In This Article Social Movements

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • Origins and Influences of American Movements
  • Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
  • Twentieth Century
  • The 1960s and the New Left
  • Late Twentieth Century
  • Peace
  • Right Wing
  • Strategies and Tactics
  • Political Change
  • Psychology
  • Culture
  • Decline and Suppression
  • Law
  • Research

Social Work Social Movements
Michael Reisch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0086


Modern social movements have used a variety of sustained, organized, and public activities to advance their goals and to portray their members as worthy, unified, numerous, and committed to specific changes. Most social movements share several common traits. As “collective challenges based on common purposes,” they assert particular claims on society for tangible resources, recognition, and status. They consist of groups of actors who share common goals yet compete over tactics, resources, and distribution of benefits. Although they usually emerge locally, social movements eventually become established on a regional, national, or international basis and, as a result, become dependent on the support of external sponsors. Today, the term “social movement” is often mistakenly applied to all forms of collective action, even those without clear political goals. Social movements, interest groups, and parties are frequently equated. A movement’s collective action is often conflated with actions undertaken by the organizations within it; these entities are sometimes identified with the movement itself. Discussions of social movements frequently assume internal unity, overlooking their dynamic internal relationships.

General Overviews

Theorists of social movements focus on the following issues: tensions between structure and spontaneity; origins; and how movements articulate goals, frame their message, mobilize members, cultivate collective consciousness or identity, obtain and utilize resources, develop and implement strategies, and take advantage of opportunities. Buechler 2000 discusses the impact of collective action from a sociohistorical perspective, while DeFronzo 2007 explores the impact of movements on society from a theoretical perspective. Della Porta and Diani 2006; McAdam, et al. 2001; Opp 2009; and Staggenborg 2011 apply different theoretical perspectives to the processes of social movement formation and mobilization, and the development of strategies and tactics. Castells 1983, Oberschall 1995, and Skocpol 1979 examine social movements, collective action, and revolutions from a comparative perspective.

  • Buechler, Steven M. 2000. Social movements in advanced capitalism: The political economy and cultural construction of social activism. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    This book explores the sociology of social movements through theory analysis, historical considerations of global, national, regional and local impacts, political implications, and cultural identity. It identifies cultural implications of collective action from a sociohistorical perspective.

  • Castells, Manuel. 1983. The city and the grassroots: A cross-cultural theory of urban social movements. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    This book focuses on the conflict between collective consumption and contestations against state power by relating to the lessons learned from movements in the 1960s and 1970s. It analyzes protests against commercialization, privatization, surveillance and exclusion, and presents a critique of the limitations of civic engagement discourse.

  • DeFronzo, James. 2007. Revolutions and revolutionary movements. Boulder, CO: Westview.

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    This book focuses on theoretical perspectives, outlining the moral, health, economic, and political impact of revolutions and social movements on society. It includes examples from the former Soviet Union, China, Nicaragua, Iran, South Africa, and the French experience in Southeast Asia to examine how revolutions affect cultures over time.

  • Della Porta, Donatella, and M. Diani. 2006. Social movements: An introduction. 2d ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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    The second edition analyzes the process of collective action in the context of social movements. It explores the organizational implications of social movements and the individual cognitive processes that affect decisions based on media influences, democratic values, and class structures.

  • McAdam, Doug, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly. 2001. Dynamics of contention. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    This book emphasizes how contention is an important element in determining revolutionary trajectories. It applies a comparative perspective to the development of contention with respect to the mobilization of social movements, the phenomenon of nationalism, and the process of democratization.

  • Oberschall, Anthony. 1995. Social movements: Ideologies, interests, and identities. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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    This book analyzes the dynamics of ethnic conflict and peace interventions. It recounts the peace process through accounts of the Israeli-Palestinian, Bosnian, and Northern Ireland conflicts, and assesses the peace-building initiatives that occurred in these areas.

  • Opp, Karl-Dieter. 2009. Theories of political protest and social movements: A multi-disciplinary introduction, critique, and synthesis. New York: Routledge.

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    This book focuses on an explanation of the application of micro and macro theories to social movements. It describes the mobilization process, collective action steps, and political frameworks that inspire the occurrence of social movements.

  • Skocpol, Theda. 1979. States and social revolutions: A comparative analysis of France, Russia, and China. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    By exploring alternate theories of social movements through the experiences of France, Russia, and China, this book identifies the key components of these revolutions and the ways in which ideologies and mobilization efforts inspired change within these countries.

  • Staggenborg, Suzanne. 2011. Social movements. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    This book analyzes essential theoretical issues in the study of social movements, utilizing examples from the Aboriginal rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian rights movement, the environmental movement, and the global justice movement. The author explores the strategic methods of social movement activists, the organizational challenges they faced, and mass media and counter-movement influences throughout the process.

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