most important social movement research findings

Back to our regularly scheduled programming…

I got to thinking – what are the most important empirical findings from social movement research? Here are a few big ones:

  • Social movements are not mobs, they have informal (networks) and formal (orgs) structure.
  • Deprivation theory is wrong, social construction is right. “Objective” conditions don’t predict the rise of movements, but problem construction.
  • The social movement form is now part of the modern repertoire of politics.
  • Movements are responsible for some major policies (e.g., desegregation).
  • Participation is more about networks and opportunity, than political attitudes.
  • Revolutions seem to involve simultaneous “local” and “global” pressures.
  • Movements are now connected through global networks of activists and NGOS.
  • Democratic nations are less repressive towards movements than other nations. We live up to the motto.
  • Movements piggy back off each other. Movements of a certain persuasion (progressive, conservative) draw on a common pool of activists and organizations.

Add more in the comments.


Written by fabiorojas

April 2, 2009 at 12:54 am

18 Responses

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  1. What is the difference between a social movement and an interest group?


    R. Pointer

    April 2, 2009 at 5:36 am

  2. My answer (which is not the popular one): movement groups and interest groups merely reflect different choices of tactics. We associate contention (e.g., protests) with movements, while interest groups use institutional politics (e.g., lobbying, voting). Of course, if you buy my explanation, a group can be both manifested as an interest group and movement. This is actually what you see in real “movements”: groups switching identities from movement to interest group.



    April 2, 2009 at 5:45 am

  3. […] Fabio Rojas of, insights on empirical findings in social movement […]


  4. Could one not also say that interest groups are more narrowly focused on things like regulation and tenders for gov’t contracts while social movements take a broader view, trying to influence legislation and cultural norms? Like you say, one could quite easily still imagine collaborative ventures between interest groups and social movements.


    Thomas Basbøll

    April 2, 2009 at 10:35 am

  5. How about the importance of framing? Movements seek frames that resonate with their constituents and the institutions they seek to change. More culturally resonant frames will be more likely to yield institutional change.

    I’d just add that while this is increasingly seen as a truism of SM theory, we still have a fairly rudimentary understanding of cultural resonance.



    April 2, 2009 at 12:53 pm

  6. Social movements seek social-structural change, which is why the insights of social movement research can and have been creatively applied to domains outside of politics, such as economics or culture or both at the same time.


    Eric Schwartz

    April 2, 2009 at 4:21 pm

  7. TB: Your distinction doesn’t work for me. For example, what if a group protests city contracts for minorities? They may target “local” things like city contracts, but with a “structural” goal in mind.

    BK: Good point, in my scheme, you lump framing into the “social construction” category.

    ES: Like, TB, seeking social structural change doesn’t do it for me. What about political parties? For example, the GOP may seek fundamental change in work and economic regulation, but would we call it a movement? If so, if a major party can be a movement, what doesn’t count as a movement?



    April 2, 2009 at 4:29 pm

  8. I don’t think political parties seek structural change. (On the contrary, in many ways.) They seek votes, plain and simple; perhaps “power” in a formal sense. Social movements do, of course, often work through political parties, but that’s like working through shareholder factions, parliaments, and courts.

    As to your example, Fabio, by referring to a structural goal that the movements have “in mind” you seem pretty clearly to be going beyond a mere difference in tactics. My point was that the interest groups take changing regulations or winning contracts as their goal, while movements might pursue such local issues as means to a larger (structural) end.

    Liked by 1 person

    Thomas Basbøll

    April 2, 2009 at 6:55 pm

  9. I wonder if my comparative comp committee will accept that answer. My professor seems to think that ‘movements’ do not provide enough analytical leverage to warrant a new subfield.

    For me, I have to make up my mind by August!


    R. Pointer

    April 3, 2009 at 12:16 am

  10. R:Remember – the right answer is what your committee believes!

    On a more serious note, this is actually a serious issue. There are some sociologists, like Paul Burstein, who believe it’s a spurious distinction, while others (see above) think it’s real. I stick with the “it’s about contention” school.”



    April 3, 2009 at 12:37 am

  11. RP: I gather you are in political science? Someone has asked that question at EVERY political science dissertation oral I have been part of. It never gets asked at a sociology oral, or at least not where I am. My answer is pretty much the same as Fabio’s. I have a whole lecture about why social movements should not be reified, it is irrelevant to try to distinguish movements from non-movements, etc. I think what we study are the processes in the general ill-defined terrain we point to with the term social movement.

    I’d actually want to qualify almost all of Fabio’s list of empirical findings. For my favorite empirical finding, I’ll pick that the flow of external resources tends to follow the rise of disruption, not precede it.

    My favorite thing about the study of social movements (I realize this is not an empirical finding) is that it is a crossroads field, standing at the intersection of political sociology, social psychology, organization studies, cultural studies, etc. The desire to understand how social movements really work has led people to draw in theory and research from many fields and, in turn, to have a huge impact back on all these other areas.



    April 4, 2009 at 4:31 am

  12. problem construction
    What does that mean?



    April 5, 2009 at 5:38 pm

  13. Teageegeepea:

    By “problem construction,” I simply mean the work that people do to make others see that there is a problem and that you can do something about it.

    For example, lots of places are polluted, but not all of them have green movements. Rather, green movements tend to appear when some person introduced environmentalist ideology, which is a way of classifying and understanding the world.



    April 5, 2009 at 5:48 pm

  14. Pamela,

    That’s right. It will be good to have some sociological perspective when trying to answer this question.

    What are your qualifiers of the list?


    R. Pointer

    April 9, 2009 at 5:25 pm

  15. Hi, I’m a SOCI student and I was just wondering if you could explain to me what it means when something is socially constructed and can you help me figure out what sociological imagination is and why its useful? Thanks, it will be a great help, I would love your opinion.



    October 22, 2009 at 1:19 am

  16. I have a question; Does this “Social movements,” have to do with religions and Cultures like; Catholic, Atheist..etc.. Everything is a movement sort of speak, but then it is right to let us chose what we believe in right. That would make us wrong and right from anyone’s point of view. So what we “believe,” would that make something ? “Believe,” Can that metaphorically, symbolize a movement or religion or culture ?



    March 12, 2010 at 2:43 pm

  17. […] make a country prone to violent conflict (not the usual “root causes”, as even sociologists have found). I didn’t notice anything to diminish Easterly’s critique of examining […]

    Liked by 1 person

  18. […] of governmental interpretive powers undermines the strength of his argument. The “problem construction” sociologists speak of – i.e. the ability to define the narrative – can be cause […]


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