Menu Close

Introduction to Social Movements

social movement psir

In the modern world, social movements are important drivers of social change. Social movements are distinctive in that they are led purposefully and strategically by the people who join them, even though not all social change results from them—technological advancement, climate change, natural disasters, and conflicts also are other causes. Generally, social movements challenge the status quo and are mobilised primarily outside of recognised political and institutional institutions. However, all movements, large and small, have one thing in common: they advance history, sometimes in profound ways. 

In the words of Herbert Blumer, “Whatever be its type, a social movement signifies either a collective effort to transform some given area of established social relations, or else, a large unguided change involving, however unwittingly, large numbers of participants.”

“Whatever be its type, a social movement signifies either a collective effort to transform some given area of established social relations, or else, a large unguided change involving, however unwittingly, large numbers of participants.”

Herbert Blumer

The word “movement” was adopted to describe specific types of collective action, which was in keeping with the growing popularity of political democracy. It was a much more positive term than the derogatory term “mob.”

According to Raymond Williams, the term “mob” suggested gullibility, changeability, herd-prejudice, shabby taste, and habit. According to this data, the masses represented a constant threat to civilization. Contrarily, the term “movement” connoted autonomy, self-generated and independent action, control and leadership, a system of organisation, and an obedient following as opposed to an unruly surging multitude. It had the air of respectability, authority, and self-assurance.

Characteristics of ‘Social Movement’

Charles Tilly’s observed that the basic analytical dimensions of a social movement are: (1) the groups and organizations that make up a collective action; (2) the events that are part of the action repertoire; and (3) the ideas that unify the groups and guide their protests.

A social phenomenon can be said to be a social movement if it has the following three features.

1. A social movement is a planned group effort to advance change in any way and by any means, including violence and unlawful activity. Therefore, it is evident that social movements are distinct from historical movements, tendencies, or trends. Understanding how unconscious or irrational elements affect human action may be essential to solving the puzzle of how to interpret and explain social movement. 

2. Although this may range from a loose, informal, or partial level of organisation to the highly institutionalised and bureaucratized movement and the corporate group, a social movement must have some minimal level of structure. 

3. The resolve to change and organisational purpose of a social movement are based on the followers’ or members’ normative allegiance to the movement’s goals or beliefs as well as their active engagement. 


Social movements can be characterized into these types: 

1. Religious movement, millenarism and sect 

2. Movements of rural and urban discontent 

3. Nativist, nationalist and race movements 

4. Imperialism and pan-movements 

5. Class and occupational interest movements 

6. Moral protest and reformist movements 

7. Revolutionary, resistance and counter-revolutionary movements. 

8. Intellectual movement 

9. Youth movement 

10. Women’s movement

Neil Smelser in his Theory of Collective Behavior has talked about ‘norm-oriented movements’ (for example, social reform movements) and ‘value-oriented movements’ (for example, religious and revolutionary movements). He made a further distinction between norm- and value-oriented movements and ‘panic responses’, ‘craze responses’ and ‘hostile outbursts’. 

However, social movements are generally multi-dimensional rather than one-dimensional. In other words, individuals may care about moral principles, social norms, organisational structures, as well as material circumstances and resources, all at once. 

For instance, Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement in the USA included a battle for racial equality as well as elements of a moral crusade, reform movement, and religious movement. Additionally, every type typically incorporates a variety of organisational forms. In full-fledged political parties, pressure groups, labour unions, conspiratorial societies, or youth, women’s, or cultural organisations, for instance, nationalist, class, reformist, and revolutionary movements may manifest themselves.

Understanding Social Movement

Marx argued in “The Communist Manifesto” that prolonged suffering would make members of disadvantaged groups realise they have “nothing to lose but their chains” and should take action to improve their living and working situations. Tocqueville thought that when there is a ray of hope at the end of the dark tunnel, oppression only leads to resistance.

The phrase “revolution of rising expectations” was frequently used in the 1960s to explain both the emergence of insurgencies and revolutionary movements as well as the appeal of communism in many developing nations. James C. Davies gave J-curve hypothesis, a formal model of the links between increasing expectations, levels of satisfaction, and revolutionary upheavals. According to his theory, a revolution is likely to occur when there has been a long period of rising expectations and a corresponding rise in satisfaction, followed by a slump. Additionally, Davies contended that the circumstances surrounding the 1917 Russian Revolution followed the pattern suggested by the J-curve hypothesis. Russians had benefited from several decades of fast industrial expansion and more political liberation up to 1905, when they were hit by a catastrophic economic crisis and a return to political restrictions.

Relative deprivation is the apparent gap between what people believe they should accomplish and what they actually have accomplished. According to one hypothesis, black Americans’ hopes were heightened by the civil rights movement’s early victories in the 1950s, but their subsequent unhappiness with the movement’s glacial pace of change during the 1960s was blamed for riots in US cities. Applying this concept to the civil unrest there, multiple studies revealed that riots took place in cities where black people’s living conditions had improved the most.

Resource mobilisation theorists John McCarthy and Mayer Zald focus on organisational and economic factors in social movement mobilisation. They noticed an increase in activism during a period of unmatched economic prosperity. Access to resources is a major problem for social movements, according to resource mobilisation theory. They assert that, so to speak, in modern society everyone has a complaint. Rich societies are rife with conflicting interests, unmet expectations, complaints, demands, and claims. There are interests and claims for any party to pursue. Social movements were no longer considered to be illogical, emotionally-driven, or disorganised. First-time consideration was given to external social movement factors, such as backing from other organisations or the government.

The term symbolic interactionism was created by Herbert Blumer to represent its focus on social interaction and meaning creation. The emphasis of symbolic interactionism is on the processual, emergent, and significant aspects of social life, which arose from attention to the minor, routine activities of social life. According to Blumer, social movements begin with the slow coalescence of crowds, first through the development of agitation and unhappiness among a group, which serves as the foundation for shared awareness. After that, a “we consciousness” emerges to give the group that is consolidating meaning. An “esprit de corps” forms to offer group cohesion and a sense of belonging that becomes a part of the members’ self-identity, in Blumer’s words. Next, the group’s morale grows as a result of beliefs in the propriety and justness of the requests. This foundation allows an organisation to form, which more precisely defines the group’s demands and strategies.

The phrase “contentious politics” first used in 1975. It entailed demonstrating against a policy on the streets. According to Charles Tilly, contentious politics are “interactions in which actors make claims affecting the interests of others, in which governments appear either as targets, claimants, or third parties.” Another related phrase “new social movements” refers to movements that are aimed at changing the status quo and are headed by people of colour, women, antiwar activists, and environmentalists. The Black Lives Matter movement and the occupy movement, which emerged in 2011 in New York, have joined these groups. The anti-globalization movement, which made its global debut in protests in Seattle in 1999, has joined.

Social Movement and Institutions

The broad working definition of social movement is connected to and somewhat overlaps with other type of notions of group action, such as “political party,” “pressure group,” “trade union,” and “voluntary association.” 

A political party is an alliance or coalition that exists to compete for political influence and power. Some movements pursue political power through the employment of political parties as their main vehicle, but they also take part in pressure group, educational, and cultural activism. The ‘vanguardism’ notion outlined by Lenin illustrates how this definitely applies to the Communist movements of Western European nations. However, other groups view political party activity as either completely unprofitable or irrelevant to their goals. Because of this, movements like millenarian and anarchist ones, for instance, hardly ever grow any linkages to political parties.

The crucial thing to remember is that numerous moral crusades, intellectual and cultural movements, protest movements, and religious movements are sui generis.

Similar to this, many movements participate in pressure group activity and may even formalise into associations with rational goals that only engage in pressure group activity. 

But it’s obvious that accepting the pressure group position severely limits the movement’s potential for action. Recognition of pressure group activity norms and processes entails acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the government, the constitution, the legal standards controlling contract enforcement and negotiation, among other things. Movements that are in direct opposition to the political order that is now in place, such as revolutionary and resistance movements, movements for the rights of the oppressed, or movements of the disenfranchised, feel excluded from the political order and as a result, the system of negotiations. Rather than engage with the ‘devil’ such movements prefer to refuse to pay taxes, can riot in the streets or be driven by their bitter antipathy to the regime to a shooting rebellion, an assassination, sabotage or guerrilla resistance.


Social movements have a multifaceted and colourful history. The concept of movement is intimately intertwined with the concept of political and social culture. Movements’ vocabulary, concepts, and aesthetic choices invariably reflect broader cultural shifts and are frequently seen to be significant in and of themselves as agents of cultural change. Therefore, social movement has significant expressive and aesthetic components that indicate both cultural individuality and assimilationist tendencies in society at large. Understanding social movement can help us understand the complexities of a nation and its aspirations.


Related Posts

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

You cannot copy content of this page