southern Textile Worker Insurgency, 1929-1934." American Sociological Review 66:21-48. Earl, Jennifer, and Alan Schussman. 2006. "The New Site of Activism: On-Line Organizations Movement Entrepreuneurs, and the Changing Locations of Social Movement Decision Making." Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change 24:155-187.

Discussion Questions

  • Are you part of a social movement?
  • Are you a free-rider taking advantage of the social movement activities of others?
  • What is required to build a social movement?
  • What does it mean for a social movement to succeed?


  1. a b Maurer, Donna. 2002. Vegetarianism: Movement or Moment? Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 156639936X
  2. Giddens, Anthony. 1985. The Nation-State and Violence. Cambridge, England: Polity Press. ISBN 0520060393
  3. Chaves, Mark. 1997. Ordaining Women: Culture and Conflict in Religious Organizations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674641469
  4. Aberle, David F. 1960 . The Peyote Religion among the Navaho. Chicago: Aldine. ISBN 0806123826
  5. Blumer, Herbert G. 1969. "Collective Behavior." In Alfred McClung Lee, ed., Principles of Sociology. Third Edition. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, pp. 65-121.
  6. Mauss, Armand L. 1975. Social Problems of Social Movements. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
  7. Tilly, Charles. 1978. From Mobilization to Revolution. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1978.
  8. Morrison, Denton E. 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.
  9. Jenkins, J. Craig and Perrow, Charles. 1977. Insurgency of the Powerless Farm Worker Movements (1946-1972). American Sociological Review. 42(2):249-268.
  10. Kornhauser, William. 1959. The Politics of Mass Society. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0029176204
  11. Aho, James Alfred. 1990. Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism. Washington: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0295969970
  12. Smelser, Neil J. 1962. Theory of Collective Behavior. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0029293901
  13. a b Ryan, Charlotte and Gamson, William W. The Art of Reframing Political Debates. Contexts. 2006; 5(1):13-18.

[Understanding the World Today] Summary of theories on social change, and links to research, data, more, about social change. Key Components of a Successful Social Movement

Collective Behavior · Sociological Practice