In all societies, social critics challenge unequal distributions of wealth, power, and privilege, effects of social policy, and cultural change or transgression. Aggrieved groups may organize to pursue their shared beliefs and interests. If they are unable to obtain satisfaction by petitioning legitimized political, economic, and cultural institutions they may take to the streets. Social movements are sustained collective actions occurring outside legitimated institutions of social power in pursuit of social goals.
Social movements historically have championed the interests of disadvantaged groups such as industrial workers, racial minorities, and women. Unable to command the economic or political resources available to interest groups and political parties, movements must generate a large and dedicated membership as their power base. Widespread support for movement goals will not guarantee a large or committed membership, however.
Recruitment and Mobilization
Olson (1965) noted that activists pay a price for their activism but they rarely are materially compensated for all their costs. To explain the widespread existence of social movements and the sometimes extreme sacrifice members make on their behalf, scholars point to subjective rewards of movement membership.
Interpersonal communication and interaction among activists are intrinsically satisfying, generating affective bonds and increased mutual respect. Blumer (1955) stated that activists, through interpersonal interaction in intimate settings, develop feelings of “mutual sympathy and responsiveness” and a sense of belonging. Melucci (1989) argues that the development of a collective identity is a necessary precondition for movement effectiveness. The existence of an intellectually and emotionally supportive community reassures each activist that she or he is engaging in a worthwhile and noble cause. Membership in a revered group enhances self-esteem and provides meaning to one’s own life. For extremists the group acts as a haven from criticism and isolation.
Personal attachments often precede movement membership as existing interpersonal networks and local organizations are mined for recruits. Black churches in the southern United States and interpersonal networks among activists in the north were important for recruitment to the US civil rights movement in the 1960s (McAdam et al. 2001). To promote the development of interpersonal networks and emotional ties, movement organizations sponsor picnics, hunting trips, and music festivals and set aside time at formal meetings and official gatherings for interaction. Collective actions promote interpersonal ties and collective identity. When facing riot police or organized opposition, activists are forced to count on one another, deepening bonds and developing trust and esteem. Shared hardship and confrontation starkly demarcate friend from foe, “we” from “they,” and serve to cement the adoption of a collective identity by activists. Subsequent encounters with fellow activists, bystanders, and members of the opposition are colored by their collective identities. Public protest, especially when it generates physical hardship, is a form of ritual sacrifice by the community and its members in the name of the larger utopian vision of the movement.
Incorporating and reinterpreting portions of the host culture, and innovating with new symbols and meanings, movements construct their own unique culture complete with myths and narratives, styles of dress, language, hairstyles, songs, heroes, and villains. Shared culture strengthens the sense of community and serves to demarcate the boundary between member and nonmember. Wearing movement clothes and singing movement songs serves to display publicly the activists’ identification with the movement, proudly proclaiming membership and accepting alienation from the opposition. Movement culture may become popular among a wider audience, potentially serving as a recruitment tool as reggae music has done for the Rastafari movement.
Ideology and Rhetoric
Social movements do ideological work. They frame social conditions as social problems, explain how those problems arose and how they operate in society, and propose and promote corrective social action. Certain framing strategies allow leaders to deepen activist commitment or to form coalitions with other activist groups. Powerful frames incorporate widely held beliefs and values, present member interests as widely shared, and resonate with the everyday experience of activists.
Compelling frames emphasize injustice, identifying a group that is unfairly victimized, specifying an identifiable villain, and presenting a call to action to end the injustice (Gamson 1992). Such frames appeal to emotion as well as reason. Movement organizations promote their frames for social problems to the media. The media are more likely to adopt frames that are reformist rather than revolutionary, and that are promoted by legitimated groups. Media framing influences public opinion on issues, and can impact the legitimacy and effectiveness of social movement organizations.
Organization of Social Movements
To provide movement continuity, coordinate movement actions at regional, national, and international levels, and provide leadership that can represent movements to major social institutions, activists develop organizations of varying formality and permanence. The conditions that social movement leaders face require them to be exceptional rhetors (Simons and Mechling 1981). They must satisfy fractious volunteer memberships that often prefer radical rhetoric and at the same time avoid alienating potential allies among the elite and wider public, usually by reassuring them privately that the movement seeks moderate goals through peaceful means. Should the discrepancy be made public, leaders must explain themselves, as American civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., adeptly did by appealing to higher values and purposes.
The predominant means for resource-starved social movements to reach their goals is to convince officials or the wider public to adopt supportive beliefs and opinions. Social movements employ a wide range of propaganda tactics, but are especially known for public protest, including demonstrations, sit-ins, marches, and picketing. Public protest draws attention to an existing social condition and defines it as contested or problematic, demonstrates that a group of citizens are willing to sacrifice time and effort and to risk incarceration or injury to address the problem, provides an opportunity to recruit sympathizers and to influence public opinion, and challenges institutional authorities to respond.
Getting News Coverage
Movements seek out news coverage by engaging in dramatic public protest actions, making leaders available for interviews, holding press conferences, and sending out press releases. Television coverage of US civil rights protests during the early 1960s has been credited with generating emotional and monetary support for the movement, pressuring the federal government to provide protection for activists, and positively influencing the passage of movement-sponsored legislation. Other movements have found coverage to be less valuable, or even to be harmful. The Black Panther Party, also seeking the expansion of African-American rights and welfare, was portrayed as extreme and dangerous, making state repression more palatable to the public.
Content analyses of protest coverage show that even large demonstrations, strikes, or rallies may be ignored if the movement is especially disfavored, as, for example, neofascist movements, or if the action does not seem newsworthy to journalists. News organizations value the odd and the sensational and highlight them in protest coverage, at times to the detriment of coverage of protesters’ message. Violence, especially, is likely to be highlighted where present and even its absence noted or discussed. Activists must choose between adopting confrontational or sensational tactics to draw attention, knowing that the tone will likely be negative and the focus on the actions rather than the movement message, and eschewing sensation and disruption, with the knowledge that the movement’s struggle may be ignored. At anti-globalization protests in Seattle, Quebec City, Genoa, Cancun, and Hong Kong from 1999 to 2005, activists attempted to gain attention without appearing dangerous or unbalanced by engaging in innovative, dramatic, and symbolically pregnant expression such as street theatre, skydiving into demonstrations, hanging massive signs from buildings or overpasses, dressing up as sea turtles, undressing, dancing, singing and chanting, burning flags, and even committing suicide.
Media preference for the sensational may affect movement organizations themselves. Gitlin (1980) described how press preference for the more radical and flamboyant members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) during the 1960s generated a public perception that the organization was a militant extreme leftist organization. Those whose politics reflected that perception were more likely to join the organization than were moderates, so that the organization was radicalized. Public perception of the organization as radical decreased mainstream support for the SDS, encouraging government repression and organizational decline.
Sustained movement activity may draw more diverse coverage, including a more complete discussion of movement ideology and social critique. Attention in the news confers social legitimacy, increasing movement spokespersons’ access to editorial media, such as news magazines and television or radio talk shows. Feminist, environmentalist, and peace movements in many countries have been ignored, or faced dismissive or delegitimizing coverage, during their early development. As these and other movements have evolved, media coverage has come to portray them as legitimate social critics and their rhetoric as reasonable and even compelling. On some occasions, movement frames have come to dominate media discourse. For example, a frame that asserts that citizens should have equal rights regardless of race or sex now predominates in many countries.
Use of Alternative And Popular Media
Movements propagandize through any readily available media. Intellectuals and agitators produce books for scholarly and more popular audiences. Documentary film portrays movement beliefs and values in an emotionally compelling manner. With some notable exceptions these materials tend to cater to small audiences predisposed to support movement beliefs. To reach larger audiences, activists have favored popular music as a vehicle for movement rhetoric. Movement music demonstrating economic potential has been prone to appropriation by commercial music producers, draining it of its critical potential. Popular media have been the target of movement protest as well as its vehicle. Movements seeking to construct and promote a positive identity for social groups that have been traditionally seen as inferior, deviant, or just different have targeted cultural production organizations and artists with demonstrations and criticism, as well as with awards and incentives to influence portrayals of ethnic, racial, gender, and sexual preference groups. Conservative religious groups have lobbied advertisers and engaged in letter-writing campaigns to authorities in attempts to reduce the incidence and explicitness of sex and violence on television.
Mainstream media rarely provide access to radical movements, and political authorities will not help them gain a larger audience. Radical movements have historically turned to alternative media in the form of underground books, magazines, and newsletters. More recently, cable and satellite television networks and, especially, websites have been used to carry movement ideology. A massive amount of material produced by movements from extreme left to extreme right can be accessed through the world wide web. Alternative media provide access to movement ideology for potential recruits and current activists, construct a space for debate among activists, and reassure and reinvigorate radicals by demonstrating the existence and vitality of an ideologically supportive community.
Despite their limited resources, movements regularly attempt to influence political and economic elites directly. Social movement organizations lobby law-makers, protest at speeches and meetings, conduct letter-writing campaigns, and sue opponents in court. In some instances, activists have extensive technical expertise that they use to gain entry into decision-making processes. With resources donated by wealthy sponsors, activists have set up think tanks where ideologically dedicated experts produce policy treatises that are disseminated to the public and to political decision-makers.
Consequences of Social Movements
Opposition to movements often leads to the formation of counter-movements, especially among those who would suffer materially or emotionally should the movements be successful. An example is the ongoing conflict between “pro-life” and “pro-choice” forces over abortion policy. Counter-movements may ultimately be more successful than the social movements that originally inspired them.
Though they face long odds, social movements do sometimes succeed in attaining their goals. More often, they achieve partial success or induce unexpected cultural, political, or economic change. Multiple waves of activism characterize social movements promoting feminism, anti-colonialism, Aryan nationalism, democratization, the end to poverty, and many others. Each wave inherits tactical knowledge, issue frames, movement culture, and sometimes surviving organizational structure from earlier waves. New movements emerge within a new political, economic, and cultural context that bears the imprint of earlier waves of contention.
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