Comp-post: Collective Action vs. Resource Mobilization

Here are some thoughts on collective action and resource mobilization, two approaches to explaining social movements. Both are agency-centered, but collective action addresses agency of group members and resource mobilization focuses primarily on the agency of elites. I don’t think that these are mutually exclusive modes of analysis, but tend to attract different followers. A synthesis of the two would be very powerful, accounting for both elite and mass motivations, which of course both come into play in the real world (fancy that!). –Erik

The difficulty in dissecting and explaining social movements is reflected in two of the dominant theoretical approaches to social movement phenomena: theories of collective action (CA) and resource mobilization (RMT). These two approaches stand at opposite ends of the agential-structural spectrum, with RMT being highly structural and CA very agent-centered. A natural question that arises from the distinct assumptions of each tradition is whether one has more explanatory power for social movements. Given the breadth and volume of RMT and CA traditions, it appears that there is a need for structural and rational choice accounts for social movement formation, which neither appears to completely fulfill.

McCarthy and Zald (2002) contend that (RMT) is a reaction to the relative deprivation/grievance approaches to understanding social movements. RMT counters economistic explanations of rational self-interest and contends that the collective action problem is not adequately solved by simple self-interest. McCarthy and Zald further assume that SMs are “normal behavior,” that SM resources originate from wealthy actors and institutions external to the movement, and highlights the role of media as a powerful intermediary between the movement and the larger public (2002: 535).

RMT assumes that social movement formation is reliant not only on the procurement of resources, but because of the nature of wealth and power distribution, that movements are reliant specifically on elite actors within society and external to the social movement. Following McAdam (1982) in the distinction between members (society is responsive to members) and challengers (society is nonresponsive in at least some area), the elites (members) in a society would have no rational motivation for funding social movements (challengers) because they would upset the societal position of members if successful. Further, in the resource mobilization model, elite activity necessarily precedes indigenous social movement activity. In fact, McAdam (1982) demonstrates that during the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. that elite participation was reactive to movement activity. At least in the case of the Civil Rights Movement, movement origins predate elite sponsorship.

CA theorists address the origins of social movements through individually self-interested explanations of the provision of public goods. Olson’s (1965) free-rider problem is perhaps the approach that is most directly linked to CA explanations of social movements. The fundamental CA assumption about individuals acting in their own self-interest requires modification in the face of structural realities such as societal distribution of wealth and power, and the adequacy of the extant provision of public goods.  To the extent that CA/rational choice models are modified to account for structural explanations of social movement formation is the crux over which a theorist leans toward CA or RMT approaches.

Lichbach (1994) contends that collective action theorists have long been hung up on the free-rider problem, which he views as initial to social movement investigation, rather than moving into using CA to explain specific movement behaviors, particularly protest and rebellion. To this observer, this signals a major flaw in the CA approach to SM formation. McCarthy and Zald also remark that “[rationality and] that self-interest alone was an inadequate basis to account for the contribution of effort to the pursuit of the collective goods that social movements seemed to be involved in (2002: 533).”

RMT and CA are marked advances in relation to the classical explanations of social movements, which perceived movements as abnormal behavior and a reaction to psychological strain in society. Despite this advance, it may be useful to view CA and RMT as the thesis and antithesis in a dialectic whose synthesis is closer to the political process (PP) model to which McCarthy and Zald (2002) offer occasional attention. According to McAdam (1982), PP accounts for the structural alignment of opportunities, a movement organization, and the motivation of individual participants as preconditions for the formation of a social movement. Thus, PP incorporates the structural tendency of RMT and the preferences/motivations of individuals present in CA. PP agrees with RMT in terms of concentrated resources and power, but it diverges from RMT by shifting emphasis on agency from external elites to internal movement participants. This distinction does not reject the unequal distribution of power between external elites and movement participants, but it does imply an important potential of movements to wield power over elites. PP refutes RMT’s placement of absolute agency with elites and asserts that it is generally illogical for elites to promote social movements, which would weaken the societal position of elites (McAdam 1982). Given the distinction of PP from RMT on fundamental assumptions, PP does not appear to be merely a variety of RMT, as claimed by McCarthy and Zald (2002: 533, 556).


Lichbach, Mark. 1994. Rethinking Rationality and Rebellion: Theories of Collective Action and Problems of Collective Dissent.” Rationality and Society 6(1), 8-39.

McAdam, Doug. 1982. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McCarthy, John D. and Mayer N. Zald. 2002. The Enduring Vitality of the Resource Mobilization Theory of Social Movements. In Jonathan H. Turner (Ed.). Handbook of Sociological Theory. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 533-565.

Olson, Mancur. (1965). The Logic of Collective Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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