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Social movement theory

Social movement theory is an interdisciplinary study within the social sciences that generally seeks to explain why social mobilization occurs, the forms under which it manifests, as well as potential social, cultural, and political consequences.

Collective behavior

Sociologists during the early and middle-1900s thought that movements were random occurrences of individuals who were trying to emotionally react to situations outside their control. Or, as the "mass society" hypothesis suggested, movement participants were those who were not fully integrated into society. These psychologically-based theories have largely been rejected by present-day sociologists and political scientists, although many still make a case for the importance (although not centrality) of emotions. See the work of Gustav LeBon, Herbert Blumer, William Kornhauser, and Neil Smelser.

Relative deprivation

People are driven into movements out of a sense of deprivation or inequality, particularly (1) in relation to others or (2) in relation to their expectations. In the first view, participants see others who have more power, economic resources, or status, and thus try to acquire these same things for themselves. In the second view, people are most likely to rebel when a consistently improving situation (especially an improving economy) stops and makes a turn for the worse. At this point, people will join movements because their expectations will have outgrown their actual material situation (also called the "J-Curve theory"). See the work of James Davies, Ted Gurr, and Denton Morrison.

Resource mobilization

Social movement need organizations first and foremost. Organizations can acquire and then deploy resources to achieve their well-defined goals. Some versions of this theory see movements operate similar to a capitalist enterprises that make efficient use of available resources. Scholars have suggested a typology of five types of resources:

  1. Material (money and physical capital);
  2. Moral (solidarity, support for the movement's goals);
  3. Social-Organizational (organizational strategies, social networks, bloc recruitment);
  4. Human (volunteers, staff, leaders);
  5. Cultural (prior activist experience, understanding of the issues, collective action know-how)

Political opportunity/Political process

Certain political contexts should be conducive (or representative) for potential social movement activity. These climates may [dis]favor specific social movements or general social movement activity; the climate may be signaled to potential activists and/or structurally allowing for the possibility of social movement activity (matters of legality); and the political opportunities may be realized through political concessions, social movement participation, or social movement organizational founding. Opportunities may include:

  1. increased access to political decision making power
  2. instability in the alignment of ruling elites (or conflict between elites)
  3. access to elite allies (who can then help a movement in its struggle)
  4. declining capacity and propensity of the state to repress dissent


Certain claims activists make on behalf of their social movement "resonate" with audiences including media, elites, sympathetic allies, and potential recruits. Successful frames draw upon shared cultural understandings (e.g. rights, morality).

New Social Movements

This European-influenced group of theories argue that movements today are categorically different than in the past. Instead of labor movements engaged in class conflict, present-day movements (such as anti-war, environmental, civil rights, feminist, etc.) are engaged in social and political conflict (see Alain Touraine). The motivations for movement participants is a form of post-material politics and newly-created identities, particularly those from the "new middle class". Also, see the work of Ronald Inglehart, Jurgen Habermas, Alberto Melucci, and Steve Buechler.


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