Types and Stages of Social Movements

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 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.
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 anhistoric building or protecting a natural habitat.

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Stages of Social Movements

Sociologists have studied the lifecycle of social movements—how they emerge, grow, and in some cases, die out. Blumer (1969) and Tilly (1978) outlined a four-stage process through which social movements develop.

  1. In the preliminary stage, people become aware of an issue, and leaders emerge.
  2. This is followed by the coalescence stage when people join together and organize in order to publicize the issue and raise awareness.
  3. In the institutionalization stage, the movement no longer requires grassroots volunteerism: it is an established organization, typically with a paid staff.
  4. When people fall away and adopt a new movement, the movement successfully brings about the change it sought, or when people no longer take the issue seriously, the movement falls into the decline stage.
Flowchart of the stages through a social movement: emerge, then coalesce, then bureaucratise, then come several things at the same time: success or failure, cooptation, repression, or going mainstream, and then a decline.
Figure 2. As social movements grow, they typically become increasingly organized and bureacratized, add members, which either leads to success or failure as a movement.

Social Movement Stages, Media, and Black Lives Matter

Chances are you have been asked to tweet, friend, like, or donate online for a cause. Nowadays, social movements are woven throughout our social media activities. After all, social movements start by activating people.

Considering the ideal type stages discussed above, you can see that social media has the potential to dramatically transform how people get involved. Look at stage one, the preliminary stage: people become aware of an issue, and leaders emerge. Imagine how social media speeds up this step. Suddenly, a shrewd user of Twitter can alert his thousands of followers about an emerging cause or an issue on his mind. Issue awareness can spread at the speed of a click, with thousands of people across the globe becoming informed at the same time. In a similar vein, those who are savvy and engaged with social media emerge as leaders. Suddenly, you don’t need to be a powerful public speaker. You don’t even need to leave your house. You can build an audience through social media without ever meeting the people you are inspiring.

This is what happened in the case of Black Lives Matter movement. The movement was co-founded in 2013 by three Black community organizers: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Garza, Cullors and Tometi met through “Black Organizing for Leadership & Dignity” (BOLD), a national organization that trains community organizers. They began to question how they were going to respond to what they saw as the devaluation of Black lives after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin in February 2012. Garza wrote a Facebook post titled “A Love Note to Black People” in which she said: “Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter”. Cullors replied: “#BlackLivesMatter”. Tometi then added her support, and Black Lives Matter was born as an online campaign.

This emergence stage quickly escalated to coalescence, as the movement became nationally recognized for its street demonstrations following the 2014 deaths of two African Americans: Michael Brown—resulting in protests and unrest in Ferguson—and Eric Garner in New York City. Since the Ferguson protests, participants in the movement have demonstrated against the deaths of numerous other African Americans by police actions or while in police custody. In the summer of 2015, Black Lives Matter activists became involved in the 2016 United States presidential election.

Social media is immensely helpful during the coalescence stage. Coalescence is the point when people join together to publicize the issue and get organized. President Obama’s 2008 campaign was essentially a case study in organizing and publicizing through social media. Using Twitter and other online tools, the campaign engaged volunteers who had typically not bothered with politics and empowered those who were more active to generate still more activity. It is no coincidence that Obama’s earlier work experience included grassroots community organizing. In 2009, when student protests erupted in Tehran, social media was considered so important to the organizing effort that the U.S. State Department actually asked Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance so that a vital tool would not be disabled during the demonstrations.

The next stage of the development of a social movement is institutionalization, when it becomes more organized. In the case of Black Lives Matter, the movement grew into a national network of over 30 local chapters between 2014 and 2016. The overall Black Lives Matter movement, however, is a decentralized network and has no formal hierarchy. The movement still has a strong presence and has even joined forces with other, more systematically organized groups, such as the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). The is a coalition of groups across the United States which represent the interests of Black communities. It was formed in 2014 as a response to sustained and increasingly visible violence against Black communities, with the purpose of creating a united front and establishing a political platform. The collective, also known as a social movement sector, is made up of more than 150 organizations, with members such as the Black Lives Matter Network, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

Link to Learning: Black Lives Matter

Watch this video “BLM 5th Anniversary Trailer” as it explains the initial stages and goals of the Black Lives Matter movement.

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Occupy Wall Street

Perhaps the social movement that ran the most contrary to theory in recent history is Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Although it contains many of the classic developmental elements of a social movement described in this module, it is set apart by its lack of a single message, its leaderless organization, and its target—financial institutions instead of the government. OWS baffled much of the public, and certainly the mainstream media, leading many to ask, “Who are they, and what do they want?”

Watch It: Occupy Wall Street

On July 13, 2011, the organization Adbusters posted on its blog, “Are you ready for a Tahrir moment? On September 17th, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street” (Castells 2012). The “Tahrir moment” was a reference to the 2010 political uprising that began in Tunisia and spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt’s Tahrir Square in Cairo. Although OWS was a reaction to the continuing financial chaos that resulted from the 2008 market meltdown and not a political movement, the Arab Spring was its catalyst.

Manuel Castells (2012) notes that the years leading up to the Occupy movement had witnessed a dizzying increase in the disparity of wealth in the United States, stemming back to the 1980s. The top 1 percent in the nation had secured 58 percent of the economic growth in the period for themselves, while real hourly wages for the average worker had increased by only 2 percent. The wealth of the top 5 percent had increased by 42 percent. The average pay of a CEO was now 350 times that of the average worker, compared to less than 50 times in 1983 (AFL-CIO 2014). The country’s leading financial institutions were, to many, clearly to blame for the crisis but dubbed “too big to fail.” These big banks were in trouble after many poorly qualified borrowers defaulted on their mortgage loans when the loans’ interest rates rose. The banks were eventually “bailed out” by the government with over $700 billion of taxpayer money. According to many reports, that same year, top executives and traders received large bonuses.

On September 17, 2011, an anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, the occupation began. One thousand outraged protestors descended upon Wall Street, and up to 20,000 people moved into Zuccotti Park, only two blocks away, where they began building a village of tents and organizing a system of communication. The protest soon began spreading throughout the nation, and its members started calling themselves “the 99 percent.” More than a thousand cities and towns had Occupy demonstrations.

This video gives an idea of the protest—what it looked like, and how it played out.

In answer to the question “Who are they?” Castells noted “. . . by and large the movement was made up of a large majority of democratic voters, as well as of politically independent minded people who were in search of new forms of changing the world . . . ” (Castells 2012). What do they want? Castells has dubbed OWS “A non-demand movement: The process is the message.” Using Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and live-stream video, the protesters conveyed a multifold message with a long list of reforms and social change, including the need to address the rising disparity of wealth, the influence of money on election outcomes, the notion of “corporate personhood,” a corporatized political system (to be replaced by “direct democracy”), political favoring of the rich, and rising student debt. Regardless, some in the media appeared confused about the protestors’ intentions, and articles carried titles like, “The Wall Street Protesters: What the Hell Do They Want?” (Gell 2011) from The New York Observer, and person-in-the-street quotations like, “I think they’re idiots. They have no agenda . . . ” from the Los Angeles Times (Le Tellier 2012).

The late James C. Davies suggested in his 1962 paper, “Toward a Theory of Revolution” (from the American Sociological Review, Vol, 27 Issue 1) that revolution depends upon the mood of the people, and that it is extremely unlikely those in absolute poverty will be able to overturn a government, simply because the government has infinitely more power. Instead, a revolution is more possible when expected need satisfaction and actual need satisfaction are out of sync. As actual need satisfaction trends downward and away from what a formerly prosperous people have come to expect—tracing a curve that looks somewhat like an upside-down J and is called the Davies-J curve—the gap between expectations and reality widens. Eventually an intolerable point is reached, and revolution occurs. Thus, change comes not from the very bottom of the social hierarchy, but from somewhere in the middle. Indeed, the Arab Spring was driven by mostly young people whose education had offered promise and expectations that were thwarted by corrupt autocratic governments. Occupy Wall Street too came not from the bottom but from people in the middle, who exploited the power of social media to enhance communication.

Think It Over

  • Do you think social media is an important tool in creating social change? Why, or why not? Defend your opinion.
  • Describe a social movement in the decline stage. What is its issue? Why has it reached this stage?


alternative movements:
social movements that limit themselves to self-improvement changes in individuals
reform movements:
movements that seek to change something specific about the social structure
religious/redemptive movements:
movements that work to promote inner change or spiritual growth in individuals
revolutionary movements:
movements that seek to completely change every aspect of society
social movement organization:
a single social movement group
social movement sector:
the multiple social movement industries in a society, even if they have widely varying constituents and goals

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