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MHS Library | Sociology

Social Movement

Social movement, loosely organized but sustained campaign in support of a social goal, typically either the implementation or the prevention of a change in society’s structure or values. Although social movements differ in size, they are all essentially collective. That is, they result from the more or less spontaneous coming together of people whose relationships are not defined by rules and procedures but who merely share a common outlook on society.
Collective behaviour in crowds, panics, and elementary forms (milling, etc.) are of brief duration or episodic and are guided largely by impulse. When short-lived impulses give way to long-term aims, and when sustained association takes the place of situational groupings of people, the result is a social movement. (source)

Types of social movements

We know that social movements can occur on the local, national, or even global stage. Are there other patterns or classifications that can help us understand them? Sociologist David Aberle (1966) addresses this question, developing categories that distinguish among social movements based on what they want to change and how much change they want. Reform movements seek to change something specific about the social structure. Examples include anti-nuclear groups, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC). Revolutionary movements seek to completely change every aspect of society. These would include Cuban 26th of July Movement (under Fidel Castro), the 1960s counterculture movement, as well as anarchist collectives. Redemptive movements are “meaning seeking,” and their goal is to provoke inner change or spiritual growth in individuals. Organizations pushing these movements might include Alcoholics Anynymous, New Age, or Christian fundamentalist groups. Alternative movements are focused on self-improvement and limited, specific changes to individual beliefs and behaviour. These include groups like the Slow Food movement, Planned Parenthood, and barefoot jogging advocates. Resistance movements seek to prevent or undo change to the social structure. The Ku Klux Klan and pro-life movements fall into this category. (Source: Introduction to sociology, Open textbook)

Relative Deprivation and Resource Mobilisation

Relative Deprivation
When members of a society become dissatisfied or frustrated with their social, economic, and political situation, they yearn for changes. Social scientists have long noted that the actual conditions that people live under may not be at fault, but people's perceptions of their conditions are. Relative deprivation refers to the negative perception that differences exist between wants and actualities. In other words, people may not actually be deprived when they believe they are. A relatively deprived group is disgruntled because they feel less entitled or privileged than a particular reference group. For example, a middle‐class family may feel relatively deprived when they compare their house to that of their upper‐class physician.

For social discontent to translate into social movement, members of the society must feel that they deserve, or have a right to, more wealth, power, or status than they have. The dissatisfied group must also conclude that it cannot attain its goals via conventional methods, whether or not this is the case. The group will organize into a social movement only if it feels that collective action will help its cause.

The relative‐deprivation theory takes criticism from a couple of different angles. First, some sociologists note that feelings of deprivation do not necessarily prompt people into acting. Nor must people feel deprived before acting. Moreover, this theory does not address why perceptions of personal or group deprivation cause some people to reform society, and why other perceptions do not. (source)

Resource Mobilsation

Resource mobilisation deals with how social movements mobilise resources: political pull, mass media, personnel, money, and so forth. A particular movement's effectiveness and success largely depends on how well it uses its resources.

Members of a social movement normally follow a charismatic leader, who mobilises people for a cause. Charisma can fade, and many social movements collapse when this happens. Other movements, such as bureaucratic ones, manage to last, however, usually because they are highly organised.

Norms of behaviour develop as people become part of a social movement. The movement may require its members to dress in special ways, boycott certain products, pay dues, attend marches or rallies, recruit new members, and use new language. Concerning the latter, recent social movements have given rise to new terms like Hispanic American, African American, feminists, and psychiatrically disabled.

For a social movement to succeed, leaders must heighten their followers' awareness of oppression. To stimulate their social movement in the 1960s and 1970s, feminists convinced women that they were being discriminated against in various arenas, including work, school, and home.

Unlike the relative‐deprivation theory, the resource‐mobilisation theory emphasises the strategic problems faced by social movements. Specifically, any movement designed to stimulate fundamental changes will surely face resistance to its activities. Critics feel the theory does not adequately discuss the issue of how opposition influences the actions and direction of social movements. (source)

Introduction to social movements and social change

In January 2011, Egypt erupted in protests against the stifling rule of longtime President Hosni Mubarak. The protests were sparked in part by the revolution in Tunisia, and, in turn, they inspired demonstrations throughout the Middle East in Libya, Syria, and beyond. This wave of protest movements travelled across national borders and seemed to spread like wildfire. There have been countless causes and factors in play in these protests and revolutions, but many have noted the internet-savvy youth of these countries. Some believe that the adoption of social technology—from Facebook pages to cell phone cameras—that helped to organize and document the movement contributed directly to the wave of protests called Arab Spring. The combination of deep unrest and disruptive technologies meant these social movements were ready to rise up and seek change.

What do Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the anti-globalization movement, and the Tea Party have in common? Not much, you might think. But although they may be left-wing or right-wing, radical or conservative, highly organized or very diffused, they are all examples of social movements.

Social movements are purposeful, organized groups striving to work toward a common goal. These groups might be attempting to create change (Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring), to resist change (anti-globalization movement), or to provide a political voice to those otherwise disenfranchised (civil rights movements). Social movements create social change.

Consider the effect of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This disaster exemplifies how a change in the environment, coupled with the use of technology to fix that change, combined with anti-oil sentiment in social movements and social institutions, led to changes in offshore oil drilling policies. Subsequently, in an effort to support the Gulf Coast’s rebuilding efforts, changes occurred. From grassroots marketing campaigns that promote consumption of local seafood to municipal governments needing to coordinate with federal cleanups, organizations develop and shift to meet the changing needs of the society. Just as we saw with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, social movements have, throughout history, influenced societal shifts. Sociology looks at these moments through the lenses of three major perspectives.

The functionalist perspective looks at the big picture, focusing on the way that all aspects of society are integral to the continued health and viability of the whole. A functionalist might focus on why social movements develop, why they continue to exist, and what social purposes they serve. On one hand, social movements emerge when there is a dysfunction in the relationship between systems. The union movement developed in the 19th century when the economy no longer functioned to distribute wealth and resources in a manner that provided adequate sustenance for workers and their families. On the other hand, when studying social movements themselves, functionalists observe that movements must change their goals as initial aims are met or they risk dissolution. Several organizations associated with the anti-polio industry folded after the creation of an effective vaccine that made the disease virtually disappear. Can you think of another social movement whose goals were met? What about one whose goals have changed over time?

The critical perspective focuses on the creation and reproduction of inequality. Someone applying the conflict perspective would likely be interested in how social movements are generated through systematic inequality, and how social change is constant, speedy, and unavoidable. In fact, the conflict that this perspective sees as inherent in social relations drives social change. For example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded in the United States in 1908. Partly created in response to the horrific lynchings occurring in the southern United States, the organization fought to secure the constitutional rights guaranteed in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which established an end to slavery, equal protection under the law, and universal male suffrage (NAACP 2011). While those goals have been achieved, the organization remains active today, continuing to fight against inequalities in civil rights and to remedy discriminatory practices.

The symbolic interaction perspective studies the day-to-day interaction of social movements, the meanings individuals attach to involvement in such movements, and the individual experience of social change. An interactionist studying social movements might address social movement norms and tactics as well as individual motivations. For example, social movements might be generated through a feeling of deprivation or discontent, but people might actually join social movements for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the cause. They might want to feel important, or they know someone in the movement they want to support, or they just want to be a part of something. Have you ever been motivated to show up for a rally or sign a petition because your friends invited you? Would you have been as likely to get involved otherwise?  (Source: Introduction to Sociology: first Canadian edition)

Theoretical perspectives on social movements

And we know that, sooner or later, things will start to change. Not just for us, but for humanity as a whole. This system that we all live in may continue to dominate us for a couple more centuries - who knows how long - but we believe in the transformative power that humans possess. Things weren’t always how they are today and things won’t always be this way in the future. Things change, they transform. Empires are born and they eventually die. Political and economic systems eventually fade away. (An interview with Gerardo Cerdas by Beverly Bell, 2014)

Mass hysteria and moral panic

What is the difference between mass hysteria and moral panic?

Technically, mass hysteria involves physical effects, such as changes in behavior or physical well-being. Moral panic, on the other hand, is the term used to describe a state of panic induced in a large number of people who feel that a societal norm is being seriously threatened.

Types of collective behaviour (including mass hysteria and moral panic)

Mass hysteria and social panic: definitions, causes, examples.

Hysteria is a diagnostic label applied to a state of mind, one of unmanageable fear or emotional excesses. People who are "hysterical" often lose self-control due to the overwhelming fear.

The term also occurs in the phrase mass hysteria to describe mass public near-panic reactions. It is commonly applied to the waves of popular medical problems that everyone gets in response to news articles, such as the yuppy flu of the late 1980s. A similar usage refers to any sort of public wave phenomenon, and has been used to describe the periodic widespread reappearance and public interest in UFO reports, crop circles, and similar examples.

Hysteria is often associated with movements like the Salem Witch Trialsthe Red ScareMcCarthyism, and Satanic ritual abuse, where it is better understood through the related sociological term of moral panic.

Mass hysterias can also exhibit themselves in the sudden onset of psychogenic illnesses, or illnesses that are the result of psychology and not an external source (e.g., like a pollutant or infectious agent). A recent example of psychogenic illness resulting from mass hysteria occurred in Jilin, China in 2009 when hundreds of workers at an acrylic yarn factory began to fall ill.[3] Doctors in China determined that, for most of those who fell ill, there were no physical indications of poisoning, which is what the workers claimed caused the illness.


Panic is a sudden terror which dominates thinking and often affects groups of people. Panics typically occur in disaster situations, such as during a fire, and may endanger the overall health of the affected group. Architects and city planners try to accommodate the symptoms of panic, such as herd behavior, during design and planning, often using simulations to determine the best way to lead people to a safe exit.

Moral Panic[edit]

moral panic is a mass movement based on the perception that some individual or group, frequently a minority group or a subculture, poses a menace to society. These panics are generally fuelled by media coverage of social issues (although semi-spontaneous moral panics do occur and some moral panics have historically been fueled by religious missions, governmental campaigns, and scientific mobilizing against minority groups that used media outlets to further their claims), and often include a large element of mass hysteria. A moral panic is specifically framed in terms of morality, and usually expressed as outrage rather than unadulterated fear. Though not always, very often moral panics revolve around issues of sex and sexuality. A widely circulated and new-seeming urban legend is frequently involved. These panics can sometimes lead to mob violence. The term was coined by Stanley Cohen in 1972 to describe media coverage of Mods and Rockers in the United Kingdom in the 1960s.

Recent moral panics in the UK have included the ongoing tabloid newspaper campaign against pedophiles, which led to the assault and persecution of a pediatrician by an angry, if semi-literate, mob in August 2000, and that surrounding the murder of James Bulger in Liverpool, England in 1993. (See this page for examples of moral panic.)  (Source)


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