Four Stages of Social Movements Research Paper Starter

Four Stages of Social Movements

An explanation of what defines a social movement is followed by a description of the development and theory of the model of the four stages of social movements. The four stages of social movement development are emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization, and decline. The Decline stage can result from several different causes, such as repression, co-optation, success, failure, and mainstream. The four stages of development model can be applied to understand how movements form, grow, and dissipate. It has limitations, however, in its application to new social movements and movements that are not rooted in political action. Despite these limitations, the four stages model is still highly useful in understanding collective action and provides a useful frame of analysis for sociologists considering social movements and their effects in the past and present.

Keywords Bureaucratization; Coalescence; Collective Action; Co-optation; Decline; Emergence; Encapsulation; Extra-institutional; Factionalism; Mass Society Theory; New Social Movements; Repression; Social Movements; Social Movement Organization (SMO); Social Movement Abeyance

Four Stages of Social Movements


There have been many social movements throughout history that have dramatically changed the societies in which they occurred. There have been many failed social movements as well. Throughout the history of the United States alone there have been a number of important and notable social movements. These movements have varied widely in their ideologies; some movements have been revolutionary in their aims, some have advocated reforms to the existing system, and others still have been conservative in their orientation and have worked to oppose changes in society. Social movements have varied in scope as well. For example, many movements are limited to local policies while others have been international in their focus. Despite all of the differences in social movements though, there are important analytic similarities that sociologists have distinguished, especially with regard to the life cycle of a social movement.

Because social movements have led to so many dramatic changes in societies around the globe, scholars have spent a great deal of time trying to understand where they come from, who participates in them, how they succeed, and how they fail. Much of what they have discovered is that social movements do not just happen; they require many resources and have many stages through which they develop. In other words, people do not simply suddenly become upset with a policy or even a ruling system and then instantly form a social movement with a coherent ideology that is capable of holding mass demonstrations or overthrowing an existing power structure. Instead, social movements grow through four stages. Examining these stages of social movements has enabled sociologists to better understand social movements in general, despite variances in movement ideology and scope.

What is a Social Movement?

Defining what, exactly, a social movement is can be difficult. It is not a political party or interest group, which are stable political entities that have regular access to political power and political elites; nor is it a mass fad or trend, which are unorganized, fleeting and without goals. Instead they are somewhere in between (Freeman & Johnson, 1999). Some characteristics of social movements are that they are "involved in conflictual relations with clearly identified opponents; are linked by dense informal networks; [and they] share a distinct collective identity" (De la Porta & Diani, 2006, p. 20). Social movements, then, can be thought of as organized yet informal social entities that are engaged in extra-institutional conflict that is oriented towards a goal. These goals can be either aimed at a specific and narrow policy or be more broadly aimed at cultural change.

To early scholars, collective action was inherently oriented towards change. Some of the earliest works on social movements were attempts to understand why people got caught up in collective action or what conditions were necessary to foment social movements. These works were rooted in theories of mass society. Mass society theory was concerned with the increasing industrialization of society, which many felt led to a sense of alienation among individuals as traditional social structures and support networks broke down. The study of social movements as specific social processes with specific patterns emerged from this field of study.

Four Stages of Social Movements

One of the earliest scholars to study social movement processes was Herbert Blumer, who identified four stages of social movements' lifecycles. The four stages he described were: "social ferment," "popular excitement," "formalization," and "institutionalization" (De la Porta & Diani 2006, p.150). Since his early work, scholars have refined and renamed these stages but the underlying themes have remained relatively constant. Today, the four social movement stages are known as:

• Emergence,

• Coalescence,

• Bureaucratization, and

• Decline.

Although the term decline may sound negative, it should not necessarily be understood in negative terms. Scholars have noted that social movements may decline for several reasons and have identified five ways they do decline. These are

• Success,

• Organizational failure,

• Co-optation,

• Repression, or

• Establishment within mainstream society (Macionis, 2001; Miller, 1999).

Stage 1: Emergence

The first stage of the social movement life cycle is known as the emergence, or, as described by Blumer, the "social ferment" stage (De la Porta & Diani, 2006). Within this stage, social movements are very preliminary and there is little to no organization. Instead this stage can be thought of as widespread discontent (Macionis, 2001; Hopper, 1950). Potential movement participants may be unhappy with some policy or some social condition, but they have not taken any action in order to redress their grievances, or if they have it is most likely individual action rather than collective action. A person may comment to friends and family that he or she is dissatisfied with conditions or may write a letter to the local newspaper or representative, but these actions are not strategic and not collective. Further, there may be an increase in media coverage of negative conditions or unpopular policies which contributes to the general sense of discontent.

This early stage can also be considered within a specific social movement organization (SMO). A social movement organization is an organization that is or has been associated with a social movement and which carries out the tasks that are necessary for any social movement to survive and be successful. An example of a social movement organization is the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was one of the many social movement organizations that organized during the American Civil Rights Movement. Within the emergence stage, then, an SMO and its members serve as agitators. Agitators raise consciousness around issues and help to develop the sense of discontent among the general population.

An example of this stage would be the early 1950s for the Civil Rights Movement. There was, of course, among the African-American population in the South, a general and long standing sense of discontent. Further, there were SMOs such as the NAACP that provided agitation, but were not yet organizing the mass and continued actions that came to later characterize the Civil Rights Movement. It was not until after the Brown v. the Board of Education Supreme court decision (1954), which outlawed segregation in Public schools, and following the arrest of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to comply with segregation laws on city buses by giving up her bus seat to a white man, that the American Civil Rights Movement would proceed to the next stage - coalescence.

Stage 2: Coalescence

At this next stage in the life cycle, social movements have overcome some obstacles which many never overcome. Often, social unrest or discontent passes without any organizing or widespread mobilization. For example, people in a community may complain to each other about a general injustice, but they do not come together to act on those complaints and the social movement does not progress to the next level. Stage two, known as coalescence, or the "popular stage," is characterized by a more clearly defined sense of discontent. It is no longer just a general sense of unease, but now a sense of what the unease is about and who or what is responsible. Rex D. Hopper (1950), in examining revolutionary processes, states that at this stage "unrest is no longer covert, endemic, and esoteric; it becomes overt, epidemic, and exoteric. Discontent is no longer uncoordinated and individual; it tends to become focalized and collective" (p. 273). Further he states "this is the stage when individuals participating in the mass behavior of the preceding stage become aware of each other" (p. 273). At this point leadership emerges and strategies for success are worked out. Also, at this stage mass demonstrations may occur in order to display the social movement's power and to make clear demands. Most importantly this is the stage at which the movement becomes more than just random upset individuals; at this point they are now organized and strategic in their outlook.

The American Civil Rights Movement again provides a good example. After the initial emergence, the movement began a series of high profile campaigns, which sought to highlight the plight of African Americans in the segregated South. These campaigns included the Montgomery Bus Boycott and lunch counter sit-ins in which black students would sit down at segregated counters and wait to either be served or be dragged out by the police. These events galvanized support for the movement and displayed the brutality to which white segregationists would resort in order to protect the status quo. At this point too, prominent leaders of the movement begin to emerge, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After many years of successful, but hard fought campaigns and strong leadership, the movement became a more prominent political force.

Stage 3: Bureaucratization

The third stage is known as bureaucratization. This stage, defined by Blumer as "formalization," (De la Porta & Diani, 2006) is characterized by higher levels of organization and coalition-based strategies. In this stage, social movements have had some success in that they have raised awareness to a degree that a coordinated strategy is necessary across all of the SMOs. Similarly, SMOs will come to rely on staff persons with specialized knowledge that can run the day-to-day...

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