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Definition: social movement from The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology

Loosely, any systematic, organized endeavour in which individuals work in a concerted manner toward some social goal. The term is used both for efforts designed to bring about social change as well as those directed toward resisting change and maintaining the status quo. It is applied to small local reformist efforts as well as to large, revolutionary movements.

Summary Article: Social movements
from The Social Science Jargon-Buster
Longer explanation

For many of us, social movements, whether they target specific issues (legalizing marijuana) or reflect major social divisions (civil rights), whether they're conservative (criminalizing abortion) or liberal (anti-capital punishment), reformative (advocating environmental protection laws) or radical (stopping capitalist exploitation) (see critical/radical), peaceful (Gandhi's fight for Indian independence) or violent (armed resistance), global (anti-globalization) or regional/local (fighting for farm subsidies), have always been part of our reality. We tend to accept such movements as part of our democratic framework. In fact, they are seen as central to tackling social issues not adequately addressed by institutionalized political processes. Social movements, however, are actually quite a new phenomenon, which only emerged with large population centres, the right to free speech, and the ability to communicate with the masses. And social movement theories, which attempt to understand causes, initiation/origin, leadership, organization, participants (who and why), resources, networks, structures, life-cycle, dynamics, effects, events, and environments, continue to evolve.

Debates and controversies

While social movements may be a key social change process, they're not all successful. Some never get off the ground; the organization is poor, causes are questionable, and mobilizing the masses just doesn't happen. Other times the system being fought is too entrenched or too powerful to overcome (think anti-globalization) or there may be alternative social movements working in opposition (pro-life vs. pro-choice). And of course in some nations, social movements are extraordinarily risky (e.g. the Tiananmen Square massacre of student protestors in China in 1989).

Practical application

Most realize that government policy sometimes reflects only a segment of the population or lags behind shifts in public opinion. And social movements (which have been around since the eighteenth century but really proliferated in the 1960s) have been a common, and often successful, means of rallying public support and pressuring governments to adopt (or sometimes resist) change. Social movements are thus a fascinating topic for anyone interested in social reform or social transformation.

Key figures

Theorists who have contributed to our understanding of social movements include Henri de Saint-Simon, who first used the term to characterize French social protests in the early eighteenth century, and Karl Marx, who in the nineteenth century explored class conflict and revolution. More recent theorists working in this area include Herbert Blumer, Neil Smesler, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Doug McAdams, Charles Tilly, Mancur Olson, Alain Touraine, and Craig Calhoun.

Sixties movements were grounded in a democratic vision: a belief that all people should be included as full members of society, that individuals become empowered through meaningful social participation.

Edward P. Morgan (1910-1993) US journalist, author - in The 60s Experience (1991)
Recommended readings

I'd start with Social Movements: An Introduction (Porta and Diani 2006) or The Social Movements Reader: Cases and Concepts (Goodwin and Jasper 2003). Other interesting choices include Social Movements, 1768-2004 (Tilly 2004), Social Movements: An Anthropological Reader (Nash 2004) and Self, Identity, and Social Movements (Stryker et al. 2000).

© Zina O’Leary 2007

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