The' social 'movement is one of the major forms of collective behavior. A social moment is formally defined as "a collectivist acting with some continuity to promote or resist change in the society or group of which it is a part [Turner and Killian, 1972, p. 246]. Stated less formally, a social movement is a collective effort to promote or resist change. Social movements originate as unplanned, unorganized, directed groupings of people who are dissatisfied with things. People talk, share ideas, and grumble; intellectuals publish learned articles; citizens write letters to the editor; people experiment with novel forms of expression. In most movements, leadership and organization emerge before long. After an active life which seldom exceeds a decade or two, the movement passes out of the active phase. Sometimes the movement leaves permanent organizations (YMCA) or changes (women's suffrage), and sometimes it disappears with scarcely a trace (the Esperanto movement for a universal language.

Theories of Social Movements

PSYCHOLOGICAL THEORIES. The psychological theories find the roots of social movements in the personalities of the followers. Discontent Theory This theory holds that movements are rooted in discontent. People who are comfortable and contented have little interest in social movements. Discontent can be of many kinds, ranging from the searing anger of those who feel victimized by outrageous injustice to the mild annoyance of those
who do not approve of some social change. It is probably true that, without discontent, there would be no social movements. But discontent is an inadequate explanation. There is no convincing evidence of any close association between the level of grievance. and discontent in a society and its level of social movement activity [Muller, 1972; Snyder and Silly, 1972]. People may endure great discontent without joining a social movement. Many societies have endured gre<lt poverty, inequality inequality, brutality, and corruption for centuries without serious social protest. And all modern societies always have enough discontent  to fuel many social movements [Turner and Lillian, 1972, p. 271]. Discontent may be a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition for social movements. Personal Maladjustment Theory This theory sees the social movement as a refuge from personal failure. Many scholars believe that movements find their supporters among the unhappy, frustrated persons whose lives lack meaning and fulfillment. A widely read book .written by a self-educated manual laborer, The True Believer [Hoffer, 1951], describes the kinds' of people drawn to so,pal movements: the bored, the misfits, the would-be creative who cannot create, the minorities, the guilty sinners, the downward mobile, and others who for any reason are seriously dissatisfied with their lives. They add meaning and purpose to their empty lives through movement activity.
It is plausible that people who feel frustrated and unfulfilled should be more attracted to social movements than those who, are complacent and contented. Those who find their present lives absorbing and fulfilling . are less in need of something to give them feelings of personal worth and accomplishment, for they already have these. Thus the movement supporter.r-and especially the early supporters are seen as mainly the frustrated  misfits of society. While plausible, the misfit theory is not well substantiated. It is difficult to measure a person's sense of non fulfillment, although some inferences may be drawn from career histories, such as Hitler's expressed resentment at his rejection as a serious artist. It is  another theory which sounds reasonable but which cannot easily be proved or disproved.


]The sociological theories study the society, rather than the personality of individuals. Relative Deprivation Theory Relative deprivation is a concept developed by Stouffer [1949]. It holds that one feels deprived according
to the gap between expectations and realizations. The person who wants little and has little feels less deprived than the one who has much but expects still more. Relative deprivation is.increasing throughout most of the underdeveloped world. The world's poor are deciding that poverty, hunger, and illness are not necessary. They long. for bicycles, radios, refrigerators, and all the other things that glitter along the slope of . endlessly ascending desires. They hunger for these treasures but have little real understanding of what it takes to produce them. Even where people are beginning to get some of the things they covet, these satisfactions come
with an unbearable slowness. A weakening of traditional and tribal controls
generally accompanies this enormous inflation of desires. The recently established independent governments of Third World countries have little hope of keeping up with their peoples' expectations. Revolutions seem
most likely to occur  people are most miserable but after things have begun  improve, setting off a round of rising expectations [Briton, 1938;Street and Street, 1961]. The outbreak most often happens after a down turn has interrupted a period of improvement, creating an intolerable gap between
rising expectations and falling realizations [Davies, 1962; Descender, 1968]. Relative deprivation theory is plausible but unproved. Feelings of deprivation are easy to infer but difficult to measure, and still more difficult to plot over a period of time. And relative deprivation, even when unmistakably severe, is only one of many factors in social movements [Gurney and Ernestine, 1982]. Resource Mobilization Theory This theory
stresses techniques rather than causes of movements. It attributes importance to the effective use of resources in promoting social movements, since a successful movement. demands effective organization and tactics. Resource mobilization theorists see leadership,
organization, and tactics as major determinants of the success or failure of social movements [Oberschall, 1973; Wilson, 1973; Gamson, 19?5; McCarthy and Zald, 1977 and McCarthy, 1979; Walsh, 1981]. Resource
mobilization theorists concede that without grievances and discontent, there would be few movements but add that mobilization is needed to direct this discontent into an effective mass movement. The resources to be mobilized include: supporting  beliefs and traditions among the population,
laws that can provide leverage, organizations and officials that can be helpful, potential benefits to be promoted, target groups whom these benefits might attract, any other possible aids. These are weighed against personal costs of movement activity, opposition to be anticipated, other difficulties to be overcome, and tactics of operation to be developed. As an example, the ghetto riots of the 1960s occurred when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, effective black leaders had won national recognition, and a sympathetic national administration was in power. During the summer of 1982, black discontent was probably far greater than during the 1960s. Decades of black gains. seemed to be slipping away as black unemployment rose ,the black-white income gap widened, social services were being slashed, and affirmative action programs were being undermined. Ghetto riots were expected but failed to materialize [Blum, 1982]. Why? In 1982, no black leaders of Martin Luther King's stature were , available, the civil rights movement had wound down to a stall, and an unsympathetic national administration had taken power. Discontent was probably greater, but resources were fewer. As one black leader lamented, "Last time, the president [Lyndon Johnson] was on our side, looking for social equality. This time the president [Ronald Reagan] is
against us." [Banks, 1982].  Resource mobilization theory does not fit
expressive or migratory movements, which can succeed without organization or tactics. Evidence for resource mobilization theory is largely descriptive and is challenged by some scholars [e.g., Gold stone, 1980]. It is likely that societal confusion, personal maladjustment, relative deprivation, discontent, and resource mobilization are all involved in social movements, but in undetermined proportions. As usual, we have several theories, each plausible, each supported by some evidence, but none clearly proved. Social movements are of so many kinds, with so many variables involved, that possibly no one theory will ever be conclusively established.


Share the Story

About the Author

Back to Top
Share This