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Social Sci LibreTexts

11.1: Defining Social Movements

  • Page ID
    80890
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    Learning Outcomes

    • Distinguish between different types of social movements
    • Describe and apply the four stages of social movements

    Types of Social Movements

    We know that social movements can occur on the local, national, or even global stage. Are there other patterns or classifications that can help us understand them? Sociologist David Aberle (1966) addresses this question by developing categories that distinguish among social movements by considering 1) what it is the movement wants to change and 2) how much change they want. He described four types of social movements, including: alternative, redemptive, reformative, and revolutionary social movements.

    • Alternative movements are typically focused on self-improvement and limited, specific changes to individual beliefs and behavior. These include things like Alcoholics Anonymous, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and Planned Parenthood.
    • Redemptive movements (sometimes called religions movements) are “meaning seeking,” are focused on a specific segment of the population, and their goal is to provoke inner change or spiritual growth in individuals. Some sects fit in this category.
    • Reformative social movements seek to change something specific about the social structure. They may seek a more limited change, but are targeted at the entire population. Environmental movements, the women’s suffrage movement, or the more contemporary "Buy Nothing Day," which protests the rampant consumerism of Black Friday, are examples of reformative movements.
    • Revolutionary movements seek to completely change every aspect of society—their goal is to change all of society in a dramatic way. Examples include the Civil Rights Movement or the political movements, such as a push for communism.
    How much change diagram showing the four types of social movements. Alternative social movements are limited in the amount of change but focused on specific individuals. Radical movements also focus on specific individuals but want more radical change. Reformative social movements focus on everyone but want limited change, while revolutionary movements focus on everyone and are also radical.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): David Aberle identified these four types of social movements, with some types of movements targeting either specific individuals or everyone, while some want limited changes, and others are more radical. (Chart based on Aberle)

    Other helpful categories that are helpful for sociologists to describe and distinguish between types of social movements include:

    • Scope: A movement can be either reform or radical. A reform movement advocates changing some norms or laws while a radical movement is dedicated to changing value systems in some fundamental way. A reform movement might be a green movement advocating a sect of ecological laws, or a movement against pornography, while the American Civil Rights movement is an example of a radical movement.
    • Type of Change: A movement might seek change that is either innovative or conservative. An innovative movement wants to introduce or change norms and values, like moving towards self-driving cars, while a conservative movement seeks to preserve existing norms and values, such as a group opposed to genetically modified foods.
    • Targets: Group-focused movements focus on influencing groups or society in general; for example, attempting to change the political system from a monarchy to a democracy. An individual-focused movement seeks to affect individuals.
    • Methods of Work: Peaceful movements utilize techniques such as nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. Violent movements resort to violence when seeking social change. In extreme cases, violent movements may take the form of paramilitary or terrorist organizations.
    • Range: Global movements, such as communism in the early 20th century, have transnational objectives. Local movements are focused on local or regional objectives such as preserving an historic building or protecting a natural habitat.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Works Cited