Collective Behavior, Social Movements, and Social Change

Social Movements

Definition of Social Movements

A social movement involves individuals who join together in some organized fashion in order to promote or resist particular social changes.

A social movement is a social group with leadership, organization, and an ideological commitment to promote or resist social change. Like collective behavior, social movements are linked to patterns in the broader culture and society. Both social movements and collective behavior may cause controversy because they tend to go against the status quo, or the current state of society.

Social movement studies in the social sciences gained interest in the 1960s and 1970s when many people took to the streets in protests against racial discrimination and economic inequality, the Vietnam War, unequal pay and opportunities for women, mistreatment of gays and lesbians, and other large-scale social issues. Social movement scholarship has since become one of the most important areas of study in collective behavior.

Social movements occur for many reasons, but four things need to be in place for a collective reaction to grow into a social movement:

  • A societal problem must be so widely recognized and experienced that many people become angry and frustrated enough to organize against it.
  • A social movement requires shared beliefs among enough people.
  • A precipitating factor, such as a death, an accident, a scandal, an election, or another event that impacts society, occurs and prompts people into swift action.
  • People must feel safe enough to speak out and call for social change. Generally, as a group becomes larger, more people feel safe joining it.

For example, a social movement arose in the United States in 2016 against the perceived threat of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a proposed oil-supply pipeline. The movement began among the Standing Rock Sioux, a Native American tribe. Many members of this tribe live on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North and South Dakota. They argued that the pipeline threatened their water supply and their lands. Thousands of people across Canada and the United States who believed that the Dakota Access Pipeline would cause an environmental disaster came to the Standing Rock Reservation in support of the Sioux. This action was precipitated by a legal decision ending the ban on constructing the pipeline. As more people began to join the Standing Rock Sioux in protest of the pipeline, the crowd made people feel safe joining in or voicing support for this social movement. This in turn helped the movement gather more momentum. Part of what makes people feel safe and willing to join a large social movement is the possibility of remaining relatively anonymous. When movements grow, people perceive that others share their beliefs, and they are less likely to worry about being the target of law enforcement, counterprotesters, or others who may oppose the movement. Likewise, when people observe the growth of a social movement, they may also be more likely to believe that by joining in they can have an impact.

Mass media also play a key role in social protests. This has long been the case with newspapers, magazines, and radio, all of which played a role in numerous social movements of the past. In 1898 a French newspaper published a letter titled "J'accuse" ("I accuse") by the French novelist Émile Zola (1840–1902). The letter was written in support of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish Frenchman and former army captain unjustly convicted of spying. Zola's accusations touched on widespread anti-Semitism in France and corruption in the French military. The letter launched a social movement that reverberated throughout French society. The impact of mass media on social movements increased throughout the 20th century, particularly with the development of television broadcasting. In the 21st century the role of mass media in social movements is extremely important. The phenomenon of an event or idea going viral—being shared on a huge scale on social media platforms—can be an extremely influential factor in the growth of a social movement. Members of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest used platforms such as Facebook to spread their message, concerns, and ideas to many segments of American society.
Social movements are a type of organized collective behavior based on a particular ideology. They seek to create or resist social change and are sustained over a fairly long time period. In 2016, a social movement arose in response to plans for the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil-supply pipeline that runs through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
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Theories of Social Movements

Mass society theory, relative deprivation theory, and resource mobilization theory are attempts to understand how social movements form and develop.

Researchers propose a range of theories to explain why and how social movements develop and what kinds of people are attracted to social movements. Mass society theory suggests that people join a movement not because of the movement's ideas but rather to satisfy a psychological need to belong to something larger than themselves. In doing so, people often come to believe in the movement's cause. This theory suggests that individuals who feel isolated are more inclined to join a social movement. Mass society theory is sometimes used to try to understand why movements based on extreme beliefs attract individuals. It arose in an effort to understand the appeal of fascist movements in the first part of the 20th century. It has also been applied to understanding the emergence of white power movements in the United States, Canada, and Europe. One criticism of mass society theory is that many—likely most—socially isolated individuals (people who perceive themselves as isolated or do not feel a sense of connection to others) do not join social movements. Rather, social movements depend on social ties and social networks.

Relative deprivation theory focuses on the actions of oppressed groups who seek rights or opportunities already enjoyed by others in the society. It attempts to analyze how and why social groups who have less privilege and access to power in a society choose to take action in order to achieve social change. When a group comes to feel that it is deprived of rights, benefits, or opportunities that others in a society enjoy, it is more likely to become frustrated. This prompts members of the group to turn to collective action, organized protest, and the development of a social movement. People's increased feelings of deprivation, relative to others in a society, spur them to this action. An illustration of this theory is the push for same-sex marriage equality that began in the United States in the late 20th century. Analysis of this movement using the lens of relative deprivation theory would argue that same-sex couples, deprived of the right to marry as well as associated benefits related to taxes, health care, and other issues, came to feel sufficiently frustrated over this imbalance. This pushed them to take collective action and develop a social movement calling for equal rights for same-sex couples.

Resource mobilization theory looks at how social movements develop in response to the resources available to a group and the opportunities that exist for social change. This theory focuses on the practical matters that help or hinder social movements' actions. It analyzes how social movements use and gain access to resources such as membership, money, expertise, social networks, and technology. Successful social movements are able to effectively use resources to promote the acceptance of their goals. They are also able to use strategies that successfully harness political trends or opportunities. One criticism of this theory is that many successful social movements have been led by people who have little social power and few resources. This theory might be used to understand the growth and success of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). This group was founded in 1980 by Candace Lightner, after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver. She began to work to try to change laws in her home state of California and then joined together with other mothers who had lost children to drunk drivers. Eventually, MADD developed a larger membership, more access to lawmakers, more access to the press, greater fundraising capabilities, and other such resources. Through these efforts, MADD influenced a broad social movement against the practice of driving while intoxicated.

Movements and Countermovements

Social movements are frequently followed by countermovements, which arise in response to changes in the cultural, political, or economic landscape.

Social movements involve organized calls for social change. They are usually opposed by groups in society who disapprove of the proposed changes. A countermovement is a social movement that forms in opposition to another social movement. The larger and more consequential a social movement is, the more likely a countermovement will develop. For instance, in the United States a social movement to support respect and equality for gays and lesbians arose in the 20th century. By the early 21st century, this movement began to succeed in its goal of legalizing same-sex marriage. Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage within the state in 2004, with several other states following suit. In 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all 50 states must recognize same-sex marriages. As the movement toward accepting and legalizing same-sex marriage progressed, groups around the country who felt this right was an affront to their religious beliefs began a countermovement to restrict the rights of LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, or asexual) individuals. For example, so-called "bathroom bills" have been introduced in various states including North Carolina and Texas, seeking to deny transgender individuals access to public restrooms corresponding to their gender identity.

The struggles between movement and countermovement can last decades. Both movements and countermovements change in response to each other's gains and setbacks, as well as in response to external events. This can be seen in the history of racial oppression and civil rights in the United States. Starting in the early years of the nation, the abolition movement fought to outlaw slavery throughout the country. Events such as the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which contained multiple provisions suppressing the rights of both free and enslaved African Americans and harsh penalties for people who helped slaves to escape, gave added energy to the abolitionist cause but also prompted some in the movement to shift their focus away from opposing slavery per se and toward preserving opportunities for free individuals who escaped from slavery. Meanwhile these changes, as well as events such as Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831 and John Brown's efforts to launch a slave revolt in 1859, gave energy to the countermovement opposing abolition. The clash of these movements culminated in the Civil War (1861–65). Throughout the over 150 years since the war, advocates of racial equality and advocates of white supremacy continued to fight numerous and varied battles. For instance, the civil rights movement grew after World War II and won important victories with legal decisions outlawing school segregation and passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. As the countermovement protested implementation of these laws, the civil rights movement pushed for further gains, such as affirmative action in employment and higher education admissions. Both movement and countermovement were also influenced by other trends in society, such as the rise of live television news coverage, the hippie movement, protests against the Vietnam War, and economic fallout from the 1973 OPEC oil crisis.