What affects the success of reform movements? What do the civil liberties, feminist, environmental, gay rights, anti-nuke, gun control, don't drink and drive, and living wage movements have in common? Since the 1960's a small number of sociologists has been conducting research, trying to answer this question. Research-based theory on social movements complements the limited, often personal, perspective of activists and organizers because it looks at larger numbers of people, longer periods of time, and major shifts in popular attitudes.
At the time of this writing, little of this work has made its way out of universities. The following is an attempt to present in simple language the resource mobilization perspective of social movements. It summarizes and updates Doug McAdam's, John D. McCarthy's, and Mayer Zald's detailed review article, Social Movements, published in the Handbook of Sociology, edited by Neil Smelser. (Their perspective is distinct from the new social movement perspective linked to European intellectuals like Jurgen Habermas, which focuses on symbolic production and cultural conflict, with a mix of philosophy, political theory, and academic discourse.)
The authors identify three factors critical to social movements: political opportunity, organizational capacity, and framing ability. They look at social movements as politics by other means, often the only means open to relatively powerless challenging groups. They argue for the constancy of discontent and emphasize the variability of resources in accounting for the emergence and development of insurgency. A reliable model of social change, they say, must be able to account for both micro and macro phenomena, and be able to explain not only the emergence but the maintenance and development of social movement organizations.
In more detail, here is what they have to say.
Individual psychology not so important
Early work on social movements assumed that activism could be explained by examining the psychological motivations of individuals. A popular theory was that activism came from sensing a gap between what a person felt he or she was entitled to and what he or she, in fact received. According to resource mobilization adherents, empirical research shows individual predispositions are at best insufficient to account for participation in collective action.
Prosperity affords the resources necessary for social movements. Other things being equal the most deprived seem unable to sustain more than momentary insurgency. This also holds true for local politics. Neighbourhoods of higher socio-economic status are much better than poorer neighbourhoods at getting concessions and services from local government.
Bringing people into closer proximity in cities, factories, university campuses helps increase the potential for social movement activity. The civil rights movement followed the mass migration of blacks from dispersed rural settlements to concentrated urban centres in the US South. Short-lived examples of physical concentration also foment social change. Conferences, for instance, often energize participants to pursue progressive change. Sports events, carnivals and rallies have less predictable outcomes.
Level of prior grassroots organization
The prior existence of church groups, clubs, special interest organizations, teams and recreational groups, community groups, PTAs, veterans and educational organizations supports the development of social movements. The early stages of mobilization are difficult if most people lead purely private lives, and if grassroots groups have few members. Robert Putnam's work in Italy shows how broad public participation and a healthy network of grassroots groups could expedite large regional government initiatives.
The absence of cross-cutting solidarities
It is easier for a movement to grow in a population that is isolated or has weak ties to other groups in society. The feminist movement encountered a good deal of resistance from married women in the US, women who had a wide variety of social, and economic ties to men.
Suddenly imposed grievances, dramatic spotlighting
Dramatic, highly publicized and often unexpected events can lead to public outrage and major shifts in certain public attitudes. Huge oil spills, nuclear accidents, revelations of serious government misconduct, official violence against dissenters, or the sudden loss of employment serve to foment social movement.
Solidarity instead of free-riding
Many sociologists have argued that social movements are hampered by the tendency for people to do a quick cost-benefit analysis on their own participation. They argue the rational person will conclude the easiest course is to become a free rider since they will obtain the benefits of social action whether they participate or not. To address free rider absenteeism, smart activists emphasize solidarity, personal relationships, and the importance of individual commitment for success. This is much easier to do in an established organization.
Prior contact with a movement member
Research shows the strongest inducement to activism is prior contact with a movement member. For instance, new recruits to peace movements are typically people who are already associated with members of peace groups.
Membership in many organizations
Another correlate of individual activism is the number of organizations a person belongs to. Most organizers, focus their attention on organizations, having long recognized the difficulty of recruiting isolated individuals,
People who have been previously involved in some form of collective action in their past are more likely to be involved collective action in the future. This may come from learning the social role of activist. The longer one spends in the role of activist, the more likely subsequent involvement will become a matter of confirming one's identity.
People are more likely to act collectively when responding to strong emotions. Community organizers typically try to identify an emotional issue that will motivate people to participate. Chinese students who drove the democracy movement were spurred by a roller coaster of strong emotions. It started with grief, and anger over the murder of Hu Yaobang, sympathetic general secretary of the Communist Party; continued with a heroic hunger strike accompanied by vows of self-sacrifice; and ended with fear and hopeful exhilaration brought on by the risky defiance of martial law, and the blockading of entrances to the city.
Music that is often central to a social movement also relies on emotion. Music speaks to the emotions better than pictures or words. It stirs people up. Historians frequently mention the importance of Tom Paine's pamphlets to the American Revolution, too often overlooking his reworking of popular folk tunes.
Life circumstances permit or constrain participation by affecting availability. People with full time jobs, marriage and family responsibilities are less likely to participate in social movement activity. Autonomous individuals with few personal responsibilities such as college students and single professionals are much more likely participants.
The Ingredients of Micro-mobilization
Kindling in small groups
The basic building block of social movements is the small informal group connected to a loose network. Sometimes this "micro-mobilization context" is a group of friends, sometimes a group of coworkers, sometimes a subgroup within a larger group like a church or a union. A well-known example is the four Greensboro A&T students who precipitated the 60's black sit in movement after "bull-sessions" in one another's dorm rooms. Margaret Mead was quite right: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
Micro-mobilization contexts act as the staging ground for movements. Three resources affect the emergence of a movement: members, leaders, and an existing communications network. Research shows that new members appear along established lines of interaction. New members tend to know peoplewho are already members. The more a person is integrated into an activist community, the more readily he or she will be willing to take part in protest activities.
A co-optable communications network
The pattern, speed and spread of a movement depends on an existing co-optable communications network. The women's liberation movement was able to make rapid progress in the 1960's (where it had previously failed to do so) because of the prior arrival of just such a network. Overall, the greater the number and diversity of people actively participating in an network the more likely it will support a mobilization effort. The network may be informal and invisible, like those described in detail in Emanuel Rosen's book, The Anatomy of Buzz. Rosen sees communications networks as useful for flogging products; activists see them as useful for spreading ideas. Activists could learn something from books on social networks and viral marketing. Because social movements seem to spread like other innovations, activists might also learn something from the literature on technical and cultural diffusion, and the role of early adopters.
Smart, honest, committed leaders are invaluable to a social movement. The literature on activism emphasizes the importance of leaders in generating a movement, and the importance of creating new leaders to keep it rolling. Particularly important is the articulate and charismatic leader who can elegantly articulate people's concerns, and inspire an emotional response.
A Mobilizing frame
Corporations and elites, aided by corporate media, preserve the status quo by linking problems to individual shortcomings. They blame the victim, promoting the demobilizing view that lung cancer results from consumer choice, unemployment from laziness, and family breakup from selfishness. A movement can build quickly inside a homogenous and highly interactive group when people question the blame-the-victim frame and begin to see a problem deriving from not from flawed individuals, but from flawed public policy.
Erving Goffman originated the term "frame" to refer to an interpretive scheme that people use to simplify and make sense of some aspect of the world. As a mobilizing frame becomes widely shared, the chances of collective action increase markedly.
Frame alignment describes what happens in small informal groups that promote social change. Movement supporters attempt to bring others around to a mobilizing frame by providing examples and rationales that legitimize the movement. If others buy the examples and rationale, they adjust their view of issues and events so they are aligned with the new mobilizing frame.
According to David Snow and others, frame alignment includes frame bridging, frame amplification, frame extension and frame transformation. Frame extension occurs when a social movement organization extends "the boundaries of its primary framework so as to encompass interests or points of view that are incidental to its primary objectives but of considerable salience to potential adherents. In effect, the movement is attempting to enlarge its adherent pool by portraying its objectives or activities as attending to and being congruent with the values and interests of potential adherents."
Any given individual is more likely to participate in a project if he or she:
The relentless enthusiasm of the best grassroots animateurs inspires enthusiasm and optimism in others, even in the worst circumstances.
The need for social movement organizations
Micro-mobilization spurs collective action, but informal groups of friends, ad-hoc committees, or loose associations of activists are not sufficient to develop or maintain a movement. This requires organization, and what are called social movement organizations or SMOs. Typically these "command posts of the movement" have an office, staff, volunteers and a board of directors
Role of the SMO
The social movement organization needs to carve out a niche for itself in the larger environment of other organizations pursuing similar objectives, as well as develop productive relationships with media, funders, the media and government. Most important, each SMO must figure out a way to routinize a flow of people and money to support the "cause". SMOs that demand the least from members will be the most successful in obtaining members and money. One variation,the professional SMO,attempts to speak for a large constituency, but connects to members through weak direct mail and media links.
Radical Flank Effects
Research on SMOs pursuing relatively similar goals shows the presence of extremist groups leads to greater support for moderate groups. Funders increase their support to moderate groups as a way of undercutting radical groups. Moreover the presence of more extreme groups alters the definition of middle, making former radicals seem merely progressive. To secure their place, the new moderates have to denounce the actions of their extremist counterparts as irresponsible, immoral, and counterproductive. The most astute will quietly encourage "responsible extremism" at the same time.
Government control through regulation, intimidation and cooptation
The modern state usually defends elite interests and resists social movement. It does so though tax policies; laws affecting boycott, strikes and blockades; strategic withholding of funds; denial of non-profit charity status; police intimidation; and various forms of cooptation.
The use of force is a dicey issue for government. In the short run systematic, sustained, moderate force works. But if it goes on too long or becomes extreme, the use of force can generate a backlash against government and a boost for the movement. Saul Alinsky was right: Your best action is often your opponent's reaction. Because a violent response to a peaceful protest generates great sympathy from the media and the general public, peaceful provocation has become a standard tactic of activists. But protest organizers always face the problem of trying to control a small number of violent participants. If they fail, the media will portrait this minority as representative of all protesters, making a violent response seem justified.
In modern democracies, government control often amounts to cooptation or absorption. This can take the form of providing funds to potentially problematic groups, and hiring activist leaders or appointing them to boards. It can also take the form of what is called "symbolic reassurance" whereby governments set up a special hearings, commissions, or agencies to address a particular concerns or grievances.
Governments are not always on the other side. They will assist SMOs that are pursuing objectives in synch with their own, sometimes creating programs, conferences, and special funding to bolster the membership and credibility of favorite SMOs. When fears of public or corporate backlash stall progressive policy changes, they will support advocacy groups as a means of building public support. In Canada, for instance, the Non-smokers Rights Coalition receives millions from the Federal government to publicly lobby for federal laws requiring cigarette packages carry large text warnings and gruesome photos showing the damage caused by smoking. In effect, government pays to be openly lobbied in the media, then responds when the public begins to see the need for government action.
SMOs often try to exploit circumstances where different levels of government (federal, provincial/state, municipal), or different departments within the same government, wind up on different sides of the same issue. In the American civil rights movement, federal laws and lawsuits, clamped down on southern sheriffs and voting registrars. In one important move, the US president Eisenhower called out the National Guard to constrain Arkansas Governor Faubus in the Little Rock school desegregation crisis.
Occasionally groups can use the courts to advance a social movement. Juries can impede authority by nullifying formal law. Juries repeatedly delivering not guilty verdicts for doctors accused of performing abortions, overthrowing the laws prohibiting abortion. The courts can also undercut the use of force by the police. Finally, court proceedings or semi-judicial hearings that capture media attention can develop public support for movement goals. Still, a judicial route may cost a lot of time and money even with a public interest advocate willing to take the case pro-bono. As a rule of thumb, the courts are good at preventing injustice, and poor at furthering progress.
The broad adoption of a mobilizing frame and recognition of the value of individual contribution to collective action may be sufficient to generate collective action but not enough to maintain it. The demise of radical feminism in the US after the civil war, and after passage of the suffrage amendment shows how tenuous political consciousness can be. To succeed a movement must generate support from authorities, sympathy from bystanders and, most important, continue to be seen as legitimate and effective by movement members. This inevitably means an ongoing struggle with movement opponents to frame events and issues in a way that supports the movement.
In their struggle for favorable public opinion, SMOs use various communications technologies to get their message out. They use the telephone to recruit potential members, reconnect to lapsed members, and generate action alerts though established telephone trees. They most often use direct mail to reinforce movement frames, acquire resources, and foment direct action. Because the effectiveness of direct mail fundraising improves dramatically with television exposure, some SMOs try to earn TV coverage, or obtain lower ad rates for public service announcements with depoliticized content. Organizations with minimal budgets prefer email listserves to direct mail. Maintaining consciousness on limited budget requires inventive communications. The most effective SMOs have top-notch communications professionals on staff.
On-going Frame alignment
Sociologists take pains to point out that frame alignment only works as an ongoing process. According to David Snow and Robert Benford, SMOs must continue to strive for alignment and action through diagnostic, prognostic, and motivational framing. When confronted with a challenge, an SMO must diagnose the problem in a way that resonates with members and potential members, propose a plausible solution that could be accomplished by movement participation, and issue a call to arms that motivates action. A successful SMO must also work hard to maintain the saliency of supportive frames while attacking, debunking, and ridiculing counter frames. Defensive measures usually extend to polarized us-versus-them framing and may go further to framing opponents actions as corrupt, dishonest or evil. Loss of alignment is a constant threat in the presence of counter movements and the counter fames of opponents.
Frames from the news
Most people acquire their information and orientation to the world from the impersonal mass media. With it they acquire stock frames and frame-making ideologies. What they come to see as their own opinions for or against a social movement are actually news constructed. Right wing ideology is both news constructed and heavily promoted by the corporate owners of the mass media. It assumes that we suffer from too much government, too many taxes and too many controls of corporate enterprise Any ideology, once adopted by the mass media, will almost certainly turn around and infect the public that relies upon it for information. Only the most vigilant can resist this kind of consistent framing, story after story, day after day.
Oppositional frames from intellectual workers
Those who teach at universities and colleges generate frames and frame-making ideologies that counter established frames including those of the mass media. Thus universities and colleges often serve as incubators for progressive movements. But many movements go no further. They are frequently abandoned by students who graduate and enter a variety of milieus where counter-movement frames prevail.
SMOs often face a dilemma when it comes to raising funds. If their membership is impoverished and they depend their membership for funds, they will wind up spending an inordinate amount of time and energy on fundraising for very little return. If, on the other hand, they look to external elites, they will face funding uncertainties and strings attached cooptation. External support usually tames a movement steering it towards the more conservative goals of elite funders. Nevertheless, most social movements eventually turn to elites, foundations, corporations, and rich philanthropists, for assistance in order to sustain themselves long enough to obtain substantial victories. Few funding organizations consider this a problem. One that does is the British Crossroads Fund where a board of both donors and activists makes decisions about grants.
Besides attracting resources and new recruits, a movement must strive to maintain the energies and loyalties of existing members. Like an effective small group, an effective SMO will focus on frame alignment, trying its best to ensure a fit between members values and movement goals. It will also work for concrete action and visible victories, since people are drawn to a movement when they see it as a forum for action, and soon drop out if nothing happens.
SMOs goals and tactics
SMOs face an uphill battle simply surviving, let alone achieving substantive, political, social or economic change. They face a myriad of challenges with two potentially powerful weapons: engaging goals and effective tactics. But many organizations are weak on tactical thinking, and few pay sufficient attention to social movement research. Some organizations fail because they engage in violent or abusive action, which attracts media attention, but alienates supporters. This is what happened to Black Power groups in the 1960's. Others organizations, like the Sea Shepard Society, succeed because they have found ways to legitimize violence in pursuit of their goals. On the question of goals, research shows the wisdom of maintaining a narrow focus, and a single goal. SMOs pursuing a single goal are far more successful than those pursuing many goals.
Further social movement research
This brief overview should not be seen as a guide to creating a successful social movement, but a baseline upon which to construct intelligent responses to the ever-changing landscape of movement politics.
Further research may answer such key questions such as:
Can the ignition of a movement be carried out in organized fashion, or is it dependent on Fortuna? What are the best practices for small groups that have no resources? Under what conditions can successful framing overcome a lack of structural capacity? Should activists spend more time developing frames that fuse personal and collective identities?
The Troublemaker's Teaparty is a print version of The Citizen's Handbook published in 2003. It contains all of The Handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots rot, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from bookstores, Amazon or New Society Publishers.