Social movement theory

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Social movement theory is an interdisciplinary study within the social sciences that generally seeks to explain why social mobilization occurs, the forms under which it manifests, as well as potential social, cultural, and political consequences.

Collective behavior[edit]

Sociologists during the early and middle-1900s thought that movements were random occurrences of individuals who were trying to emotionally react to situations outside their control. Or, as the "mass society" hypothesis suggested, movement participants were those who were not fully integrated into society. These psychologically-based theories have largely been rejected by present-day sociologists and political scientists, although many still make a case for the importance (although not centrality) of emotions. See the work of Gustav LeBon, Herbert Blumer, William Kornhauser,[1] and Neil Smelser.[2]

Relative deprivation[edit]

People are driven into movements out of a sense of deprivation or inequality, particularly (1) in relation to others or (2) in relation to their expectations. In the first view, participants see others who have more power, economic resources, or status, and thus try to acquire these same things for themselves. In the second view, people are most likely to rebel when a consistently improving situation (especially an improving economy) stops and makes a turn for the worse. At this point, people will join movements because their expectations will have outgrown their actual material situation (also called the "J-Curve theory"). See the work of James Davies, Ted Gurr,[3] and Denton Morrison.

Rational choice[edit]

Individuals are rational actors who strategically weigh the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action and choose that course of action which is most likely to maximize their utility. The primary research problem from this perspective is the collective action problem, or why rational individuals would choose to join in collective action if they benefit from its acquisition even if they do not participate. See the work of Mancur Olson,[4] Mark Lichbach,[5] and Dennis Chong.[6] In Theories of Political Protest and Social Movements, Karl-Dieter Opp incorporates a number of cultural concepts in his version of rational choice theory, as well as showing that several other approaches surreptitiously rely on rational-choice assumptions without admitting it.[7]

Resource mobilization[edit]

Social movements need organizations first and foremost. Organizations can acquire and then deploy resources to achieve their well-defined goals. Some versions of this theory see movements operate similar to capitalist enterprises that make efficient use of available resources.[8] Scholars have suggested a typology of five types of resources:

  1. Material (money and physical capital);
  2. Moral (solidarity, support for the movement's goals);
  3. Social-Organizational (organizational strategies, social networks, bloc recruitment);
  4. Human (volunteers, staff, leaders);
  5. Cultural (prior activist experience, understanding of the issues, collective action know-how)[9]

Political opportunity/political process[edit]

Certain political contexts should be conducive (or representative) for potential social movement activity. These climates may [dis]favor specific social movements or general social movement activity; the climate may be signaled to potential activists and/or structurally allowing for the possibility of social movement activity (matters of legality); and the political opportunities may be realized through political concessions, social movement participation, or social movement organizational founding. Opportunities may include:

  1. Increased access to political decision making power
  2. Instability in the alignment of ruling elites (or conflict between elites)
  3. Access to elite allies (who can then help a movement in its struggle)
  4. Declining capacity and propensity of the state to repress dissent[10][11][12][13]


Certain claims activists make on behalf of their social movement "resonate" with audiences including media, elites, sympathetic allies, and potential recruits. Successful frames draw upon shared cultural understandings (e.g. rights, morality). This perspective is firmly rooted in a social constructivist ontology. See the work of Robert Benford and David A. Snow.[14] Over the last decade, political opportunity theorists have partially appropriated the framing perspective. It is called political theory of a social movement

Social movement impact theory[edit]

This body of work focuses on assessing the impact that a social movement has on society, and what factors might have led to those impacts. The effects of a social movement can resonate on individuals,[15] institutions,[16] cultures,[17] or political systems.[18] While political impacts have been studied the most, effects on other levels can be at least as important. Because Impact Theory has many methodological issues, it is the least studied of the major branches of Social Movement Theory.[19] Nevertheless, it has sparked debates on the efficacy of violence,[20] the importance of elite and political allies,[21] and the agency of popular movements in general.[22]

New social movements[edit]

This European-influenced group of theories argue that movements today are categorically different from the ones in the past. Instead of labor movements engaged in class conflict, present-day movements (such as anti-war, environmental, civil rights, feminist, etc.) are engaged in social and political conflict (see Alain Touraine). The motivations for movement participation is a form of post-material politics and newly created identities, particularly those from the "new middle class". Also, see the work of Ronald Inglehart, Jürgen Habermas, Alberto Melucci,[23] and Steve Buechler. This line of research has stimulated an enduring emphasis on identity even among prominent American scholars like Charles Tilly.

Emerging cultural perspective[edit]

In the late 1990s two long books summarized the cultural turn in social-movement studies, Alberto Melucci's Challenging Codes and James M. Jasper's The Art of Moral Protest. Melucci focused on the creation of collective identities as the purpose of social movements, especially the "new social movements", whereas Jasper argued that movements provide participants with a chance to elaborate and articulate their moral intuitions and principles. Both recognized the importance of emotions in social movements, although Jasper developed this idea more systematically. Along with Jeff Goodwin and Francesca Polletta, Jasper organized a conference in New York in 1999 that helped put emotions on the intellectual agenda for many scholars of protest and movements.[24] He has continued to write about the emotional dynamics of protest in the years since.

In 1999, Goodwin and Jasper published a critique of the then-dominant political opportunity paradigm, using Jasper’s cultural approach to show that political opportunity was too structural as a concept, leaving out meanings, emotions, and agency. Charles Tilly and a number of other scholars responded, often vituperatively.[25]

In The Art of Moral Protest Jasper also argued that strategic interaction had an important logic that was independent of both culture and structure, and in 2006 he followed up on this claim with Getting Your Way: Strategic Dilemmas in Real Life, which developed a vocabulary for studying strategic engagement in a cultural, emotional, and agentic way. By then, his theory of action had moved closer to pragmatism and symbolic interactionism. In the same period, Wisconsin social theorist Mustafa Emirbayer had begun writing in a similar fashion about emotions and social movements, but more explicitly deriving his ideas from the history of sociological thought. In France, Daniel Cefaï arrived at similar conclusions in Pourquoi se mobilise-t-on?, a sweeping history and synthesis of thought on collective action and social movements.[26]


  1. ^ Kornhauser, William. The Politics of Mass Society. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1959.
  2. ^ Smelser, Neil J. 1962 Theory of Collective Behavior. London: Collier-Macmillan.
  3. ^ Gurr, Ted. Why Men Rebel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970.
  4. ^ Olson, Mancur. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965.
  5. ^ Lichbach, Mark. The Rebel’s Dilemma. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
  6. ^ Chong, Dennis. Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
  7. ^ Karl-Dieter Opp, Theories of Political Protest and Social Movements (New York: Routledge, 2009).
  8. ^ McCarthy, John D.; Mayer N. Zald (1977). "Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory". American Journal of Sociology. 82 (6): 1212–41. doi:10.1086/226464.
  9. ^ Edwards, Bob; John D. McCarthy (2004). "Resources and Social Movement Mobilization". In Snow, Soule, and Kriesi. The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 116–52.
  10. ^ Meyer, David S.; Debra C. Minkoff (2004). "Conceptualizing Political Opportunity" (PDF). Social Forces. 82 (4): 1457–92. doi:10.1353/sof.2004.0082.
  11. ^ McAdam, Doug (1982). Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  12. ^ Meyer, David S. (2004). "Protest and Political Opportunities". Annual Review of Sociology. 30: 125–145. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.30.012703.110545.
  13. ^ Goodwin, Jeff; James M. Jasper (1999). "Caught in a Winding, Snarling Vine: The Structural Bias of Political Process Theory" (PDF). Sociological Forum. 14 (1): 27–54. doi:10.1023/A:1021684610881. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-08-27. for critique
  14. ^ Benford, Robert D.; David A. Snow (2000). "Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment". Annual Review of Sociology. 26: 611–639. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.26.1.611.
  15. ^ McAdam, Doug. The biographical impact of activism. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
  16. ^ Moore, Kelly. "Political protest and institutional change: The anti-Vietnam War movement and American science." How social movements matter 10: 97. 1999
  17. ^ Ferree, Myra Marx and Beth B. Hess. Controversy & Coalition: The New Feminist Movement across Three Decades of Change, New York: Twayne Publishers. 1994.
  18. ^ Amenta, Edwin, and Neal Caren, Elizabeth Chiarello, and Yang Su. "The Political Consequences of Social Movements", Annual Review of Sociology. 36: 287-307. 2010.
  19. ^ Giugni, Marco, Doug McAdam, and Charles Tilly. How Social Movements Matter. Minneapolis, MN. The Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1999.
  20. ^ Gamson, William. Strategy of Social Protest. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company. 1975.
  21. ^ Soule, Sarah A., and Susan Olzak. "When do movements matter? The politics of contingency and the equal rights amendment." American Sociological Review 69.4: 473-497. 2004.
  22. ^ Amenta, Edwin, and Neal Caren, Elizabeth Chiarello, and Yang Su. “The Political Consequences of Social Movements.” Annual Review of Sociology. 36: 287-307. 2010.
  23. ^ Melucci, Alberto (1989). Nomads of the Present: Social Movements and Individual Needs in Contemporary Society. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  24. ^ Jeff Goodwin, James M. Jasper, and Francesca Polletta, eds., Passionate Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
  25. ^ The original debate was later published, with additional contributions, as Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper, eds., Rethinking Social Movements (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004).
  26. ^ Paris: La Découverte, 2007.