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What are the characteristics of a social movement?

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Social movements are varied, but they do have a few shared characteristics. Generally speaking, social movements are geared toward creating, perpetuating, or stopping social or political change. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States is one example of this. It was, at least in its early stages, devoted to ending Jim Crow society in the South and to advancing social progress for African Americans. Social movements also tend to promote their cause through mass action. Today, one way this is achieved is through digital means, like online activism, but large, very public events and especially demonstrations are common to most social movements. As some sociologists have observed, social movements typically have "clearly defined opponents." Most social movements that achieve any kind of staying power are protesting something—Jim Crow, abortion, and so on. Finally, social movements tend to have some kind of organizational structure, even if this is very loose and decentralized. The civil rights movement (to use it as an example again) involved hundreds of organizations, including national ones like SNCC and the SCLC, and local ones like churches and other groups.

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The key characteristics of a social movement are these:

  • They are generally used by political outsiders.  People who already have political power do not need to engage in social movements.
  • They are generally grassroots in origin.  These are movements that start from the bottom up, not from the top down.
  • They tend to use unconventional tactics.  They do not lobby politicians or give campaign donations.  Instead, they stage sit-ins and protest marches.
  • They are made up of people who have a shared sense of grievance.  People who join such a movement must feel very strongly that they are being mistreated.

Overall, then, a social movement is something that is done by outsiders to the political process.  They use unconventional tactics to try to make their demands heard by those who have power.

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