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.
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 such elements as campaigns, social movement repertoire and WUNC displays has a long history, only recently had they been combined together into a proper social movement. The "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, market capitalization, and proletarianization. [Tilly, 2004] Political movements that evolved in late 18th century, like those connected to the French Revolution and the 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 post-war period, women's rights, gay rights, peace, civil rights, anti-nuclear and environmental movements emerged, often dubbed the New Social Movements. They led inter alia to the formation of green parties and organisations influenced by the new left. Some find in the end of the 1990s the emergence of a new global social movement, the anti-globalization movement. Some social movement scholars posit that with the rapid pace of globalization, the potential for the emergence of new type of social movement is latent -- they make the analogy to national movements of the past to describe what has been termed a global citizens movement.
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 organize, that those early social movements first appeared. Similarly, the process of industrialization 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 continued 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]
Sociologists distinguish between several types of social movement:
A difficulty for scholarship of movements is that for most of them, neither insiders to a movement nor outsiders apply consistent labels or even descriptive phrases. Unless there is a single leader who does that, or a formal system of membership agreements, activists will typically use diverse labels and descriptive phrases that require scholars to discern when they are referring to the same or similar ideas, declare similar goals, adopt similar programs of action, and use similar methods. There can be great differences in the way that is done, to recognize who is and who is not a member or an allied group:
It is often outsiders rather than insiders that apply the identifying labels for a movement, which the insiders then may or may not adopt and use to self-identify. For example, the label for the levellers political movement in 17th century England was applied to them by their antagonists, as a term of disparagement. Yet admirers of the movement and its aims later came to use the term, and it is the term by which they are known to history.
Caution must always be exercised in any discussion of amorphous phenomena such as movements to distinguish between the views of insiders and outsiders, supporters and antagonists, each of whom may have their own purposes and agendas in characterization or mischaracterization of it.
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 authoritarian 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 woman, 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). The 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 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 the benefits after their hard work'.
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.