What Is a Social Movement?

Having finished the required readings of the week, I’m left puzzled by some very basic questions: What is a social movement? Or perhaps, what isn’t a social movement? Who gets to decide and how?

Despite the patina of specificity bestowed by the overuse of acronyms in Blanco (1997) and McCarthy and Zald (1977), the definition offered for social movement is extremely broad: “a set of opinions and beliefs in a population which represents preferences for changing some elements of the social structure and/or reward distribution of a society” (McCarthy and Zald 1977, 1217–1218). Blanco never actually defines the phrase, but rather conflates social movements with protests at several points. Drawing on Blanco’s focus on framing and agendas, social movements are framed by each of these two articles by the examples offered. Thus, the conscientious objector movement in Spain (Blanco 1997), and the women’s liberation movement and civil rights movement (McCarthy and Zald 1977). Though undoubtedly controversial at different times, the connotations of these particular movements share a positive valence as all strive to protect individual rights. The implicit agenda, then, is to position social movements as positive forces of change in society. And, I have to say, as a reader, this resonates with my own unarticulated, amorphous definition of social movements: I’m not entirely sure what they are, but they seem like a good thing.

But despite attempts to hide them behind acronyms: SM, SMS, SMI, SMO, with NSM, RM, and POS thrown in for good measure, the more I considered that broad definition, the less happy I became. Surely, surely there was a more specific definition out there, right? Because that definition could embrace almost any group, from the Facebook group “If You Don’t Start Walking Faster I Am Going to Hit You with My Backpack” to the NAACP, from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to the Catholic Church, from the Mob to the Occupy Movement.

So I turned to the classic references. As it turns out, “social movement” isn’t in either Merriam-Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary; “movement” is, though. The relevant definition by the latter is “A course or series of actions and endeavours on the part of a group of people working towards a shared goal; an organization, coalition, or alliance of people working to advance a shared political, social, or artistic objective.” Again, very broad. All of the groups mentioned in the previous paragraph fit under this definition as well.

What about terrorist organizations? They are groups of people working toward specific social/political goals that require change in the social structure and/or the reward distribution of a society. Are they not then part of social movements? Are they not themselves social movement organizations? Although the valences of the two terms are diametrically opposed—the one has positive connotations while the other very negative ones—the definition offered for social movement, such as it is, clearly fits groups like terrorist organizations, as well as religious organizations and organized political parties.

Indeed, this is borne out by the Wikipedia entry for “social movement”—and isn’t it a little curious that it appears in Wikipedia but in neither the OED nor Merriam-Webster? The Wikipedia entry categorizes social movements by types; under the listing for violent organizations we find al-Qaida and the Rote Armee Fraktion. Religious movements and political parties are subsumed under individual-focused movements and group-focused movements respectively.

This isn’t intended to be merely angsty “What does it all mean?!” On the contrary, if we accept that the unspecified narrow definition under which Blanco as well as McCarthy and Zald write should be discarded in favor of the broad definition which is specified, then the application of theories like resource mobilization or institutionalism must be questioned. For example, given that one of the important resources of terrorist organizations is fear, terrorist organizations not only effectively manipulate the media—which fits with Blanco’s argument—but also transform antagonistic publics into constituents. Nor do they work within the system, thus complicating the elitism-pluralism cycle Blanco describes. It seems, then, that a more inclusive approach might reveal important dynamics of social movements that an approach relying on a positive frame neglects or obscures.



One thought on “What Is a Social Movement?

  1. Pingback: Week 3 Blog Summary: (Classical Theories), Resource Mobilization, Political Process AKA Dumb Angry Mobs | Networked Social Movements

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