a list of problems in social movement theory


Here is a very, long post…

On wednesday, I asked readers to offer their opinion on open problems in social movement theory. As promised, here is a summary of comments and problems proposed by readers, followed by my own list of 21 problems. First, some comments:

Lars expressed frustration with the whole social movements field, a sentiment shared by me and “rackels,” though he is frustrated because SM research puts him to sleep.

Omar and Brayden’s comments implied that maybe we should consider how social movement type action could be expanded to include “religiously motivated action” and action informed by institutional fields. Omar also cautioned against writing any more papers that say “An Institutional Approach to…” I second that motion, but mainly because I am a recovering institutional addict and such a paper in grad school.

Jeff asked if there was a “definitive” statement on certain topics in existing movement research, such as political process theory. I think the answer is yes if you mean “is there a book/article that lays out major terms, basic findings and sets out the basic ideas concerning a topic?” By that definition, I think that most subsequent research on the topic would be incremental and very normal science, which is the case, I think, in recruitment studies, framing, and social revolution studies. We are almost there in political process theory and analyses of state response/repression of movements.

Here are problems presented by Jeff, with comments by me:

1. When do social movements emerge? Let’s not give up on the political process perspective, but it has a long way to go. [It’s not as bad as you think , for ex, check out van dykes articles on college protest and militia mobilization in social problems. I think we have a lot of good work already, but maybe we are missing the synthetic work that pulls together all the studies of individual movements, we also need more students of movements that failed.]
2. Also, even the “why” question is still open, as the above discussion of religion and SMs illustrates. Look for a reexamination of “strain” theories as discussions of this sort become more common. [I second that motion – did Snow et al lead us to far away from studies of objective conditions and movement emergence?]

3. How and under what conditions do SMs influence social institutions? (rephrasing Brayden’s Q). Take the religion question again, but in reverse. How do SMs shape religious institutions? Liberation Theology and indigenous movements would be an interesting focus of study, I think. The recent surge in org theoretical concerns with social movements and the concurrent Dynamics of Contention push to study “contentious events” offer real opportunities for understanding processes of institutional change and the role that SMs play. [Ahem, if you want one approach, you might check out my work on black power & universities, which takes a field centric approach to the issue. One you mobilize, you trigger processes that ripple through the field. But readers will have to wait till 2007 to see the printed version, or email for advance copies.]

4. Why have “institutional outsiders” adopted such strikingly similar forms (for the past 200 years!) if they’re not institutionalized? Certainly it’s not because SM forms are “natural.” Why not form a guerilla army? A charitable foundation? Interest groups? Underground terrorist networks? [Well, we’ve had all of those in America but we do need a succinct explanation of why certain forms. My hunch is that societies always have a “soup” of competing forms for protest (see chap 1 of my book) but social institutions and other processes weed out some forms over others. Definitely a project worthy of more study.]

5. Do leaders (charasmatic and otherwise) matter? How and under which conditions? [I remember Aldon Morris and Suzanne Staggenborg had a working paper on leader in movements. It is now a chapter in the Blackwell companion to social movements]

6. Why do SM organizations adopt the issues (or the claims) that they do? Take Radical Women, for example, which takes up socialism, feminism, racism, labor, homophobia, and police brutality. Why these? Why not animal rights? New Social Movement scholars have tried but ultimately failed to answer such questions. [Good one! Is there a paper that explains particular combinations of issues? My collaborator (Michael Heaney at U Florida) studies interest groups and argues that it is a matter of who the group is representing and their niche in the system (click here). My hunch is that there is a similar process at work for social movements.]

Now here is my list:

A List of Twenty Open Questions for Social Movement Research by Fabio Rojas, January 2006. Rating system:


G = Straightforward problem, good for an MA or a single article.

PG = Requires some serious data collection or theoretical ability, but fairly accessible. It’s an entire book or PhD project.

R = Requires a fair amount of theoretical creativity and high data requirements. This might be hard.


  1. Which movement groups or activities get reported in the media? What is it about a group or protest event that attracts the attention of the media? Or is it a matter of contacts between movement leaders and media elites? Is the process different for television, radio, print or Internet? Rating PG [Note – the recent newspaper lit solves some of this, media effects unexplored, also see Pam Oliver’s AJS article on media and movements.]
  2. McAdam introduced the now standard model of movement recruitment: persons with a strong predisposition for protest are contacted through friends to join the movement. How has the Internet changed this process? How have other technologies such as text messaging, pod casts, or fax machines changed this process? What about blogs like Daily Kos? Rating PG. [Note Jennifer Earl has written some about this.]
  3. Movement as liminality inducer. We often think of movements as something that tries to change a given social order and create a new social order. What happens in the time between the old and new orders? When do movements disrupt the old order and do not create a new order? How can you characterize the “structureless” situation? Rating R.
  4. Hierarchy vs. democracy. Donatella Della Porta has written a wonderful book about the problems of highly democratic movement groups. The point is that consensus makes it really hard to have a functional group in the long term. One solution is to be a hierarchy, where people take orders from the leaders. Labor movements and conservative groups operate this way. What are the alternatives? Some groups have a sort of optional participation model – events are organized, but people volunteer to join. Different coalitions show up for different event. Event democracy but organizational hierarchy. Do this new organizational form show any promise? Rating R.
  5. Movement evolution. New movements often recruit people from older movements. How much does the new movement resemble the old movement? What predicts similarity between old and new movements? Rating PG.
  6. Event scripting. Can you figure out the cultural script for certain types of movement events? What causes people to go off script? Rating G.
  7. State orientation. A few recent articles (see here for work from Soule & Van Dyke)make the point that movements aren’t always targeting the state. What predicts if a movement chooses to operate through the state? One might think that it is issue related and also linked to the life cycle of the movement. Is that true? Does group ideology have an effect? Rating G.
  8. Leadership and Gender. Women have always played an important role in movements, but things have changed recently. Women’s groups, like Code Pink, have taken a leading role in the globalization and anti-war movements that aren’t mainly about gender or family. What has changed to allow this to happen? Rating PG.
  9. Movements and the major American political parties. One could say that each major American party is dominated by a social movement. The Civil Rights movement evolved into a major Democratic party constituency. The Christians of the 1980s have now dominated GOP politics. What are the similarities and differences? Which movements tried to become influential and failed? Why did they fail? Rating: R.
  10. Repression and movement emergence. A lot of research shows that repression creates a substitution effect. People lobby the state internally in times of repression instead of starting formal organizations. When things loosen up, people come out and protest more. How can you describe the organizations that are the first to crawl out from repressive regimes? I.e., what do early movement groups in Russia and Poland have in common? Rated G.
  11. Christianity and social change. We all know that religion is important for movements, but I don’t think we have a terribly good theory of when it matters. What explains whether a social movement adopts Christianity, or any other major religion, as a framework? For example, socialist movements used to be Christian before 1880, then you got a bunch of atheist socialist movements like the Bolsheviks. Why? Rated R.
  12. A lot of people have argued that conflict within professions is quite similar to a social movement. Is this a bogus comparison? Rated G.
  13. How does video recording of protest events affect how the police monitor protestors? Rated PG.
  14. Democracies allow for a great deal of protest. At the same time, we know that a lot of democratic governments monitor and spy on their citizens, even when they are involved in non-violent and fairly innocuous politicking. What processes restrain state repression of movements in democracies? Is it sensational court cases, government culture, or what? Rated: PG on theory, but R on data collection.
  15. Universities often supply the rank and file for many movements, and act as movement incubators, but we don’t know much more about their role in shaping movements. What more about the higher education sector can be said with respect to movements? Rated PG.
  16. What, exactly, is it about education that makes some one much more likely to participate in protest? We know the correlation is there, but we don’t know why. Rated R.
  17. How has the mass migration of Muslims to Europe changed the social movement system in Europe? Similarly, how has the mass migration of Latinos (post 1960s) and East Europeans (late 19th century) affected American social movements? Rated R.
  18. How does sustained movement participation affect families? That is, we know a fair amount about activist biography, but how a person’s does involvement in social movements affect those around them? Rated R.
  19. A lot of literature tells us that objective conditions (such as unemployment) do not always lead to mobilization. But what exactly is the empirical relationship between objective social conditions and movement emergence? For example, we’d expect extreme poverty to suppress most movements, so we would expect a difference between poor and wealthy societies. But is there much of a difference among industrialized nations? Is the pattern different for other “objective conditions?” For example, is the correlation between pollution and green movements similar to gender relations and feminist movements? Rated PG.
  20. It has often been observed that American conservatives rarely engage in protest, except when it comes to abortion politics. What exactly is the relationship between political ideology and movement participation? What prevents conservatives from protesting in other areas? Why do liberals choose to mobilize for specific goals? More generally, what is it about an ideology that encourages some forms of activism and not others? Does your theory stand up to comparison in other countries? Rated PG.
  21. Some movements have “welfare states,” like Hezbollah. They have schools and other social support and buy support with it. What accounts for a movement’s expansion into social welfare? Rated PG.

Maybe some of these problems are solved, so please post in the comments what is known about these problems.

Written by fabiorojas

September 8, 2006 at 8:55 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Fabio: Fantastic – the above effort takes posts and blogging to a whole new level – undoubtedly your summary will be a nice source of preliminary ideas for SM scholars.



    September 9, 2006 at 5:59 am

  2. Thanks! What I really hope is to see some answers to these questions.



    September 10, 2006 at 4:55 am

  3. […] Fabio Rojas asks [Q7] what makes a social movement target the state instead of someone or something else. The relevant tie-in to Goodwin’s article is here: There is a general, although by no means unanimous, consensus among social scientists that terrorism is violence targeted indiscriminately against ordinary civilians or noncombatants as opposed to soldiers, police, politicians, bureaucrats, or other agents of the state. […]


  4. If you follow the above trackback, bear with me as I’m experimenting with (and may soon switch to) WordPress. This is now the only link in the world to that site which is currently a mirror image of my blogger site. Dammit.



    September 14, 2006 at 12:56 am

  5. […] Twenty+ social movement problems […]


  6. […] ejemplo también se está estudiando desde la sociología de movimientos sociales. P.e. en el blog orgtheory Fabio Rojas se refiere a ello como optional participation model: Hierarchy vs. democracy. Donatella […]


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