Social Movements Essays

By
Eric Brahm

July 2006

Overview

Social movements have become a prominent part of politics around the world. Although they may have better chances for success in democratic systems, globalization provides opportunities for groups living under dictatorships to still put pressure on their government.[1] The democratization of communication media has both facilitated individuals finding compatriots with similar interests, as well as allowing movements to spread their message and generate pressure for action. The Internet, in particular, has become a powerful mobilizing tool.[2] Groups utilizing online direct action use such tactics as cyberpetitions, virtual protests, virtual sit-ins, virtual blockades, gripe sites, email bombs, web hacks, and computer viruses. Movements often use the same tactics as they use offline, like petitions, not due to their effectiveness, but because they are familiar.[3]

Scholars have also been interested in examining what factors make movements more successful.[4] "Success" is difficult to define as movement activists often have no consensus on this themselves. Looking at 53 American groups that challenged the status quo between 1800 and 1945, Gamson's The Strategy of Social Protest found that groups were more successful if they were single-issue oriented, used selective incentives, used violence and/or disruptive tactics, and their organization was more bureaucratized, centralized, and unfactionalized. In addition, he finds that exogenous political crises can have significant effects, for good or ill. Recent studies have also turned to consider how the broader environment affects the prospects for social movement success.[5]

Some social movement scholars have decried the discipline's obsession with being scientific at the expense of producing research that is of use to social movement activists. They are interested in "insight into the practices and experiences of organizers, into how collective and personal commitment can be sustained, into relationships between day to day activism and ‘long-range vision', into problems of intra-movement contention, organizational rigidity and democracy, etc."[6] Movement activists are interested in insights from the academic community, but often do not find anything useful.[7]

Much attention has focused on framing and social movements.[8] In particular, many have looked at how social movements can effectively frame issues to bring about change.[9] Injustice frames have been particularly common.[10] In some movements, such as religious, self-help, or identity-based movements, the injustice dimension may be less significant.[11] "Only a handful of collective action frames have been identified as being sufficiently broad in interpretive scope, inclusivity, flexibility, and cultural resonance to function as master frames,"[12] namely rights frames,[13] choice frames,[14] injustice frames,[15] environmental justice frames,[16] culturally pluralist frames,[17] sexual terrorism frames,[18] oppositional frames,[19] hegemonic frames,[20] and a "return to Democracy" frame.[21] The movement literature has also examined how movement activists utilize "boundary framing"[22] or "adversarial framing."[23] Research also suggests that social movements' identification of problems and causes restricts the range of solutions and strategies deemed possible by the group.[24] Social movements appear to have little influence over the media organizations which cover themselves or their assertions.[25]

The growing attention to framing has been accompanied by a number of critiques, some focusing on specific conceptual issues with movement framing[26] and others concerning the theoretical relationship between framing and other perspectives.[27] In addition, "[a]lthough the literature is replete with references to and descriptions of counterframing tactics[28] and framing contests,[29] these studies fail to shed much light on the factors that tend to shape the outcomes of such contests, other than stating or implying the tautology that those who won employed the most resonant frames. One thing we do know, however, is that these framing contests occur within complex, multi-organizational---and sometimes multi-institutional---arenas,[30] that movement actors often take this fact into account,[31] and that social movement framing activity and the extent of its resonance are affected by the cultural and political environment, including the framings/counterframings of institutional elites.[32]"[33]

Scholars have also paid relatively little attention to diffusion issues.[34] Finally, although different framing processes appear to be significant for movements' attaining their goals,[35] systematic analysis of the actual contribution of framing processes has been rare.[36]


[1]Keck and Sikkink. Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. (Ithaca: Cornell Univ Press, 1998).; Schulz, Markus. 1998. Collective Action Across Borders: Opportunity Structures, Network Capacities, and Communicative Praxis in the Age of Advanced Globalization. Sociological Perspectives; 1998, Vol. 41 Issue 3, p587-616.

[2] Rolfe, Brett. 2005. Building an Electronic Repertoire of Contention. Social Movement Studies; May, Vol. 4 Issue 1, p65-74.

[3] Meikle, G. (2002) Future Active: Media Activism and the Internet (New York: Routledge).

[4] Marco G. Giugni 1998. "WAS IT WORTH THE EFFORT? The Outcomes and Consequences of Social Movements"Annual Review of Sociology Vol. 24: 371-393.

[5] Marco G. Giugni 1998. "WAS IT WORTH THE EFFORT? The Outcomes and Consequences of Social Movements" Annual Review of Sociology Vol. 24: 379.

[6] Flacks, R. (2004) ‘Knowledge for What? Thoughts on the State of Social Movement Studies', in J. Goodwin and J. Jasper (eds) Rethinking Social Movements: Structure, Culture, and Emotion, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 146-147. See also DOUGLAS BEVINGTON & CHRIS DIXON "Movement-relevant Theory: Rethinking Social Movement Scholarship and Activism" Social Movement Studies Vol. 4, No. 3, 185--208, December 2005.

[7] DOUGLAS BEVINGTON & CHRIS DIXON "Movement-relevant Theory: Rethinking Social Movement Scholarship and Activism" Social Movement Studies Vol. 4, No. 3, 185--208, December 2005.

[8] Snow DA, Benford RD. 1988. Ideology, frame resonance, and participant mobilization. Int.Soc. Mov. Res. 1:197--218.; Snow DA, Benford RD. 1992. Master frames and cycles of protest. See Morris & Mueller 1992, pp. 133--55.; Snow DA, Rochford EB, Worden SK, Benford RD. 1986. Frame alignment processes, micromobilzation, and movement participation. Am. Sociol. Rev. 51:464--81.

[9] Robert D. Benford & David A. Snow, "FRAMING PROCESSES AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS: An Overview and Assessment" Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 26: 611-639.

[10] Gamson WA. 1992b. The social psychology of collective action. See Morris & Mueller, p. 68, original emphasis.

[11] Robert D. Benford & David A. Snow, "FRAMING PROCESSES AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS: An Overview and Assessment" Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 26: 615.

[12] Robert D. Benford & David A. Snow, "FRAMING PROCESSES AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS: An Overview and Assessment" Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 26: 619.

[13] Valocchi S. 1996. The emergence of the integrationist ideology in the civil rights movement. Soc. Probl. 43:116--30.; Williams GI,Williams RH. 1995. ‘All we want is equality': rhetorical framing in the fathers' rights movement. In Images of Issues, ed. J Best, pp. 191--212. New York: de Gruyter. 2nd ed.

[14] Davies S. 1999. From moral duty to cultural rights: a case study of political framing in education. Sociol. Educ. 72:1--21.

[15] Carroll WK, Ratner RS. 1996a. Master frames and counter-hegemony: political sensibilities in contemporary social movements. Can. Rev. Sociol. Anthropol. 33:407--35.; Carroll WK, Ratner RS. 1996b. Master framing and cross-movement networking in contemporary social movements. Sociol. Q. 37:601--25. Gamson WA, Fireman B, Rytina S. 1982. Encounters with Unjust Authority. Homewood, IL: Dorsey.

[16] Cable S, Shriver T. 1995. Production and extrapolation of meaning in the environmental justice movement. Soc. Spectr. 15:419--42.; CËÂÂÂÂÂÃ?Â? apek SM. 1993. The ‘environmental justice' frame: a conceptual discussion and application. Soc. Probl. 40:5--24.

[17] Berbrier M. 1998. ‘Half the battle': cultural resonance, framing processes, and ethnic affectations in contemporary white separatists rhetoric. Soc. Probl. 45:431--50.; Davies S. 1999. From moral duty to cultural rights: a case study of political framing in education. Sociol. Educ. 72:1--21.

[18] Jenness V, Broad KL. 1994. Antiviolence activism and the (in)visibility of gender in the gay/lesbian and women's movements. Gend. Soc. 8:402--23.

[19] Blum-Kulka S, Liebes T. 1993. Frame ambiguities: Intifada narrativization of the experience by Israeli soldiers. In Framing the Intifada: People and Media, ed. AA Cohen, G Wolsfeld, pp. 27--52. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.; Coy PG & Woehrle LM. 1996. Constructing identity and oppositional knowledge: the framing practices of peace movement organizations during the Persian Gulf War. Sociol. Spectr. 16:287--327.

[20] Blum-Kulka S, Liebes T. 1993. Frame ambiguities: Intifada narrativization of the experience by Israeli soldiers. In Framing the Intifada: People and Media, ed. AA Cohen, G Wolsfeld, pp. 27--52. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

[21] Noonan RK. 1995. Women against the state: political opportunities and collective action frames in Chile's transition to democracy. Sociol. Forum 10:81--111.

[22] Hunt SA, Benford RD, SnowDA. 1994. Identity fields: framing processes and the social construction of movement identities. Larana E, Johnston H, Gusfield, J., eds. New Social Movements: From Ideology to Identity. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press. p. 194; see also Silver I. 1997. Constructing ‘social change' through philanthropy: boundary framing and the articulation of vocabularies of motives for social movement participation. Sociol. Inq. 67:488--503.

[23] GamsonWA. 1995. Constructing social protest. In Johnston H, Klandermans B, eds. 1995. Social Movements and Culture. Minneapolis: Univ. Minn. Press, pp. 85--106.

[24] Gerhards J, Rucht D. 1992. Mesomobilization: organizing and framing in two protest campaigns in West Germany. Am. J. Sociol. 98:555--95.; Nepstad SE. 1997. The process of cognitive liberation: cultural synapses, links, and frame contradictions in the U.S.-Central America peace movement. Sociol. Inq. 67:470--87.

[25] Entman RM &Rojecki A. 1993. Freezing out the public: elite and media freming of the U.S. anti-nuclear movement. Polit. Commun. 10:155--73.; McCarthy JD, Smith J, Zald MN. 1996. Assessing public media, electoral, and governmental agendas. See McAdam et al 1996, pp. 291--311.; Baylor T. 1996. Media Framing of Movement protest: the case of American Indian protest. Soc. Sci. J. 33:241--55.; Gamson WA, Modigliani A. 1989. Media discourse and public opinion on nuclear power. a constructionist approach. Am. J. Soc. 95:1--37.; Klandermans B, Goslinga S. 1996. Media discourse, movement publicity, and the generation of collective action frames: theoretical and empirical exercises in meaning construction. In McAdam D, McCarthy JD, Zald MN, eds.1996. Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Framing. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, pp. 312--37.

[26] Benford RD. 1997. An insider's critique of the social movement framing perspective. Sociol. Inq. 67:409--30.; Hart S. 1996. The cultural dimension of social movements: a theoretical reassessment and literature review. Sociol. Rel. 57:87--100.; Jasper JM. 1997. The Art of Moral Protest. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press.; Oliver P, Johnston H. 2000. What a good idea! Frames and ideologies in social movement research. Mobilization 5.; Sherkat DE. 1998. What's in a frame? Toward an integrated social psychology of social movements. Presented at Int. Sociol. Assoc. Conf., Montreal, Quebec.; SteinbergMW. 1998. Tilting the frame: consideration on collective action framing from a discursive turn. Theory Soc. 27:845--64.; Williams RH, Benford RD. 2000. Two faces of collective frames: a theoretical consideration. Curr. Perspect Soc. Theory 20:127--51.

[27] Goodwin J, Jasper JM. 1999. Caught in a winding, snarling vine: the structural bias of political process theory. Sociol. Forum 14:27--54.; Meyer DS. 1999. Tending the vineyard: cultivating political process research. Sociol. Forum 14:79--92.

[28] Benford RD, Hunt SA. 1994. Social movement counterframing and reframing: repairing and sustaining collective identity claims. Presented at Midwest Sociol. Soc. Conf., St. Louis.; Freudenberg WR, Gramling R. 1994. Midrange theory and cutting edge sociology: a call for cumulation. Environ. Technol. Soc. 76:3--6.; Zuo J. & Benford RD. 1995. Mobilization processes and the 1989 Chinese democracy movement. Sociol. Q. 36:131--56.

[29] Coles RL. 1998. Peaceniks and warmongers' framing fracas on the home front: dominant and opposition discourse interaction during the Persian Gulf crisis. Sociol. Q. 39:369--91.; Davies S. 1999. From moral duty to cultural rights: a case study of political framing in education. Sociol. Educ. 72:1--21.; Krogman NT. 1996. Frame disputes in environmental controversies: the case of wetland regulations in Louisiana. Sociol. Spectr. 16:371--400.; Neuman WL. 1998. Negotiated meanings and state transformation: the trust issue in the progressive era. Soc. Probl. 45:315--35.; Williams RH. 1995. Constructing the public good: social movements and cultural resources. Soc. Probl. 42:124--44.

[30] McAdam D. 1996. The framing function of movement tactics: strategic dramaturgy in the American civil rights movement. In McAdam D, McCarthy JD, Zald MN, eds.1996. Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Framing. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press. pp. 338--55.; Meyer DS. 1995. Framing national security: elite public discourse on nuclear weapons during the cold war. Polit. Commun. 12:173--92.

[31] Ellingson S. 1995. Understanding the dialectic of discourse and collective action: public debate and rioting in antebellum Cincinnati. Am. J. Sociol. 101:100--44.; Evans JH. 1997. Multi-organizational fields and socialmovement organization frame content: the religious pro-choice movement. Sociol. Inq. 67:451--69.

[32] McAdam D. 1996. The framing function of movement tactics: strategic dramaturgy in the American civil rights movement. In McAdam D, McCarthy JD, Zald MN, eds.1996. Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Framing. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press. pp. 338--55.

[33] See RobertD. Benford &David A. Snow, "FRAMING PROCESSES AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS: An Overview and Assessment" Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 26: 626.

[34] For exceptions, see Jenness V. 1995. Social movement growth, domain expansion, and framing processes: the gay/lesbian movement and violence against gays and lesbians as a social problem. Soc. Probl. 42:145--70.; Jenness V, Broad KL. 1994. Antiviolence activism and the (in)visibility of gender in the gay/lesbian and women's movements. Gend. Soc. 8:402--23.; David Strang& Sarah A. Soule 1998 "DIFFUSION IN ORGANIZATIONS AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS: From Hybrid Corn to Poison Pills" Annual Review of Sociology Vol. 24: 265-290.

[35] (Giugni 1998, Capek 1993, Diani 1996, Reese 1996, Walsh et al 1993, Zdravomyslova 1996, Zuo & Benford 1995)

[36] For an exception, seeCress DM, Snow DA. 2000. The outcomes of homeless mobilization: the influence of organization, disruption, political mediation, and framing. Am. J. Sociol. 105:1063--1104.


Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "Social Movements." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2006 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/social-movements>.


Additional Resources

In sociology, the terms social movement and collective behavior are closely related.  Both terms address both the way we behave in large groups as well as the end result we have in mind.  However, they are slightly different in regards to when and how they occur.

According to Brinkerhoff, a social movement is defined as “an ongoing, goal-directed effort to fundamentally change social institutions, attitudes, or ways of life.”  In essence, it is when a group of people band together and promote their cause in the hopes of making a change in the way society works.  For example, the abolitionist movement was a social movement because white and black people worked together to outlaw slavery on the basis that all men are created equal regardless of skin color or origin.  Abolitionists did this through public speaking and protesting until they achieved their goal and the slaves were freed.  Another example of a social movement which is more recent is the ongoing fight in the LGBT community to legalize gay marriage in all fifty states.  Citizens, politicians, and celebrities from both within the community and outside of it have taken to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in addition to political action in order to gain more supporters and push their cause further towards becoming reality.

Collective behavior, as defined by Brinkerhoff, is “spontaneous action by groups in situations where cultural rules for behavior are vague, inadequate, or debated.”  In emergency situations, individual expectations may become unclear or undefined.  Therefore, people’s actions in such panics are deemed neither conformity nor deviance.  An example of collective behavior may be found in a “burning theater” scenario.  If a crowd of people were trying to escape from a burning theater, running, which is normally considered chaotic behavior, would now be viewed as a rational solution.  The Columbine shooting provides us with many examples of collective behavior.  As students and staff caught on to what was occurring, most traditional roles were forgotten and plenty of heroes emerged to protect their classmates from the shooters; students helped other students escape, people warned each other about what was happening and worked together to reach safety, teachers crowded students into their rooms and barricaded their classroom doors shut.  In one classroom, the door was blocked off by piling the bodies of the deceased in front of it.  This horrific measure is gruesome in retrospect, but given the situation, was justifiable by those involved.

Sometimes collective behavior can evolve into a social movement.  For example, the Boston Tea Party was one of the events that contributed to the beginning of the American Revolutionary War.  What started as an act of protest against the English turned into a conflict with the goal of overthrowing colonial rule.

The difference between a social movement and collective behavior is the way in which it is carried out.  Social movements, being goal-driven, are planned out in advance and are relatively structured.  Everyone involved has a particular goal that they strive to achieve, and have expectations of themselves of how they are to achieve it and what they are expected to contribute.  Collective behavior on the other hand is spontaneous, and is therefore unstructured and unplanned.  Collective behavior often just happens, whereas social movements are deliberate.  The interaction of these concepts influences group behavior every day.

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