What are social movements?

Social movements are important because when collective action spreads across an entire society it leads to a cycle of protest. When such a cycle is organised around opposed or multiple classes or interest groups then this can lead to revolutions [1]. This is simplistic as there are many causes and factors that lead to revolutions, which I’ll attempt to unpack in future posts. This post will focus on describing the characteristics of social movements to frame a future post listing the history of social movements in Britain.

Defining social movements

Many have defined social movements and their characteristics. Here is a consolidated list of those characteristics:

  • social movements are extremely varied: “historically and cross-culturally, and include movements campaigning for various ‘rights’ (civil, labour, women’s, gay, disability, children and so on); movements campaigning on behalf of the environment, peace, or animals; movements seeking specific political reforms or diffuse cultural and personal change; and movements contesting globalization, corporations, and capitalist social relations.” [2]
  • social movements are collective/organised enterprises for social change, rather than individual efforts at social change. Some have created formal organizations, others have relied on informal networks, and others have engaged in more spontaneous actions such as riots.
  • Social movements exist over a ‘period of time’ rather than being ‘one-off’ events- movements follow a temporal trajectory so ‘move’ or change. They might be viewed as temporary from a longer-term perspective.
  • Social movements challenge ‘the status quo’ – elites, authorities, and opponents. They challenge or defend the existing authority by engaging in a ‘conflictual issue’ with a ‘powerful opponent’. Social movements are typically resisted by forces that favour the status quo, which imparts fundamental contentiousness to movement actions.
  • Social movements use varied tactics – choose between violent and nonviolent activities, illegal and legal ones, disruption and persuasion, extremism and moderation, reform and revolution.
  • Social movements use protest – Social movements actively pursue change by employing protest.
  • Social movements are a source of creativity and create identities, ideas, and ideals – members of a social movement are not just working together, but share a ‘collective identity’.
  • Social movements occupy public spaces and the public sphere/debate. Social movements are unique because they are guided purposively and strategically by the people who join them.
  • Social movements mostly operate outside established political and institutional channels.
  • Social movements, big and small, move history along, sometimes in significant ways. [3]

When did social movements first appear?

Charles Tilly describes in Social Movements 1768-2012 that popular risings in one form or another have been happening for thousands of years. He argues that in the eighteenth century something changed so that social movements in the form we understand them were first created, including leadership, members and resources. For Tilly social movements emerged from an innovative combination of three elements:

  • a campaign “a sustained, organized public effort making collective claims on target authorities”
  • social movement repertoire “employment of combinations from among the following forms of political action: creation of special-purpose associations and coalitions, public meetings, solemn processions, vigils, rallies, demonstrations, petition drives, statements to and in public media, and pamphleteering”
  • WUNC displays “‘participants’ concerted public representations of WUNC: worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment on the part of themselves and/or their constituencies” [4]

Defining British social movement since 1945

There have been two books written about post-war social movements in Britain. They both define social movements for the recent British context so I’ve included their definitions.

In British Social Movements since 1945, Adam Lent describes a more focused concept of British social movements “by post-war social movements I am referring to those grassroots mobilisations which were initiated outside of the established structures and values of the existing polity and which formed around the politics of six key issues and/or social groups: gender and women, sexuality and homosexuals, disability and the disabled, race and the ethnic communities, the pursuit of peace, and the defence of the environment. This is a definition rooted deeply in the historical specificity of post-war British movements.” [5]

The second book is Social Movements in Britain by Paul Byrne. He notes the main characteristics of social movements to be:

  • Values and identity – people join social movements because they are committed to certain values and are making a statement about themselves.
  • Structure – social movements are not formally organisations like political parties but are instead ‘networks of interaction’ with political goals.
  • Outsiders – social movements challenge the existing order and way of doing things.
  • Tactics – social movements engage in some action outside of the institutional or legal channels of political institutions.
  • Protest campaigns and social movements – protests do not represent a movement if it does not seek to gain support across the whole of society or even internationally. Social movements aim for societal change, not local change. [6]

Social movements, dynamics of contention and collective action

McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly argue in Dynamics of Contention that different forms of contention result from similar mechanisms and processes in society. The different forms of contention that they list include social movements, revolutions, industrial conflict/strike waves, nationalism, democratisation, war, and interest group politics. McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly define contentious politics to be “episodic, public, collective interaction among makers of claims and their objects when (a) at least one government is a claimant, an object of claims, or a party to the claim and (b) the claims would, if realized, affect the interest of at least one of the claimants.” [7]

Other important forms of contention are insurrections, rebellions, revolts, riots, and uprisings. Sometimes they are part of social movements and sometimes not. I will explore these in future posts.

Donatella Della Porta and Mario Diani defines collective action as “individuals sharing resources in pursuit of collective goals – i.e., goals that cannot be privatized to any of the members of the collectivity on behalf of which collective action has taken place. Such goals may be produced within movements, but also in many contexts that normally are not associated with movements.” [8] Donatella Della Porta includes social movements, political parties, voluntary organisation, interest groups and religious sects, as collective action. [9] Herbert Blumer identified four forms of collective behaviour: crowds, the public, the mass, and social movements

The structure of social movements

In What is a Social Movement? Hank Johnston explains that there are two basic ways of thinking about how social movements are structured. First, social movements are made up of organisations and groups that integrate people in varying amounts of participation and mobilise them to act. These groups and organisations are large or small, disruptive or engage with political institutions, grassroots or centralised. Second, the complexity of social movements means they are interconnected network structures. The network binds the components (individuals, organisations, groups) together resulting in an overall cohesion. [10]

Charles Tilly makes a useful point that social movement analyists make a common mistake of  confusing a movements collective action – the campaigns in which it engages – with the organisations and networks that support the action. Or even simply considering that organisations and networks are the movement. [11] I think its both, the activities (actions, protests, marches/demonstrations, and campaigns) and the structures (organisations, groups, some political parties, and movements of movements).



  1. Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics, Sidney Tarrow, 2011, page 16
  2. Social Movements and Protest, Gemma Edwards, 2014, page 2
  3. Social Movements and Protest page 2-5
    The Social Movements Reader: Cases and Concepts, Jeff Goodwin, 2014, page 3/4
    Making Sense of Social Movements, Nick Crossley, 2002, page 2-7
    What is a Social Movement?, Hank Johnston, 2014,  page 1
  4. Social Movements 1768-2012, Charles Tilly, 2012 page 4/5
  5. British Social Movements Since 1945: Sex, Colour, Peace and Power, Adam Lent, 2002, page 3
  6. Social Movements in Britain, Paul Byrne, 1997, page 12-23
  7. Dynamics of Contention, Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, Charles Tilly, 2001, page 4-7
  8. Social Movements: An Introduction, Donatella Della Porta and Mario Diani, 2010, page 19
  9. Social Movements: An Introduction, page 19-20
  10. What is a Social Movement?, Hank Johnston, 2014,  page 7
  11. Social Movements 1768-2012, page 7