Psychology of Social Movements Research Paper

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Social movements are sustained actions undertaken by organized groups of people seeking social or political change. The groups involved in social movements are structured, have goals and ideologies, and pursue their goals over time. The psychology of social movements focuses on the motives that lead people to join, work on behalf of, and stay within social movements.

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One reason for people to join social movements is because of the desire to adopt a favorable identity and/or engage in positive actions. Social identity theory notes that people use groups to define themselves, so joining a group is one way to create a favorable identity (Tajfel 1982, see Social Identity, Psychology of ). When people identify with a group, they take on the values and lifestyle of that group, seeing themselves as defined through the attributes that define the group. People joining a sports team, for example, will come to think about themselves in terms of their athletic ability—a prototypical attribute of the group.

In addition to giving people values or attributes to define themselves, identifying with groups provides people with information about their self-worth. Since people value positive self-worth, they are more likely to identify with and join a group when the group they join has a favorable reputation. Of course, people can also work collectively to better the reputation of their group, as in the gay rights movement, the civil rights movement, or other social movements motivated by the desire to enhance the stature of low status groups (Kelly and Kelly 1994, Simon et al. 1998). Social identity theory suggests one motivation for joining social movements—to create a favorable identity and to work on behalf of the values and lifestyle that identity represents. Although this is an important motivation for social movements, this positive motivation has not been the focus of most of the psychological research on social movement participation. Instead, the focus has been on protest movements, which people join in response to perceived injustice. That motivation is explored in several theories, the earliest being the theory of relative deprivation.

1. Relative Deprivation

The factors that shape the generation of the grievances that lead to social movements are first addressed by the psychological literature on relative deprivation. This literature argues that people’s feelings about their social conditions are only loosely connected to their objective situations. Instead of developing directly from people’s objective circumstances, subjective feelings of satisfaction and dissatisfaction are linked to the comparisons that people make of their own outcomes to other outcomes. This work makes the important point that it is the interpretation of grievances that is key to their role in shaping social movements (see Klandermans 1989).

One type of comparison involves temporal comparisons of one’s current outcomes to one’s outcomes at some other point in time. Temporal comparisons are the basis for several of the best known models of the psychology underlying the development of social movements (Davies 1962, Gurr 1970). Gurr (1970) distinguishes among several different patterns of relative deprivation, each of which can create the necessary conditions for social movements. The best known pattern is progressive deprivation, which describes a situation in which both prospects and expectations are rising, but expectations are rising higher (Davies’s ‘jcurve’). In this case, the discrepancy between expectations and prospects increases, leading to dissatisfaction and support for social movements.

A second type of comparison involves social comparison to the outcomes of others. Again the key point is that people’s satisfaction is not directly linked to the objective quality of their outcomes. Instead, it is comparative. The main question is how people decide to whom to compare the outcomes they receive (Suls and Wills 1991).

Studies suggest that when people are comparing their outcomes to standards, they apply principles of entitlement or deservingness. Use of these justice-based principles shows that people’s feelings about outcomes are linked to their assessments of their fairness. The importance of evaluations of outcome fairness (‘distributive justice’) has been compellingly demonstrated in the literature on the distribution of rewards in work settings, where equity is a central principle of justice. This literature shows that people are most satisfied when they receive equitable outcomes (Walster et al. 1978).

Justice theories also suggest that people react to the way that outcomes are distributed, that is, to the process of decision making, and to their treatment during that process (‘procedural justice,’ Thibaut and Walker 1975). Studies demonstrate that people’s assessments of the fairness of procedures shape their satisfaction with their outcomes and with authorities and institutions (Tyler et al. 1997, Tyler and Smith 1997).

These findings link people’s motivation to join social movements to their views about the fairness of social outcomes and procedures. In particular, they suggest that people react negatively to experiencing unfair procedures. However, the experience of injustice can potentially lead to either individual or collective actions: people can respond to perceived injustice by acting as an individual, or they can join a group. Only those actions that involve a collective response to injustice are relevant to the issue of social movements.

2. When Do People Act Collectively?

Early research on both distributive and procedural justice focused primarily upon the feelings of the individuals who experienced justice or injustice. On this level, there was widespread evidence that justice played a central role in shaping people’s feelings and behaviors. Further, people both reacted to their own experiences of justice or injustice and acted to provide justice to other people when they observed injustice. However, most of this research did not acknowledge that justice can also be conceptualized and responded to on the level of groups, not individuals. People can think about injustice in terms of unfairness to groups and they can respond to injustice on a group level. The perception of group level injustice is the key to the development of social movements.

The first crucial insight is that people can think about injustice in terms of unfairness to groups. This insight is contained in the early distinction between egoistical and fraternal deprivation (Runciman 1966). Instead of being concerned with personally receiving fairness, people can judge the fairness received by groups. Psychologists have increasingly recognized that group memberships are an important element in people’s self-definitions (Hogg and Abrams 1988) and this has heightened attention to people’s reactions to the experiences of the groups to which they belong, as well as to their own personal experiences.

The key issue is how people interpret experiences, that is, their view about the reason for the injustices they experience or observe. If people feel that the injustice is occurring to someone as an individual person, either themselves or someone else, and is due to their personal actions, they will respond personally. If they feel that the injustice is occurring to someone due to their membership in particular groups, or to all the people who share a common group membership, they will respond collectively.

Social identity theory argues that the way people interpret their experience is determined by how they think about people. In particular, people are influenced by the degree to which they construct their sense of self in terms of the groups to which they belong (Hogg and Abrams 1988). To the degree that people think of themselves or others in personal terms, they interpret experiences as reflecting unique personal characteristics and behaviors, and they think about fairness in personal terms. To the degree that they think of people in terms of the group(s) to which they belong (their ‘social’ self), they interpret experiences as reflecting treatment as a member of groups and think about justice in group terms.

Studies confirm that those with strong social-selves are more likely to interpret experiences as being shaped by others attitudes toward the groups to which they and others belong, and to respond to injustice by engaging in collective behavior (Grant and Brown 1995, Kelly and Kelly 1994). So, thinking about injustice in collective terms leads to acting collectively in response to injustice, for example, by joining social movements.

Decisions about whether to respond to injustice individually or collectively are not only shaped by judgments about why injustice is occurring. Choices among possible behavioral responses are also influenced by people’s judgments about the intergroup situation (Ellemers 1993). For example, people are influenced by their assessments of the permeability of group boundaries. If people believe that it is possible for individuals to move from low status groups to higher status groups, they are more likely to act as individuals. If people believe that the group’s boundaries are not permeable, they are more likely to act collectively to raise the status of their group. Interestingly, studies suggest that very few low status group members need to be successful for people to view the group’s boundaries as sufficiently permeable to justify individual, as opposed to collective, action (Wright et al. 1990).

People are also influenced by the perceived stability of group status. When they believe that group status can change, people are more likely to act collectively on behalf of the group. People are similarly affected by their views about the legitimacy of the status of existing groups. If people view current social arrangements as illegitimate, they are more likely to engage in collective action to change them (Major 1994).

Finally, people are influenced by pragmatic concerns. They respond to their sense of the probable gains and losses associated with various types of actions (Klandermans and Oegema 1987). When people decide that injustice has occurred, their general behavioral reaction is to do nothing. This inaction reflects the real risks associated with confronting powerful others, and an objective recognition of the low likelihood of success. On the other hand, risk is not enough of an explanation for people’s behavior. For example, although the willingness to engage in collective action is influenced by the likelihood of success (Klandermans 1997), studies of collective action suggest that people often engage in collective actions against injustice even when the likelihood of success is small.

Similar factors shape people’s motivation to engage in groups for positive, identity based, reasons. If people feel that their identity is firmly rooted in their group membership (stability), they will act to try to build the stature of their group through collective action. An example is ethnicity, which is often linked to physical appearance. If people feel that their status is not changeable, they are more likely to identify with that group, and to work to improve its status. Of course, such identification can also be strong when physical appearance is not involved. For example, many people identify strongly with being gay, even though they could ‘pass for straight.’ However, when people are members of a low status group they are more strongly tempted to leave the group as an individual and join a higher status group, instead of defining themselves in terms of group membership.

3. Types Of Collective Responses To Injustice

Two dimensions distinguish among collective responses to injustice. One dimension is sustained vs. temporary action. The other dimension is normative vs. nonnormative.

Many of the most dramatic and widely seen collective responses to injustice are temporary events. Riots have this quality. They erupt quickly in response to some instance of injustice that reflects underlying issues of injustice. Riots typically spread rapidly and widely, and end quickly. They are not sustained and have little formal structure, or even a clear agenda beyond responding to an injustice. In contrast, social movements have leadership structures, political agendas, and long-term plans. Such movements may engage in actions such as violent protests, but these actions are typically planned and in the service of long-term goals.

The second dimension of collective movements distinguishes normative vs. non-normative responses to injustice. People can work for groups within the context of social norms in the political process to get their candidate elected. They can also step outside of social norms to engage in illegal and even violent social protests.

4. Summary

The psychological perspective on social movements examines the factors that encourage people to join and participate in social movements. Studies suggest that the experience of injustice is key to the development of a personal sense of grievance. When injustice is viewed as being linked to group membership, it is likely to lead to participation in collective actions, such as social movements.


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