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Martin Luther King - March on Washington

American Civil Rights Movement is one of the most famous social movements of the 20th century. Here, Martin Luther King is giving his "I Have a Dream" speech, in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Social movements are a type of group action. They are large informal groupings of individuals and/or organizations focused on specific political or social issues, in other words, on carrying out, resisting or undoing a social change.

Modern Western social movements became possible through education(the wider dissemination of literature), and increased mobility of labour due to the industrialisation and urbanisation of 19th century societies. It is sometimes argued that the freedom of expression, education and relative economic independence prevalent in the modern Western culture is responsible for the unprecedented number and scope of various contemporary social movements. However others point out that many of the major social movements of the last hundred years grew up, like the Mau Mau in Kenya, to oppose Western colonialism.

Political science and sociology have developed a variety of theories and empirical research on social movements. For example, some research in political science highlights the relation between popular movements and the formation of new political parties as well as discussing the function of social movements in relation to agenda setting and influence on politics.


Charles Tilly defines social movements as a series of contentious performances, displays and campaigns by which ordinary people made collective claims on others [Tilly, 2004]. For Tilly, social movements are a major vehicle for ordinary people's participation in public politics [Tilly, 2004:3]. He argues that there are three major elements to a social movement [Tilly, 2004]:

  1. campaigns: a sustained, organized public effort making collective claims on target authorities;
  2. social movement repertoire: employment of combinations from among the following forms of political action: creation of special-purpose associations and coalitions, public meetings, solemn processions, vigils, rallies, demonstrations, petition drives, statements to and in public media, and pamphleteering; and
  3. WUNC displays: participants' concerted public representation of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitments on the part of themselves and/or their constituencies.

Sidney Tarrow defines [Tarrow, 1994] a social movement as collective challenges [to elites, authorities, other groups or cultural codes] by people with common purposes and solidarity in sustained interactions with elites, opponents and authorities. He specifically distinguishes social movements from political parties and interest groups.


The term "social movements" was introduced in 1850 by the German Sociologist Lorenz von Stein in his book "History of the French Social Movement from 1789 to the Present (1850).

Charles Tilly claims that the social movement did not exist before the late eighteenth century: although each elements like campaigns, social movement repertoire and WUNC displays has a long history, only recently have they been combined together into a proper social movement. Social movement was invented in England and North America during the first decades of the nineteenth century and has since then spread across the globe.[Tilly, 2004]

Tilly argues that the early growth of social movements was connected to broad economic and political changes including parliamentarization, capitalization, and proletarianization. [Tilly, 2004] Political movements that evolved in late 18th century, like those connected to the French Revolution and Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791 are among the first documented social movements, although Tilly notes that the British abolitionist movement has "some claim" to be the first social movement (becoming one between the sugar boycott of 1791 and the second great petition drive of 1806). The labor movement and socialist movement of the late 19th century are seen as the prototypical social movements, leading to the formation of communist and social democratic parties and organisations. From 1815, Britain after victory in the Napoleonic Wars entered a period of social upheaval. Similar tendencies were seen in other countries as pressure for reform continued, for example in Russia with the Russian Revolution of 1905 and of 1917, resulting in the collapse of the Russian State around the end of the First World War.

In 1945, Britain after victory in the Second World War entered a period of radical reform and change. In the 1970s, women's rights, peace, civil rights and environmental movements emerged, often dubbed New Social Movements. They led inter alia to the formation of green parties. Some find in the end of the 1990s the emergence of a new global social movement, the anti-globalization movement.

Key processes

Several key processes lie behind the history of social movements. The process of urbanization, which created large cities, facilitated social interaction between scores of people. It was in cities, where people of similar goals could find each other, gather and organise, that those early social movements first appeared. Similarly, the process of industrialisation which gathered large masses of workers in the same region was responsible for the fact that many of those early social movements addressed matters important to that social class. Many other social movements were created at universities, where the process of mass education brought many people together. With the development of communication technologies, creation and activities of social movements became easier - from printed pamphlets circulating in the 18th century coffeehouses to newspapers and Internet, all those tools became important factors in the growth of the social movements. Finally, the spread of democracy and political rights like the freedom of speech made the creation and functioning of social movements much easier.

Social movements have been and continue to be closely connected with democratic political systems. Occasionally social movements have been involved in democratizing nations, but more often they have flourished after democratization. Over the past 200 years, they have become part of a popular and global expression of dissent.[Tilly, 2004]

Types of social movement

Sociologists distinguish between several types of social movement:

  • scope
    • reform movements - movements dedicated to changing some norms, usually legal ones. Examples of such a movement would include a trade union with a goal of increasing workers rights, a green movement advocating a set of ecological laws, or a movement supporting introduction of a capital punishment or right to abortion. Some reform movements may advocate a change in custom and moral norms, for example, condemnation of pornography or proliferation of some religion.
    • radical movement - movements dedicated to changing some value systems. Those are usually much larger in scope than the reform movements, Examples would include the American Civil Rights Movement which demanded full civil rights and equality under the law to all Americans, regardless of race, the Polish Solidarity (Solidarność) movement which demanded the transformation of communist political and economy system into democracy and capitalism or the South African shack dwellers' movement Abahlali baseMjondolo which demands the full inclusion of shack dwellers into the life if cities.
  • type of change
    • innovation movement - movements which want to introduce new norms, values, etc. The singularitarianism movement advocating deliberate action to effect and ensure the safety of the technological singularity is an example of an innovation movement.
    • conservative movement - movements which want to preserve existing norms, values, etc. The anti-machines 19th century Luddites movement or the modern movement opposing the spread of the genetically modified food are examples of conservative movements.
  • target audience
    • group-focus movements - focused on affecting groups or society in general, for example, advocating the change of the political system. Most of such groups eventually transform into or join a political party.
    • individual-focused movements - focused on affecting individuals. Most religious movements would fall under this category. Those movements rarely transform into political parties.
  • methods of work
  • old and new
  • range
    • global movements - social movements with global objectives and goals. Movements such as the World Social Forum seek to change society at a global level, advocating the imposition of restrictions on free trade and liberal capitalism.
    • local movements - most of the social movements have a local scope. They are based on local or regional objectives, such as protecting a specific natural area, lobbying for the lowering of tolls in a certain motorway, etc.
    • multi-level movements - social movements which recognize the complexity of governance in the 21. Century and aim to have an impact at the local, regional, national and international levels. Movements such as The Coalition for the Re-formation of the Euro-American Democratic Order (CRAEDO) are actively involved in a unique experiment attempting to re-imagine the notions of democracy, prosperity and diversity for the 21. Century.

Dynamics of social movements

Social movements are not eternal. They have a life cycle: they are created, they grow, they achieve successes or failures and eventually, they dissolve and cease to exist.

They are more likely to evolve in the time and place which is friendly to the social movements: hence their evident symbiosis with the 19th century proliferation of ideas like individual rights, freedom of speech and civil disobedience. Social movements occur in liberal and and authorian societies but in different forms. But there must always be polarizing differences between groups of people: in case of 'old movements', they were the poverty and wealth gaps. In case of the 'new movements', they are more likely to be the differences in customs, ethics and values. Finally, the birth of a social movement needs what sociologist Neil Smelser calls an initiating event: a particular, individual event that will begin a chain reaction of events in the given society leading to the creation of a social movement. For example, American Civil Rights movement grew on the reaction to black women, Rosa Parks, riding in the whites-only section of the bus (although it is important to note that Rosa Parks was not acting alone or spontaneously -- typically activist leaders lay the groundwork behind the scenes of interventions designed to spark a movement). Polish Solidarity movement, which eventually toppled the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, developed after trade union activist Anna Walentynowicz was fired from work. The South African shack dwellers' movement Abahlali baseMjondolo grew out of a road blockade in response to the sudden selling off of a small piece of land promised for housing to a developer. Such an event is also described as a volcanic model - a social movement is often created after a large number of people realise that there are others sharing the same value and desire for a particular social change. Thus, one of the main difficulties facing the emerging social movement is spreading the very knowledge that it exists. Second is overcoming the free rider problem - convincing people to join it, instead of following the mentality 'why should I trouble myself when others can do it and I can just reap the benefits after their hard work'.


Incident of Rosa Parks who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to make room for white people sparked the American Civil Rights Movement

Many social movements are created around some charismatic leader, i.e. one possessing charismatic authority. After the social movement is created, there are two likely phases of recruitment. The first phase will gather the people deeply interested in the primary goal and ideal of the movement. The second phase, which will usually come after the given movement had some successes and is trendy; it would look good on a résumé. People who join in this second phase will likely be the first to leave when the movement suffers any setbacks and failures.

Eventually, the social crisis can be encouraged by outside elements, like opposition from government or other movements. However, many movements had survived a failure crisis, being revived by some hardcore activists even after several decades.

Social movement theories

Sociologists have developed several theories related to social movements [Kendall, 2005]. Chronologically they include:

See also


Further reading

  • Marco G. Giugni, How Social Movements Matter, University of Minnesota Press, 1999, ISBN 0-8166-2914-5
  • Rod Bantjes, Social Movements in a Global Context, CSPI, 2007, ISBN 978-1-55130-324-6
  • Michael Barker, Conform or Reform? Social Movements and the Mass Media, Fifth-Estate-Online - International Journal of Radical Mass Media Criticism. February 2007. [1]

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