Social movement

 is one of the most famous social movements of the . Here,  is giving his "" speech, in front of the  during the
American Civil Rights Movement is one of the most famous social movements of the 20th century. Here, Martin Luther King is giving his "I Have a Dream" speech, in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Social movements are a type of group action. They are a large scale informal groupings of individuals and/or organizations focused on specific political or social issues, in other words, on carrying out a social change.

Modern social movements became possible through education (the wider dissemination of literature), and increased mobility of labour due to the industrialisation and urbanisation of 19th century societies. The freedom of expression, education and relative economic independence prelevant in the modern Western culture is responsible for the unprecedented number and scope of various contemporry social movements.

Political science and sociology have developed a variety of theories and empirical research on social movements. For example, some research in political science highlights the relation between popular movements and the formation of new political parties as well as discussing the function of social movements in relation to agenda setting and influence on politics.



Political movements that evolved in late 18th century, like those connected to the French Revolution and Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791 are among the first documented social movements. The labor movement and socialist movement of the late 19th century are seen as the prototypical social movements, leading to the formation of communist and social democratic parties and organisations.

From 1815, Britain after victory in the Napoleonic Wars entered a period of social upheaval and change, caused by returning soldiers and unemployment. This resulted in class struggle in the Peterloo Massacre, the Reform Act of 1832, disputes over the Corn laws. Other European countries, such as France, began to see the emergence of political and social movements in the 19th Century. These social movements, set the background to which Karl Marx attempted to analyse social theory more generally. 1861 saw the beginning of the reform movements in Russia, as the feudal system was abolished. Unions, or Soviets were formed from 1905 as pressure for reform continued, resulting in the collapse of the Russian State at the end of the First World War.

In 1945, Britain after victory in the Second World War entered a period of radical reform and change, as a workers rights social movement dominated politics until the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. In the 1970s, women's rights, peace, civil rights and environmental movements emerged, often dubbed New Social Movements. They lead inter alia to the formation of green parties. Some find in the end of the 1990s the emergence of a new global social movement, the anti-globalization movement.

Key processes

Several key processes lie behind the history of the social movements. The process of urbanisation, which created large cities, facilitated social interaction between scores of people. It was in cities, where people of similar goals could find each other, gather and organise, that those early social movements first appeared. Similarly, the process of industrialisation which gathered large masses of workers in the same region was responsible for the fact that many of those early social movements adressed matters important to that social class. Many other social movements were created at universties, where the process of mass education brought many people together. With the development of communication technologies, creation and activities of social movements became easier - from printed pamphlets circulating in the 18th century coffeehouses to newspapers and Internet, all those tools became important factors in the growth of the social movements. Finally, the spread of democracy and political rights like the freedom of speech made the creation and functioning of social movements much easier.

Types of social movements

Sociologists distinguish between several types of social movements:

Dynamic of social movements

Social movements are not eternal. They have a life cycle: they are created, they grow, they achieve successes or failures and eventually, they dissolve and cease to exist.

They are more likely to evolve in the time and place which is friendly to the social movements: hence their evident symbiosis with the 19th century proliferation of ideas like individual rights, freedom of speech and civil disobedience. They are more likely to form in the societies and cultures allowing expression of ideas by individuals - like most of the Western culture, which explains why most of social movements exist in United States and Europe, and fewer in more authocratic places like Russia or China. Such friendly context and enviroment is only a background facilitating the creation of the social movement. There must also be polaryzing differences between groups of people: in case of 'old movements', they were the poverty and wealth gaps. In case of the 'new movements', they are more likely to be the differences in customs, ethics and values. Finally, the birth of a social movement needs what sociologist Neil Smelser calls an initiating event: a particular, indivual event that will begin a chain reaction of events in the given society leading to the creation of a social movement. For example, Americal Civil Rights movement grew on the reaction to black women, Rosa Parks, riding in the whites-only section of the bus. Polish Solidarity movement, which eventually toppled the communist regimes of the Eastern Europe, developed after trade union activist Anna Walentynowicz was fired from work. Such an event is also described as a volcanic model - a social movement is often created after a large number of people realise that there are others sharing the same value and desire for a particular social change. Thus, one of the main difficulties facing the emerging social movement is spreading the very knowledge that it exists. Second is overcoming the free rider problem - convincing people to join it, instead of following the mentality 'why should I trouble myself when other's can do it and I can just reap the benefits after their hard work'.

Missing image
Incident of Rosa Parks who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to make room for white people sparked the American Civil Rights Movement

Many social movements are created around some charismatic leader, i.e. one possesing charismatic authority. After the social movement is created, there are two likely phases of recrutation. The first phase will gather the people deeply interested in the primary goal and ideal of the movement. The second phase, which will usually come after the given movement had some successes and its fame increased, will gather people whose primary interest lie in joining the movement for 'being in it' - because it's trendy, it would look good on a resume. People who joined in this second phase will likely be the first to leave when the movement suffers any setbacks and failures.

Eventually, the social movement will move towards a crisis. If it has achieved it's intended goal, then it's called a victory crisis, as most members leave the movement assuming there is no longer any need for its continued existence. This will likely be opposed by a minority of members, for whom the existence of the very movement have became the primary goal itself, and likely the source of their income. Few social movements have survived a victory crisis, often merging with other similar movement or transforming into a tiny, caricatural form of their early selves. Other type of crisis is a failure crisis, which can be seen in increasing demoralisation and disenchantment of members, when they loose faith in the possibilty that the primary goal of the movement can be ever achieved. Failure crisis can be encouraged by outside elements, like opposition from goverment or other movements. However, many movements had survived a failure crisis, being revived by some hardcore activists even after several decades.

List of social movements

See list of social movements for a more complete list of social movements. The below list contains only very few selected movements not mentioned in the main article above:

eo:Socia movado fr:Mouvement social he:תנועה חברתית zh:社會運動


  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools