Sorting through social movement analysis

Understanding social movement formation and evolution provides important insights into the broader repertoire of group behavior. While social movements are frequent objects of analysis by scholars, there is considerable debate and a wide range of approaches within social movement research. I argue that each approach is incomplete and that combinations of these approaches will better serve researchers who seek fuller understandings of movement emergence and evolution.

Early explanations of social movement explained their origins as the result of relative deprivation (Runciman 1966) or grievances (Berkowitz 1972; Klandermans 1997). The basic idea is that a desired outcome for a set of people (a group, or even a class) is prevented by some external disruption. Social movements, then, emerge as a social psychological response to the breakdown in societal functions. Pure grievance approaches imply a simple functionalism to social movements, in that they only arise as symptoms of a breakdown in societal order and that once the error has been corrected, the movement will naturally dissipate. However, the persistent and evolving nature of movements, and the difficulty in forming groups, made grievance explanations unhelpful tools for explaining movement formation and maintenance. In short, if social movements are natural responses to social disruption, why are social movements so rare?

Collective action theorists address the origins of social movements through individually self-interested explanations of the provision of public goods. Two of the primary deficiencies of grievance approaches are that movement formation and decline should be inevitable. However, Olson (1965) demonstrated that group formation is far from inevitable. If individual see that a group is working to correct their grievance, and that their individual contributions will not obviously make a difference in the cause, there is no incentive for individuals to devote personal time and energy. However, if all potential movement participants looked at the movement in this way, then the movement would never coalesce in the first place. Known as the free rider problem, this paradox requires other incentives to motivate individual participation. The core assumption about individuals acting in their own self-interest requires modification in the face of structural realities such as the distribution of wealth and power, and the adequacy of the provision of public goods. Lichbach (1994) contends that collective action theorists have long been hung up on the free-rider problem, rather than moving into using collective to explain specific movement behaviors, such as protest. For other researchers, this dissatisfaction with collective action explanations was more fundamental than explaining free-riderism, and found the entire approach wanting (McCarthy and Zald 1977, 2002; Jenkins 1983).

Resource mobilization theories are a reaction to both grievance and pure collective action approaches to understanding social movements. This approach counters rational choice approaches and contends that the collective action problem is not adequately solved by simple self-interest. Resource mobilization assumes that social movements are normal behavior (as opposed to social psychological abnormalities) and that social movement resources flow 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. Resource mobilization also 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 Gamson (1975) in the distinction between members (society is responsive to members) and challengers (society is nonresponsive in at least some area), the elites in a polity would have no rational motivation for funding social movements, because successful movement challengers would upset the position of elite members. Further, in the resource mobilization model, elite activity necessarily precedes grassroots social movement activity. However, at least some research that movements do, or at least can, originate without the assistance of elite sponsorship, and that they have the ability to garner elite support once the movement is active (e.g. McAdam 1982). Thus, resource mobilization also has its challengers.

The range of methodologies in collective action and social movement research also reveal different conceptions of social movements, and underscore the challenges in investigating them. For example, Diani (2002) uses network analysis to demonstrate that the relative position of actors within groups offers insight into the constraints and lack of constraints on individuals to lead, mobilize, protest, or otherwise participate in movement activity. Diani argues that an overly granular focus on specific actors restricts from researchers insights on “the broader patterns of exchanges within a movement” and that these patterns may help us to understand “the logic of alliance building in that movement.” (175) Diani’s approach maintains an appreciation of the individuals within a movement, though his level of analysis remains at the group level. The primary concern in network analysis is where an individual is positioned within groups and among their peers. Diani’s approach essentially maps out the interconnectedness of individuals, groups, and movements, and can likely bear insights into the real boundaries (or lack thereof) between groups, around which individuals and groups a movement is centered, and offer clues to the ease of information flow and social pressure within a network. However, network analysis lacks the investigative means to shed important insight on group formation, maintenance, evolution, and decline. Because the interconnections between individuals and groups are so complex and fluid, the cross-sectional nature of network analysis is of limited utility for explaining the processes that shape and propel movements.

Johnston (2002) also glimpses a different conceptual perspective by way of the methodologies of frame and discourse analysis. These sets of techniques emphasize the role of ideas as indicators of movement activity and strength. Frame and discourse analyses typically involve the quantification of ideas and positions within texts produced by and about movements and groups. In this sense, “text” refers to the range of written and spoken documents, such as public addresses, interviews, group publications, internal strategy papers, news stories, and other means of recorded statements produced by or in reference to a group. Frame and discourse analysis seeks to identify the ideas conveyed as strategic devices to create or exploit political opportunity. For example, in order to create a more favorable context to pass a middle-class tax break, a movement might frame the issue in terms of “the American dream” or “family values.” Because the goal is to constrain a movement’s opponents, and empower their allies in ideational terms, frame analysis relies upon the role of public discourse in shaping the political arena. The more or less the public supports, opposes, or remains indifferent to an issue weighs heavily on the range of possible political outcomes (Schattschneider 1960). However, frame and discourse analyses still focus on groups and movements as the relevant units of analysis, though these approaches do have significantly more potential to demonstrate the evolution of groups over time. Still, this approach alone cannot accommodate an appreciation for the role of political entrepreneurs and other important leaders within and outside of movements.

Each of the approaches in this essay has utility for some aspect of social movement research, but ultimately each is incomplete.  As collective action proponents note, grievance theory does not properly account for the scarcity of movements. But its critics cannot deny that movements strive to correct some grievance, whether real or perceived, steady or evolutionary. The same goes for collective action, which addresses why individuals join movements. This approach does not conflict with resource mobilization as much as researchers may claim. The motivations for individual membership and activity in movements are likely far different than those of group leaders, with which resource mobilization is concerned. A similar kind of critique can be applied to network or framing analysis, which cannot account for movement emergence or decline. Yet, these types of analysis can provide significant insight into the ways that movements behave and change during their lifespan. What social movement researchers should consider in appropriating one approach or another, is what they are trying to explain. Of those here, only collective action and resource mobilization are complete approaches to movement formation, for example. Alternatively, and what seems most fruitful, a researcher may wish to consider using a hybrid approach that combines several of these methods to develop a comprehensive view of movements from emergence to decline. Although social scientists have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bath water, trading in a new approach for an old one, it appears as though we have enough working parts that social movement researchers can scavenge from the different approaches to construct a solid research agenda.


Berkowitz, L. 1972. “Frustrations, Comparisons, and Other Sources of Emotion Aroused as Contributors to Social Unrest.” Journal of Social Issues 28: 77-92.

Diani, Mario. 2002. “Network Analysis.” In B. Klandermans and S. Staggenborg (eds.). Methods of Social Movement Research. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 173-200.

Gamson, William A. 1975. The Strategy of Social Protest. Homewood, IL: Dorsey.

Jenkins, J. Craig. 1983. “Resource Mobilization Theory and the Study of Social Movements.” Annual Review of Sociology 9: 527-553.

Johnston, Hank. 2002 “Verification and Proof in Frame and Discourse Analysis.” In B. Klandermans and S. Staggenborg (eds.). Methods of Social Movement Research. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 62-91.

Klandermans, Bert. 1997. The Social Psychology of Protest. Oxford: Blackwell.

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 Illinois Press.

McCarthy, John D., and Mayer N. Zald. 1977. “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory.” American Journal of Sociology 82(6): 1212-1241.

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

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

Runciman, Walter G. 1966. Relative Deprivation and Social Justice: A Study of Attitudes to Social Inequality in Twentieth-century England. London: Routledge and Kegan.

Schattschneider, E.E. 1960. The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. New York: Holt, Winston, and Rinehart.

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