Frameworks for Social Change Movements


Three Stages
Six Stage Campaign Planning Framework
Five Stage Revolutionary Movement Framework
Eight Stage Reform Social Movement' Framework
Five Major Stages of the Movement


These frameworks can help us to understand how social change movements develop over time, and enable us to conceptualise our day-to-day work. Understanding the stages of development can ensure that we are not disheartened or de-motivated at certain stages. It also helps our movement to build effective strategies - based on our stage of development and the need to work towards the next stage.

Three Stages

The great social reformer, John Stuart Mill provided this simple analysis of the stages of social movements.

""Every great movement has to experience three stages:

  • Ridicule
  • Discussion
  • Adoption."

Six Stage Campaign Planning Framework

(Martin Luther King, Jr.)

For assisting the group to think ahead about what they will need to prepare for as their campaign builds. In this case, the group begins by framing their issue, then goes into the following stages:

  • Gather information
  • Do education and leadership development
  • Negotiate with target
  • Increase motivation and commitment for the struggle ahead
  • Direct action
  • Create new relationship with opponent, which reflects the new power reality

This movement theory has become folklore over the years and is oft repeated – for example Sharman (2006). It is a neat and simple model, but does not tell students of social change very much about the change process. Analysts of the progress of social movements have developed other useful models, which are less well-known to the animal welfare movement but which would be usefully to study. These were summarised by World Animal Net for this purpose, and are included below.

Five Stage Revolutionary Movement Framework

(George Lakey)

Working with developmental sociology, this framework assumes that for revolutionary change a movement (or coalition of movements) needs to work on many levels at once and in a cyclical way. For simplicity, the five stages are presented in sequence that shows how each preceding stage builds capacity for the next stage. This framework assumes that polarisation strongly increases in society as the movement develops.

The five stages are:

  • Cultural preparation
  • Organization-building
  • Confrontation
  • Mass non-cooperation
  • Parallel institutions that can carry out the legitimate functions formerly carried out by the Old Order (economic, maintaining infrastructure, decision-making, etc.

Created by George Lakey, described in ‘Globalise Liberation’, edited by David Solnit.

Eight Stage Reform Social Movement Framework

Movement Action Plan, or MAP, by Bill Moyer

Draws from social movements in liberal democratic societies, which have brought about important changes while often opening the way to new movements, as the civil rights movement opened political space for the women’s movement, gay rights movement, and many other movements.

This framework emphasises the intimate relationship between movement development and public opinion and minimises polarisation; the regime typically reacts to very heavy build-up of momentum by granting a reform in order to stave off polarisation that might be dangerous to it. The framework gives direct action a prominent place and also explains the letdown, which typically occurs in successful social movements after the mass mobilisations force a political shift, which is largely hidden from activist view.

Created by Bill Moyer and described in his last book, ‘Doing Democracy’, MAP is a useful framework, especially in understanding how to steer an organisation through the ups and downs of a cause.

Stage One: Business as Usual
Only a relatively few people care about the issue at this point, and they form small groups to support each other. Their objective: to get people thinking. They do their best to spread the word, often using education and broad awareness.

Stage Two: Failure of Established Channels
A major reason why most of the public does not inform itself and act on an injustice is that people think (or hope) that established structures are taking care of it. In this stage the small groups challenge the established channels. They often do research and investigations. They may sue governmental agencies, or use any opportunities to appeal that exist in the regulations. Usually the activists lose, at this stage, but it is very important that they take these steps. This step is essential for change, since large-scale participation will not happen as long as people believe in the established channels.

Stage Three: Ripening Conditions/Education and Organizing
Now the pace picks up considerably, when many people who earlier did not want to listen become interested. The movement creates many new groups who work on this issue, largely through education. They hold seminars, meetings and news conferences. Much of the content of what they say is refuting power holders’ claims: This stage of constant outreach, through education and forming new groups is essential for the movement to take off.

Stage Four: Takeoff
This stage is usually initiated by a trigger event; a dramatic happening that puts a spotlight on the problem, sparking wide public attention and concern. Sometimes the movement creates the trigger event. In 1963 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., focussed on Birmingham, Alabama, in a direct action campaign that filled the jails and highlighted the evils of segregation with vivid pictures of police dogs and fire hoses. The Birmingham campaign triggered a national and international response, which resulted in the passage of major civil rights legislation.

Sometimes the trigger event just happens, like the near meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in 1979. Three Mile Island (TMI) precipitated massive non-violent protest and propelled many new people into activity.

Because of the high media profile in this stage, many people associate social change with stage four. Often one or more large coalitions form at this time. Celebrities join the movement; the power holders are shocked by the new opposition and publicity and try to discredit the movement.

The objectives of stage four are to build and coordinate a new grassroots movement and to win over public opinion. Part of winning the public is connecting the demands of the movement with widely held values (like freedom, fairness, or democracy).

Stage Five: Perception of Failure
There’s an old phrase: ‘Two steps forward, one step back.’ Stage five is the step back, in the perception of many activists. Numbers are down at demonstrations, the media pay less attention, and the policy changes have not yet been won. The power holders’ official line is, ‘The movement failed.’ The media focuses on splits in the movement and especially on activities, which offend public sensibilities.

It is the excitement and lack of planning on stage four that create the sense of failure in stage five. By believing that success is at hand, activists can become disillusioned and despairing when they realise they aren’t there yet. Hoping the recapture the excitement and confidence of stage four, some groups create Rambo-style actions of anger and violence or become a permanent counterculture sect that is isolated and ineffective.

Fortunately, a great many activists do not become discouraged, or if they do, accept it as part of the process. Smart strategists lay out strategic, achievable and measurable objectives, and smart movements celebrate them as they achieve them along the way. The power holders may try to crush the movement through repression at this point, even if they have felt constrained before by a civil liberties tradition.

Stage Six: Winning Over the Majority
In this stage the movement transforms. Protest in crisis gives way to long-term struggle with power holders. The goal is to win majority opinion. Many new groups, which include people who previously were not active, are formed. The new groups do grassroots education and action. The issue shows up in electoral campaigns, and some candidates get elected on this platform. Broader coalitions become possible, and mainstream institutions expand their own programs to include the issue.

Until stage six, much of the movement’s energy was focussed on opposition. In stage six, sixty to seventy-five percent of the public agrees on a need for change. There is now a vast audience ready to think about alternatives to existing policies, and the smart movement offers some. Mainstream institutions can be helpful at this point. One example comes from the anti-Vietnam War movement: universities responded to stage four with peace studies courses and departments, and during stage six many of the scholars involved began thinking about alternatives to the war system.

The power holders are not passive. They try to discredit and disrupt the movement, insist there is no positive alternative, promote bogus reforms, and sometimes create crisis events to scare the public. The power holders themselves also become more split in this period.

The dangers of this stage are: national organisations and staff may dominate the movement and reduce grassroots energy; reformers may compromise too much or try to deliver the movement into the hands of politicians; a belief may spread that the movement is failing because it has not yet succeeded.

Stage Seven: Achieving Alternatives
Stages seven and eight could be called managing success. They are tricky, however, because the game isn’t over until it’s over. In stage seven, the goals are to recognise the movement’s success (not as easy as it sounds!), then empower activists and their organisations to act effectively, to achieve a major objective or demand, and to achieve that demand within the framework of a paradigm shift - a new model or way of thinking about the issue.

Goals or demands need to be consistent with a different way of looking at things: a new framework or paradigm. If a civil rights movement simply demands some changes of personnel in government, industry, or schools, it will get more women, people of colour or lesbians and gays occupying functions that continue business as usual, including policies which oppress women, people of colour, and gays. Social movements are usually much more creative than that, and project new visions of how things can be.

Stage seven is a long process, not an event. The struggle shifts in this stage from opposing present policies to creating dialogue about which alternatives to adopt. The movement will have differences within itself about alternatives, and different groups will market different alternatives to the public. The central power holders will try their last gambits, including study commissions and bogus alternatives, and then be forced to change their policies, have their policies defeated, or lose office.

Stage Eight: Consolidation and Moving On
The movement leaders need to protect and extend the successes achieved. The movement also becomes midwife to other social movements. The long-term focus of stage eight is to achieve a paradigm shift, to change the cultural framework.

The paradigm shift the civil rights movement initiated is still a major part of the U.S. agenda thirty-five years later: diversity as a positive value. While the movement is consolidating its gains and dealing with backlash from those who never were persuaded, the power holders are adapting to new policies and conditions and often claiming the movement’s success as their own. At the same time, they may fail to carry out agreements, fail to pass sufficient new legislation, or weaken the impact of new structures by appointing people who are resistant to the change. A major pitfall for activists in stage eight, therefore, is neglecting to make sure of institutional follow-through.

In this stage, the movement not only can celebrate the specific changes it has gained, but also can notice and celebrate the larger ripple effect it has in other aspects of society and even in other societies. The U.S. movement against nuclear movement was inspired by the mass occupations of construction sites by German environmentalists. On this shrinking planet, we get to learn from and inspire each other internationally.

Five Major Stages of the Movement

This model was adapted from one created by Kim Stallwood, specifically for the animal welfare movement. It was adapted by Janice Cox for World Animal Net and Pioneer Training.

Five Broad Stages Movement Experiences and Tactics Likely Reactions
1. Acceptance Building (broad/softer education)
  • Movement 'Pioneers'
  • Humane Education
  • Media Work
  • Tap into other burning social issues/social change movements
Usually little reaction ('ignore' phase, at best 'ridicule' phase!)
2. Awareness/consensus building
  • 'Pioneers' attract followers
  • Movement capacity-building and training
  • Investigations and research to expose problem
  • Media work and events
  • Heavy campaigning/mass mobilization
  • Using charismatic individuals and leaders to motivate and mobilize
  • Political initiatives/lobbying
  • Building consensus (see '100 monkeys' theory)
  • Involve/negoatiate with other interest groups: politicians, civil servants, industry, public, media, scientists/academics, other social change movements, etc.
  • Conferences/platforms
  • Need for alternative models (e.g. alternatives to experiments, vegetarian foods, human circuses, more humane systems etc.)
  • Use economic arguments/Create favourable economic conditions for change
  • Humane education
  • Beware token or 'bogus' consultation!
  • Use trigger events!
  • Growing interests and awareness amongst sympathetic audiences
  • Other interest groups pick up: politicians, civil servants, industry, public, media, scientists/academics, etc.
  • Industry 'education'/misinformation
  • Industry discrediting movement
  • Industry lobbying
  • Industry using economic arguments (effect on competitiveness, trade, national industry, etc.)
  • Government lethargy/inaction (or worse still, joining industry)
  • Political initiatives/lobbying
  • Government committees
  • Beware token or 'bogus' consultation!
  • Beware 'bogus' reforms! Or worse still--institutionalizing cruelty/abuse.
  • Humane education
  • Media Work
  • This is the beginning of the 'adoption' phase.
  • Legislation drafted and passed
  • Structures/systems put into place
  • Media loses interest
  • Industry vying for key consultative role (and using allies)
  • Industry vying for 'self-regulation'
4. Action to embed legislation
  • Investigations and exposés
  • Media
  • Legal cases
  • Humane education
  • Industry fighting back (but beginning to be on defensive)
  • Government action begins to favour movement, rather than industry
 5. Functioning system of protection
  • Investigations/inspections (cross-checking, keep on toes)
  • Propogate through media
  • Propogate through schools/universities and the family
  • Celebrate success and spread to other social change movements! 
  • Industry tries to reverse
  • Industry relocates to less controlled/low costs environments
  • Government adopts cause and tries to spread
 Based on model by Kim Stallwood  Observations from Janice Cox