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Social Movement Theories

Social Movement Theories

Author: Zach Lamb

Distinguish between the theories used to explain social movements.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello and welcome to Sociological Studies. In this lesson, we're going to look at social movement theories. We're going to try to understand why social movements arise. Why do people join them? Why do they arise in specific context at specific times?

So this lesson will then overview various competing sociological theories that help to explain why social movements occur, where, and when they do. And how they then help to sustain themselves.

We're going to pull back then from particular social movements and look at general. Social movements in general to help to understand them as general occurrences in society.

So first and foremost, we'll look at deprivation theory. Deprivation theory holds that social movements arise because people feel they lack something. Or they are deprived of something. So they're based on an inequality in society. And it's often relative deprivation. So just like relative poverty, relative deprivation is the feeling of lack or deprivation relative to someone else or some group.

So these movements then are based on inequalities in money, power, opportunity, or prestige. So you could feel you lack opportunities that another has and so you want to organize a movement around that. In the Civil Rights Movement, for instance, people of color lacked rights and social acceptance. So this induced a movement.

Women's Suffrage Movement, women lacked the right to vote. We see contemporary the 99% and 1% Movement, massive inequality then that needs redress. Some people are relatively deprived compared to everyone else in society. So they're pointing to structural inequalities in society.

OK great, you might be saying. Inequality happens all the time. Inequalities of various kinds are a part of society. But then why isn't every inequality acted on? Why isn't it the case all the time? Political opportunity theory then helps us to explain why.

Political opportunity theory asserts that movements will result in response to opportunities opened up by weaknesses in Capitalist society. OK, so we have inequality, everyone knows it, Capitalism perpetuates social inequality. Sure, but we have no movement until, say, Capitalism takes a dive and unemployment is so high that the political economic context is right for an attack on the system.

For a movement then to arise. Like we have seen with the 99%-1% Movement, taking advantage of the financial crisis causing unemployment to rise massively and exposing the financialized basis of the system, such that some are benefited and others aren't.

So political opportunity theory holds then that social movements will respond to these failings of capitalism. And then will respond to the political economic context being favorable then to critique the system when the system goes down. Or takes a downturn.

OK, so we've got an inequality. We've got a relative deprivation. And we've got a political opportunity opened up by a downturn in Capitalism, so we've got an opportunity then to critique the system and keep a movement going. Well, what is something you can do to then keep the movement going? The movement needs resources.

Resource mobilization then is a third take on social movement theory that emphasizes the importance of resources in the development and strength of social movements. So I'm fed up and I want to push for change. I won't be successful unless I have a lot of people with me and I have some media coverage of our demonstrations. And all those people out there getting attention by the media.

So resources then, in terms of time, money, and media attention are critical to movement success. So if you have resources then you're more likely to succeed in your agitations for social change. But then this helps to explain, on the flip side, why it can be more difficult for poor people's movements to succeed. Because they lack the resources necessary to galvanize the movement and to get going.

Still a fourth perspective on social movement theory emphasizes the importance of culture to mobilizing social movements. And this is called culture theory. Culture theory of social movements then emphasizes the importance of shared cultural symbolism in uniting people in social movement activism.

So people will rally around common symbols. Such that then they can be more easily mobilized and more easily relied on to get to the square to demonstrate at that particular time. Or cultural resources can be mobilized to get justification for movement action.

So for instance, after 9/11, images of the World Trade towers and things like that we're used then to justify the war. And currently right now in Russia there's a social movement seeking to oust the president. And there was an all girl punk rock band who wrote a song against him. And now that band and the images of the girls in the band are cultural resources that can be drawn on to get people out into the streets. And this is happening in Russia.

So the band then has almost become a symbol of the movement. So cultural theory then emphasizes the importance of cultural resources of shared symbolism to keeping movements sustained.

Next we have a take on social movements derived from mass society theory. Mass society theory holds that social isolation and alienation induce people to join movements. So society is full of isolated individuals. They're out there and they're lonely. And they're looking to find social connections, and purpose, and meaning.

And participating in a social movement making friends, making social connections can then give you that meaning and can give you that social connection that attenuates the loneliness that you feel. So this then is another explanation for why people join social movements and why they occur. To combat isolation and loneliness in society by connection in group movement.

And the last thing we'll touch on is new social movement theory. New social movement theory emphasizes the distinctiveness of new social movement activism in a post-industrial era. From about 1980 onwards through to today. It's not capitalist versus laborers as much anymore as the fundamental conflict in society.

The class lines have blurred, as has been discussed in other tutorials. Most people then don't want to rock the boat and produce any huge major changes in Capitalism. Sure, they might like it to be a little more equal and a little more fair, but they don't want to just throw the system out. So now social movements are about new things like the environment, about eating local, about gay rights, about animal rights, about world peace.

We don't have as much conflict out in the streets about pointing the finger up at Capitalism and point the finger at the system as much as we used to have. So we call these new social movements then lifestyle movements. Or movements that are based on identity. These are broad movements that are easy to be a part of. And they aren't asking a whole lot most of the time.

So people join them. You can easily, you know, like an environmental cause on Facebook and be considered part of the movement in some registers. So with this technology then, I don't want you to take away thinking that it's always this. It's always deprivation that causes people to join. Or it's always culture. Or it's always mass society.

It's not like that. I would suspect that in any given movement, every single one of these motivations are present. So think about it that way. Think about it as people join for various reasons. And sometime any combination of the three. So it's not exclusive. This has been a lesson on social movement theories explaining the differences between various takes on social movement theorization in sociology.

Have a great rest of you day.

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.