so you want to write about social movements…


A colleague recently asked me to suggest some introductory readings about social movement theory and research. The colleague is an organizational scholar who is considering submitting a paper to the ASQ special issue on organizations, markets, and social movements. It occurred to me as I was writing the email that this is a topic that might interest a lot of orgheads. I’ve more or less copied the contents of that email to this blog post. Some of you may find it useful as you begin thinking about the social movement-y aspects of your organizational research.

Reading suggestion #1 – You probably need to understand the basic conceptual toolkit of social movement scholars. Social movement scholars, for a long time, were interested in explaining why and how social movements emerged, developed, and took action. Three primary explanations exist: resource mobilization (social movements thrive when an internal resource base exists), political opportunity structure (social movements thrive when the external environment presents favorable conditions for change), and framing processes (social movements organize when leaders provide rationales that resonate with potential activists ideologies and beliefs). These various explanations have merged to form what some call the political process approach. The following is a book that goes over these concepts and that approach. I would at least read the introductory chapter.

  • Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald. 1996. Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings. Cambridge University Press.

Some of you may want to read this paper that I wrote for Business and Society (forthcoming in June, I believe), in which I summarize some of the main explanations for social movement emergence and suggest how they might be used to explain the origin of stakeholder collective action.

Reading suggestion #2 – Once we gained a better understanding of why movements exist, social movement scholars became interested in understanding how/if movements accomplish their goals. The question was, can movements really cause change? An entire literature developed around this question. The following book provides a good place to start understanding the answer to this question. As with the last book, you probably should at least read the introduction. Also, you might want to read a paper that Sarah Soule and I wrote that grapples with some of the latest questions about movement outcomes. Increasingly, scholars interested in social movement outcomes have to deal with various other explanations for social and political change, including public opinion and the nature of the targeted institution. Our paper deals with where movements fit in this mix.

  • Marco Giugni, Doug McAdam, and Charles Tilly. 1999. How Social Movements Matter. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Sarah Soule and Brayden G King. 2006. “The stages of the policy process and the equal rights amendment, 1972-1982.” American Journal of Sociology 111: 1871-1909.

Reading suggestion #3 – And this leads us to the topic in question – does organizational change relate, in some way, to social movement activity? This question seems to be motivated by an internal explanation for organizational change that doesn’t violate theoretical assumptions about inertia and lack of adaptability. Social movements may take various forms within organizations or in industries. For example, some scholars have referred to shareholder activism as a kind of movement intended to gain political control over corporate governance (Davis and Thompson, 1994). Others talk about identity movements within particular industries to change the institutional logics of those industries (Rao, Monin, and Durand, 2002). Here are a couple of primers to orient you with the literature on social movements and organizational change. One of the suggested articles was written by’s Fabio Rojas.

  • Hayagreeva Rao, Calvin Morrill, and Mayer N. Zald. 2000. “Power plays: How social movements and collective action create new organizational forms.” Research in Organizational Behavior, 22: 237-281.
  • Gerald F. Davis, Doug McAdam, W. Richard Scott, and Mayer N. Zald. 2005. Social Movements and Organizational Theory. Cambridge University Press.
  • Fabio Rojas. 2006. “Social movement tactics, organizational change, and the spread of African-American studies.” Social Forces, 84: 2147-2166.
  • Heather A. Haveman, Hayagreeva Rao, and Srikanth Paruchuri. 2007. “The winds of change: The progressive movement and the bureaucratization of thrift.” American Sociological Review, 72: 117-142.

As I’ve summarized this, I see the new literature on social movements and organizations as an outgrowth of a social movement literature increasingly trying to understand how social and political change takes place and an organizational scholarship that needed new life in its explanations for organizational change. Of course, I’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg and have failed to mention a considerable number of important research questions that motivate social movement research. I see these suggestions as a good place to get started.

Written by brayden king

February 27, 2007 at 4:33 pm

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