Social Movements Research Paper Topics

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Social movements can be described most simply as collective attempts to promote or resist change in a society or group. The degree of change advocated and the level at which changes are pursued vary across all types of social movements, whether religious, political, or student. Some movements clamor for sweeping, revolutionary transformations, whereas others pursue specific moderate reforms. The level at which changes are sought varies from global and national alterations of social structures to attitudinal, spiritual, and lifestyle changes.

35 Social Movements Research Paper Topics:

  1. Animal Rights Movements
  2. Anti-War and Peace Movements
  3. Biographical Consequences of Social Movements
  4. Civil Rights Movement
  5. Consumer Movements
  6. Countercultures
  7. Emotions and Social Movements
  8. Ethnic, Racial, and Nationalist Movements
  9. Framing and Social Movements
  10. Gay and Lesbian Movement
  11. Global Justice as a Social Movement
  12. Indigenous Movements
  13. Labor Movements and Unions
  14. Leadership in Social Movements
  15. Local Residents’ Movements
  16. Music and Social Movements
  17. Networks and Social Movements
  18. Non Violent Social Movements
  19. Participatory Democracy in Social Movements
  20. Political Consequences of Social Movements
  21. Pro Choice and Pro Life Movements
  22. Protest Movements
  23. Racist Movements
  24. Recruitment to Social Movements
  25. Refugee Movements
  26. Religious Movements
  27. Repression of Social Movements
  28. Social Movement Organizations
  29. Social Movements and Culture
  30. Social Movements and Relative Deprivation
  31. Strain and Breakdown Theories of Social Movements
  32. Student Movements
  33. Transnational Movements
  34. Voluntary Associations
  35. Women’s Movements

Types of Social Movements

Revolutionary movements such as the Bolshevik, Palestinian, Islamic jihad, and Irish Republican movements seek fundamental structural changes. These movements pursue radical changes in a society’s basic institutions or, in some cases, major changes in the world order. Because these groups challenge the legitimacy of extant authorities, powerful elites typically use every means, including violence, to repress revolutionary movements.

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Reform movements, in contrast, attempt to modify structural relations without threatening existing institutions. Consequently, while some elites oppose any reforms, they are usually more tolerant of reform movements than they are of revolutionary ones. Some reform movements, such as the peace, women’s, and environmental movements, are general in scope (Blumer 1946) and often blend a plethora of political and lifestyle objectives. Peace movements, for example, not only pursue a variety of political objectives (e.g., preventing and stopping wars, opposing specific weapons, promoting disarmament, changing foreign policy, establishing conflict resolution institutions) but also strive to persuade individuals to change their attitudes and live more peaceful everyday lives.

Other reform movements, such as the anti-abortion, women’s temperance, and anti-drunken-driving movements, focus on specific issues. Although specific reform movements are considerably narrower in scope than general reform movements are, they also may organize around both political and lifestyle objectives (Staggenborg 1987).

Still other reform movements, such as various self-help, human potential, and New Age movements, focus almost exclusively on lifestyle and identity issues. In contrast to other movements, these movements tend to disregard social structural issues. Instead, they concentrate on changing individuals.

Finally, social movements frequently generate organized opposition in the form of countermovements. Countermovements attempt to prevent revolutionary or reform movements from securing the changes they promote. As a result of their counterreformist tendencies, most countermove-ments (e.g., the antibusing, McCarthyist, stop-ERA, and Moral Majority movements) are conservative (Lo 1982); that is, they attempt to preserve extant institutions, cultural practices, and lifestyles.

Regardless of the particular type of social movement and the scope and level of change it advocates or opposes, all movements share certain common characteristics that are of interest to social scientists. First, all movements emerge under a specific, complex set of historical, cultural, and structural conditions. Second, as a movement emerges, a variety of participation issues arise, including recruiting new members, building commitment, and sustaining participation. Third, every movement is organized to some degree. The most visible manifestations of movements are their organizations and their strategies and tactics. Third, by virtue of its existence, every social movement has some consequences, however minimal. Although researchers frequently are concerned with the extent to which movements affect social change, definitive answers to this question have proved illusory.

Emergence of Social Movements

Social scientists have devoted considerable attention to the factors associated with the emergence of social movements. Early theory and research asserted that movements arise when societies undergo structural strain, such as during times of rapid social change (Smelser 1962). These ”breakdown theories” posit that ”large structural rearrangements in societies—such as urbanization and industrialization” lead to the dissolution of social controls and heighten ”the impulse toward antisocial behavior” (Tilly et al. 1975, p. 4). Hence, these systemic ”breakdowns” were said to cause an increase in strikes, violent collective action, and social movements.

Later social movement scholars criticized breakdown theories on empirical and theoretical grounds. Rather than viewing movement emergence and participation as aberrations, scholars now view them as ”simply ‘politics by other means,’ often the only means open to relatively powerless challenging groups” (McAdam 1988, pp. 127-128).

However, if these groups are powerless, it is important to understand the conditions that affect the likelihood that they will mobilize. To do so researchers first turned to the structural factors that are conducive to the emergence of social movements.

One macro structural factor concerns the ”structure of political opportunities” (Eisinger 1973). Movements emerge when there is a ”receptivity or vulnerability of the political system to organized protest” (McAdam et al. 1988, p. 699). Researchers exploring the U.S. civil rights movement, for instance, conclude that that movement’s emergence was facilitated by a series of interrelated changes in the structure of political opportunities. Those changes included the decline of cotton markets, African-American migration to the North, the expansion of the black vote, and the electoral shift to the Democratic party (McAdam 1982).

Additionally, researchers have identified the absence of repression as a related macro structural factor. Social movements sometimes are spared a violent or otherwise repressive response from the authorities not only during times of breakdown or regime crisis but also during periods of expanding political opportunities such as times of state building. For example, as the former Soviet Union took strides between 1985 and 1989 to open discourse and other political opportunities (”perestroika”), there was a dramatic increase in protest activities (Zdravomyslova 1996). The result is what researchers have termed a cycle of contention: ”the phase of heightened conflict across the social system” (Tarrow 1998, p. 142).

During times of increased movement activity, the authorities can, and sometimes do, take an active stance toward challenging groups. However, while their initial attempts to repress movements often fan the flames of discontent and fuel further protest activities, research suggests that the relationship between collective action and repression is bell-shaped (Tilly 1978). If the authorities later respond by increasing the severity of the repression, as occurred when the Chinese authorities ordered tanks and troops into Tiananmen Square to fire on student demonstrators, the cost of collective action usually becomes too high for movements to continue their challenges.

A nation-state can vary in structural factors such as institutional strength, access of challengers to polity membership and/ or decision making, and configurations of power (Kriesi 1996; Rucht 1996; Ferree and Gamson 1999). The political environment, or context structure, of a nation-state then can influence movements and movement emergence. For instance, France after 1981 had a strong, exclusive government and a political party system with large inter- and intraparty divisions. In this case, movement emergence and growth depended in part on the left’s support of solidarity movements to gain political advantage. In contrast, Switzerland had a weak but inclusive government in the 1980s, allowing for the growth of diverse groups with multiple areas of focus (Kriesi 1996).

Many contemporary social movements are affected increasingly by globalization, or the creation and intensification of ”worldwide social relations which link distinct localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring miles away and vice versa” (Giddens 1990, p. 64). Technological revolutions in communications and transportation as well as economic, cultural, and political developments have increased global interdependence and consciousness of the global whole. Globalization thus spawns similarities in movement mobilizations and context structures across different nations (della Porta and Kriesi 1999). These similarities often lead to the cross-national diffusion of values and beliefs, facilitated in part by direct and indirect links between similar movements in various countries. German students studying in the United States in the early 1960s, for example, drew on the American student movement and later on access to networks they found during their stay in the United States in mobilizing their own student movement in Germany (McAdam and Rucht 1993).

Operating in much the same way as cross-national linkages, preexisting organizations in a nation-state serve as communication networks for the discontented members of a population (Freeman 1973). In fact, they can aid or inhibit the spread of information from cross-national linkages. More important, they provide a base for mobilizing the resources needed to sustain a movement. Churches, for example, were important indigenous organizations that contributed to the emergence of the contemporary peace, civil rights, and Moral Majority movements.

Several European scholars contend that state intervention into private domains of life has generated new social movements. According to this perspective, various structural changes in Western industrialized societies, especially changes in the system of production, led the state to seek control over previously private domains. Consequently, private domains such as sexual relations, biological identity, birth and death, illness and aging, and one’s relationship to nature ”have entered the realm of ‘public’ conflict” (Melucci 1980, p. 219). New social movements (e.g., the women’s, gay rights, euthanasia, and environmental movements) emerged to reclaim those areas from the state.

The foregoing analysis indicates that numerous structural factors are crucial to providing an opportunity for the emergence of social movements, yet those factors alone cannot account for the rise of a particular movement. Why is it that when the structural conditions appear to be ripe for the emergence of a particular movement, frequently no movement appears? To address this question, some researchers have begun to investigate both the cultural and the micro interactional factors associated with the emergence of social movements. What is most important here are the reasons people take action in the first place: their grievances.

As a commonly shared stock of knowledge and activity, culture plays a role in movement emergence by giving individuals a sense of commonality with others. Specifically, culture can aid in the creation of a common identity that sets itself apart from that of other groups. Furthermore, when groups feel subservient in a society, they may create forms of activities and beliefs that express opposition to the dominant culture. This opposition can result in interests and needs that conflict with the dominant culture and in the development of grievances. In the 1980s, for example, the naming of the Quebecois nationalist movement in Canada set that group apart from the rest of Canadian society by emphasizing the common culture shared by the group’s members and symbolized a collective desire for political empowerment ( Jenson 1995).

Culture is important in the emergence and cross-national diffusion of social movements, then, because it provides a common way in which to view the world and ways to express that worldview. Indeed, movements, such as the Japanese-based Nichiren Shoshu/Sokagakkai Buddhist group may actively attempt to spread their worldviews and the cultural actions and artifacts to which they are attached to facilitate movement emergence in other countries (Snow and Benford 1999).

Worldviews are also important because they provide a yardstick by which to evaluate events. When an event fails to measure up against that yardstick, people experience a moral shock that can lead to movement emergence (Jasper 1997). However, although a single event may generate several movements with similar goals, culture can play a role in amplifying the moral shock that leads to collective action. Protests against the Gulf War emerged throughout the world more quickly than they had during previous wars, and there initially appeared to be similarity in the information received by those movements, along with the timing and stances taken by them. For example, the slogan ”No Blood for Oil” was used by movements globally (Koopmans 1999). However, while they all were against the Gulf War, the peace movements in various countries mobilized differently on the basis of culturally filtered considerations. French peace movements, for instance, were against any coalition with the Americans. By contrast, the German peace movement was against any potential use of the German military on foreign soil.

The bulk of micro interactional research focuses on individuals’ processes of interpreting grievances. These processes refer to the means by which people collectively arrive at similar definitions of a situation or ”interpretive frames” regarding social changes they support or oppose (Snow et al. 1986). Aggrieved but previously unmobilized people must revise the manner in which they look at a problematic condition or aspect of life; social arrangements must come to be seen as ”unjust and mutable” (Piven and Cloward 1977, p. 12). This process of cognitive liberation typically involves an attributional shift from blaming oneself to blaming the system for particular problems (McAdam 1982). The expression of these understandings—the definitions of problems, protagonists, antagonists, ideas for change, and reasons for action—constitutes a movement’s collective action frame.

As a cycle of contention continues, movement emergence is influenced indirectly by the movements that emerged early in the cycle. In addition to the structural influences, cultural influences, and need for cognitive liberation mentioned above, latecomers in a cycle must align their collective action frame with a master frame (Snow and Benford 1992). Early collective action frames may gain in both attention and popularity; they may resonate with the audience for which they are intended. In the minds of individuals, these frames are translated into generic codes that indicate how both audiences and movements should understand and react to events. Later attempts to extend the frames by adding further diagnoses, prognoses, and rationales for action may be met with resistance, constraining the emergence of a new movement.

In sum, social movements are most likely to emerge when the structural conditions for mobilization are ripe, cultural contexts provide a common worldview and set of activities to be applied to the situation, the collective interpretation of grievances produces cognitive liberation, and, if necessary, collective action frames are aligned to at least a minimal degree with a master frame.

Participation in Social Movements

Closely related to the issue of movement emergence are questions regarding movement participation: Who joins and why? What conditions affect the likelihood of participating? How do movements build membership and sustain participation? Initial attempts to address questions about movement participation were influenced by breakdown theories. Movement participation was viewed as an irrational response to social structural strains. The factors regarded as key determinants of movement participation ranged from alienation and social isolation to status strains and relative deprivation. Each of these approaches suggested that some sort of psychological malaise or personality defect predispose some individuals to react to structural strains by participating in social movements.

The outburst of collective action and the proliferation of social movements in the 1960s led many social scientists to reconsider the assumptions of breakdown theory. Some theorists redefined movement participation as a rational choice. According to this perspective, people take part in social movement activities only when they perceive that the anticipated benefits outweigh the expected costs of participation (Klandermans 1984). Research on the conditions affecting cost-benefit participation decisions indicates that this is a complex process that involves numerous structural and social psychological factors (Snow and Oliver 1995).

Social networks also have a crucial effect on differential recruitment to social movements. Movements tend to recruit the majority of their new members from the networks of existing members (Snow et al. 1980). A person typically decides to attend her or his first movement function because a friend, coworker, or relative invited her or him. Those outside such networks are less likely to be aware of the existence of specific movement groups. They also are less likely to attend a movement function if they are not sure there will be others present whom they know.

Overlapping networks in a community increase the probability that an individual will participate in a social movement. For instance, during the 1871 Paris uprisings, persons who were in Parisian National Guard units drawn from their own neighborhoods were more likely to defect and join the communal revolution. Participation increased further when adjacent neighborhoods had similar overlapping networks. In short, the interaction and intricacy of multiple networks increased the likelihood of social movement participation (Gould 1991).

While having social ties to people who are movement participants increases the likelihood of movement participation, other social ties can diminish that probability. Social ties in the form of family and career attachments can constrain movement participation in a number of ways. For one thing, these competing commitments may result in role conflict. The demands of being a movement participant and the demands of being a parent or employee may be incompatible. Married persons who have parental responsibilities as well as full-time jobs may not have sufficient discretionary time to participate in social movements (McCarthy and Zald 1973). Furthermore, spouses and employers can be displeased by a person’s participation in a social movement.

To justify their movement participation to themselves and others, participants develop vocabularies of motives. These are rationales that offer compelling reasons for their participation, particularly when their actions are called into question by employers, family members, or friends. Movement participants socially construct these vocabularies of motive as they interact with one another. Activists in turn employ these rationales to encourage sympathizers and adherents to take action on behalf of movement goals.

Vocabularies of motives not only facilitate recruitment to movements but also serve as commitment-building mechanisms. They help participants justify to themselves making sacrifices for a cause. The more sacrifices the participants make, the more costly leaving the movement seems to be. As they relinquish old attachments in favor of new ones, their commitment grows deeper (Kanter 1968). Research indicates that contrary to popular myths regarding participation in new religious movements and cults, these conversion and commitment-building processes are typically voluntary (Snow and Machalek 1984).

Closely related to social ties and vocabularies of motives is the concept of collective identity. Usually based on shared values, beliefs, and personal identities, a collective identity refers to the qualities and characteristics attributed to a group by the members of that group (Hunt 1991). Movement actors develop this sense of ”weness” or ”groupness” in the course of participating in social movement activities. Participants who have made an emotional commitment to a movement ”communicate, influence each other, negotiate and make decisions” (Melucci 1995, p. 45). During these interactions with others, participants continually create and re-create consensus on a movement’s goals, strategies, and sites of activity.

Movements generate their collective identity in part by articulating the ways in which movement goals and interests appear to be aligned with the beliefs and values of potential supporters. In the case of the 1989 Chinese Democracy Movement, students framed their goals in ways that were consistent with traditional Chinese cultural narrations. Drawing on Confucian principles, communist ideology, and the rhetoric of nationalism, the students fashioned collective action frames and protest tactics that were concerned with patriotism and the way in which it was defined and dramatized. Through their words and deeds, the student demonstrators conveyed their deep sense of responsibility to their country and willingness to offer themselves in sacrifice for the greater good. Those framings tended to resonate well among the general population. Consequently, the Chinese Democracy Movement spread rapidly from students to ordinary citizens (Zuo and Benford 1995).

The emotional component is also important, since it can be changed through persuasion and thus can become a powerful motivation for initial involvement in a movement. Animal rights groups, for example, use pictures of stabbed bulls, starved dogs, clubbed baby seals, and cats with electrodes implanted in their skulls to create anger and draw recruits. Emotions also can help sustain participation. For instance, the songs and dances of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant protestors in California generated a degree of bonding that helped sustain activity at the protest site (Jasper 1997).

By presenting images of movement participation, the mass media play an important role in the recruitment of individuals. Mass media allow the public to form a response to a potential social problem quickly because events are covered instantaneously. The media provide movements with a larger audience and at times are the only resource people have in constructing the meaning of an event. Although media representations of reality are filtered through people’s experiences, the media serve as gatekeepers of information and thus exercise considerable influence on the framing of social problems and thus social movement recruitment.

Social movements do not necessarily rely exclusively on traditional media, however; sometimes movement activists devise their own means of communicating with their target audiences. In the Chinese Democracy Movement, the ”illegitimate” status of the student protests precluded student activists from accessing major state-controlled media outlets such as newspapers, television, and radio. During the ”crisis,” the state even cut off student telephone and telegram services in most Beijing universities. To cope with communication problems, student leaders devised a number of creative means of communication, including protest notices and posters reporting the latest movement decisions and suggestions on campus building walls and bulletin boards, bicycles to relay strategic and tactical information between campuses, pirate radio broadcasts, E-mail, fax machines, and on-campus speeches and press conferences, to mobilize additional support (Zuo and Benford 1995).

Taken together, research on social movements reveals that participation factors, motives, and experiences are diverse. No single explanation can account for movement participation. Instead, a confluence of factors affect the decision to participate. Similarly, there are a variety of ways in which individuals may participate, ranging from those which require little commitment of time, such as signing a petition and writing a letter to a political official, to those requiring extensive commitment, such as coordinating national campaigns and committing acts of civil disobedience.

Social Movement Organizations

The activities of movements and their participants are coordinated by social movement organizations (SMOs). These organizations vary in a number of ways. An important way in which they differ relates to their origins. Some SMOs are organized at the grassroots level by people directly affected by a particular social problem. For example, a woman whose child had been killed by a drunken driver founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Other SMOs are established and sustained by powerful elites from the top downward. Before the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, the state orchestrated official ”peace movements” in several communist countries.

Social movement organizations also vary in terms of the level or levels at which a group operates. Some SMOs operate at only a local level, focusing their attention solely on community issues. Others operate primarily at a state, provincial, or regional level, mobilizing around issues that affect that jurisdiction. Still others mobilize at a national level, often attempting to affect national decision making, policies, and legislation. Finally, some SMOs operate in several countries simultaneously. Many of those transnational SMOs focus on issues of human rights (Smith 1995).

Finally, SMOs vary in terms of how they are structurally linked to one another. At one end of the continuum, SMOs are formally linked to a central authority, usually a national or international SMO. Local Amnesty International topics, for example, must follow specific guidelines and rules dictated by headquarters. At the other end of the continuum, SMOs are relatively autonomous, not answering to any central authority beyond their own group. Between those two poles, the social movement sector yields a variety organizational arrangements, including loosely federated clusters of SMOs, ad hoc coalitions, and more permanent coalitions.

Most general reform movements spawn numerous SMOs. For instance, by 1984, the U.S. nuclear disarmament movement included some 3,000 independent SMOs as well as another 1,000 local topics of national organizations. Specific reform movements, by contrast, tend to generate fewer SMOs. Regardless, SMOs are formal groups that can be thought of as the command posts of movements. They acquire and deploy resources, mobilize adherents, and plan movement strategy.

Resource mobilization theorists were among the first to emphasize the importance of SMOs in performing these functions. In particular, they point out that in the absence of an organization, it is difficult for movements to acquire the resources needed to sustain their challenges (Tilly 1978). Contemporary movements require money for advertising, printing, postage, lobbying, staff, and the like.

Other resource mobilization theorists have suggested that studying SMOs reveals how the macro and micro levels are reciprocally linked (McAdam et al. 1988). For example, the resource level of a society affects the resources available to SMOs, which in turn affect recruitment efforts (McCarthy and Zald 1977). In times of economic prosperity, such as the 1960s, the entire social movement sector expands because there are more discretionary resources available for movements in those periods. In this illustration, the macro level (a society’s surplus resources), mediated by SMOs, affects the micro level (individual participation).

However, many movements also try to affect the macro level from below, with SMOs again playing a mediating role. Individuals with similar grievances get together in an informal, small group setting, what McAdam (1988) refers to as a ”micro-mobilization context.” Sometimes the participants in those ad hoc meetings decide to establish a more formal, enduring organization (i.e., an SMO) to act on their collective grievances. The SMO in turn devises a strategy aimed at changing the system in some way. Occasionally, SMOs succeed in bringing about macro-level changes.

The strategies and tactics a movement employs in pursuit of its objectives typically are selected or devised by SMOs. A movement strategy refers to the broad organizing plans for the acquisition and use of resources toward achieving movement goals. For instance, as was suggested above, movements may pursue social change by devising strategies aimed at changing structural arrangements, strategies aimed at changing people, or both. Similarly, movements may choose between legal and illegal strategies and between violent and nonviolent strategies.

Tactics refer to the specific techniques movements employ to carry out their strategies. Teach-ins, sit-ins, marches, rallies, strikes, and mass mailings are only a few of the tactics contemporary reform movements typically utilize. There appears to be considerable tactical borrowing across the political spectrum. Conservative movements of the 1980s and 1990s in the United States, such as the Moral Majority and the antiabortion movements, for example, employed many of the tactics originally developed by the civil rights and New Left movements of the 1960s.

Tilly made a similar observation regarding eighteenth-century American revolutionary movement tactics. He accounted for tactical similarities across movements and SMOs by noting that every place and time has limited ”repertoires of collective action” that are well defined but limited compared with the various theoretically available tactical options. These ”standard forms are learned, limited in scope, slowly changing, and peculiarly adapted to their settings” (Tilly 1979, p. 131).

While tactical diffusion across movements and SMOs occurs, a division of tactical labor also commonly arises within movements. Each SMO tends to develop its own specific tactical preferences and expertise. These specializations arise as a consequence of cooperation and competition among the various SMOs that constitute a movement. By refining and employing specialized tactics, an SMO is able to carve out a niche the movement that distinguishes it from other movement organizations.

Once an SMO establishes an organizational identity, it can build a stable resource base. Some SMOs have been so successful in that regard that they have survived the decline of a movement. Research on the women’s movement indicates that such ”abeyance organizations” provide continuity from one cycle of movement activity to the next (Taylor 1989) by sustaining activist interaction and commitment during periods when the opportunity structures are unfavorable to mass mobilization. In summary, SMOs contribute stability to what is otherwise a fluid, emergent phenomenon.

Outcomes of Social Movements

What effects, if any, do social movements have on social change? This crucial question is not as easy to answer as might be assumed. Because of the difficulties associated with studying a large sample of movements, most researchers study movements one at a time. Although these case studies provide researchers with rich, detailed data on specific movements, they are not helpful in making generalizations. However, even in case studies, the question of the effects of a particular movement is difficult to answer. First, the logic employed is counterfactual (Moore 1978). That is, in evaluating the effects of a particular movement, researchers have to speculate about what the outcome would have been if that movement had not existed. Second, the effects of movements are not always immediate and apparent. Some movements, such as the civil rights and women’s movements, produce rippling effects that gradually engulf societal institutions, sometimes generating effects several decades after a movement’s most intense period of agitation has ended.

To evaluate the outcomes of a movement, researchers examine its explicit and implicit goals, the direction of those goals, and the intended and unintended outcomes of attempting to reach those goals. For example, while the women’s movement has ostensibly been geared toward enacting and changing policy, there is also an underlying goal of raising the consciousness of society concerning women’s issues (e.g., women’s health, reproductive rights, violence against women, employment). Movement success may be evaluated with respect to a variety of dimensions, including a movement’s ability to mobilize people to act, the diffusion of ideas across many cultures or countries, changes in a specific culture and individual sensibilities, and social policy changes. However, while a movement may succeed in some areas, it may fail in others. On the one hand, the women’s movement could be considered successful in that it mobilized women both in the United States and elsewhere to take part in the struggle for rights and brought issues such as sexual harassment and unequal occupational status into the open. On the other hand, it has failed to persuade Congress to enact the Equal Rights Amendment, and despite popular myths to the contrary, women still suffer gross inequities in the workplace and at home.

In general, research suggests that movements seem to be more effective in producing cultural than structural change. The enduring legacy of the movements of the 1960s, for example, appears to be cultural. These cultural changes are reflected in attitudinal shifts regarding women and minorities, fashion trends (e.g., blue jeans), popular music, hedonistic lifestyles (e.g., the proliferation of illicit drugs), and the like. By contrast, these movements have had negligible success in terms of structural changes. While civil rights legislation helped dismantle caste restrictions and nearly equalized voting rights in the South, African-Americans continue to suffer ”grinding poverty” and ”persistent institutional discrimination in jobs, housing, and education” (McAdam 1982, p. 234). Women have realized even fewer structural gains. Finally, the sweeping changes in the economic, political, and educational institutions advocated by student activists never came to pass.

Social movements have been able to affect the sensibilities of both localized and broad publics. Researchers have argued that part of the function of social movements is to make use of and spread the knowledge created in various institutions (Eyerman and Jamison 1991). In the 1950s, a local grassroots environmental movement in Minamata, Japan, for instance, made use of rallies, disruptive protests, legal action, and increasingly favorable media attention during a cycle of contention to bring attention to what medical authorities called ”Minamata disease,” a methyl mercury poisoning caused by local industrial waste that contaminated the fish the local residents ate. Knowledge of how industries affect the inhabitants of the areas in which they operate became a matter of national attention by the late 1960s. However, the goal of obtaining local control over pollution eventually failed in the face of the nation’s need to sustain economic growth through increased national influence on industry after the mid-1970s (Almeida and Stearns 1998). Nevertheless, success may be judged on the basis of the movement’s ability to open lines of communication with the public and its use of those lines to spread new knowledge as it attempts to affect social change.

It should not be inferred, however, that movements always fail to achieve their structural objectives. The mid-nineteenth-century abolitionist movement succeeded in abolishing slavery. Over a century later, the global movement against apartheid in South Africa yielded dramatic successes. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, grassroots movements radically transformed the totalitarian political structures of a number of eastern European countries into more democratic states. Similarly, the transnational social movement organization Greenpeace has aided in the creation, enforcement, and increasing support for international policies controlling the trade in toxic waste. In short, although movements occasionally achieve dramatic outcomes, social structures initially tend to be more resistant than cultures to the revolutionary or reform efforts of social movements.

Gamson (1990) is one of the few researchers who have attempted to identify systematically the conditions under which social movements are likely to achieve their objectives. He traced the activities of a representative sample of fifty-three ”challenging groups,” SMOs that emerged in the United Sates between 1800 and 1945. Gamson measured the relative success or failure of those SMOs in terms of whether they (1) gained new advantages and/or (2) gained acceptance from their antagonists. He found that thirty-one (58 percent) of them gained new advantages or acceptance while twenty (38 percent) gained both.

One of Gamson’s strongest findings pertained to the degree of change advocated. Movement groups that sought to displace extant elites rarely succeeded. Gamson reported that the SMOs most likely to succeed exhibited the following characteristics: selective incentives for participants (some form of inducement, including rewards and punishments, to participate); unruly tactics (e.g., strikes, violence), especially when the target was relatively weak; bureaucratic, centralized organizational structures; and the absence of factional splits in a group. Although Gamson’s research has been criticized as being too simplistic, it identifies several factors that affect the outcomes of social movements.

In examining the effectiveness of a social movement, it is important to see that success in changing worldviews can be linked to success in changing social structures. Movement activists devote considerable time to the task of transforming the ways in which people view or frame a social issue or domain of life: their interpretive frames (Snow et al. 1986). If a movement’s framing efforts are successful either locally or on a global scale, a general shift in public opinion can occur, as has been the case for the movement against drunk driving (Gusfield 1981). Drivers who once were thought of as foolish or careless have been redefined as ”killer drunks.” Subsequently, the movement has found it relatively easy to secure legislation raising minimum drinking ages and increasing the penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol. Although favorable public opinion is not a sufficient condition for social change to occur, it can lead to advantageous changes in the opportunity structure as well as the availability of resources.

Social movements may not always succeed in achieving their goals. Movements have, however, played a significant role in changing the way their members understand their world, the way others understand their world, and most societal reforms, revolutions, and changes in the world order.


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