social movements

An organized effort by a significant number of people to change (or resist change in) some major aspect or aspects of society. The term was first used by Saint-Simon in France at the turn of the eighteenth century, to characterize the movements of social protest that emerged there and later elsewhere, and was applied to new political forces opposed to the status quo. Nowadays, it is used most commonly with reference to groups and organizations outside the mainstream of the political system. These movements, often now abbreviated to NSMs (New Social Movements), have in the latter decades of the twentieth century become an increasingly important source of political change. Sociologists have usually been concerned to study the origins of such movements, their sources of recruitment, organizational dynamics, and their impact upon society.
Social movements must be distinguished from collective behaviour . Social movements are purposeful and organized; collective behaviour is random and chaotic. Examples of social movements would include those supporting civil rights, gay rights, trade unionism, environmentalism, and feminism. Examples of collective behaviour would include riots, fads and crazes, panics, cultic religions, rumours, and mass delusions. Social movements are one of the basic elements of a living democracy , and may be catalysts of democracy and change in authoritarian societies.
Social movements have specific goals, formal organization, and a degree of continuity. They operate outside the regular political channels of society, but may penetrate quite deeply into political power circles as interest groups . Their goals may be as narrow as legalizing marijuana, or as broad as destroying the hegemony of the capitalist world system; they may be revolutionary or reformist; but they have in common the active organization of a group of citizens to change the status quo in some way. Under the broad banner of a social movement (such as for example ‘the peace movement’) many individual social movement organizations (SMOs) may operate in a relatively independent way, sometimes causing confusion and conflict within the movement itself.
An early typology of social movements, developed by (The Peyote Religion among the Navaho, 1966), classifies social movements along two dimensions: the locus of change sought (society or individuals), and the amount of change sought (partial or total). The four categories derived from this classification are transformative, reformative, redemptive, and alternative. These are (respectively) movements which aim at the complete restructuring of society (for example millenarian movements); those which attempt to reform some limited aspects of the existing order (such as nuclear disarmament groups); movements which seek to lead members away from a corrupt way of life (as in the case of many religious sectarian groups); and, finally, those which aim to change only particular traits of the individual member (for example Alcoholics Anonymous). The first two of these are therefore aimed at changing (all or part of) society; the latter pair at changing the behaviour only of individual members.
The dramatic visibility of social movements, and their challenge to the mainstream of society, has made them an object of great sociological interest. One school of thought treats social movements as a special case of collective behaviour, emphasizing their expressive and irrational qualities. Many studies have focused on the question: who participates and why? Once again, the pathological elements of social movements tend to be highlighted by this approach, as for example in’s The True Believer (1951) and The Authoritarian Personality (1950).
The wave of non-violent, largely middle-class social movements in the 1960s and 1970s produced more positive lines of research and analysis. Great attention was paid to the objective and subjective conditions of social movement activity: many theorists like Seymour Martin Lipset blamed the alienating conditions of mass society. Marxists and neo-Marxists proposed new forms of class division and class conflict as underlying causes. Others explored the effects of relative deprivation and rising expectations on the mobilization of citizens. Still other studies followed the stages of social movement development, from the initial recognition of a grievance to the fully developed movement organization: Neil Smelser's ‘value added theory’ remains a classic of this type (see Theory of Collective Behaviour, 1963). In his account, six sequential determinants of development are identified, each one progressively narrowing the range of possible outcomes. These determinants are structural conduciveness (the broadest social conditions necessary for the movement to occur); structural strain (a sense of injustice or malaise); the growth and spread of a generalized belief (such as an ideology which offers answers to people's problems); precipitating factors (events that trigger action); mobilization of participants for action (for example via conversion); and, finally, the operation of social control. In the 1970s still more detailed evidence of social movement dynamics came through multivariate analysis (, Why Men Rebel, 1970).
More recently, a critical distinction has been drawn by Jean Cohen (in Social Research, 1985), between two competing approaches to the explanation of social movements. ‘Resource mobilization’ theories are particularly influential in North America; ‘identity-oriented’ theories are more common in Western Europe. The former is exemplified in the work of Mayer N. Zald and John D. McCarthy (The Dynamics of Social Movements, 1979), who discuss movements as organizations, and focus especially on the needs of such organizations to mobilize resources. These theories investigate the range of resources that have to be mobilized by groups, examine the ways in which such resources are deployed, and consider the actions by which authorities may attempt to limit such resources. Within this perspective, the term ‘resources’ takes on a wide array of meanings, including economic resources, ideologies, rhetoric, and symbols. Factors like leadership, communications networks, available time, money, and business or political connections are seen as crucial in explaining the growth and success or failure of social movements. Identity-oriented theories, by contrast, see social movements as a special type of social conflict which is at the heart of modern society and social change. Thus, according to the French sociologist Alan Touraine, ‘the concept of social movement [should be] at the centre of sociology’ (The Return of the Actor, 1988). This perspective sees social movements as the central groups in the new social politics and realignments (for example the Women's Movement, and the Ecological Movement) and as sources of new political identities. Indeed, Touraine's method of intervention not only treats social movements as one of the most fundamental forms of citizen action, but also requires that sociologists join the action not just to study but to encourage it. Few British or American sociologists have followed Touraine into this delicate territory, and most sociology of social movements involves the objective analysis of organizations and political processes.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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