Social Movements Research Paper Example

This sample Social Movements Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. If you need help writing your assignment, please use our research paper writing service and buy a paper on any topic at affordable price. Also check our tips on how to write a research paper, see the lists of research paper topics, and browse research paper examples.

A social movement can be defined as a collectivity with mutual awareness in sustained interaction with economic and political elites seeking to forward or halt social change. Social movements are usually comprised of groups outside of institutional power that use nonconventional strategies (e.g., street marches, sit-ins, dramatic media events) along with more conventional ones (e.g., petitions, letter-writing campaigns, etc.) to pursue their aims (Tarrow 1998; Snow et al. 2004). The outsider status and nonconventional tactics of social movements distinguish them from other political entities such as lobbying organizations and political parties (though these more formal organizations may originate from social movements). Most people participate in movements as volunteers and offer their time, skills, and other human resources to maintaining movement survival or achieving goals. Examples of social movements range from community-based environmental movements to transnationally organized economic-justice movements attempting to place pressure on national governments and international financial institutions. The modern social-movement form arose with the spread of parliamentary political systems and nationally integrated capitalist economies in the nineteenth century (Tilly 2004).


Social movements are most likely to arise when a particular collectivity comes under threat or receives signals from the political environment that advantages may be forthcoming if groups decide to mobilize. In other words, either “bad news” or “good news” may motivate episodes of collective action (Meyer 2002). Under bad-news conditions, a community or population perceives that its situation will become worse if it fails to act and that it may lose collective goods (e.g., loss of land, rights, employment, etc.). In the good-news political environment, groups sense that they will acquire new collective goods if they act in concert (e.g., new rights, higher wages, greater environmental quality, etc.). Often, bad-news and good-news protest campaigns are triggered by government policies that signal to would-be challengers that the state is becoming less or more receptive to the issues that are most meaningful to the population in question.

Besides these motivations for movement emergence, some type of organizational base needs to be in existence to mobilize large numbers of people (McAdam 1999). These organizational assets may be traditional, such as solidarities based on village, religious, regional, or ethnic identities, or they may be associational, rooted in secondary groups such as labor unions, social clubs, agricultural cooperatives, educational institutions, and more formal social-movement organizations (SMOs) (Oberschall 1973). Without preexisting solidarity ties and organizational links, either formal or informal, it is unlikely that threats or opportunities will convert into social-movement campaigns. Hence, social-movement scholars give special attention to variations in organizational resources across localities and over time in explaining social-movement emergence (Edwards and McCarthy 2004).


Perhaps the most important social-movement arena involves movement impacts. That is, what kinds of changes in the political environment can be attributed to the existence and actions of a social movement? What aspects of social change can be explicitly associated with the activities of a movement? Students of social movements examine various aspects of social-movement outcomes. The enduring changes associated with movements include the impacts on movement participants, changes in the political culture, influence on state policies, and “spillover” into other social movements (Meyer and Whittier 1994). In comparison to movement emergence, there is less scholarly consensus on social-movement outcomes (Jenkins and Form 2005). Often, it is difficult to decipher the particular contribution of a social movement to a specific outcome while attempting to control for non-movement influences. Despite these scientific shortcomings, major movements of oppressed social groups in the United States greatly improved their social standing. Participants of such movements obtained major policy changes because they engaged in social-movement-type struggles, especially the women’s movement and the African American civil rights movement in the late twentieth century.

A classic study on movement outcomes by William Gamson (1990) found in a representative sample of fifty-three voluntary associations in the United States between 1800 and 1945 that groups that maintained single-issue demands, used more assertive strategies and tactics, and organized themselves along more bureaucratic lines were more successful in achieving their goals than movements that lacked these properties. In terms of state-oriented social movements, or movements with political aims that largely target the government, linking with sympathetic groups inside the state enhances probabilities of movement success (Banaszak 2005). For example, a 2004 study of national environmental politics in Japan by Linda Brewster Stearns and Paul Almeida found that antipollu-tion movements were much more successful in winning new environmental policies when they formed loose alliances with actors inside the government, such as city councils, sympathetic federal agencies, oppositional political parties, and the courts.

Theories Of Social Movements

Between the 1960s and the 1980s, a clear succession of social-movement theories took shape—from collective behavior to resource mobilization to political-process perspectives. Since the mid-1990s, social-movement scholarship places much more emphasis on a synthetic approach that combines resource mobilization, political opportunity, and framing perspectives into a larger comprehensive framework of social-movement dynamics. Individual scholars, though, still tend to specialize in one of the three subareas of this larger synthesis.

Resource mobilization scholarship emphasizes the role of formal and informal organizations in collective action. Resource mobilization scholars also attempt to define the population of SMOs within movements and societies using such terms as social-movement sector, social-movement industry, and organizational field (McCarthy and Zald 1977; McAdam and Scott 2005; Minkoff and McCarthy 2005). More recent work in the resource mobilization subfield has expanded into sophisticated network analysis of the means by which different components of SMOs, participants, and sponsoring organizations are structurally connected to one another and how the variations in those structures affect collective-action dynamics (Diani and McAdam 2003).

The political-process tradition centers on the larger political environment and how differentially configured political contexts shape social-movement emergence, forms of mobilization, and movement outcomes. Important features of the political environment are referred to as political opportunities. Five key dimensions of political opportunity shaping collective action within political-process theory include:

  1. institution access (i.e., the opening of state agencies)
  2. elite conflict (between political or economic elites)
  3. electoral realignments (i.e., changing electoral coalitions)
  4. influential allies (i.e., experts, mass media, religious institutions, etc.)
  5. a relaxation in state repression.

The more these five elements of opportunity are present in a political environment, the greater the probability of the emergence of a large and efficacious social movement. Some versions of political-process theory contend, however, that high levels of political opportunity lead to more institutional forms of politics and less need for social-movement mobilization (Eisinger 1973; McAdam 1996; Meyer 2004; Tarrow 1998).

The framing perspective derives from the interpretive tradition in sociology with a special concern for how activists construct social grievances. It is now largely understood that injustice and organizational resources alone do not explain the timing and location of social-movement-type mobilization. Movement leaders and activists must construct norm violations, grievances, and experiences of oppression and injustice in socially meaningful and convincing ways that will motivate the targeted populations to participate in collective action (Snow et al. 1986; Snow and Benford 1988). In other words, social and political activists must “frame” the social world in such a manner that it resonates with rank-and-file movement supporters as well as sympathizers and fence-sitters.

Students of social movements often discuss the ability of political movements to develop collective-action frames that will generate large-scale support for the challengers’ objectives. The collective-action frame of “civil rights” in the African American freedom struggle in the 1950s and 1960s is considered a particularly potent frame consonant with the political culture and values of the United States, bringing in large numbers of white

Americans in solidarity with the grievances of black Americans. In addition, the success of the “civil rights” frame led to several other movements adopting a variant version in subsequent decades. Such movements include the women’s, gay/bisexual, Mexican American, Asian American, and disability movements, as well as more conservative movements, such as the pro-life, home schooling, or pro-creationism movements, which invoke civil rights in their claims-making activities.

One avenue for categorically deciphering collective-actions frames is to divide them into their diagnostic, prognostic, and motivational functions. A diagnostic frame defines particular social problems and injustices and assigns blame to the agent(s). Prognostic framing develops an action plan to resolve the social problem or grievance, while motivational framing includes the actual mobilization appeals to persuade people to join the movement or participate in a particular action. David Snow and Robert Benford (1988) view these three core framing tasks as a fundamental part of sustaining social-movement mobilization.


Social-movement recruitment and individual-level participation draw on microlevel models of collective action. Early explanations of social-movement recruitment and participation emphasized the irrationality aspects of mass movements. Political movements of the unruly were viewed as fulfilling psychological deficits for movement participants—a kind of therapy to overcome sentiments of alienation and social strain inherent in fast-paced industrialized urban societies (McAdam 1982). By the late 1970s and early 1980s, scholars began to look at more than just the beliefs and psychological profiles of movement participants. They also examined the microstruc-tural context of mobilization, namely the social ties and networks of potential movement recruits (Snow et al. 1980; McAdam 1986). This newer empirical research found that movement participants were often highly socially integrated in their everyday lives and more likely to belong to civil society associations and clubs than those who did not participate in social movements. In addition, the connections individuals maintained with movement sympathetic organizations and individuals made them much more likely to join a protest campaign, whereas those connected to organizations and individuals opposed to such activities were much more likely not to participate (McAdam 1986). Finally, movement mobilization occurs at a faster rate when entire groups and organizations are recruited en masse as opposed to organizing single individuals one at a time—a process termed bloc recruitment (Oberschall 1973).

Movement-recruitment research also distinguishes between low cost/low risk activism versus high cost/high risk activism (McAdam 1986). Cost refers to the time and resources put into a particular movement campaign. Risk involves the level of personal harm that may result from activism (e.g., reputation, imprisonment, physical safety). For high cost/high risk activism, such as occurs in extremely oppressive regions or societies (e.g., a racially segmented society, a military dictatorship, etc.), a deeper level of integration into a social-movement culture by the individual needs to take place, including previous participation in several rounds of low cost/low risk activism.

Nondemocracies And State Repression

The majority of social-movement studies focus on movements in industrialized democracies in the global north (McAdam et al. 1996). However, a growing body of literature now exists for political contexts outside of the democratic West. The more stable forms of government in Western democracies allow for a greater upkeep of social-movement-type organizations and more space to launch largely nonviolent campaigns. In nondemocratic and quasi-democratic nations (e.g., monarchies, dictatorships, military juntas), where associational freedoms are proscribed and regular multiparty elections do not occur, scholars face challenges in explaining when social movements will arise and what forms they will take. One fruitful avenue investigates “cracks in the system,” small political openings, or larger moves toward political liberalization in nondemocracies. These conditions often provide a conducive environment for a few entrepreneurs in civil society to attempt to form civic associations and possibly even begin to seek small reforms. Other movements may be launched in institutions outside the purview of state control, such as religious institutions (mosques, religious schools, Catholic youth groups, etc.) or remote territories not completely controlled by the administrative state apparatus and army. Foreign governments and movements may also support a fledgling movement in a nondemocratic context.

In the twentieth century, nondemocratic countries were much more likely to experience a radical revolutionary challenge from below than democratic states (Goodwin 2001). Revolutionary movements can be seen as a special type of social movement that seeks the overthrow of the government as its central goal, rather than piecemeal policy change. Often, revolutionary movements begin as reformist movements during a period of regime liberalization and only radicalize once the regime closes down the reform process. The violent repression of reform-minded groups transforms popular conceptions of the entire political system and provides incentives for the formation of more radical and revolutionary political organizations. Such a scenario developed in El Salvador during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as in Guatemala in the 1950s and 1960s, and more recently in Algeria and Nepal.

Conservative Movements

In the United States, conservative social movements have been on the rise since the 1980s. The emergence of an evangelical protestant Christian Right in alliance with the Republican Party has provided a favorable political context for conservative movements that seek to halt certain social policies perceived as morally reprehensible (e.g., same-sex marriage, legalized abortion, secularism in public schools, etc.). The movement’s success resides in its capacity to form coalitions with different levels of government and to employ bloc recruitment strategies (e.g., mobilizing entire church congregations). Since the early 1990s, the Christian Right has won seats in hundreds of school boards, city councils, and state and national legislatures. The movement has also influenced the selection of Supreme Court justices (Micklethwait and Wooldridge 2004). In the 1990s and early 2000s, researchers found that extremist right-wing activity in the form of hate crimes and paramilitary militia groups in the United States was associated with job loss, economic restructuring, and lack of contact between educated and less-educated populations in the regions where these movements arise (Van Dyke and Soule 2002; McVeigh 2004).

Transnational Social Movements

A major area of research involves the expansion of transnational social movements that link members and organizations across more than one country. Two noteworthy transnational movements in the early twenty-first century include international Islamic solidarity and the global justice movement. Internationally connected Islamic movements benefit from the concept of umma— the larger community of believers that links the Muslim world beyond national borders (Lubeck 2000). With global migration flows and new communications technology, Islamic-based social movements easily mobilize internationally. Early signs of this emerging process occurred in the 1980s during the Afghan-Soviet war. Thousands of Muslims and Arabs traveled from dozens of countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond to Afghanistan to fight in a jihad (holy war) as the mujahideen (guerrilla fighters) against the secular Soviet Union, which invaded the country in 1979. The foreign Islamic fighters felt an international sense of solidarity with their fellow Muslim Afghans suffering under Soviet occupation. This struggle served as the base of the Al-Qaeda movement, which built a large multinational net- work out of the social contacts made in Afghanistan. This network of transnational Islamic insurgents has since been used to send foreign contingents to wars in Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq, Somalia, and other places.

The global justice movement (sometimes referred to by critics as the antiglobalization movement) is another major transnational movement that emerged in the late twentieth century. Supporters of this movement use global communications technologies to mobilize constituents. The global justice movement arose almost simultaneously with the expansion of the global Internet infrastructure between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s. Several organizations in Europe and Canada, including the Council of Canadians, Jubilee 2000, People’s Global Action, and ATTAC, began to work with nongovernmental organizations in the developing world to place pressure on newly emerging and older transnational governing bodies and economic institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Group of Eight (G8), and the European Union.

The demands of the global justice movement vary but tend to focus on third world economic justice, environmental protection, and the need for more transparency in decision making among the elite transnational economic and political institutions mentioned above. Though the movement held several major protests in the late 1990s outside of WTO and G8 meetings in Europe, a massive demonstration at the 1999 WTO meetings in Seattle, Washington, served as a breakthrough for the global justice movement. It was the largest sustained protest in an American city in several decades (Almeida and Lichbach 2003). Global justice activists coordinated the arrival of participants around the country and world via the Internet and organized the protests in the streets of Seattle with cell phones. Dozens of countries across the globe also experienced protests in solidarity with the actions in Seattle. The success of the Seattle mobilizations provided a template for organizing dozens of similar global days of action during major international financial conferences or free trade meetings in the first years of the twenty-first century.


  1. Almeida, Paul D., and Mark I. Lichbach. 2003. To the Internet, from the Internet: Comparative Media Coverage of Transnational Protest. Mobilization 8 (3): 249–272.
  2. Banaszak, Lee Ann. 2005. Inside and Outside the State: Movement Insider Status, Tactics, and Public Policy
  3. In Routing the Opposition: Social Movements, Public Policy, and Democracy, eds. David S. Meyer, Valerie Jenness, and Helen Ingram, 149–176. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  4. Diani, Mario, and Doug McAdam, eds. 2003. Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  5. Edwards, Bob, and John D. McCarthy. 2004. Resources and Social Movement Mobilization. In The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, eds. David Snow, Sarah Soule, and Hanspeter Kriesi, 116–152. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  6. Eisinger, Peter. 1973. The Conditions of Protest Behavior in American Cities. American Political Science Review 67: 11–28.
  7. Gamson, William. 1990. The Strategy of Social Protest. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  8. Goodwin, Jeff. 2001. No Other Way Out: States and Revolutionary Movements, 1945–1991. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  9. Jenkins, J. Craig, and William Form. 2005. Social Movements and Social Change. In The Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization, eds. Thomas Janoski, Robert Alford, Alexander Hicks, and Mildred Schwartz, 331–349. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  10. Lubeck, Paul M. 2000. The Islamic Revival: Antinomies of Islamic Movements under Globalization. In Global Social Movements, eds. Robin Cohen and Shirin Rai, 146–164. London: Althane.
  11. McAdam, Doug. 1986. Recruitment to High-Risk Activism: The Case of Freedom Summer. American Journal of Sociology 92 (1): 64–90.
  12. McAdam, Doug. 1996. Conceptual Origins, Current Problems, Future Directions. In Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings, eds. Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald, 23–40. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  13. McAdam, Doug. 1999. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930–1970. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  14. McAdam, Doug, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald. 1996. Preface. In Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings, eds. Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald, xi–xiv. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  15. McAdam, Doug, and W. Richard Scott. 2005. Organizations and Movements. In Social Movements and Organization Theory, eds. Gerald Davis, Doug McAdam, W. Richard Scott, and Mayer Zald, 4–40. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  16. McCarthy, John D., and Mayer N. Zald. 1977. Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory. American Journal of Sociology 82 (6): 1212–1241.
  17. McVeigh, Rory. 2004. Structured Ignorance and Organized Racism in the United States. Social Forces 82 (3): 895–936.
  18. Meyer, David S. 2002. Opportunities and Identities: Bridge-Building in the Study of Social Movements. In Social Movements: Identity, Culture, and the State, eds. David S. Meyer, Nancy Whittier, and Belinda Robnett, 3–21. New York: Oxford University Press.
  19. Meyer, David S. 2004. Protest and Political Opportunity. Annual Review of Sociology 30: 125–145.
  20. Meyer, David S., and Nancy Whittier. 1994. Social Movement Spillover. Social Problems 41 (2): 277–298.
  21. Micklethwait, John, and Adrian Wooldridge. 2004. The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America. New York: Penguin. Minkoff, Debra C., and John D. McCarthy. 2005.
  22. Reinvigorating the Study of Organizational Processes in Social Movements. Mobilization 10 (2): 289–308.
  23. Oberschall, Anthony. 1973. Social Conflict and Social Movements. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  24. Snow, David, and Robert Benford. 1988. Ideology, Frame Resonance, and Participant Mobilization. International Social Movement Research 1: 197–217.
  25. Snow, David, E. Burke Rochford, Steven Worden, and Robert Benford. 1986. Frame Alignment Processes, Micromobilization, and Movement Participation. American Sociological Review 51: 464–481.
  26. Snow, David, Louis Zurcher, and Sheldon Ekland-Olson. 1980. Social Networks and Social Movements: A Microstructural Approach to Differential Recruitment. American Sociological Review 45: 787–801.
  27. Snow, David, Sarah Soule, and Hanspeter Kriesi. 2004. Mapping the Terrain. In The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, eds. David Snow, Sarah Soule, and Hanspeter Kriesi, 3–16. Oxford: Blackwell.
  28. Stearns, Linda Brewster, and Paul D. Almeida. 2004. The Formation of State Actor-Social Movement Coalitions and Favorable Policy Outcomes. Social Problems 51 (4): 478–504.
  29. Tarrow, Sidney. 1998. Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  30. Tilly, Charles. 2004. Social Movements, 1768–2004. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
  31. Van Dyke, Nella, and Sarah A. Soule. 2002. Structural Social Change and the Mobilizing Effect of Threat: Explaining Levels of Patriot and Militia Organizing in the United States. Social Problems 49: 497–520.

See also:

Free research papers are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to buy a custom research paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655