What are Social Movements?

Social Movements are instrumental to changing the path of a society. When a group of people come together with a shared idea, they can create lasting effect by encouraging change in a society or by resisting it; both of which will shape the future of their society. But a social movement is not just a group of people with an idea. If that were the case, every little group with a noble idea would be a social movement. Social movements need organization, leadership and resources if they ever hope to gain momentum and make an impact. There are different forms of movements depending on their goal. Activist movements are aimed at changing various aspects in the society while reactionary movements are actively trying to resist change. Earlier in the commencement of social movements, people were skeptical of the motivation of those involved in the social movements. They were seen as dysfunctional, irrational and dangerous and that people would only join because the social movements provided community and refuge from the meaninglessness of life on one’s own.

What is interesting about Social Movements is that it isn’t always the people who are worst off that join up. More importantly is how people perceive their situation; someone just barely making it can be extremely happy while someone seemingly having it in life can be frustrated because they don’t feel respected by their company. So, what we have to look at is the feeling of relative deprivation; the feeling of discrepancy between legitimate expectations and realities of the present. That’s not enough on its own. People must feel like they deserve better and they must think that they cannot be helped by conventional means. Those three things are necessary for a social movement to form; a relative deprivation, a feeling of deserving better and the belief that conventional methods are useless to help.

But there are criticisms to this fact since even people who don’t feel deprived will join a social movement. They join because they want to address a perceived injustice that they may not even suffer from themselves. It can be too risky for the most deprived people to participate in a movement because they may not have the resource to participate or the opportunity to take time off work to participate or promote the idea. Sometimes even when all three factors are present, no social movement is created. Okay, so it has some problems but it’s a start – at least. Resource mobilization approach focuses on aspects that hinder or promote a social movement, like access to resources. Even a seemingly simple act of gathering together a group of people with a shared idea is not allowed everywhere – It takes more than idea to start a social movement. You need money, materials, political influence and access to media. More than that, a social movement needs a strong organizational base to recruit members and then to unite them on a single idea. A good, charismatic figure is necessary to lead the group and focus the thoughts of members and the oppressed on the objective and to convince them to organize.

“Martin Luther King Jnr stood as beacon to the people who were oppressed; He knew how to speak for the crowd and unite them around a single idea and how to gain the support he need for the social movement to succeed”

Social movements begin by a few ideas shared by a few. Then, the public begins taking notice of a situation that they perceive as a problem. At this point, people begin to coalesce into an organized group and raise up the general stake. A social movement’s greatest achievement will be to either success to changing its host society or adapt. What is interesting is that in the end, social movements become part of the bureaucracy they were trying to change. A successful movement is eventually absorbed into existing institutions when it has achieved its desired changes.

I wonder if social movements of today will become accepted though in the future; in the end, the social movement eventually declines. If it succeeded, it has been incorporated into the dominant culture. If it fails, we will still see the marks left in society by its passing.


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