teaching social movements

This semester, I taught a senior level course on social movements. The course is aimed at seniors in the sociology major. My approach:

  • Start with a four week immersion on movements. Just do a bunch of readings on various movements. My four: Civil Rights; American feminism; the Tea Party; the Bolsheviks. We then talk about these case studies throughout the semester.
  • The rest of the semester is spent learning about different elements of social movement theory – recruitment, framing, SMOs/SMS, spillover, outcomes, etc.
  • As an intensive writing course, students are required to complete a 20 page assignment. I chose to have one long term paper on a single movement. This paper is “grown” from a short proposal to a full blown term paper. It’s repetitive.
  • We have standard weekly quizzes, a midterm, final, and a journal.


  • According to the evaluations, people liked the course, even though a lot of people struggled with the material.
  • The main take away lesson is “structure.” A lot of people think movements are extremely unstructured events. They didn’t know about SMOs, movement strategy, etc.
  • The worst part was teaching about the Bolshevik revolution, my example of a radical movement. It was really, really hard to find a concise summary. Everyone who writes on the 1917 revolution treats it as grand history, which makes it hard to learn the “who/what/when/where” of things. Students remained highly confused.
  • Most popular movements to write about? Civil rights, Occupy. Most unexpected paper topic? A paper on whether the Chilean coup of 1973 fits theories of revolution.

Other pedagogical issues: many students had a tough time keeping up with the material; repetitive writing revisions actually works for about 1/3 of the class; most seniors still need tutoring on what counts as a dependent variable.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 5, 2012 at 12:01 am

5 Responses

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  1. It sounds an awesome and interesting course. Well, I am sociology major and in a ph.d. course with concentration of social movement and org. But when I was a undergrad I was not fortunate enough to take even one well-thought-out social movement course.



    June 5, 2012 at 3:53 am

  2. I am intrigued by the structure here — empirical cases first and theories second. Did this moving from observations to explanations approach seem to help students “get” the conceptual parts? I don’t teach movements, but in other substantive courses have typically followed the theory/method first, cases second model which mostly means they view theory as abstract and disconnected.

    I’m with you on the observation that they can’t identify a dependent variable — particularly as applied to comparative or qualitative studies but even with quantitative work sometimes.


    Dave Cotter

    June 5, 2012 at 4:39 pm

  3. @hwk: Thanks for the kind words. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first undergrad social movements course at IU in at least ten years, possibly ever. Clem Brooks’ social change course touches on movements a little bit, though.

    @Dave Cotter: The structure came from my general observation that our students aren’t particularly well read. They are also in a small town where they don’t see a lot of political action. And as I’ve complained about before, they don’t seem overly curious about politics overall. They aren’t chatting about current events all the time. Rather, they are good kids who are enjoying college. So to motivate the course, I decided to have them do a lot of background reading.



    June 5, 2012 at 5:10 pm

  4. Although I have not always done it this way, I think students do need empirical cases before theory in most courses, and certainly social movements. I imagine cases before theory would work better for grad students, too. I’ve had good experience in the past with starting the course with two books on the civil rights movement (Morris & McAdam), although I do get pushback from students who want to study other movements. Even the lefties don’t necessarily know that much about the history of movements in general. The hard part is getting relatively short overviews of the cases that give enough detail to work with but are still manageable within a semester where you also want to do theory.



    June 5, 2012 at 8:14 pm

  5. There’s a niche for a case study book with a bunch of movements in it, but the incentive doesn’t seem to be there (lot of work, low pay out).



    June 5, 2012 at 9:14 pm

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