The Emergence, Functionality And Sustainability Of Social Movements: [Essay Example], 2139 words GradesFixer

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The Emergence, Functionality And Sustainability Of Social Movements

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Studies have shown that participation in protest and social movements has been on the rise since the 1980’s (Norris, 2002). A more general explanation on the occurrence of movements assumes that people mobilise by taking to the streets to air grievances which tend to affect their day to day life (Della Porta & Diani, 2006).

To understand better the emergence, functionality and sustainability of social movements the following themes are examined: collective behaviour, resource mobilisation, political opportunity, social constructionism, collective identity, culture and dramaturgy. A wide range of themes are considered due to the complex nature of social movements. The following literature review will discuss key theories and themes from scholars in the field and provide a strong conjectural basis for the following consecutive chapters.

Collective behaviour

Robert E. Park formulated the term collective behaviour, defining it broadly as “the behaviour of individuals under the influence of an impulse that is common and collective, an impulse, in other words, that is the result of social interaction” (Park, 1921: 865). The concept of collective behaviour theory refers to a miscellaneous set of behaviours associated with crowd mentality and considered an umbrella concept which covers variant terms associated with traditional or ‘classical’ theories (Snow & Oliver, 1995).

Smelsers collective behaviour theory hinges on the idea that social movements occur due to strains in the social structure (Smelser, 1962). Irrational notions and “generalised beliefs” form the motivational basis for collective action and could be considered to be “akin to magical beliefs” (ibid : 8). An emphasis was placed on crowd mentality and collective action was expressed as a set of extra institutional phenomena that encompass an array of collective actions which are emotionally spurred, relatively spontaneous and unstructured displays manifested through mobs, fads or crazes (Snow & Oliver, 1995).

Smelser acknowledged the influence of psychological variables, accentuated by specific social conditions which bring them to light – the act of protest reflecting the irrational behaviour of “atomized individuals who were swept up by charismatic leaders into forms of action” was deemed inferior to the prevailing dominant political fabric (Polletta, 2008: 80). Although Smelser’s theory of collective behaviour can be criticised for the use of irrational assessments on the part of the participants, his functionalist framework does suggest six decisive determinants of collective behaviour which influenced later theories such as political opportunity and injustice framing which will be discussed further in this review.

Smelser’s six determinants are as follows: (1)structural conduciveness (social conditions that are necessary for collective behaviour to occur), (2)structural strain (strain on the structure of the current social system), (3)growth and spread of generalised beliefs, (4)precipitating factors (a specific event that sets the fight in motion), (5)mobilisation (bringing the affected group into action) and (6)the operation of social control (counter determinants which disrupt the accumulation of the determinants previously mentioned) (Smelser, 1962: 15-16).


The term deprivation expresses the lack of, or denial of basic elements considered necessary in society. From his examination of both Marx and Tocqueville, Davies (1962) asserted that revolutions were more likely to occur when a period of increased economic improvement is followed by a sharp period of decline (Davies, 1962). Gurr, employing the already established notion of relative deprivation, argued that collective frustration stemmed from a societal failure to meet personal acquisitions rather than impartial standards thus conceptualising collective frustration as stemming from subjective rather than objective criteria (Gurr, 1970).

Discontent is the focus of relative deprivation, yet it is not conceptualised as a product of social change rather its focal point is centred on the discrepancy between that which is perceived as being acceptable or appropriate and that which is seen to be deserved or expected (Snow & Oliver, 1995). Relative deprivation theory endeavoured to clarify the conspicuous observation that conflict usually arises from within the circles of the prosperous rather than the poverty-stricken strands of society (ibid, 1995). The theory employs an assumption that individuals who are accustomed to economic stability and well-being are the first to enter the public arena to protest their dissatisfaction over a decline in standards not the individuals who could be perceived to have less or nothing to lose.

Resource Mobilisation

Resource mobilisation refers to attaining, utilising and maximising resources which in turn enables mobilisation (Edwards & McCarthy, 2004). Resource mobilisation scholars shifted their focus from identifying indicators of system strain to identifying the types and degree to which movements were appropriating external resources outside of the political bargaining system to engage in action (Polletta, 2008). McCarthy and Zald’s (1977) resource mobilisation theory grounded social movement study in the realm of rational thinking and organisation. An important aspect of this concept is the assumption that discontented groups in society will always exist (ibid, 1977).

Olsen in The Logic of Collective Action (1965) challenged the assumption that that likeminded individuals will unavoidably assemble to pursue a common goal. He stated that unless the number of individuals in a group is small, or unless there is coercion, “rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interest” (Olsen, 1965: 2). In other words, why would individuals, as part of an agency, contribute resources toward the fulfilment of a public good if the result could materialise regardless, despite the absence of the individual’s contribution. He suggested that rational individuals or ‘free riders’ would benefit nonetheless from their lack of contribution (ibid, 1965). Olsen’s concepts formed the basis for resource mobilisation theory spurring scholars to investigate what incentivises collective action (McCarthy & Zald, 1977).

The collective behaviour theories discussed above focus on the motivations of individuals to group together and protest. Concepts of resource mobilisation focus on a more rational assessment of the organisational and functionality capacity of interested groups (ibid, 1977). Grievances are assumed to be ever-present and they materialise within the structural composition of society (Jenkins & Perrow, 1977). Resource mobilisation accounts for the practicalities of movement mobilisation and assumes that shared beliefs alone are not the crux of social movement mobilisation (Edwards & McCarthy, 2004). An accumulation of materialistic resources in the form of income or donations and non-materialistic resources in the form of social capital, protesters or members, social networks and associations to name but a few are also required to achieve goals (Oberschall, 1973). There is contention over accounting for what can be considered a resource and little agreement exists within the literature on the types of resources that are critical (Jenkins, 1983).

Recognised as a crucial element to social organisation was an agencies capacity to utilise networks and pre-existing associations (Oberschall, 1973). Networks, given their nature, enable solidarity incentives and can provide social movement organisations with recruitment accessibility (Obershall, 1973). Therefore, it can be argued that social movements are less focussed on appealing to isolated individuals but rather their appeal is focused on small pre-existing groupings (ibid, 1973). Despite the need to understand the practicalities of social movements, resource mobilisation theory has been criticised for largely viewing social movements in terms of economic and entrepreneurial value and neglecting the psychological aspects to collective action (Jenkins, 1983).

Political Process and Political Opportunity

Political process theory attempts to envision social mobilisation as another form of politics and in this context, movements provide a link between people and the political state (McCarthy and Zald, 1977). Opportunity weighs heavily in the concept of political process theory. In this model the political environment provides indicators for people to initiate collective action by influencing their chances of success or failure (Tarrow, 1998).

Political process theorists specifically concentrate on the political shifts that signified the states vulnerability to collective action. It is also acknowledged that marginalised or alienated groups are not as incapable as resource mobilisation theorists suggest (Polletta, 2008). It is asserted that oppressed groups tend to have pre-existing networks or organisations that provide movements with solidarity incentives and directional leadership (ibid, 2008). McAdam who is credited with the development of the political process model emphasised the role of black colleges and churches in making the civil rights movement in the United States of America effective in terms of mobilising numbers (McAdam, 1982).

Along with political opportunities and structures of mobilisation, the notion of culture began to emerge as a factor (ibid, 1982). Culture was included in one of three strands of McAdam’s political process theory which he described as “cognitive liberation” (McAdam, 1982: 34). He argued that before collective action can occur “people must collectively define their situations as unjust and subject to change through group action” (McAdam, 1982: 51). Thus, along with political opportunities and established organisational structure, mutual understanding is key to mobilisation emergence. In subsequent revisions of the theory cognitive liberation was conceptualised as collective action framing (discussed below) (Polletta, 2008).

Although the notion of culture, in the form of collective action framing, appeared in political process theory it is expressed on the periphery (along with resource mobilisation) and is considered second to the centrality of political opportunity and therefore conceptualised in a limited capacity (ibid, 2008). The assumption that collective action is hinged on political opportunity exaggerates its role in mobilisation, suggesting that the emergence of social movements rests predominantly on political opportunity rather than the notion of social change (Jasper & Goodwin, 1999).

Culture, Social Movements and Social Constructionism

Components of collective behaviour (Park, 1967; Gur,1970) had acknowledged that structural and cultural grievances (strain and relative deprivation) had the capacity to form motivations for action. The cultural component of new social movement theory addresses the content of movement ideology, the concerns motivating participants, and the arena in which collective action was focused – that is, cultural understandings, norms, and identities rather than material interests and economic distribution (Polletta & Jasper, 2001). Within the constructionist mindset culture plays an important role in in the dynamic functionality of a society and the framing perspective is the primary instrument of culture in social movement and protest study (Johnston, 2009).


Framing in the context of social movement study is considered both a theory and a methodological tool and is intended to provide emphasis on “meaning-work”, how ideas are produced and how reality is constructed (Benford & Snow, 1992: 136). The theory claims that meaning and its interpretation is not created spontaneously in individuals but that it is carefully constructed by entrepreneurs who design persuasive interpretations with which individuals can decipher its validity (Benford & Snow, 2000; Johnston, 2009). Generating meaning and interpretation is a process based on a range of transmittable components whereby success is measured by the resounding transmitter that most people are agreeable to attuning to. Transmitters of interpretation usually manifest themselves in the communicative realm of discourse, iconography and symbolism.

The concept of framing is derived from Erving Goffman’s Frame Analysis (1974) and is denoted as “schemata of interpretation” which facilitates individuals “to locate, perceive, identify, and label” developments within their own spatial reality (cited in Benford & Snow, 2000: 614). In essence it is the framing of a topic of contention that produces a certain reaction not the reality itself (ibid, 2000). Rooted in the constructionist principle, Benford and Snow devised a three-step collective action framework with which to analyse mobilisation which involves: (1) diagnostic framing (social movement entrepreneurs compose their own interpretation of an issue while also assigning blame for their grievance) (2) prognostic framing (suggested method of the elevation of an issue) and (3) motivational framing (rationality for action is implied) (Benford & Snow, 2000: 615).

Not unlike Benford and Snow, Gamson also incorporated Goffman’s theoretical frame concept in formulating three alternative elements of collective action: injustice, identity and agency (Gamson, 1992). His belief, although criticized (Benford & Snow, 2000), was the notion that every successful movement embodied some form of injustice frame (Gamson, 1992). The broad nature of injustice framing bears resonance with Smelser’s (1962) use of ‘strain’ in collective behaviour theory – in each instance both strain and injustice are necessary for mobilisation. The injustice framing in the context of social movements is a robust term to entice action on an issue and provides individuals with a moral explanation of active participation.

Culture as a Repertoire of Resources

Swindler placed culture at the centre of movement study, understanding it as a “tool kit” from which movement leaders can strategically draw from in the construction of resonant frames (Swindler, 1986). This so-called tool kit favours the “deep cultural and emotional processes that inspire and produce collective action” (Morris, 2000: 452). Swindler identifies culture in “symbols, stories, rituals, and world-views, which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems” but also asserts the difficulties that culture causes due to the varying definitions associated with it (Swindler, 1986: 273). Culture and “cultural production, by use of persuasive communication, can be utilised as a marketing device” to encourage the recruitment of individuals (Klandermans, 2004: 361). In order to mobilise, movements require members and members tend to participate on the basis of meaning alignment (ibid, 2004).

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