Social movement theories seek to explain how social movements form and develop.
- Analyze the similarities and differences in the various social movement theories – deprivation, mass-society, structural-strain, resource-mobilization, political process and culture
- Famous social movement theories include deprivation theory, mass- society theory, structural-strain theory, resource -mobilization theory, political process theory and culture theory.
- Deprivation theory posits that social movements emerge among people who believe themselves to be deprived of certain goods or resources.
- Mass-society theory posits that social movements are comprised of people who feel marginalized from the rest of society.
- Structural-strain theory posits that social movements arise as a result of six factors: structural conduciveness, structural strain, growth and spread of a solution, precipating factors, lack of social control, and mobilization.
- Resource-mobilization theory places resources at the center of the emergence and success of social movements. In this case, resources include knowledge, money, media, labor, solidarity, legitimacy, and internal and external support from a powerful elite.
- Cultural theory underscores the importance of culture and addresses the free-rider problem. This theory also emphasizes the critical role of injustice in movement formation, stating that successful movements have to create injustice frames to mobilize people.
- cultural theory: Cultural theory underscores the importance of culture and addresses the free-rider problem. This theory also emphasizes the critical role of injustice in movement formation, stating that successful movements have to create injustice frames to mobilize people.
- injustice frame: An injustice frame is a collection of ideas and symbols that illustrate both how significant the problem the movement is concerned with is as well as what the movement can do to alleviate it.
- free rider: The free-rider problem refers to the idea that people will not be motivated to participate in a social movement that will use up their personal resources like time or money if they can still receive the benefits without participating.
A variety of theories have attempted to explain how social movements develop. Some of the better-known approaches include deprivation theory, mass-society theory, structural-strain theory, resource-mobilization theory, political process theory and culture theory. Deprivation theory and resource-mobilization have been discussed in detail in this chapter’s section entitled “Social Movements. ”
This particular section will thus pay attention to structural-strain theory and culture theory, while mass-society theory and political process theory will be discussed in greater detail later in “International Sources of Social Change” and “External Sources of Social Change,” respectively.
Structural-strain theory proposes six factors that encourage social movement development:
- Structural conduciveness: people come to believe their society has problems
- Structural strain: people experience deprivation
- Growth and spread of a solution: a solution to the problems people are experiencing is proposed and disseminates
- Precipitating factors: discontent usually requires a catalyst (often a specific event) to turn it into a social movement
- Lack of social control: the entity to be changed must be at least somewhat open to the change; if the social movement is quickly and powerfully repressed, it may never materialize
- Mobilization: this is the actual organizing and active component of the movement; people do what needs to be done in order to further their cause.
Here is a case in point to illustrate the example of structural-strain theory. Structural conduciveness would occur when a group of people become disgruntled by a change in society. Structural strain is when these people feel a sense of displeasure due to the change, such as being upset or angry. These people propose a solution, such as a demonstration. Precipitating factors, such as being provoked by a non-protester, prompt a negative reaction (such as yelling or throwing something). If the movement is not strong enough, there will be no change; however, if there is enough influence, change is possible. Mobilization occurs when people work together in order to enact social change, such as meeting with government officials in order to change a law or policy.
This theory is subject to circular reasoning since it claims that social/structural strain is the underlying motivation of social movement activism, even though social movement activism is often the only indication that there was strain or deprivation. This kind of circular reasoning is also evident in deprivation theory (people form movements because they lack a certain good or resource), which structural-strain theory partially incorporates and relies upon.
Culture theory builds upon both the theories of political process (the existence of political opportunities is crucial for movement development) and resource-mobilization (the mobilization of sufficient resources is central to movement formation and success), but it also extends them in two ways. First, it emphasizes the importance of movement culture. Second, it attempts to address the free-rider problem.
Both resource-mobilization theory and political process theory incorporate the concept of injustice into their approaches. Culture theory brings this notion of injustice to the forefront of movement creation, arguing that in order for social movements to successfully mobilize individuals, they must develop an injustice frame. An injustice frame is a collection of ideas and symbols that illustrates how significant the problem is and what the movement can do to alleviate it.
Injustice frames have the following characteristics:
- Facts take on their meaning by being embedded in frames, which can render them either relevant and significant or irrelevant and trivial.
- People carry around multiple frames in their heads.
- Successful reframing involves the ability to enter into the worldview of our adversaries.
- All frames contain implicit or explicit appeals to moral principles.
In emphasizing the injustice frame, culture theory also addresses the free-rider problem. The free-rider problem refers to the idea that people will not be motivated to participate in a social movement that will use up their personal resources (e.g., time, money, etc.) if they can still receive the benefits without participating. In other words, if person X knows that movement Y is working to improve environmental conditions in his neighborhood, he is presented with a choice: to join or not join the movement. If X believes the movement will succeed without her, she can avoid participation in the movement, save her resources, and still reap the benefits—this is free-riding. A significant problem for social movement theory has been to explain why people join movements if they believe the movement can/will succeed without their contribution. Culture theory argues that, in conjunction with social networks being an important contact tool, the injustice frame will provide the motivation for people to contribute to the movement.
Framing processes includes three separate components:
- Diagnostic frame: the movement organization frames the problem—what they are critiquing
- Prognostic frame: the movement organization frames the desirable solution to the problem
- Motivational frame: the movement organization frames a “call to arms” by suggesting and encouraging that people take action
Diagnostic framing of the problem involves an understanding what the problem actually is – what specifically needs to be solved. The prognostic frame is the desired solution – what people think will work to change the situation. Motivational framing is when others are inspired to take action without an actual law or policy in place – such as making a suggestion about how to improve and appealing to people’s morals and values.