Power and Protest  (Social Movements)  -  Introduction


Return to: Imagining Other Index Page

Social movements and the 'radical twentieth century' (week 1 continued)

Social movements - a closer look at the theory

The Labour Movement part 1.  



1. Introductory note: what is a social movement.

2. When did social movements first appear?

3. The self-production of society

4. Why study social movements?

5. Origins of these notes.

6. Aims and learning outcomes.


1. Introductory note: what is a social movement?

General definition:


The study of politics has many aspects and covers, for example, the study of institutions (governments, parliaments etc), concepts (democracy, totalitarianism etc), philosophy (what is a “just” regime? why should we obey the law? etc), and behaviour (how/why do people vote the way they do, what determines the behaviour of political representatives, etc).


When we study political behaviour, or action, we could focus on individuals, or on groups. With Social Movements we are dealing with political action by groups or collectives (rather than with individuals).


A social movement is a "collective endeavour to promote or resist change in the society of which it forms part" (Bottomore 1979).


However, it is clear that there are many ways in which groups act to get political change: people may protest, or riot, or carry out a rebellion or a revolution; they may form a pressure-group or a political party, and this definition does not distinguish a social movement from, say, a political party.


On the other hand, Heywood (1997) defines a social movement as: “A collective body distinguished by a high level of commitment and political activism, but often lacking a clear organisation”.


The key difference is that social movements are not organised in the way that parties or pressure groups are: they do not (usually) have “membership”, central staff, offices and suchlike. They act in a more diffuse, perhaps episodic, way than organised political formations – as Bottomore puts it. On the other hand, I would say that their actions are more deliberate than riots or mobs, since they usually have goals and carefully chose methods of action. Some social movements may be revolutionary – others want less radical change.


Giddens (1989 ch 19) makes an important point when he says that they are "a collective attempt to further a common interest, or secure a common goal, through collective action outside the sphere of established institutions" (my emphasis).


Bottomore makes another significant point: social movements, if successful, "establish preconditions for changes of policy or regime, by bringing into question the legitimacy of the existing political system (in part or in whole), creating a different climate of opinion, and proposing alternatives."


This last point seems to me to be crucial, and may be the most important distinguishing feature of social movements, since most political action (apart from that taken by revolutionary parties) is within the constraints of the existing system. [See the notes on social movements in the twentieth century].


Social movements are usually broad, and may contain, or lead to the creation of, “organised political formations.” For example, the labour movement most clearly led to the creation of (socialist) political parties, and it “contains” organisations such as trade unions as well as political parties.


2. When did “social movements” first appear? 


If we distinguish social movements from e.g. peasant rebellions, as suggested above (since such rebellions lacked clear political objectives) then social movements seem to be a fairly “modern” phenomenon, arising in an age when people held democratic expectations.


Thus the English Civil War (during which period there were movements such as the Levellers and the Diggers) and the French Revolution of 1789 (which led to a flourishing of democratic organisations, as well as “mobs” – see below) are key historical events that brought about the kind of society where social movements could exist. Before then, social restrictions were such as to make collective consciousness and action highly unlikely (though one might include, as does Aberle [see below] millenarian movements, that is, movements waiting for the end of the world at the arrival of the first millennium, as social movements…).


Bottomore (1979) notes that probably the earliest reference to social movements is in the book by Lorenz von Stein: History of the Social Movement in France from 1789 to the present day. It is even possible, argues Bottomore, that this book influenced Marx’s account of the proletariat, which von Stein saw as arising from the demands for greater social independence leading up to the French Revolution.


As can be seen from what has just been said, one of the earliest social movements was the labour movement. However, Alexis de Tocqueville argued that, especially in 19th century America, the “middle class” had become a social movement. We do have to note here, however, that many would argue that there is a distinction between a social movement and a social class: as Marx argued, the working class has gained in confidence and tried to influence the political system – or even to overthrow it, but we need to distinguish between the working class and the “labour movement”. I would suggest that two features of a class make it distinct from a social movement: (i) a class (certainly by a Marxist definition) is a broad social stratum that has a particular economic role (viz., the proletariat sells its ability to work to the bourgeoisie or capitalists); (ii) it is rare (i.e. only in pre-revolutionary situations) for a class to be as homogenous in its political outlook as a social movement. In other words a social movement is broader in its composition (it may be drawn from a number of social classes) but narrower in its aims (except when class has become highly organised). As Marx pointed out, not all the working class are conscious of being working class. (Presumably Marx would have seen de Tocqueville’s “middle class” as in fact comprising either the more skilled members of the working class, and those who thought they were “above” the workers, or the lower members of the capitalist class i.e. those not wealthy enough to see themselves as capitalists or owners of industry).


3. The self-production of society.


For some modern sociologists, especially Alain Touraine, (but also Tom Bottomore) a social movement is a large number of people taking part in the construction and reconstruction of their society… Touraine (e.g. 1977) uses the expression “the self-production of society" as he argues that societies have a self-awareness that gives them their identity. They “recognise themselves” as a result of action, decisions, transactions, domination, conflicts etc.

There are further theoretical notes at Social movements - theory.


4. Why study social movements?


The study of social movements brings together Sociology and Politics: social movements often have a political impact, but they do not set out to be political organisations or parties.

Sociologists are interested in the nature of such movements and how they work, but a central question is: why do social movements arise? This is an especially pertinent question – and a Political question - in (so-called) democracies: if there is a democratic political system, why don’t people work within it when they want something changed?


It is my view that most people desire more control over their own lives, and that this desire always manifests itself somehow, but sometimes the political system blocks or frustrates such desires.

Then protest and social movements (as well as pressure-groups, which are more organised groupings) are likely to arise.


Should you be interested – actively or passively – in these questions you will want to know more about social movements.


5. These notes have their origins in:


(i) an issue of the New Internationalist (NI) magazine (Issue No. 309, January-February 1999) titled The Radical Twentieth Century;  


(ii) a course on social movements, as part of the Politics Degree at UEL, which I designed and helped to teach. I took the liberty of using the same name that NI had come up with: The radical Twentieth century.         See: UEL Course Outlines



6. Aims and Learning outcomes of People Power (Social Movements):


In attempting to understand social movements the aim is that you should become familiar with the following, in both general terms and in relation to each movement:


- the beliefs or ideology behind a social movement

- the origins (intellectual as well as historical) and the social/political context

- features of such movements, viz: aims organisation and strategies

- their impact and effectiveness, especially in political terms

- whether such movements still exist or have contemporary relevance

- comparisons between the social movement and other movements or organisations with similar aims or beliefs.


You should also gain an understanding of:


- relevant concepts and theories from politics and social theory (e.g. definitions and typologies of social  movements and “new” social movements, such descriptive terms as "radical" and reformist)

- the role of the state/politics, in relation both to occurrence of radical movements and in reaction to them.