Sociology Of Social Movements Research Paper

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For the whole set of actions and events subsumed under the heading of social movements, the problem of boundary demarcation is not to be taken lightly. Social movements unquestionably are, as Hanspeter Kriesi (1988, p. 350) puts it, ‘elusive phenomena with unclear boundaries in time and space.’ Furthermore, the question is not a mere empirical one to be solved, in each case, by deciding when a social movement begins and when it ends, or by circumscribing the social field in which it takes place and evolves. Social movements are also hard to grasp conceptually. First of all, even if a social movement as such cannot be equated with an organized group (or several ones), it has distinctively collective features: in this respect, Heberle (1951) had grounds for defining it ‘as a kind of social collective.’ Second, the scholar must be aware of two pitfalls: on the one hand, it is mistaken to consider a social movement to be a self-perpetuating crowd, for a crowd totally lacks mechanisms for sustaining association between people; on the other hand, it is an unduly narrow view of social movements to conceive them as necessarily linked to class-based actions, although the history of the concept can, as we will see, account for this usage. Finally, drawing the line between social movements and other close phenomena is, as a general rule, difficult, and that is why Turner and Killian ([1957] 1987) characterized these phenomena as ‘quasi movements.’ A classical instance of these borderline cases is to be found in some religious movements, such as messianic and millenarian sects: at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is generally agreed upon that they both fall within the ambit of social movements when they set up meetings for voicing protest and aim at establishing a new type of social order.



What emerges from this view is perhaps the main criterion for defining a social movement, that is, its critical relation to social change. Herbert Blumer (1946, p. 199) aptly dwelt on this point when he suggested that social movements should be viewed ‘as collective enterprises to establish a new order of life,’ and his concise wording may still be used as a startingpoint. But social movements may differ both in the direction and the nature of the change aimed at: some act ‘to promote a change,’ some others ‘to resist’ it, in the words of Turner and Killian ([1957] 1987); and the change claimed sometimes is a partial one, and sometimes implies a transformation of the whole social order.

A second distinctive feature of social movements is the use of uninstitutionalized means by participants, at least in some occasions and situations. A third one is also worth noting: the actions of a social movement are protest-oriented and even contest-oriented; therefore they have political relevance. We are now in a position to state an elementary, although tentative, definition of a social movement: it is ‘a collective enterprise of protest and contention which aims at bringing about changes of varying importance in the social and/or political structure by the frequent but not necessarily exclusive use of uninstitutionalized means’ (Chazel 1992, p. 270).

1. From The Formulation Of The Idea To The Development Of A Self-Contained Field

The term soziale Bewegung was first used and coined by the German scholar, Lorenz von Stein ([1850] 1964) in his pioneer study, first published in German as Geschichte der sozialen Bewegung in Frankreich on 1789 bis auf unsereTage. Rejecting Hegel’s idealism, he did not study socialism and communism as forms of social thought, but regarded them as expressing the strivings of the industrial proletariat toward economic and political power; in his view, they were an essential development of the period and it is why, for him, the social movement meant the efforts of the rising industrial working class at organizing and sustaining mass action. Although Marx and Engels shared many interests with Stein, they did not themselves use the term. But Stein’s conception remained influential until the beginning of the twentieth century. In Werner Sombart’s ([1896] 1909, p. 2) wording, the social movement is still defined as ‘the conception of all the attempts at emancipation on the part of the proletariat.’

Rudolf Heberle is to be credited with the discarding of this exclusive identification of the notion with proletarian movements in industrial society: the definition must be enlarged to take account of such important phenomena as peasant movements, Fascism, and National Socialism, or independence uprisings against colonial powers. It is to be noted that Heberle is still under the restraining influence of the traditional conception, when he states that ‘the main criterion of a social movement is [to] aim [at] bring[ing] about fundamental changes in the social order, especially in the basic institutions of property and labor relationships’ (1951, p. 6) or when he draws a somewhat arbitrary distinction between ‘genuine social movements’ and more or less short-lived ‘protest movements.’ Yet Heberle’s work must be acknowledged as a landmark in the field, paving the way for the systematic study of social movements: he also points out their political implications and relevance, and therefore subtitles his book, Social Movements, as An Introduction to Political Sociology.

However original his work was, Heberle, belonging to a generation of political exiles, was the heir to European social theory, and research in social movements mostly developed along other lines in the USA. Social movements were to be conceived as one major form of collective behavior which Robert Park, who coined the term, defined as ‘the behavior of individuals under the influence of an impulse that is common and collective, an impulse, in other words, that is the result of social interaction’ ([1921] 1969). This notion has broad applicability and, while rather denoting for Park an approach to social phenomena, it quickly became a label for a distinctive field of investigation.

Some valuable studies and surveys of social movements, such as those, already mentioned, of Blumer, Turner, and Killian, have been worked out within this framework. But Neil Smelser’s (1962) Theory of Collecti e Behavior, which is the most ambitious attempt at building up an elaborate theory, cannot be categorized in such a straightforward way, because he approaches the empirical phenomena subsumed under the field of collective behavior from a quite different theoretical perspective, the Parsonian hierarchy of ‘components of social action.’ By using criteria derived from this conceptual frame of reference, Smelser draws a demarcation line between ‘panics,’ ‘crazes,’ and ‘hostile outbursts’ on the one hand and social movements on the other, while making a further distinction between ‘norm-oriented movements’ and ‘valueoriented movements.’ This latter distinction, because it proceeds from an analytical basis, is more significant than purely descriptive ones, and it may be quite appropriate for differentiating, within a large movement, between a reform-oriented trend and a more radical one. Yet participants to social movements often account for their normative commitments by referring to widespread values. Discriminated as they are by their relation to a distinctive component of social action, these different kinds of collective behavior share common attributes, as Smelser makes clear in his formal characterization. All episodes of collective behavior imply ‘an uninstitutionalized mobilization for action in order to modify one or more kinds of strain on the basis of a generalized [belief]’ (Smelser 1962, p. 71).

Two major features of this conception are to be pointed out: the sharp contrast between the uninstitutionalized character of collective behavior and established behavior and Smelser’s emphasis on beliefs of a very peculiar type, because they entail a ‘process of short-circuiting,’ that is, ‘the jump from extremely high levels of generality to specific, concrete situations,’ (p. 82) and these are the very points which will later on give rise to much controversy.

The irony of an unexpected outcome also is worth noticing: students of collective behavior were so keen on bringing out the salient characteristics of social movements that this topic gradually became a teaching and research area in itself. A quite significant instance of this development can be found in Robert Faris’s Handbook of Modern Sociology (1964), in which the chapter on ‘Social Movements,’ written by Lewis Killian, is next to the one on ‘Collective Behavior’ by Ralph Turner.

2. New Emphases In Theory And Research

The turbulent 1960s aroused much interest in social movements, and many scholars did not agree with Smelser’s statement that social movements are, as any other kind of collective behavior, ‘the action of the impatient.’ During this period important developments internal to the social sciences were also under way, with systematic attempts at tackling sociological problems in terms of the economic paradigm. Facing troubled times that they had not predicted, as often happens, and grappling with theoretical puzzles of a new kind, sociologists and political scientists were thus induced to take a fresh and finally inventive approach to social movements.

In this process, Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collecti e Action (1965) was a seminal step. Olson drew attention to a vexing paradox, unnoticed in traditional theory: ‘it does not follow, because all of the individuals in a group would gain if they achieved their group objective, that they would act to achieve that objective, even if they were all rational and selfinterested’ (p. 2); indeed, in very large groups individuals will not as a rule act to obtain a collective good. In Olson’s view, there is only one way of preventing rational actors in such ‘latent’ groups from not mobilizing to provide a collective good: it consists of an incentive which discriminately operates upon some individuals in the group and which, by offering positive inducements to them or by coercing them, leads these individuals to act in the common interest. Actually, Olson’s theoretical importance lies less in ‘selective incentives,’ which have been appraised by several scholars as a quite limited remedy, than in his skill in throwing light on the social dilemma of movement participation itself: mobilization never is to be taken for granted.

Thus the true significance of Olson’s book rested in its setting a theoretical puzzle to a new generation of scholars: how and when are social actors able to overcome the dilemma of movement participation? These attempts at solving the dilemma resulted in what is now known as ‘resource mobilization’ theory. Yet, because there are different emphases within this theoretical approach, we can differentiate three distinctive ways of overcoming the dilemma, all of which ascribe weight to organization. The first one, which may be regarded as classic, has been elaborated by Anthony Oberschall in his book Social Conflict and Social Movements (1973). As Oberschall stresses in his ‘sociological theory of mobilization,’ collective protest is more likely to be present in a collectivity which has a strong organizational base, whether it is of a communal or of an associational kind, and which also is cut off from the rest of society, that is, is ‘segmented.’ A second way of getting over the dilemma was put forward by John McCarthy and Mayer Zald, who coined the convenient label, ‘resource mobilization’: they assert that particular attention must be paid to outside support, funding, and leadership; consequently, they dwell on the prominent part of ‘conscience constituents’ and ‘adherents’ on the one hand, of political entrepreneurs on the other, arguing that they ‘turn Olson on his head’ (1977). It is a theoretical point worth noticing, although it may be observed that Zald and McCarthy overrate the aggregate import of ‘professional social movements’ during the 1960s.

The third way of solving the dilemma perhaps is not so closely connected with resource mobilization theory; but the major questions at issue are the same. Charles Tilly (1978) puts as much emphasis as Oberschall or Zald and McCarthy on organization and interests, yet he stresses the political context in which mobilizations take place. Therefore he calls attention to emerging coalitions, of which a quite significant kind brings together ‘members’ of the ‘polity’ and ‘challengers’ aiming at entering it; and he takes account of the role of the government in this process, which can facilitate as well as repress an emergent mobilization.

Taken as a whole, this stream of thinking is to be considered ‘revisionist,’ as William Gamson aptly called it in his ‘Introduction’ to the collected essays by Zald and McCarthy (1987), and it is so, on two basic points. First, the advocates of the new approach assume that participation in social movements is to be explained in terms of rationality, as opposed to the prevailing view, which was exemplified by Smelser’s emphasis on ‘generalized beliefs.’ Second, they are anxious to downgrade the psychosocial approach to social movements, as it was used and developed by collective behavior theorists. When at a later date Doug McAdam (1982) boldly asserts that social movements must be regarded as political phenomena, no more as psychosocial ones, he is in full agreement with this line of thought.

The theoretical import of McAdam’s (1982) book has to be pointed out. In many respects he brings resource mobilization theory to completion, by joining the strand derived from Oberschall (although the relative weight of ‘indigenous organizational strength’ vs. outside support in the civil rights movement is a bone of contention between them), and the one derived from Tilly whose term, ‘political process,’ he took up. But on an important point, which resource mobilization theorists did not tackle, he makes a significant advance by drawing attention to potential participants’ cognitive activity. Thus McAdam paves the way for attempts at multidimensional synthesis, in which, somewhat ironically, the psychosocial view- point will be awarded due consideration. For both of these achievements, his book can be regarded as a landmark.

3. Contemporary Advances And Issues

Any comment on the latest trends is open to question and correction but it is worth trying to outline the main line of development and, as already mentioned, the keynote of the times seems to lie in attempts at multidimensional synthesis.

Yet the path has gradually to be mapped out, and there are heuristic blind alleys, which are often linked with some overemphasis on one analytical dimension or empirical type of social movements. Truly, social movements are in many respects significant political phenomena and, as mentioned, Tilly and McAdam opened up new vistas. But it does not follow that the whole approach must center in the concept of ‘political opportunity structure,’ which then is unduly stretched. As William Gamson and David Meyer aptly put it:

the concept of political opportunity structure is … in danger of becoming a sponge that soaks up virtually every aspect of the social movement environment … Used to explain so much, it may ultimately explain nothing at all (1996, p. 275).

It is well known that with new waves of contention different problems are to be put on the research agenda. Thus the ‘new social movement’ school was quite justified in investigating the distinctive features of this type of movement. But the wrong inference that these movements were unparalleled was not always resisted: ‘new social movements’ perhaps are not so new as they appeared to be. Nevertheless this approach, by stressing the search for a collective identity, revives interest in the cultural dimension of social movements, as opposed to the resource mobilization stream of thinking, which had little regard for it; therefore the reconciliation of these quite divergent viewpoints is urgently needed.

The abundance of books on social movements during the 1990s, such as those edited by Aldon Morris and Carol Mueller (1992), Hank Johnston and Bert Kandermans (1995), McAdam et al. (1996), or the individual works by Sidney Tarrow (1994) and Klandermans (1997), along with the publishing of a specialized journal, Mobilization, first testifies to the institutionalization of an academic field. But their theoretical significance lies mainly in systematic attempts at integrating mobilizing structures and organizations, political opportunities, and ‘framing’ processes. A true synthesis seems to be under way, although it is not an easy job to articulate distinctive dimensions with one another.

A last point is worth noting: the clarifying of cognitive and discursive processes, whether in terms of causal attribution, as by Myra Ferree and Frederick Miller (1985), or in terms of ‘frame alignment’ and ‘frame resonance,’ as by David Snow and his associates (1986, 1988), is part and parcel of this development. This new interest in collective beliefs can be construed as Smelser’s revenge, but it is an ambiguous one: as opposed to ‘generalized beliefs,’ the beliefs which are now to be investigated are reasonable ones and can be interpreted in terms of a rational, though not simply rationalistic, model.


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