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Theories of Social Movements

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by Sergey Mamay

The question of classification of the theories of social movements is complicated. Sergey Mamay considers that four main approaches can be distinguished and that these four approaches are:

1. `collective behaviour' theory,
2. `resource mobilisation' theory,
3. `new social movements' interpretations,
4. `the action-identity' approach.

Available at http://lucy.ukc.ac.uk/csacpub/russian/mamay.html.

1) In general, according to the collective behaviour approach, social movements are the symptom and manifestation of a sick society.
 'Mass society accounts' and 'mass deprivation' thinks that the normal or healthy society is characterised by strong class and group solidarities, but when this class or group solidarity becomes weak under the conditions of industrialisation and urbanisation, the processes of 'massification' starts.
Atomised masses become vulnerable to direct mobilising appeals by powerful elites and charismatic leaders a social movement is a 'mild' (aborted, weak, undeveloped) form of revolutionary outbreak (scoppio) or an aspect of revolution.
It stresses the structural function of society and ignores its developing function. 
This approach cannot answer the question: `Why do dysfunctions emerge in the society?' But this approach is very successful in describing the mechanism of emergence and functioning of social movements during relatively stable stages

2) 'Resource mobilisation' approach: Among its exponents are Tilly, Zald, Ash, and Kitschelt.
Social movements are rational and novel responses to new situations and new opportunities (IMPORTANT) in society. Movements are seen as innovative forms of political participation which create and tap new political resources available in modern democratic societies. They appear as a part of the political process. I AGREE on this.
It also explains in a successful way the nature of social movements as an attempt to renew the social order in correspondance with the new changes in society. 
The `resource mobilisation' approach cannot answer the question, why and how do pathological social movements like fascism emerge and why do they lead society to self-destruction, for example.

3) The third main approach is the 'new social movements' approach (Habermas, Offe and others), which is similar to the 'new values' approach (Cotgrove, Inglehart, and others).
Social movements as both symptoms of, and solutions to, the contradictions inherent in the modern super-bureaucratic society. 
New conflicts arise in areas of cultural reproduction, social integration and socialisation." (Habermas 1981: 34)
New social movements, in contrast to old social movements, are produced by new contradictions of society, contradictions between individual and state. (Post-materialist values, reflecting `higher' aesthetic, self-realisation, and creative needs).
 definite type of society ---> definite type of social contradictions ---> definite type of social movements

4) The last one is the 'action-identity' paradigm. (The main representatives are Touraine, Castells). Touraine considers that social movements are far from abnormal or pathological (I agree!)
Social movements not only prevent social stagnation, but also promise social emancipation (IMPORTANT).
Different pattern of class relations and class conflicts. In a programmed society the dominant class is the technocracy.
A social movement is, in Touraine's words, "the organised collective behaviour of a class actor struggling against its class adversary for the social control of its historicity". (Touraine 1981: 77) 
If the `action-identity' paradigm exaggerates the elements from industrial society and underestimate the elements of post-industrial society, then the position of the `new social movements' and `new values' approaches is reversed.

----> All the approaches may be correct in their local sphere, but they either stress attention to specific types of social movements and consider them as universal or put all the attention on a single aspect of the phenomenon of social movements and ignore others.


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PhD, Lecturer at City Uni, London.
New Media, Sociology of Media, Information Society and more.
Researching organizational implications of Web-native collective action, Sociology of technology and social change, open data, E-Democracy, IT and Organizations.
Former Web-dev and consultant.

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