Social Movements- Part 1


Concept of Social Movements

Social movements have broadly been perceived as ‘organized’ or ‘collective effort’ to bring about changes in the thought, beliefs, values, attitudes, relationships and major institutions in society or to resist any change in the above societal arrangements.

a) Historical and Social Context of Conceptualization

  • It is significant that social movements are conceptualized in a particular historical and social context.
  • Each society has its own perception on the social movements which is developed based on its own socio-economic, cultural and the intellectual tradition.
  • It is significant that after the World War II the philosophy of the ‘welfare state’ was widely accepted all over the world except in the authoritarian regimes.
  • As a corollary to this welfare state philosophy institutionalized conflicts between labour and capital were recognised as legitimate collective social behaviour in the modern society.
  • As the conflict between labour and capital got institutionalized in the social democratic tradition, labour movement also got a legitimate place as organised collective behavior in the modern societies.
  • Social movements in the developing countries were manifested in different socio political contexts.
  • Anti colonial, workers and the peasant movements were the dominant patterns of collective actions with a wide political connotation in built in these movements. While the anti colonial movements aimed at the liberation of the colonized countries from the imperial powers, the workers and the peasant movements were directed against the oppressive capitalists and landowners of these countries.
  • In the post World War II period success stories of the workers and the peasant movements in the then Soviet Russia, China, Vietnam and Cuba had became the guiding spirit to the workers and the peasant movements in the developing countries.
  • Social movements of various forms have got wider legitimacy in the political culture in the societies. In a state of increasing poverty, illiteracy, corruption and sharpening class inequality a vast section of the population have accepted organised collective action as a mode of protest and survival.
  • However, in the wake socio political transition, globalisation and introduction to new economic order in these countries the forms of collective action have under gone a qualitative change.

b) Change in Perception since late 1950s


  • The established social and the political order of Europe and America received a severe jolt in late 1950s and 1960s with the vehement outburst of the Black civil rights, students, women’s, peace, gay and environment etc.
  • The hitherto existing theoretical perspectives however, were unable to explain these movements which marked a sharp departure from the earlier organised movements of labor and the working class.
  • These departures were largely viewed in terms of the emergence of new social actors and categories due to the fundamental shift in social structure and the emergence of post-industrial society.
  • Hence there was a need to move beyond the existing framework of explanation.
  • Social movements in the developing countries have conventionally been conceptualized either from the Marxian or from the Functionalist perspectives.
  • However the proliferation of the new social movements, manifestation of new form of collective actions, resurgence of the violence in the new contexts and the articulation of new forms of collective actions in these societies have generated enormous interests among the social scientists, policy planners andsocial activists for the study of social movements.


Origin of Social Movements.


There are several schools of thoughts on the origin of social movements.

The classical model of thought is represented by the versions of mass society, collective behaviour, status inconsistency, raising expectations, and relative deprivation.

a) The mass society theorists are of the view that due to the lack of an intermediate structure people in the mass society are not integrated in the society. This leads to alienation, tension and ultimately social protest.

b) The proponents of the theory of status inconsistency, are of the view that the objective discrepancy between persons ranking and status (dimension e.g., education, income, occupation) generate subjective tensions in the society leading to cognitive dissonance, discontent and protest.

c) The theory structural strain suggests that any severe structural strain can help manifest social movements. To Smelser the more severe the strain, the more likelihood of social movements.

Thus the classical model has observed social movements as response to structural strain, it is concerned with the psychological effect that stain has on individual and that collective participation in the movement is guided by urgent psychological pressure and not by the aim to change the political structure.

d) The theory of Relative Deprivation has been got a place of prominence in the social movement study. In the Marxian analysis economic deprivation has been identified to be the prime cause of social conflict among the two antagonistic classes i.e. the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.

e) The theory of Cultural Revitalization expresses the view that social movements are manifested out a deliberate, organised and conscious action of the member of the society to construct a more satisfying culture for themselves.

It is to mention here that no element of strain and deprivation alone can produce a movement unless there is a subjective perception about these objective conditions of deprivation. Ideology, organization and leadership play crucial role towards the manifestation and sustenance of social movements.




  • According to the theory of relative deprivation, social conflict arises when a social group feels that it is worse off than others around it.
  • Such conflict is likely to result in successful collective protest.
  • This theory emphasises the role of psychological factors such as resentment and rage in inciting social movements. The limitations of this theory are that while perceptions of deprivation may be a necessary condition for collective action, they are not a sufficient reason in themselves. All instances where people feel relatively deprived do not result in social movements. Can you think of any example where people do feel deprived but do not start or join a social movement to redress their grievance?
  • To mobilise collectively in a sustained and organised manner, grievances have to be discussed and analysed in order to arrive at a shared ideology and strategy. That is, there is no automatic causal relationship between relative deprivation and collective action. There are other factors such as leadership and organisation that are equally important.


  • Mancur Olson’s book The Logic of Collective Action argues that a social movement is an aggregation of rational individual actors pursuing their self-interest.
  • A person will join a social movement only if s/he will gain something from it. She/he will participate only if the risks are less than the gains. Olson’s theory is based on the notion of the rational, utility-maximising individual. Do you think people always calculate individual costs and benefits before undertaking any action?


  • McCarthy and Zald’s proposed resource mobilisation theory rejected Olson’s assumption that social movements are made up of individuals pursuing their self-interest.
  • Instead, they argued that a social movement’s success depends on its ability to mobilise resources or means of different sorts.
  • If a movement can muster resources such as leadership, organisational capacity, and communication facilities, and can use them within the available political opportunity structure, it is more likely to be effective.
  • Critics argue that a social movement is not limited by existing resources. It can create resources such as new symbols and identities. As numerous poor people’s movements show, scarcity of resources need not be a constraint. Even with an initial limited material resources and organisational base, a movement can generate resources through the process of struggle. Think of examples from both the past and the contemporary period.


Components of Social Movements




People may damage a bus and attack its driver when the bus has run over a child. This is an isolated incident of protest. Since it flares up and dies down it is not a social movement.

A social movement requires sustained collective action over time.

Such action is often directed against the state and takes the form of demanding changes in state policy or practice. Spontaneous, disorganised protest cannot be called a social movement either.


Conventionally ideology, collective mobilisation, organisation and leadership are identified to the vital elements of social movements.

Ideology provides a broad frame of action and collective mobilisation in the social movement. It also provides legitimacy to the process of interest articulation organized collective action.

Collective mobilization is again a central element of a social movement. The nature and direction of a social movement is widely shaped by the nature of collective mobilisation. Collective mobilisation may be radical, noninstitutionalized, spontaneous, large scale or it may be non-violent, institutionalized, sporadic, restricted. It may also undergo a process of transformation from radical to reformative or institutionalized. Routinisation of charisma is an illustration to this point.

Leadership and organization are closely linked to the process of collective mobilisation. A leader can be charismatic figure or a democratically elected one. In the context of new social movements the issues of leadership, organization ideology and collective mobilisation have acquired several new dimensions


Collective action must be marked by some degree of organisation. This organisation may include a leadership and a structure that defines how members relate to each other, make decisions and carry them out. Those participating in a social movement also have shared objectives and ideologies.


A social movement has a general orientation or way of approaching to bring about (or to prevent) change. These defining features are not constant. They may change over the course of a social movement’s life.


Social movements often arise with the aim of bringing about changes on a public issue, such as ensuring the right of the tribal population to use the forests or the right of displaced people to settlement and compensation. Think of other issues that social movements have taken up in the past and present. While social movements seek to bring in social change, counter movements sometimes arise in defence of status quo.

There are many instances of such counter movements. When Raja Rammohun Roy campaigned against sati and formed the Brahmo Samaj, defenders of sati formed Dharma Sabha and petitioned the British not to legislate against sati. When reformers demanded education for girls, many protested that this would be disastrous for society. When reformers campaigned for widow remarriage, they were socially boycotted. When the so called ‘lower caste’ children enrolled in schools, some so called ‘upper caste’ children were withdrawn from the schools by their families. Peasant movements have often been brutally suppressed. More recently the social movements of erstwhile excluded groups like the Dalits have often invoked retaliatory action. Likewise proposals for extending reservation in educational institutions have led to counter movements opposing them






There are different kinds of social movements.


They can be classified as:

(i) redemptive or transformatory;

(ii) reformist; and

(iii) revolutionary.


A redemptive social movement aims to bring about a change in the personal consciousness and actions of its individual members. For instance, people in the Ezhava community in Kerala were led by Narayana Guru to change their social practices.


Reformist social movements strive to change the existing social and political arrangements through gradual, incremental steps.

The 1960s movement for the reorganisation of Indian states on the basis of language and the recent Right to Information campaign are examples of reformist movements.


Revolutionary social movements attempt to radically transform social relations, often by capturing state power. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia that deposed the Tsar to create a communist state and the Naxalite movement in India that seeks to remove oppressive landlords and state officials can be described as revolutionary movements.


Most movements have a mix of redemptive, reformist and revolutionary elements. Or the orientation of a social movement may shift over time such that it starts off with, say, revolutionary objectives and becomes reformist. A movement may start from a phase of mass mobilisation and collective protest to become more institutionalised. Social scientists who study the life cycles of social movements call this a move towards ‘social movement organisations’.

How a social movement is perceived and classified is always a matter of interpretation. It differs from one section to another. For instance, what was a ‘mutiny’ or ‘rebellion’ for British colonial rulers in 1857 was ‘the first war of Independence’ for Indian nationalists. A mutiny is an act of defiance against legitimate authority, i.e., the British rule. A struggle for independence is a challenge to the very legitimacy of British rule. This shows how people attach different meanings to social movements



For much of the twentieth century social movements were class based such as working class movements and peasant movements or anti-colonial movements. While anti-colonial movements united entire people into national liberation struggles, class-based movements united classes to fight for their rights. The most far-reaching social movements of the last century thus have been class-based or based on national liberation struggles. The workers’ movements in Europe that gave rise to the international communist movement. Besides bringing about the formation of communist and socialist states across the world, most notably in the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, these movements also led to the reform of capitalism.


The creation of welfare states that protected workers’ rights and offered universal education, health care and social security in the capitalist nations of Western Europe was partly due to political pressure created by the communist and socialist movements. The movement against colonialism has been as influential as the movement against capitalism. Since capitalism and colonialism have usually been inter-linked through forms of imperialism, social movements have simultaneously targeted both these forms of exploitation. That is, nationalist movements have mobilised against rule by a foreign power as well as against the dominance of foreign capital.


The decades after the Second World War witnessed the end of empire and the formation of new nation-states as a result of nationalist movements in India, Egypt, Indonesia, and many other countries. Since then, another wave of social movements occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s.


The civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King had been followed by the Black Power movement led by Malcolm X. The anti-war movement was joined by tens of thousands of students who were being compulsorily drafted by the government to go and fight in Vietnam.

The women’s movement and the environmental movement also gained strength during this time of social ferment.


It was difficult to classify the members of these so-called ‘new social movements’ as belonging to the same class or even nation.

Rather than a shared class identity, participants felt that they shared identities as students, women, blacks, or environmentalists. How are the old social movements, often based on class related issues like the trade union or peasant movements different from the new social movements like the environmental or women or tribal movements?

The old social movements functioned within the frame of political parties.

The Indian National Congress led the Indian National Movement. The Communist Party of China led the Chinese Revolution.

Today some believe that ‘old’ class based political action led by trade unions and workers’ parties is on the decline. Others argued that in the affluent West with its welfare state, issues of class based exploitation and inequality were no longer central concerns. So the ‘new’ social movements were not about changing the distribution of power in society but about quality-of-life issues such as having a clean environment.


In the old social movements, the role of political parties was central. Political scientist Rajni Kothari attributes the surge of social movements in India in the 1970s to people’s growing dissatisfaction with parliamentary democracy. Kothari argues that the institutions of the state have been captured by elites. Due to this, electoral representation by political parties is no longer an effective way for the poor to get their voices heard. People left out by the formal political system join social movements or non-party political formations in order to put pressure on the state from outside. Today, the broader term of civil society is used to refer to both old social movements represented by political parties and trade unions. And to new nongovernmental organisations, women’s groups, environmental groups and tribal activists.


Globalisation has been re-shaping peoples’ lives in industry and agriculture, culture and media. Often firms are trans-national. Often legal arrangements that are binding are international such as the regulations of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Environmental and health risks, fears of nuclear warfare are global in nature. Not surprisingly therefore many of the new social movements are international in scope. What is significant, however, is that the old and new movements are working together in new alliances such as the World Social Forum that have been raising awareness about the hazards of globalisation.


India has experienced a whole array of social movements involving women, peasants, dalits, adivasis, and others. Can these movements be understood as ‘new social movements’?


Gail Omvedt in her book Reinventing Revolution points out that concerns about social inequality and the unequal distribution of resources continue to be important elements in these movements. Peasant movements have mobilised for better prices for their produce and protested against the removal of agricultural subsidies.


Dalit labourers have acted collectively to ensure that they are not exploited by upper-caste landowners and money-lenders. The women’s movement has worked on issues of gender discrimination in diverse spheres like the workplace and within the family. At the same time, these new social movements are not just about ‘old’ issues of economic inequality. Nor are they organised along class lines alone. Identity politics, cultural anxieties and aspirations are essential elements in creating social movements and occur in ways that are difficult to trace to class-based inequality. Often, these social movements unite participants across class boundaries. For instance, the women’s movement includes urban, middle-class feminists as well as poor peasant women. The regional movements for separate statehood bring together different groups of people who do not share homogeneous class identities. In a social movement, questions of social inequality can occur alongside other, equally important, issues.


New Social Movement : Concepts and Features

It was indeed difficult to conceptualize the essence of all new forms of collective action within the paradigm of ideology or the rationally organised interest group.

The practices of these new form of collective actions social movements are essentially non-violent, pragmatic, non-integrated, non-hierarchical, noncoercive, cross-class, cross-ideology, cross age in their constituencies


Characteristic features of the new social movement:


  • There is no clear structural role of the participants of the new social movement as, very often than not, they have diffuse social status as youth, student, women, minority, professional groups etc.


  • Ideologically these movements posited in sharp contrast to the Marxian concept of ideology of the working class movement. It is difficult to characterize new social movements as conservative or liberal, right or left, capitalist or socialist. These movements exhibit plural ideas and values.


  • Mobilisations are linked to issues of symbolic and cultural identities than to economic issues.


  • Action within these movements is a complex mix of the collective and individual confirmation of identity. Indeed the relation between the individual and the collective is blurred in these movements.


  • These movements involve personal and intimate aspects of human life, e.g. eating, dressing enjoying, loving etc habits and patterns.


  • Non-violence and civil disobedience etc. are the dominant patterns of collective mobilisation to challenge the dominant-norms of conduct.


  • The proliferation of these movements are caused by the credibility crisis of the conventional channels for political participation.


  • The new social movements are segmented diffused and decentralized

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