A social movement is any movement that uses the collective effort of a group of people to achieve a common political/social goal.
For example, the civil rights movement in the United States aimed to end discrimination against African Americans and create an equal society. The goals of a social movement can be as narrow as passing a particular low, or as broad as changing the entire sociopolitical structure.
These are not formal organizations but are loose networks of people working towards a common goal. While they are outside the political mainstream, they may still be involved in political circles and interest groups (Scott, 2014).
Social movements can be classified into various categories, which we will discuss later. But first, let us learn about the concept in more detail and look at some examples.
Definition of Social Movements
John Scott, in A Dictionary of Sociology, defines a social movement as
An organized effort by a significant number of people to change (or resist change in) some major aspect or aspects of society. (2014).
The term was first used by Saint-Simon to refer to the social protests that emerged in France at the turn of the 18th century.
Originally, it was applied to political forces opposing the status quo, but now the term is mostly used for organizations outside the mainstream political system.
Scott adds that social movements are purposeful forms of “collective behavior”, and they constitute one of the basic elements of a democracy. These are not formal/political organizations; instead, they are a looser network of people who may be associated with several organizations.
For example, a labor movement may include trade unions, socialist parties, cooperatives, etc. All these various groups & individuals come together with the aim of achieving a common goal.
Examples of Social Movements
- The Feminist Movement: The feminist movement is a collection of movements & campaigns that aim to establish equality between men and women. These address various issues, such as reproductive rights, equal pay, etc. In the Western world, feminism has gone through four “waves”: the first one (late 19th-early 20th century) fought for basic rights such as the right to vote and own property; the second wave brought women from different social classes, besides white middle-class women; finally, the third and fourth waves have been fighting against financial, social, and cultural inequalities. Abortion has become one of the most heated issues for feminists today.
- The Civil Rights Movement: The civil rights movement (1945-1968) aimed to abolish racial discrimination in the United States. After the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Amendments granted constitutional rights to all African Americans. However, they still faced discrimination (due to Jim Crow laws) and violence. Over the next century, African Americans fought for legal and civil rights, and it all culminated in the 1960s when a series of laws (Civil Rights Act, Fair Housing Act) banned all forms of discrimination. Although the movement was quite diverse, Martin Luther King Jr. was its most famous leader, whose “I Have A Dream” speech epitomized the movement’s spirit.
- LGBTQ+ Movements: LGBTQ+ movements advocate for LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and related communities). Various LGBTQ+ rights groups throughout the world work towards securing equal rights for their community, which can involve decriminalizing homosexuality (as was done in India in 2018) and enacting same-sex marriage laws (as done in the United States in 2015). Besides legal measures, they also aim to create awareness and acceptance in the larger society, say addressing homophobia. LGBTQ+ groups achieve their goals through pride parades, lobbying, art, etc.
- The Labor Movement: The labor movement consists of both the trade union/labor union movement and the political labor movement. The former consists of collective organizations of working people who campaign for better working conditions (from their employers) and labor laws (from the government). The latter refers to political parties in various countries (like the “Labour Party” in the UK) that represent the interests of employees. Both these originated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as a response to the harsh working conditions of industrialism. Over the years, labor groups have successfully achieved setting a mandatory minimum wage, the eight-hour workday, the end of child labor, etc.
- The Environmental Movement: The environmental/ecological movement aims to protect the natural environment and promote sustainability. Fighting against harmful environmental practices, they advocate for changes in individual behavior and public policy, which would lead to just & sustainable use of natural resources. The environmental movement originated in the 20th century, and it became strong in the second half with events such as the first Earth Day (1970). Today, the movement consists of various organizations—from grassroots communities to international enterprises—and because of their large number, the movement is not always unified.
- Wilkes & The First Mass Movement: The first mass social movement revolved around John Wilkes, a controversial political figure in England (Tilly, 1981). After attacking the government in his newspaper (The North Briton), Wilkes got arrested for sedition. Enraged at this unjust arrest, the people took to the streets, chanting “Wilkes and Liberty”. Later he became a member of the parliament but was stripped of his seat. This led him to become an Alderman and launch the first-ever social movement, which consisted of public meetings, pamphlet distributions, etc. Without turning into an open rebellion, the movement was able to bring about significant social change.
- The Abolitionist Movement: Abolitionism was an organized effort in Western Europe and the Americas to end slavery. The British abolitionist movement began in the late 18th century when Quakers started criticizing the immorality of slavery. This was first articulated by James Oglethorpe using Enlightenment ideas such as liberty, and he banned slavery in the Province of Georgia. The proponents of slavery resisted the movement with racist and economic justifications while sometimes engaging in violence. However, the abolitionists kept going through moral persuasion and political means ( pamphlets, lobbying, etc.). Slavery was banned in Britain in 1807 and in 1865 in the US.
- Anti-Colonial Movements: Throughout the world, many social movements originated with the aim of opposing Western colonialism. The Indian independence movement, led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, was one such anti-colonial struggle, which ultimately led to the end of British rule in 1947. In various other parts, such as Africa and Southeast Asia, countries fought to gain freedom from colonial exploitation and reclaim autonomy in all fields. Besides giving sovereignty, the anti-colonial movements played a huge role in creating a sense of national identity and laid down the foundation for nation-building.
- The Peace Movement: The peace movement is a collection of groups that seek to prevent wars and promote world peace. Under this broad banner, many individual organizations work in a relatively independent way, which can often cause confusion within the movement itself (Scott). Generally, the groups engage in anti-war activism through protests, advocate for the elimination of nuclear weapons, and promote nonviolent ways (diplomacy, dialogue, etc.) of resolving conflicts. The peace movement faces opposition from those who argue that force is often necessary because complex sociopolitical factors make it difficult to maintain peace.
- Anti-Globalization Movement: Many see globalization as the progeny of colonialism, which continues to exploit Third World countries for the benefit of First World nations. Originating in the 1990s, this movement opposes large MNCs, which maximize profits through various forms of exploitation (poor working conditions, environmental degradation, etc.). The participants are also against neoliberalism—which is being promoted by the IMF, the World Bank, and WTO (Bakari, 2013)—because it leads to economic inequality. Moreover, the political power of these international organizations and the influence of MNCs also undermine democratic decision-making processes.
Other Social Movements to Consider
- The Occupy Wall Street Movement
- The Anti-Nuclear Movement
- The Black Lives Matter Movement
- The Animal Rights Movement
- The Chicano Movement
- The Disability Rights Movement
- The Temperance Movement
- The Pro-Choice Movement
- The Pro-Life Movement
- The Free Software Movement
- The Anti-Apartheid Movement
- The Anti-War Movement (Vietnam War)
- The Indigenous Rights Movement
- The Me Too Movement
- The Students for a Democratic Society Movement
- The Suffragette Movement
- The Tea Party Movement
- The Civil Disobedience Movement (led by Mahatma Gandhi)
- The Chipko Movement (environmental conservation in India)
- The Fair Trade Movement
- The Transgender Rights Movement
- The Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Movement
- The Anti-Caste Movement in India
- The Youth Climate Strike Movement
- The Idle No More Movement (Indigenous activism in Canada)
- The Body Positivity Movement
Classification of Social Movements
One of the earliest typologies of social movements was given by David F. Aberle, who classified them on the basis of the locus of change and the amount of change.
The first dimension, locus of change, referred to whether the entire society or only some individuals were targeted by the social movement. The second dimension is about whether the movement seeks total or partial change.
Based on these two dimensions, four categories emerge:
- Revolutionary movements aim to completely restructure society, such as the civil rights movement or the communist movement.
- Reformation movements attempt to change only one specific aspect of society. For example, nuclear disarmament groups that seek to eliminate nuclear weapons.
- Redemptive movements target specific individuals and try to bring about a complete change in them. These include religious groups that try to provoke inner/spiritual growth among their members.
- Alternative movements also target specific individuals but aim to change a specific aspect of their lives, such as interventions for family members to help them get clean (AA, NA, etc).
Social movements are organized efforts by a large number of people to achieve a common goal.
For example, the environmental movement seeks to protect the natural environment through sustainable practices. These are loose networks existing outside the mainstream political system. But they can still bring radical social change and are an essential part of democracy.
Aberle, D. F. (1966). The Peyote Religion among the Navaho. Current Anthropology.
Bakari, M. (2013). “Globalization and Sustainable Development: False Twins?”. New Global Studies. Walter de Gruyter GmbH.
Scott, J. (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tilly, C. (1981). Britain Creates the Social Movement. Michigan: University of Michigan.