Social Movement Theory: New Social Movement Theory
This article focuses on new social movement theory. It provides an analysis of the history, applications, and strengths and weaknesses of the theory. An overview of the origins and main principles of new social movement theory is included as well as a discussion of new social movement theory as applied to social movement formation. In particular, the article analyzes the environmental movement from the perspective of new social movement theory. The main criticisms of new social movement theory are also explored.
Keywords Collective Action; Mass Society Theory; New Middle Class; New Social Movement Theory; New Social Movements; Postindustrial Society; Relative Deprivation Theory; Resource Mobilization Theory; Social Movement Theory; Society; Sociology; Structural-Strain Theory; Value-Added Theory
New Social Movement Theory
The following is an analysis of new social movement theory. New social movement theory argues that contemporary social movements are performing collective action in markedly different ways than traditional social movements. Sociologists use new social movement theory to analyze the role of new social movements in contemporary, postindustrial society. Understanding the history, applications, and strengths and weaknesses of new social movement theory is vital background for all those interested in the sociology of social movements and collective action. This article explains new social movement theory in three parts:
• An overview of the main principles and history of new social movement theory.
• A description of how new social movement theory is applied to analyze and understand social movements such as the environmental movement.
• A discussion of the main criticisms of new social movement theory.
The Main Principles of New Social Movement Theory
Sociologists use new social movement theory to explain the role of social movements in postindustrial societies. Social movements refer to a voluntary organization of individuals who act in concert to make or block changes. Social movements are power-oriented groups rather than participation-oriented movements, meaning that the group actions of social movements are not necessarily of primary benefit to individual members but instead serve the groups' larger goals. Coordinated group actions are undertaken to make changes in the larger sociopolitical context. Social movements tend to be most successful in open, democratic societies in which social mobility and social change are accepted concepts. Norm-oriented social movements are more common than value-oriented social movements. Norm-oriented movements refer to groups that attempt changes within the system whereas value-oriented movements refer to groups that attempt to change the basic goals of a system (Morrison, 1971).
New social movement theory refers to a new paradigm of social movement activity and collective action. Contemporary social movements are characterized by strategies, goals, and membership distinct from tradition social movements. New social movement theorists and scholars explain new social movements as arising from numerous channels in society. For example, new social movements are seen as expressions of civil society's desire for structural change and arise from the growing importance and ubiquity of information in our increasingly knowledge-based society. New social movements are also seen as an inevitable outcome of changing social, economic, and political relationships in the postindustrial society. New social movements are movements for change based on the desire for structural reform rather than revolution, do not attempt to dismantle the existing political and economic systems and are characterized by their self-limiting radicalism. New social movement helps to explain the changing forms of political organization and the shifting relations between public and private spheres in postindustrial societies (Lentin, 1999).
New social movement theory dominates current social movement research and allows for the study of macro external elements and micro internal elements (Fuchs, 2006). New social movements, which began to emerge in the 1950s, include social movements that arise from the conflicts in postindustrial revolution society and economy. New social movements are a loosely connected group of collective actions that have displaced the traditional social movement of proletarian revolution (Buechler, 1993).
New social movement theory argues that new social movements, such as antiwar, environmental, civil rights and feminist movements, are distinct from other traditional social movements such as labor movements. Traditional social movements tend to be engaged in class conflict while new social movements are engaged in political and social conflict. Traditional social movements tend to focus on economic concerns and inequalities. Members of new social movements are most often from a segment of society referred to as the new middle class. New social movements encourage members to engage in lifestyle changes, tend to have supporters rather than members and are characterized as loosely organized networks. These movements differ from protest groups or movements as they often desire to see change on a global scale as opposed to the single issues taken on by protest groups.
The History of New Social Movement Theory
New social movement theory belongs to the larger body of interdisciplinary theory called social movement theory. Social movement theory, which began in the late nineteenth century, refers to the study of social mobilization including its social, cultural, and political manifestations and consequences. Social movement theory proposes that social movements are, in many instances, created through the use and manipulation of frames and information. Social movement scholarship is often motivated by a desire for social change and may integrate scholarship and activism. In the case of new social movement theory, social movement theorists study how groups manipulate information, identity, and structure to achieve goals. The interdisciplinary history of social movement theory includes six main areas of study:
• New social movement theory;
• Value-added theory;
• Structural-strain theory;
• Relative deprivation theory;
• Resource mobilization theory;
• Mass society theory (Benford & Snow, 2000).
New social movements, such as antiwar, environmental, civil rights, and feminist movements, began to emerge in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s, social movement theorists began to recognize the relationship between new social movements, structural transformation, and identity politics. New social movements were found to be promoting and facilitating new forms of collective action and behavior. Beginning in the 1960s, two new areas of social movement theory developed. New social movement theory developed in Europe and resource mobilization theory developed in North America. New social movement theory developed in the 1960s in response to traditional social movement theory that considered social movements to be irrational and the result of personal grievances and discontent (Fuchs, 2006). During this time and into the 1990s, social scientific studies of collective action experienced a paradigm shift from a focus on mass behavior in the early twentieth century to political process and new social movements (Edelman, 2001).
New social movement theory developed in response to traditional analysis of social movements with its theorists abandoning the traditional social-psychological analysis of social movements typical of relative deprivation theory and mass society theory. Traditional social-psychological theories of social movements focused on what attracted individuals to social movements including factors like personality traits, grievances, disillusionment, and ideology. These traditional social-psychological theories of social movements also considered participation in social movements to be irrational and unconventional behavior.
In the 1960s and 1970s, new social movement theorists used the example of the many social movements happening at the time to challenge the assumptions of the traditional theories of social movements. For example, new social movement theorists, through their studies of the anti-war, environmental, civil rights and feminist movements, found that social movements focus on identity-construction, structural change, and information control to effect change. In the 1960s, new social movement theory eclipsed the traditional theories of social movements, namely relative deprivation theory and mass society theory, as the main European social theory explaining the workings of social movements. New social movement theory broke with traditional theories of social movements and radically challenged perceived truths about how social movements operate (Klandermans, 1984).
Important contributors to new social movement theory include Claus Offe, Alberto Melucci, Alain Touraine, and Jurgen Habermas. These prominent European new social movement theorists use examples of social movements from their European nations of origin, Germany, Italian, and France, to build and support their theories about new social...
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