In the 1960s and 1970s, sociologists decided to study social movements from a different angle by looking at the broader social factors that impact the success of social movements.
This was a deviation from how social movements had typically been seen up to that point; as irrational and violent.
Resource mobilization theory positions social movements as social institutions run by rational people that are created with the goal of bringing about social change.
The theory explores how social movement comes about. It posits there are certain conditions that need to be met.
The main condition that must be met is that there must be a call to collective action or a shared grievance by multiple organizations and individuals with ideas on how to solve the grievance.
Resource mobilization theory focuses on the capabilities and resources of aggrieved groups as a way of explaining the development and outcome of social movements.
The main argument is that the success of social movements is dependent on their access to resources and the ability to use them well. Ideally, this would be having the ability to have the right resource at the right time and at the right price.
Resource mobilization theory also looks at the process of accessing resources and the different mechanisms that an organization can employ to reach its goals.
Resources are defined quite broadly, including intangible resources such as community networks and cultural resources, as well as the tangible resources like money and office space.
John McCarthy and Mayer Zald released a paper in 1977 where they outlined what would become resource mobilization theory. In this paper, they introduced terminology for this theory defining:
- Social movement organizations (SMOs): groups that champion social change.
- Social movement industry (SMIs): Groups of organizations advocating for related causes.
So, any particular human rights group is a social movement organization; and it is also part of a larger social movement industry of human rights organizations.
McCarthy and Zald argued that the success of social movements depends on people who are supportive of the goal as well as people who are actively involved in achieving the goal by volunteering themselves and their time or donating resources and money.
Resource mobilization theorists also look at how the social organization’s resources can impact its choices. For example, if a social organization receives a large donation from a corporation, it might be influenced in its decisions by that corporation’s desires.
Resource mobilization theorists look at a few examples of social change achieved by social movements with successful resource mobilization as proof that the theory is correct. We’ll look at some of the examples below.
An example of a well-known social movement that is believed to be an example of the resource mobilization theory is the Civil Rights Movement.
This rise of the Civil Rights Movement didn’t come about because the whole African American community felt a sudden frustration all at once and decided to start an uprising.
It came about due to the combined efforts and organization of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr and organizations like the NAACP.
They were aided in their cause by the resources they had from the organizations as well as labor unions, student organizations and small businesses. All of these different groups worked together to amass resources and direct them toward the same goal.
Another well-known example that’s considered to be proof of the resource mobilization theory is the Arab Spring.
This social movement started in Tunisia and spread to Syria, Yemen, and Egypt. In this example, the activists in these countries used social media platforms as a way to spread the message and call to action about their social causes.
They also used these platforms as a resource to communicate, mobilize and organize their protests.
In 1996, Daniel Cress and David Snow conducted a study looking at how resource mobilization affected the success of 15 organizations that were aiming to promote the rights of people experiencing homelessness.
They found that an organization’s success was directly related to its access to resources. They also found that specific resources were necessary for success, such as; having office space and effective leadership.
Another example in support of resource mobilization theory is the research conducted by Bernadette Barker-Plummer.
She specifically focused on media coverage of the National Organization for Women (NOW) from 1996 until the 1980s as she researched how resources affected organizations’ ability to gain media coverage.
She found that as the organization grew bigger and amassed more members, it acquired more resources and received more media coverage.
Resource mobilization theory can also be applied to the social movement MoveOn.org, which is a platform that allows people to start petitions to bring about social change.
The goal of the website is to bring about collective action or to amass an online collective protest for a variety of issues affecting people around the world.
This theory can apply to this website because the website itself is a resource that the social movement can use to mobilize other resources and ensure the success of their overall goal. The accessibility of their website is a key factor to their success.
It’s also a resource in the sense that they have a large well people to draw from who are actively participating and can probably be counted on to participate again.
According to resource mobilization theory, there are several ways for social movements to get the resources that they need.
They can gather resources from their members, they can search for external donors or grants, and they can produce the resources that they need themselves.
- Moral Resources – Moral resources help legitimatize the social movement. Sympathetic support and solidarity support fall under this category. Anything that can lead to the social movement being looked at more favorably by the public can fall into this category.
- Human Resources – Human resources are the labor that goes into the formal organization of a social movement. This includes the actual physical labor of volunteers and their skills, knowledge and expertise.
- Cultural Resources – Cultural resources are basically knowledge, and this can include knowledge of the issues or the group affected by the issues. It also includes more practical knowledge, like how to organize a rally or lobby elected representatives. Cultural resources can also be produced by the social movements and are things like informational leaflets and videos.
- Material Resources – This category covers the financial and physical capital of a social movement organization, such as the money as well as any equipment, supplies and office spaces that the social movements have access to.
- Social-Organizational Resources – This category encompasses resources that can aid social movements in building their social networks, like an email list of supporters.
While resource mobilization theory has played an influential role in creating a better understanding of resource mobilization and movement participation, there are sociologists who have criticisms (Fitzgerald & Rodgers, 2000; Fominaya, 2022; Sapkota, 2021).
They’ve made the case that other approaches are also necessary to gain a real understanding of social movements.
A major criticism of the resource mobilization theory is that it fails to recognize or explain the role of social movement communities and other groups that orbit social movement organizations (Sapkota, 2021).
Another criticism is that the resource mobilization theory doesn’t account for social movements with limited resources that succeed in bringing about social change (Fominaya, 2022).
On the flip side, critics also point out that having the resources available is unimportant if there is no organization in place to use the resources correctly.
In this same vein, it’s also said that the resource mobilization theory doesn’t give sufficient weight to identity and culture, as well as other broader societal factors (Sapkota, 2021). An example of this is the barriers that certain social groups may face due to the way society is set up. It may be harder for these groups to gain access to any resources while it can be easier for groups to do so.
It’s important that organizers and leaders of social movements understand this social movement theory because it’s vital to their success. They’ll be better able to plan and ensure that their organizations can continue their work and improve and expand on their services.
While a social movement’s resource mobilization approach can affect its success, this is not always predictive. It’s important to take other factors into account when discussing the broad issue of successes of social movements.
Fitzgerald, K. J., & Rodgers, D. M. (2000). Radical social movement organizations: A theoretical model. The Sociological Quarterly, 41(4), 573-592. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1533-8525.2000.tb00074.x
Fominaya, C. F. (2020). Social movements in a globalized world. Bloomsbury Publishing.
McCarthy, J. D., & Zald, M. N. (1977). Resource mobilization and social movements: A partial theory. American journal of sociology, 82(6), 1212-1241. Doi: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/226464
Sapkota, M. (2021). Conceptual and Theoretical Debates on Social Movement Studies. Journal of Political Science, 1-10. Doi: https://doi.org/10.3126/jps.v21i1.39280
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.