Major Social Movements Research Paper Starter

Major Social Movements

Social movements are a widespread feature of modern life. As a specific form of collective action and behavior that typically operate outside established political institutions, social movements may be narrowly defined and target a specific social issue or broader in scope and target fundamental issues within the society. Thus, some are small and local; others are vast and inspire global membership. The goals of social movements vary too. Some work toward policy or legal reform, while others exist to signal protest and draw attention to areas of social, cultural, economic or political life that are problematic in some way. Although social movements do not, generally, begin as formal organizations (with bureaucratic rules and regulations), they sometimes become formal organizations. Thus, social movements are intentional, relatively organized efforts on the part of individuals and groups to either bring about or resist social change within a society. Researchers have classified social movements into different broad categories: personal transformation movements whose goal is to bring new meaning to individual's lives by changing them for the better, social change movements that attempt to change a particular aspect of society as a whole, and reactionary movements that have as their goal to either resist change that they see occurring within society or to actively attempt to reinstate an earlier social order that they perceive as being superior to the current one. Some examples of major social movements today include the human rights movement, the women's movement, and the environmental movement.

Keywords Collective Action; Environment; Feminism; Gender Inequality; Gender Role; Gender Stratification; Glass Ceiling; Grassroots Movement; Human Rights Movement; Social Change; Social Justice

Social Movements

Overview

Social movements are a widespread form of collective behavior and feature of modern life. Collective behavior may be seen as "spontaneous and goal-oriented activity performed by a large number of people who try to develop a common solution to unclear situations" (Tesar & Doppen, 2007). As a specific form of collective action and behavior that typically operates outside established political institutions, social movements may be narrowly defined and target a specific social issue, or may be broader in scope and target fundamental issues within the society. Thus, some are small and local; others are vast and inspire global membership. The goals of social movements vary too. Some work toward policy or legal reform, while others exist to signal protest and draw attention to areas of social, cultural, economic or political life that are problematic in some way. Although social movements do not, generally, begin as formal organizations (with bureaucratic rules and regulations), they sometimes become formal organizations.

While there are many examples of people acting collectively to protest change (e.g. bread riots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) contemporary social movements tend to be organized efforts by a significant number of people to promote change. Such movements are associated with trade unionism, feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, and the civil rights movement. These movements typically organize around a particular issue (such as discrimination) or are sparked by a crisis (especially economic or military). For instance, the civil rights movement was fueled by racial segregation in the Southern US states and it used sit-ins, boycotts and nonviolent protests as ways of drawing attention to this persistent segregation (Seidman, 1997). Thus, social movements are intentional, relatively organized efforts on the part of individuals and groups to either bring about or resist social change within a society.

In order to answer questions about how social movements mobilize social and political action, and how practices of social change and political action might be blocked by counter-movements, researchers have classified social movements into different broad categories:

  • Personal transformation movements whose goal is to bring new meaning to individual's lives by changing them for the better (referred to by some as New Social Movements);
  • Social change movements that attempt to change a particular aspect of society as a whole (such as the civil rights movement); and
  • Reactionary movements that have as their goal to either resist change that they see occurring within society, or to actively attempt to reinstate an earlier social order that they perceive as being superior to the current one. Some examples of major social movements today include the human rights movement, the women's movement, and the environmental movement.

Defining Social Movements

In the first part of the twentieth century, the study of collective action in sociology focused largely forms of behavior such as revolution and riots, violence, crowds, and mass hysteria. While some scholars, drawing on Durkheim's view that these forms of collective action were irrational responses to rapid social change, argued that these kinds of collective action or behaviors (typically associated with urban contexts) were threats to the established social order, others—notably Charles Tilly (1978) —argued that such action expresses the frustrations of social groups that do not have access to formal or established channels of protest. In a classic paper, Tilly argued that there are four components of modern collective action that focuses on challenging some aspect of the established social order:

  • Groups that form to protest against something (laws, ideals, practices) are typically organized; they are not haphazard or disjointed groups, though the form of organization may vary.
  • Collective action mobilizes the resources (people, materials, communication channels) that are available to them in order to achieve their goals.
  • Groups engaged in collective action share common interests—such as a belief in the injustice of the oppression of women, minorities, or gay people.
  • Collection action typically utilizes opportunity.

Social movements then, are particular kinds of collective action that may share the four components outlined by Tilly, but they are also more than the sum of these components. For Darnovsky, Epstein, and Flacks (1995), social movements are

… collective efforts by socially and politically subordinated people to challenge the conditions and assumptions of their lives … collective action becomes a "movement" when participants refuse to accept the boundaries of established institutional rules and routinized roles (p. vii).

Contemporary Social Movement Theory

Resource Mobilization Theory

Resource Mobilization Theory (RM) captures two essential elements of and theoretical approaches to social movements in (post) industrial societies. First, North American approaches to social movements typically emphasize the ways that social movements mobilize available economic, political and communications resources to address and impact clearly identifiable political issues. In this view, social movements are in conflict with the state or agents of the state and mobilize resources to challenge it, to create social change and demand reform. For instance, the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam protest in the US might be seen as movements with clear social and political objectives; that mobilized people and ideas to challenge the establishment view; and that were rationally organized.

New Social Movement Theory

New Social Movement (NSM) theory first developed in Europe, specifically addresses movements that have emerged since the 1960s and beyond, that seem to place high importance on group or collective identity, values and lifestyles. As Canel (1997) puts it, NSM theory:

emphasizes the cultural nature of the new movements and views them as struggles for control over the production of meaning and the constitution of new collective identities. It stresses the expressive aspects of SMs and places them exclusively in the terrain of civil society, as opposed to the state (par. 3).

As Seidman (1994) observes, NSM emerged in part from as responses to changes in the economic and political structure in Europe and North America after the Second World War. Social protest in both Europe and the U.S. was predominantly organized around race, gender and sexuality, spawning protest movements in support of civil rights, women's rights and gay...

(The entire section is 3812 words.)