As with any sociological phenomenon there is no neat answer to this question. We can find a relatively easy way in, however, by considering some examples of movements. There are many to pick from, some of which will be quite familiar to many people. We might include:
• the women’s movement or feminism;
• the labour and trade union movements;
• fascist movements;
• anti-fascist and anti-racist movements;
• the anti-psychiatry and psychiatric survivor movements;
• nationalist movements;
• the (Polish) Solidarity movement;
• the environmental or green movement;
• pro- and anti-abortion movements;
• animal rights movements;
• the peace movement.
The list could go on but we have enough examples to take the next crucial step of considering the properties that these movements share and which make them social movements. This is where the difficulties begin.
social movement - a group of people with a common ideology who try together to achieve certain general goals.
Social movements are a type of group action. They are large informal groupings of individuals or organizations focused on specific political or social issues, in other words, on carrying out, resisting or undoing a social change.
A social movement consists of a number of people organized and coordinated to achieve some task or a collection of goals, often the participants are interested in bringing about social change. Compared to other forms of collective behavior, movements have a high degree of organization and are of longer duration.
Most movements have inconspicuous beginnings. The significant elements of their origins are usually forgotten or distorted by the time a trained observer seeks to trace them out. Perhaps this is why so much theoretical literature on social movements concentrated on causes (Gurr 1970, Davies 1962, Oberschall 1973) and motivations (Toch 1965, Cantril 1941, Hoffer 1951, Adorno et al. 1950), while the "spark of life" by which the "mass is to cross the threshold of organizational life" (Lowi 1971, 41) has received scant attention.
From where do the people come who make up the initial, organizing cadre of a movement? How do they come together, and how do they come to share a similar view of the world in circumstances that compel them to political action? In what ways does the nature of its sources affect the future development of the movement?
Nature/Properties of Social Movements
Many definitions have been offered in the literature but all are problematic. Some are too broad, such that they include phenomena which we would not wish to call social movements, and yet any attempt to narrow the definition down seems destined to exclude certain movements or at least the range of their forms and activities. In addition, every definition includes terms which themselves require definition.
Social movements are ‘collective’ ventures,
what makes a venture count as collective?
Is it a matter of numbers? If so, how many?
Is it a matter of a type of Inter-connection between people, an organization or network? If so, how isthat interconnection itself defined?
Does ‘wearing the badge’ and ‘buying the T-shirt’ make one part of a movement or must one attend monthly meetings and engage in protest?
And if the latter, what counts as protest?
Would wearing the aforementioned badge count as a protest or must one stand in a group of three or more people waving a placard?
There can be no decisive answers to these questions. Social movements manifest what Wittgenstein (1953) refers to as a ‘family resemblance’.
Each movement shares some features in common with some other movements, without any feature being both sufficiently inclusive and sufficiently exclusive to demarcate and identify the set. What all movements share in common they tend to share with things other than movements and yet those characteristics which are unique to some are not shared by all. Even within the same movement we find diversity, and all movements change.
Furthermore, we cannot define the terms of our definition, other than arbitrarily, because ‘collective’, ‘protest’ and other such terms, like ‘social movement’ itself, belong to our everyday language and derive meaning from their diverse uses in specific contexts. Sometimes they are used this way, sometimes that. Their definition obeys the ‘fuzzy logic’ of social practice (Bourdieu 1992a). This does not mean that we cannot or should not opt for arbitrary closure, for the purposes of specific projects. Precise definition is necessary to scientific research. But it does preclude a precise definition that will work for general purposes. Having said this, we cannot dispense with general definitions altogether. Though they may beg more questions than they answer, they at least introduce us to the movements ‘family’ and allow us to reflect upon the sorts of characteristics, as well as the divergences and differences, we can expect to find within this family. They raise questions and pose problems, thereby enabling us to begin the process of reflecting upon and analytically dissecting movements.
With these purposes in mind let us briefly consider four important definitions.
A few points need to be drawn out of this definition. First, Blumer defines movements as ‘collective enterprises’, that is to say, they entail social agents working together in various ways, sharing in a common project. Nobody would seriously disagree with this clause of Blumer’s definition. As Blumer himself acknowledges, however, many or most phenomena in the social world are collective, such that being so is hardly definitive of movements.
To the notion of collective enterprises, therefore, he adds both that movements emerge out of dissatisfaction with a ‘form of life’ and that they seek to establish a new form of life. This reference to the establishment of a new form of life is important, assumedly, in order to distinguish movements
from forms of collective action, such as panics or mass hysteria, which react to conditions of collective discontent but do not seek to rebuild social life in such a way as to resolve whatever is at the root of this problem. Again, many movement analysts would agree with this clause.
The notion that movements arise out of unrest and dissatisfaction, however, at least hints
at a central controversy in the literature. Many contemporary movement
analysts, as we will soon learn, are very sceptical of the notion that there is a direct link between dissatisfaction and movement emergence.
Finally, note Blumer’s use of the term ‘career’. This is a central concept in the symbolic
interactionist tradition to which he belongs. It indicates that movements follow a temporal trajectory, that they do indeed ‘move’ or change.
At one level, Blumer’s is a very broad and inclusive definition. What is more important is that we appreciate the complexities that are glossed by this seemingly straightforward concept, ‘social movements’. We do not need a simple definition of movements if we remain alert to the problems that any such definition would create.
This definition adds at least two further points to that of Blumer. First, it specifies more clearly that movements are a source of creativity and that what they tend to create are identities, ideas and even ideals.
Second, Eyerman and Jamison make reference to ‘public spaces’, a phrase which is more or less equivalent to the notion of a ‘public sphere’. This is an interesting and useful clause in the definition as it conjures an image of previously privatized individuals being drawn into a public debate over matters of common concern. It raises certain problems, however, partly because the
concept of the public sphere is itself contentious (see Calhoun 1994) and partly because we can imagine esoteric movements and secret societies which are by no means ‘public’ in the full-blown sense of the word. Indeed, within the environmental movements that Eyerman and Jamison themselves have
studied, the role that science has played in defining otherwise often invisible problems has meant that a good deal of debate has been esoteric and relatively inaccessible for the public (Jamison et al. 1990; Beck 1992). If we wanted to pick further at Eyerman and Jamison’s definition we might question their emphasis upon the temporary nature of movements. This not only raises the inevitable and unanswerable question of how long we mean by ‘temporary’, it also invites the response that even those movements we still call ‘new social movements’ (e.g. environmentalism, post-sixties feminism, etc.) are all in their late forties now and hardly seem temporary.
In contrast to the emphasis upon temporariness in Eyerman and Jamison’s definition, third definition, from Tarrow, emphasizes the relative durability of movements:
This identification of ‘sustained interaction with opponents’ is intended to distinguish social movements from singular protest events, while also linking them to protest, and thus does not contradict the notion that they might be temporary when judged from a longer term perspective. They exist for a longer duration than the individual protest events in which they engage but not for as long as certain other forms of organization or institution. Duration is not the only noteworthy feature of Tarrow’s definition, however. He adds a number of useful points. First, he makes reference to social networks, consolidating our sense of the collective nature of movements by specifying how they are collectivized. Moreover, he pushes the notion of the cultural element mentioned by Eyerman and Jamison, in the form of ideas, identities and ideals, by suggesting that these have a direct function within the context of struggle. The culture created by movements ‘backs’ and otherwise ‘supports’ their struggle. Finally, and somewhat more controversially, he specifies ‘elites, authorities and opponents’ who are confronted in struggle. This is a useful clause, in some respects, as it aids our imagination in trying to think about what resistance to ‘the status quo’ might look like. One can readily visualize movements struggling against real individuals and groups, such as their bosses or the police. However, many contemporary movements struggle against more abstract targets, which are not so easily identified in this way: e.g. ‘institutionalized racism’ or ‘patriarchy’. Such targets are always embodied, often in the behaviour of specific agents, but they do not always assume the form of an ‘opponent’. Many contemporary movements involve at least a partial focus upon the complicity of their own participants in unacceptable states of affairs, for example. They attempt to initiate social change by way of self-change. The anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s, for example, involved psychiatrists turning back upon and criticizing their own role in processes of social control, and attempting to transform their practice (Crossley 1998a). Similarly, black and feminist consciousness raising has focused upon the complicity of women and blacks in their own subordination, building new ways of acting and thinking (Rowbotham 1973). Finally, a strong strand of both the animal rights and environmental movements has identified the way in which changes in ordinary, everyday
behaviour can make a strong contribution towards achieving change. The notion of ‘opponents’ and ‘elites’ who are opposed should be treated with caution therefore. This point also problematizes the concept of protest. Do all movements seek to bring about change by way of protest? Is that all that they do? The work of Melucci (1986, 1996) is particularly interesting in relation to this question as he has sought out and explored the manifold ‘experiments in living’ and alternative forms of practice that so called ‘new social movements’ engage in when they are not protesting (see also Crossley 1999b).
Movements do much besides and sometimes instead of protesting, Melucci argues, such that protest can be a poor indicator of the life or existence of a movement. Blumer (1969) takes this one step further when he suggests that some movements consist of little more than a ‘cultural drift’, that is, a discernible and coherent yet decentred and unorganized shift in particular ways of thinking, acting and perceiving. Drifts are ‘movements’ but they entail no protest. Again, then, although protest is inevitably going to be
central in our attempt to make sense of social movements, we must be careful not to pre-empt our understanding of the latter in terms of the former. It is also worth adding here, as Tarrow’s definition suggests, that we can have protests without movements, such that our understanding of the latter should
not be allowed to pre-empt our attempts to understand the former.
This definition agrees with that of Tarrow insofar as it highlights networks, protest and conflict. It adds a further point, however, only alluded to by Tarrow, concerning shared beliefs and solidarity. At one level this clause of their definition expresses a truism. Members of any movement, in order to qualify as such, must assumedly subscribe to a set of beliefs which are distinct from those of the wider population and sufficiently homogeneous for us to describe them as those of a single movement.
Furthermore, those who subscribe to those beliefs must feel some degree of affinity with others who do so, relative to those who don’t, at least if they hold those beliefs with any degree of passion. Nevertheless, as the aforementioned notion of public spheres suggests, movements may be sites of argument and internal disagreement. Movement members often disagree and fall out. It may be responded here that a certain amount of tacit agreement between movement participants is required in order for them to disagree and that this is what marks them out. They must at least agree over what they are in disagreement about. However, the same is true with respect to the relation of the movement to wider society. The arguments which a movement levels at the social order it opposes only have any leverage, insofar as they do, because they assume widely shared assumptions and beliefs. Anti-nuclear protestors, for example, assume that others share their desire to avoid mass destruction and perhaps also their mistrust of political and military elites. Similarly, feminist and black campaigners assume that the wider public aspire to the value of justice and equality. Thus, the sharing of
basic assumptions is by no means exclusive to members of a movement, and is always, as in all social relations, a matter of degree. In addition, disagreements within movements can create schisms and conflicts which are no less vehement, and perhaps more so, than that between the movement and the wider society. One need only have been accosted by the members of a specific factional group within a movement and informed to ignore the dogmatism or whatever of another faction to see this. Koopmans (1993) picks up on this point when he argues that: ‘Social movements are characterised by a low degree of institutionalisation, high heterogeneity, a lack of clearly defined boundaries and decision making structures, a volatility matched by few other social phenomena’ (Koopmans 1993: 637); and Offe (1985) is similarly suggestive of it when he argues that social movements are condemned to less institutionalized forms of political involvement because they lack the internal homogeneity for them to be able to engage in binding negotiations. Whatever ‘leaders’ they may have, he notes, have no mandate to talk on behalf of the movement as a whole because they cannot assume that fellow movement activists share their specific perspective on events. This is not to say that solidarity is never evident in movements but to suggest, rather, that we cannot take it for granted as a stable and self-evident feature.
To return to Blumer’s point, we need to bear in mind that movements are in movement and that their characteristics will consequently change. None of the definitions we have considered is watertight but then we could not expect this. As have been said, social movements share a family resemblance rather than a fixed essence and their definition inevitably rests upon the fuzzy logic of ordinary language use.
Why are social movements important, society and politics ?
In the first instance, social movements are extremely prevalent in contemporary western societies. Evidence of their activities is everywhere. Protests are one very obvious example of this. One can seldom open a newspaper or turn on the TV news without being informed of an act of protest somewhere in the world.
One the day you might hear , for example, reporting a story of a young woman, calling herself ‘Fungus’, who had climbed naked into a tree in protest at the building of a new airport runway. She had cocooned herself in a large polythene bag and padlocked herself by the neck to the tree because she and her fellow protestors claimed the new runway would destroy the habitat of local wildlife. In a fashion now common among ‘eco-warriors’, she and her associates had initially resisted the runway by constructing occupied tree-houses and underground tunnels in the path of the workmen who were to clear the ground for the runway, but the residents of this ‘protest village’ had been evicted by this morning and Fungus’s act of defiance was a final symbolic gesture.
This is one incident but many others, equally dramatic, were beamed into my home by the media in the same year: e.g. a hunger strike by an imprisoned animal rights activist; the accompanying threat by his colleagues in the Animal Liberation Front that they planned to assassinate ten well-known vivisectionists if he died;
a ‘Carnival Against Capitalism’ which ended in rioting and trapped London’s stockmarket traders in their buildings;
a series of attacks on fields of genetically modified crops;
sabotage of a nuclear submarine;
and regular road blockages by truckers protesting at VAT on fuel, which culminated in a week-long blockade of fuel depots that almost brought UK society to a halt.
In addition to protest, movements permeate the smaller crevices of our lifeworld in a multitude of ways. Most social science students, for example, will at some time have confronted the ‘nature or nurture?’ question in relation to specific aspects of behaviour, such as gender roles. For some this may have seemed like a formal academic exercise but it can hardly have escaped the attention of many that these debates were provoked by the work of feminist writers, that is, writers who belong to a social movement and who have brought their movement concerns to bear in their academic work. Similarly, many students will at one time or another have had to confront the choice of whether to use female or male pronouns in their work, and ‘he or she’ will be aware that this dilemma has been provoked by the work of feminist authors who have sought to challenge the dominant masculine norm.
When writing up some work I have done on mental health movements, to give another example, I was struck at my own uncertainty over what to call my ‘subjects’. I could hardly call them ‘patients’ or ‘the mentally ill’ when an integral aspect of their struggle had been to shift conceptions of their experiences and behaviours away from such labels.
Finally, outside the academy, many of us have cultivated the habits of, for example, taking a portion of our household rubbish to recycling centres, using our cars less or buying an anti-perspirant which does not contain harmful CFC gasses. This is a small gesture but it is one very much shaped by the activities of the environmental movement. Indeed, it is an activity of the environmental movement. Part of the ‘movement’ in social movements is a transformation in the habits, including linguistic and basic domestic habits, that shape our everyday lives.
This prevalence makes social movements important for society and politics because it demonstrates that movements are an important constituent element in the world that we seek to investigate and explain. A science of society and social relations can no more omit to study movements than it could the family, economy or state.
At a more specific level, movements are important because they are key agents for bringing about change within societies. Immediately this conjures up an image of revolution or major legislative change. This happens but it is comparatively rare and the kinds of changes movements achieve are more often local and cultural in nature (McAdam 1994).
Movements problematize the ways in which we live our lives and, as noted above, call for changes in our habits of thought, action and interpretation. More to the point, they are, in themselves, manifestations of social change. Societies are not static or stable. They flow. And social movements are key currents within this flow. Not that changes are always intended. Movement actions trigger chains of events which cannot always be foreseen or controlled and they sometimes provoke backlashes and other unintended responses. These processes of change and movement are important from a social and political point of view because the discipline revolves around questions of stability and change: the problem of order and the problem of transformation.
Social movements are not the only cause of change – or, for that matter, in the case of conservative movements, order – but it would be foolhardy to ignore them if these issues are of importance to us.
There is another aspect to this question of change. The question of change, particularly change by way of movement politics, is a question about the difference which social agents themselves can make to the various structural dimensions of their life, a question about the form and distribution of power in society and the adequacy and limits of democracy. Social movements are, in effect, natural experiments in power, legitimation and democracy. Their existence, successes, failures and more generally their dynamics, though all incredibly difficult to read and interpret, allow us to gauge the workings of the broader political structures of our society. This is the third reason why movements are important.
A social movement is a continuous phenomenon that thrives on the ability of the progressive community to capitalize on political opportunities and translate such opportunities into social change, according to sociologist Doug McAdam's political process model. For example, the Settlement House movement in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century served as an aspect of a larger Anti-poverty movement. The settlement houses focused on various social services, such as unemployment, childcare, and city sanitary regulations (Boyer et al. 1998, 424).
What is the ‘sociology’ and ‘politics’ of social movements about ?
This too could be an issue of debate and disagreement but I believe that Neil Smelser speaks for many sociologists when he says:
[Movements and protests] occur with regularity. They cluster in time; they cluster in certain cultural areas; they occur with greater frequency amongst certain social groupings . . . This skewing in time and place invites explanation: Why do collective episodes occur where they do, when they do, and in the ways they do? (Smelser 1962: 1)
We could extend this point. Why do certain movements last? Why do some succeed where others fail? Why do some clusters of movements emerge at certain points in time? However, the point is clear enough. The dynamics and properties of social movements or movement clusters are not random, even if their pattern and cause is not obvious, and the point of a sociological analysis is to get beneath the appearance of randomness to reveal the pattern and posit its explanation. This begs our next question.