Social Movements 101

Learning about the key theories behind the movements

Definitions and distinctions about social movements

Social Movements are alliances formed by people who are connected because of their shared interests in affecting or block social change. Social movements can be either formally or informally organized.

They also bring challenge to:

  • authorities, power holders
  • cultural beliefs and practices
  • actions to promote or resist social change.

In structure and organization they are:

  • a collective (multiple people)
  • organized (coordinated, at least to some degree)
  • sustained (lasts a while, not just one outburst)
  • non-institutional (outside of the normal structures or routines of society)

Social Movement Organizations (SMOs) are a component that works within the broader social movement, but may not be the only group.

How social movements operate in modern societies (Giddens' ideas)

There are 4 areas in which Social Movements operate today:

1. democratic movements work for political rights.

2. labour movements that work for the control of the workplace.

3. ecological movements that are concerned about the environment.

4. peace movements that work for peace

*Social movements can also cause the creation of counter movements

Types of Social Movements

There are 4 types of social movements that are based on 2 characteristics:

1. Who is the movement attempting to change? (everyone? or specific individuals?)

2. How much change is being advocated? (limited/minor or radical-broad or societal level)

See Aberle (1966) diagram below

Stages in Social Movements

There are different stages that social movements pass through. Some movements emerge for a variety of different reasons, coalesce and bureaucratize. Then they take different paths including: finding success, failure, co-opting other leaders, becoming repressed by other groups and establishing a movement within the mainstream.


The variety of theories outlined below attempt to explain how social movements develop.


  • argues that social movements are founded amongst people who feel deprived of some good(s) or resource(s). These people are also said to have a grievance of some kind.
  • individuals who lack some good, service or comfort are more likely to organize a social movement in order to improve (or defend) their conditions.


  • social movements are made up of individuals in large societies who feel that they are insignificant or socially detached.
  • social movements provide a sense of empowerment, and belonging (that members wouldn't otherwise have)


  • proposes 6 factors that encourage social movement development

  1. Structural Conduciveness-people come to believe their society has problems.
  2. Structural Strain-people experience deprivation.
  3. Growth and Spread of a Solution-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 (being) that is to be changed must be at least somewhat open to change; if the social movement is quickly and powerfully repressed (it may never happen).
  6. Mobilization-this is the actual organizing and active component of the movement; people do what needs to be done.


  • emphasizes the importance of resources in social movement development and success.

Resources: knowledge, money, media, labour, solidarity, legitimacy, and internal and external support from power elite.

  • Social movements develop when individuals with grievances are able to mobilize enough resources to take action.
  • The emphasis on resources offers an explanation why some deprived individuals are able to organize while others are not.


  • There will always be grounds for protest in modern and politically pluralistic (multi-party) societies because there is constant discontent
  • members are recruited through networks and the commitment is maintained by building a collective identity and continuing to nurture interpersonal relationships.
  • movement organization is connected to the gathering of resources
  • resources and continuity of leadership are key components
  • social movement entrepreneurs and protest organizations are catalysts which transform collective discontent into social movements.
  • Social movement organizations are the backbone of social movements
  • the form of the resources shape the activities of the movement (ex. access to TV station--> use of TV media
  • opportunity structures influence efforts to mobilize. Responses to opportunity structures depend upon organization and resources


  • is similar to resource mobilization but emphasizes a different social structure: Political opportunities

There are 3 components for movement formation:

  1. Insurgent Consciousness
  2. Organizational Strength
  3. Political Opportunities

Insurgent Consciousness

  • is the collective sense of injustice that movement members feel. It is the motivation for the movement organization

Organizational Strength

  • in order for a social movement to organize it needs strong leadership and sufficient resources

Political opportunity

  • refers to the receptivity or vulnerability of the existing political system to challenge. The vulnerability can be the result of a) growth in political pluralism, b) decline in the effectiveness of repression, c) elite disunity, d) broadening access to institutional participation in political processes, e) support of organized opposition by elites

  • This theory addresses the issue of timing or emergence of social movements

CULTURE THEORY (1980s-1990s)

  • builds on the political process and resource mobilization theory, but focuses on movement culture, addresses the free rider problem.
  • Sense of injustice is in the forefront of the movement
  • An injustice frame must be developed--a collection of ideas and symbols that illustrate the significance of the problem and what the movement can do

"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" (Goodwin, 2009).

Framing processes: 3 components

1. Diagnostic Frame-the movement organization frames what is the problem or what they are critiquing.

2. Prognostic Frame-the movement organization frames what is the desirable solution to the problem

3. Motivational Frame-movement organization frames a "call to arms" by suggesting and encouraging that people take action to solve the problem.

What is the free-rider problem?

  • refers to the fact that people won't be motivated to participate in a social movement that will use up their personal resources if they can still receive the benefits without participating
  • Essentially, if person X knows that movement y is working to improve the environmental conditions in his/her/their neighbourhood, they have a choice to join, or not to join the movement. If x believes that the movement will succeed without their participation , they won't participate, but can save resources and still reap benefits
  • The injustice frame motivates people to get involved with the movement.


  • resources matter, but how an issue is articulated matters more.
  • movements come about when leaders can "frame" the issue in a way that connects with people's emotions
  • how the issue is pitched makes all the difference
  • leadership is also important in defining the issue and in articulating an appropriate response.