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Social Movement Theories

Social Movement Theories

Author: Paul Hannan

Distinguish between the theories used to explain social movements.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain All Images from; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this episode of Sociology-- Studies of Society. Today's lesson is on social movement theories. As always, don't be afraid to pause, stop, rewind, or even fast forward to make sure you get the most out of this tutorial.

So there's another tutorial out there about how you can categorize social movements. Well, today we're looking at how social movements happen. So what are some theories looking at what makes them successful? And what are some things needed for them to actually happen?

So the first one we're looking at is mass society theory. And this theory is really arguing that social movements happen because individuals are disconnected from other people. And they're looking for a way to connect themselves.

And it doesn't have to be that every individual that's a member of this movement knows consciously that they're doing it. But this theory is saying that that's one of the most important things needed-- is that it's really all about finding these social connections.

And another side effect as people work with this movement is that this movement really brings people together. So it brings all these individuals together. And then these individuals really change the way they view themselves. Their own identity changes and is modified and strengthened through these societal movements.

Another theory on why social movements happen is cultural theory. So this theory is arguing that movements really happen because of powerful symbols. So movement doesn't happen unless there's something for people to get behind. And the symbol doesn't have to be a picture. But it is some sort of way to communicate what the movement is about very quickly.

I think a good example of the cultural theory in action is when you look at the Vietnam War. There's an iconic-- there's a couple of iconic photos, actually, one of an officer being shot in the head and another of a monk burning himself. Those are part of the symbols that really changed the way the American public looked at the war. And it was a way that helped fuel this countercultural movement against the status quo.

Now, another theory on why social movements happen is the deprivation theory. And this is really arguing that social movements really happen because people lack something. And specifically, they notice that they lack something. They might actually be lacking it. Or they just might feel like they lack it. But that's what it comes out of.

And a term that's associated with it is "relative deprivation." And that's where a person or a group of people really feel deprived of something relative to somebody else. So the image there is the idea that the grass is always greener on the other side. So people are looking across and saying, wait a second. Well, they can do that. They get that. Why don't I get that? And so this theory is saying that that's why social movements happen.

Another theory on what makes social movements happen is resource mobilization theory. And this is really saying that there's a lot of things that could be social movements. But what really distinguishes those that happen versus don't happen?

Well, that's, do they have the resources to be successful? Do they have the manpower? Do they have the physical bodies to do work? Do they have access to technology to bring about this change they want in society? So resource mobilization theory says you need to have all those things. You need to have actual resources for a social movement to happen.

Another theory is the political opportunity theory. Now, this theory really takes that Marxist perspective that capitalism has some major flaws in it. And capitalism is what's causing a lot of issues in society.

Specifically, it's saying that social movements happen because capitalism has flaws. And so it's actually a reaction by the people to point out and fight against these flaws. So this Marxist kind of theory is saying social movements only happen when the flaws get so bad that the masses have to rise up and make a change in society because of it.

There's also something called the "new social movement theory." And this is really the idea that social movements-- what used to happen is they used to be based, really, on economic issues. And now what makes a movement successful has to do with a lot of different things than traditionally. And it's really saying that a lot of it has to do with this global scale. So are there connections to a global issue?

And with that, they've really moved towards quality-of-life issues. So it's really taking the perspective of looking at wealthy nations. The quality of life is what matters now. We're not fighting to survive as much. We're fighting to have certain standards of survival within our lives. And a lot of these movements are now movements of the middle class.

I heard someone mention to me the other day the idea of that you should think globally but act locally. I think that fits really, really well in with the new social movement theory. So you as an individual have to act for yourself in your environment. But you're always thinking about the bigger picture and how it connects to national or global issues.

So today's takeaway message-- we looked at a bunch different theories on why social movements happened. We have the mass society theory, which is about movements happen because of missing social connections, the culture theory that movements have to have powerful symbols, the deprivation theory that movements have to have something that people feel like they're lacking. And tied into that is relative deprivation, where people feel deprived because they're comparing themselves relative to someone else.

We also learned about resource mobilization theory-- that movements need access to resources-- the political opportunity theory, which is that movements really happen as a reaction to the flaws of capitalism, and the new social movement theory, saying that movements now happen because of these national and global connections.

Well, that's it for this lesson. Good work. And hopefully you'll be seeing me on your screen again soon. Peace.

Terms to Know
Culture Theory

An explanation for social movements that asserts that movement participants draw on cultural resources and symbolic representations to communicate the message of the movement.

Deprivation Theory

An explanation for social movements that asserts that movements happen because people feel like they lack something.

Mass-Society Theory

An explanation for social movements that asserts that movements attract people who are socially isolated and gain a sense of purpose from movement participation.

New Social Movement Theory

An explanation for social movements that asserts that movements now happen because of quality of life and identity issues.

Political Opportunity Theory

An explanation for social movements that asserts that movements happen as a reaction to the flaws of capitalism.

Relative Deprivation

Where a person or a group of people feel deprived of something relative to another person or group.

Resource Mobilization Theory

An explanation for social movements that asserts that movements happen because of, and are benefited by, access to resources.