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Social Change Movements


Introduction to Social Movements
Social Movement Organizations
Types of Social Movement
Dynamic of Social Movements
Stages of Social Movement
Inspiring Social Change Movements

Introduction to Social Movements

There are numerous definitions of social movements. However, the core of the concept is included in Wilson’s (1971: 8) definition: ‘A social movement is a conscious, collective, organized attempt to bring about or resist large-scale change in the social order by non-institutionalized means.’

Social movements develop because there is a perceived gap between the current ethics and aspirations of people and the present reality. As Wilson said: ‘Animated by the injustices, sufferings, and anxieties they see around them, men and women in social movements reach beyond the customary resources of the social order to launch their own crusade against the evils of society. In so doing they reach beyond themselves and become new men and women.’

Because social movements are the consequences of new elements of civil society, which are not incorporated into the social order, they are always unconventional. Civil society is normally in a state of change, but social structures tend towards stability. That is why social movements almost always exist. If the discrepancy between civil society and social order is large, then social movements are strong and numerous. If the discrepancy is small, then social movements are weak and more conventional.

This ‘disenfranchisement’ leads to mobilization – first organizational, where resources are harnessed in support of the cause. Resources include: people, time, skills/expertise and funds. Then mass mobilization, where society is recruited behind the cause.

There is inevitable resistance to social change. Many do not want their vested interests or status quo threatened. There is also simple inertia.

Tactics of change: non-violence includes negotiation, direct action, events/media stunts, demonstrations, propaganda, strikes, boycotts, non-co-operation, civil disobedience, parallel structures. Violent breakaway groups undercut the movement’s legitimacy.

Actions undertaken by civil society to effect change are generally informed by strategic thought. In thinking strategically, social change activists try to identify the nature and causes of social problems and then choose specific targets that are deemed the most likely people or organizations to resolve those problems. One of the keys to a successful strategic approach is in maintaining effective communication with, and among, members of the public.

It is readily acknowledged by leading social theorists (Arendt, 1958; Habermas, 1989) that just and effective democracies require a strong and functional public sphere. The public sphere operates best where citizens, as individuals or in groups, are informed about the social, political and corporate affairs that affect their interests, and enter into public discussion about the plans, policies and activities of those in power whose decisions affect their area of concern. This on-going discussion provides the feedback and direction needed for healthy governance.

Social Movement Organizations

Organizing New Social Change Activities: The surplus energy accumulated by the society and given expression through the initiative of pioneers and their followers does not gain momentum until it becomes accepted and organized by society. The process of organization may take many different forms. It may occur by the enactment of new laws or regulations that support the activity or it may be in the form of a new system or accepted set of practices. Each development advance of the society leads to the emergence of a host of new organizations designed to support it and puts pressure on existing organizations to elevate their functioning to meet the higher demands of the new phase.

Integrating the Organization with Society The organization is the mechanism by which the surplus energy in society is harnessed, mobilized, directed and channeled to produce greater results. The organization derives energy from being integrated with the society in which it functions. The energy of society comes from its needs and aspirations. This energy pervades the social organization established to meet these needs. The more finely the organization is attuned to fulfil underlying social aspirations, the greater the energy flowing through it.

The will of society changes over time as old attitudes and goals are replaced with new ones. Organizations that adapt to these changes continue to thrive. Those that remain fixed in the past decline, become ineffective, and are eventually discarded or fade away

Types of Social Movements

David Aberle (1966) described four types of social movement including: alterative, redemptive, reformative, and revolutionary social movements, based upon two characteristics: (1) who is the movement attempting to change and (2) how much change is being advocated.

A. Alternative Social Movements are looking at a selective part of the population, and the amount of change is limited due to this. Planned Parenthood is an example of this, because it is directed toward people of childbearing age to teach about the consequences of sex.

B. Redemptive social movements also look at a selective part of the population, but they seek a radical change. Some religious sects fit here, especially the ones that recruit members to be ‘reborn’.

C. Reformative social movements are looking at everyone, but they seek a limited change. The environmental movement fits here, because they try to address everyone to help the environment in their lives (like recycling).

D. Revolutionary social movements want to change all of society. The Communist party is an example of wanting to radically change social institutions.

This is shown diagrammatically below.

Reform Movements - movements dedicated to changing some norms, usually legal ones. Examples of such a movement would include a green movement advocating a set of ecological laws, or an animal welfare organization advocating controls on animal experimentation. Some reform movements may advocate a change in custom and moral norms, for example, condemnation of pornography.

Radical Movements - movements dedicated to changing some value systems. It directs to the creation of new social order and the destruction of existing social order. Those are usually much larger in scope then 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. An animal rights organization demanding an end to all animal use would fall into this category.

Methods of Work:
Peaceful movements - opposed to using violent means. The American Civil Rights movement, Polish Solidarity movement, or Mahatma Gandhi civil disobedience movements would fall into this category. Animal welfare organizations fit into this category.
Violent movements - various armed resistance movements up to and including terrorist organizations. Examples would include the Palestinian Hezbollah, Basque Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) or Ireland’s Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) movements. Some animal liberation groups fit into this category (but not all, as some following a liberation philosophy use peaceful methods).

Old and New
Old movements - most of the 19th century movements that recruited their followers from a specific social class (only workers, only peasants, only Aristocrats, only Protestants etc.). They were usually centered on some materialistic goals like improving the living standard of the given social class.
New movements - movements which became dominant from the second half of the 20th century - like the civil rights movement, environmental movement, gay rights movement, peace movement, anti-nuclear movement, anti-globalization movement, etc. Sometimes they are known as postmodernism movements. They are usually centered on a non-materialistic goal.

Dynamic of Social Movements

Social movements 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. There must also 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. The 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. The Polish Solidarity movement, which eventually toppled the communist regimes of the Eastern Europe, developed after trade union activist Anna Walentynowicz was fired from work. Such an event is also described as a volcanic model - a social movement is often created after a large number of people realize 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 benefits after their hard work'.

Social movements can organize or mobilize in order to spread their issue. Mobilizing refers to the process by which inspirational leaders or other persuaders can get large numbers of people to join a movement or engage in a particular movement action, while organizing refers to a more sustained process whereby people come to deeply understand a movement's goals and empower themselves to continued action on behalf of those goals.

Stages of Social Movements

After the social movement is created, there are two likely phases of recruiting. 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 its fame increased, will gather people whose primary interest lie in joining the movement for 'being in it' - because it is trendy, or would look good on a résumé. People who joined in this second phase will likely be the first to leave when the movement suffers any setbacks and failures.

Eventually, the social movement will move towards a crisis. If it has achieved its intended goal, then it's called a victory crisis, as most members leave the movement assuming there is no longer any need for its continued existence. This will likely be opposed by a minority of members, for whom the existence of the very movement have become the primary goal itself, and likely the source of their income. Few social movements have survived a victory crisis, often merging with other similar movements or transforming into a tiny, caricature form of their early selves. Other type of crisis is a failure crisis, which can be seen in increasing demoralization and disenchantment of members, when they loose faith in the possibility that the primary goal of the movement can be ever achieved. Failure 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.

Blumer (1969), Mauss (1975), and Tilly (1978) have described different stages social movements often pass through. Movements emerge for a variety of reasons (see the theories below), coalesce, and generally bureaucratize. At that point, they can take a number of paths, including: finding some form of movement success, failure, co-optation of leaders, repression by larger groups (e.g., government), or even the establishment of the movement within the mainstream.

Social movements have a lifecycle of their own, and move through various stages that include:

The birth of the movement

The movement becoming a co-operative force

Develops into an institution


Falls apart

Inspiring Social Change Movements

There are a number of different social movements, which it is useful to study to gain inspiration, ideas and methodologies. This can also help you to understand social movement theories and how these work in practice.

We have selected some of the most inspiring social movements; and examined these - and their ‘ways of working’ - briefly below for the purposes of this course. Some key principles from these movements are also included below.

Gandhi and Non-Violence

Gandhi’s greatest achievement was to develop the philosophy of non-violent action, and spread this concept throughout the world. Born on October 2, 1869, Mohandas Gandhi struggled to find freedom for his Indian countrymen and to spread his belief in non-violent resistance.

Part of the inspiration Gandhi’s policy of non-violence came from the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, whose influence on Gandhi was profound. Gandhi also acknowledged his debt to the Bhagavad Gita, the teachings of Christ and to the 19th-century American writer Henry David Thoreau, especially to Thoreau's famous essay ‘Civil Disobedience’.

It was in South Africa that Gandhi first experienced racial discrimination. There he began his fight to end prejudice and achieve equality for people of all races. Using marches, letters, articles, community meetings and boycotts, he protested. These protests often led to his arrest.

After 21 years in South Africa, Gandhi returned to India to fight for Indian independence from Great Britain. In addition to the methods he used in South Africa, Gandhi would add fasting and prayer to his system of non-violence.

The six strategic steps on non-violent direct action (Principles of Nonviolent Direct Action) which Gandhi developed were as follows:

  1. Investigate: Get the facts. The complexity of society today requires patient investigation to accurately determine responsibility for a particular injustice.
  2. Negotiate: Meet with opponents and put the case to them. A solution may be worked out. If no solution is possible, let your opponents know that you intend to stand firm to establish justice, but that you are always ready to negotiate further.
  3. Educate: Keep campaign participants and supporters well informed about the issues, and spread the word to the public.
  4. Demonstrate: Picketing, holding vigils, mass rallies, and leafleting are the next steps.
  5. Resist: Non-violent resistance is the final step, to be added to the first four as a last resort. This may mean a boycott, a fast, a strike, tax resistance, a non-violent blockade or other forms of civil disobedience. Planning must be carefully done, and non-violence training is essential. When properly carried out, actions of resistance build a position of moral clarity, which will strengthen your own courage and create widespread respect for your campaign.
  6. Be patient: Meaningful change cannot be accomplished overnight. To deepen ones analysis of injustice and oppression means to become aware of how deeply entrenched are the structures, which produce them. These structures can be eliminated, but this requires a long-term commitment and strategy.

Social Change Now gives an example of Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence in action. This shows the strategic and proactive (not to mention brave!) nature of such actions: - ‘On April 6, 1930, after having marched 241 miles on foot from his village to the sea, Mohandas K. Gandhi arrived at the coastal village of Dandi, India, and gathered salt. It was a simple act, but one which was illegal under British colonial rule of India. Gandhi was openly defying the British Salt Law. Within a month, people all over India were making salt illegally.’ Many were jailed, but the ‘soul force’ of Gandhi’s campaign was too strong to be cowed and curbed.

The Gandhian Institute of Bombay stresses that Gandhi rejected the term and concept of ‘passive resistance’, because of its insufficiency and its being interpreted as a weapon of the weak. They state that non-violence is militant in character.

Gandhi disliked both the terms ‘passive resistance’ and ‘civil disobedience’ to describe his approach, and coined another term, ‘Satyagraha’ (Sanskrit, ‘truth and firmness’). Satyagraha has also been called ‘soul force’.

Gandhian principles played a part in inspiring similar movements throughout the world, removing dictators over the last 15 years in countries as far apart as the Philippines and Poland, while providing the inspiration for the American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King. In 1959, Dr. and Mrs. King spend a month in India studying Gandhi’s techniques of non-violence as guests of Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru.

The US Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States was a struggle by black Americans to gain full citizenship rights and achieve racial equality. Individuals and organizations challenged discrimination with a variety of activities, including protest marches, boycotts, and refusal to abide by segregation laws. Many believe that the movement began with the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 and ended with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, though some argue that it has not ended yet.

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States had two clear strands:

  • Reform: The Southern Christian Leadership Council. Luther King's non-violent approach.
  • Revolutionary: The Black Panthers, Malcolm X

Malcolm X rejected non-violence as a principle, but he sought co-operation with Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists who favoured aggressive non-violent protests.

Martin Luther-King studied Gandhi’s principles and methods. However, as Robert Frick (Ph.D.) noted his situation was slightly different from Gandhi's, so he needed slightly different principles.

The major principles of King’s non-violence movement were:

  • Non-violence is a way of life for courageous people.
  • Non-violence seeks to win friendship and understanding
  • Non-violence seeks to defeat injustices, not people
  • Non-violence holds that suffering for a cause can educate and transform
  • Non-violence chooses love instead of hate
  • Non-violence holds that the universe is on the side of justice and that right will prevail

Martin Luther King, and his policy of non-violent protest, was the dominant force in the civil rights movement during its decade of greatest achievement, from 1957 to 1968. His lectures and remarks stirred the concern and sparked the conscience of a generation. The movements and marches he led brought significant changes in American life. Strategic direct action became the movement’s salient strategic weapon. The tactics employed included:

  • Sit-ins
  • Freedom riders (on buses)
  • Demonstrations and Marches

There is further information on these below.

King summoned together a number of black leaders in 1957 and laid the groundwork for the organization now known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King was elected its president, and he soon began helping other communities organize their own protests against discrimination.

Dr. King’s concept of 'somebodiness' gave black and poor people a new sense of worth and dignity. His philosophy of non-violent direct action, and his strategies for rational and non-destructive social change, electrified the conscience of this nation and re-ordered its priorities. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example, went to Congress as a result of the Selma to Montgomery march. His wisdom, his words, his actions, his commitment, and his dreams for a new cast of life fired the movement. His 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech dealing with peace and racial equality is one of the most powerful speeches in American history.

The tactics employed by King’s movement included:

In 1960, four black students asked to be served at Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, reserved for white customers only. When refused they staged a sit-in protest. By 1961, 70,000 had taken part in similar sit-ins. These protests gained publicity for the plight of blacks in the South.

Freedom Riders
These were groups of black and white protesters who rode segregated buses across the Southern States. Sometimes, they were ambushed and attacked by white youths. When they reached their destination – usually a heavily segregated town, they would organize sit-ins. Freedom riders got great publicity for the Civil Rights cause.

Demonstrations and Marches
Peaceful demonstrations and marches were very powerful Civil Rights tactics. When demonstrators were attacked by white police forces e.g. Birmingham, Alabama, April 1963, (dogs, fire hoses and cattle prods used) public opinion came down on the Civil Rights protestors, rather than bigoted police chiefs.

King was recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, which increased his credibility enormously.

After 1965 the focus of the civil rights movement began to change. Martin Luther King, Jr., focused on poverty and racial inequality in the North. Younger activists criticized his interracial strategy and appeals to moral idealism. In 1968, King was assassinated by a gunman in Memphis, Tennessee.

For many, the civil rights movement ended with the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Some argue that the movement is not yet over because the goal of full equality has not been achieved. Racial problems still exist, and urban poverty among black people is a social reality.

The Environmental Movement

The environmental movement has its roots dating back into the 1890s. When it began life, it was mainly a movement composed of people from the better off sectors of society, who were concerned about issues of preservation or management of the wilderness, and whose critique of society did not generally go beyond these concerns.. It was a conservative movement.

The modern environmental movement did not develop until the 1960s when it became more of a social change movement, with radical strands. This was an era of real social change (free speech, civil rights, women’s rights, anti-war etc.), with increased concern over issues such as toxic chemicals, polluted air and water etc..

The movement was fuelled by Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring’ in 1963 (which exposed the effects of DDT - a ‘pest’ spray that killed insects, entered the food chain and caused cancer and genetic damage – and led to it being banned from the market) and by crises such as the toxic smogs in the UK and USA from the 1940s to the 1960s. It broadened its focus to become concerned not only with protecting the wilderness, but also with the impact of environmental degradation on people's daily lives.

However, the ‘Environmental History Timeline’ states that although ‘Silent Spring’ fuelled the movement, it is clear that long before Silent Spring was written (or Greenpeace activists defied whalers’ harpoons!) many thousands of ‘green crusaders’ tried to stop pollution, promote public health and preserve wilderness.

In the sixties and seventies a radical environmental movement began to emerge made up of groups concerned with the degradation of the environment not as a wilderness issue, but as a part of daily life. Recycling was promoted, and wider issues such as the dangers of chemicals in the food chain, polluted air and water etc. were promoted to persuade people that protection of the environment was an important issue. Most of the people involved in these groups were young people, influenced by the antiwar movement and by the counterculture.

At roughly the same time, some progressive labor activists were beginning to raise issues having to do with occupational safety and health, with the presence of toxic chemicals and other environmental hazards in the workplace. Both labor environmentalism and radical environmentalism (or ecology, as it was usually called) were concerned not only with protecting the wilderness, but also with the impact of environmental degradation on people's daily lives.

In the seventies both radical and mainstream environmentalism grew, but both sectors of environmentalism remained overwhelmingly white and, except for efforts by labor activists around occupational safety and health, overwhelmingly composed of middle and upper-middle class people, especially students and professionals.

In the late seventies and early eighties a new grassroots environmental movement began to emerge involving constituencies previously distant from environmentalism: lower middle class and working class whites, colored people and rural communities. The movement then began to ‘take off’, with rapid growth of the number of environmental organizations and issues covered, and a wider variety of approaches (from practical/service delivery to radical advocacy, with a broad base of mainstream/populist support).

The range of environmental issues that organizations campaign about is now vast (covering issues such as water, air, forests, wetlands, animals and habitats, anti-war and anti-nuclear, and wastes).

The environmental movement has grown into a powerful force, which gathers more political and popular support with the emergence of each new environmental crisis. Also, unlike most social change movements, it benefits from extremely concrete benchmarks (things like tons of CO2 emissions prevented; acres of rainforest and coral reef preserved; species saved from extinction etc.). However, in terms of the ultimate conservation objective of building a civilization that can thrive on this planet without destroying it, then the movement could be said to be failing.

Watch these YouTube videos!

A powerful video depicting social change through resistance. If they did it, so can you!

Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech

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