Home > Student Resources > Social Movements and Social Change > Key Points >
Social Movements and Social Change
Key Points

I. Early Explanations of Collective Behaviour: The Transformation of the Individual
A. Collective behaviour is characterized by a group of people becoming emotionally aroused and engaging in extraordinary behaviour, in which the usual norms do not apply.
B. In 1852, Charles Mackay concluded that when people were in crowds, they sometimes “went mad” and did “disgraceful and violent things”; just as a herd of cows will stampede, so people can come under the control of a “herd mentality”.
C. Based on Mackay’s idea, Gustave LeBon stressed that the individual is transformed by the crowd.
  1. In a crowd, people feel anonymous, not accountable for what they do; they develop feelings of invincibility, believing that together they can accomplish anything. A collective mind develops.
  2. They become highly suggestible; this paves the way for contagion, a kind of collective hypnosis, which releases the destructive instincts that society has so carefully repressed.
D. To LeBon’s analysis, Robert Park added the idea of social unrest, which is transmitted from one individual to another, and circular reaction, the back-and-forth communication between the members of a crowd whereby a “collective impulse” is transmitted.
E. Using symbolic interaction theory and synthesizing both LeBon’s and Park’s ideas, Herbert Blumer identified five stages of collective behaviour.
  1. A background condition of social unrest exists—when people’s routine activities are thwarted or when they develop new needs that go unsatisfied.
  2. An exciting event occurs—one so startling that people are preoccupied with it.
  3. People engage in milling—the act of standing or walking around as they talk about the exciting event and circular reaction sets in.
  4. A common object of attention emerges—people’s attention becomes riveted on some aspect of the event.
  5. Stimulation of the common impulses occurs—people collectively agree about what they should do. Social contagion, described as a collective excitement passed from one person to another, becomes the mechanism that stimulates these common impulses. The end result is an acting crowd, an excited group that collectively moves toward a goal, which may be constructive or destructive.
II. The Contemporary View: The Rationality of the Crowd
A. Richard Berk pointed out that people use a minimax strategy (trying to minimize their costs and maximize their rewards) whether in small groups or in crowds; the fewer the costs and the greater the rewards that people anticipate, the more likely they are to carry out a particular act.
B. Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian noted that human behaviour is regulated by the normative order (socially approved ways of doing things that make up our everyday life) but when an extraordinary event occurs and existing norms do not cover the new situation, people develop new norms to deal with the problem (emergent norms).
  1. There are five kinds of crowd participants: (1) the ego-involved, who feel a high personal stake in the event; (2) the concerned, who have a personal interest in the event, but less than the ego-involved; (3) the insecure, who have little concern about the issue but have sought out the crowd because it gives them a sense of power and security; (4) the curious spectators, who are inquisitive and may cheer the crowd on even though they do not care about the issue; and (5) the exploiters, who do not care about the issue but use it for their own purposes (e.g., hawking food or T-shirts).
  2. The concept of emergent norms is important because it points to a rational process as the essential component of collective behaviour.
III. Forms of Collective Behaviour
A. Riots, such as the one that erupted in Los Angeles after the verdict in the Rodney King trial, are usually caused by frustration and anger at deprivation.
  1. Frustration develops from a perception of being kept out of the mainstream society (limited to a meager education, denied jobs and justice, and kept out of good neighbourhoods) and builds to such a boiling point that it takes only a precipitating event to erupt in collective behaviour.
  2. It is not only the deprived who participate in riots or demonstrations; others, who are not deprived, but who still feel frustration at the underlying social conditions that place them at a disadvantage also get involved.
  3. The event that precipitates a riot is much less important than the riot’s general context.
B. Panic, like the one which occurred following the broadcast of H. G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds”, is behaviour that results when people become so fearful that they cannot function normally.
  1. One explanation as to why people panic is because they are anxious about some social condition.
  2. This is why it is against the law to shout “Fire!” in a public building when no such danger exists—if people fear immediate death, they will lunge toward the nearest exit in a frantic effort to escape.
  3. Sociologists have found that not everyone panics in these situations, and some employees, such as some of those at the supper club, engage in role extension (the incorporation of additional activities into a role) to try to help people to safety.
C. Moral panics occur when large numbers of people become intensely concerned, even fearful, about some behaviour that is perceived as a threat to morality—the threat is seen as enormous and hostility builds toward those thought responsible.
  1. Like other panics, moral panics centre around a sense of danger. But, because they involve larger numbers of people and are fostered by the mass media, moral panics, as opposed to other forms of panic, do not arise as quickly.
  2. Moral panics are often fed by rumour, information for which there is no discernable source and which is usually unfounded.
  3. Moral panics also thrive on uncertainty and anxiety.
D. Rumours thrive in conditions of ambiguity, functioning to fill in missing information.
  1. Most rumours are short-lived and arise in a situation of ambiguity, only to dissipate when they are replaced either by another rumour or by factual information. A few rumours have a long life because they hit a responsive cord (e.g., rumours of mass poisoning of soft drink products that spread to many countries).
  2. Three main factors in why people believe rumours are that they: (1) deal with a subject that is important to an individual; (2) replace ambiguity with some form of certainty; and (3) are attributed to a creditable source.
E. A fad is a temporary pattern of behaviour that catches people’s attention, while fashion is a more enduring version of the same.
  1. John Loftand identified four types of fads: (1) object fads, such as the hula hoop or pet rocks; (2) activity fads, such as eating goldfish or playing Trivial Pursuit: (3) idea fads, such as astrology; and (4) personality fads such as Elvis Presley, Vanna White, and Michael Jordan.
  2. Fashion is a behaviour pattern that catches people’s attention, lasting longer than a fad. Most often thought of in terms of clothing fashions, it can also refer to hairstyles, home decorating, design and colours of buildings, and language.
F. Urban legends are stories with an ironic twist that sound realistic but are false. Jan Brunvand, who studied the transmission of urban legends, concluded that urban legends are passed on by people who think that the event really happened to someone, such as a “friend of a friend”; the stories have strong appeal and gain credibility from naming specific people or local places; and they are “modern morality stories”, with each teaching a moral lesson about life.

IV. Social Movements
A. Social movements consist of large numbers of people, who, through deliberate and sustained efforts, organize to promote or resist social change. At the heart of social movements lie grievances and dissatisfactions.
B. Proactive social movements promote social change because a current condition of society is intolerable. In contrast, reactive social movements resist changing conditions in society that they perceive as threatening. To further their goals, people develop social movement organizations.
C. The National Action Committee on the Status of Women, The Council of Canadians, and the National Indian Brotherhood are all examples of social movement organizations in Canada whose goal is to promote social change.

V. Types and Tactics of Social Movements
A. David Aberle classified social movements into four broad categories according to the type and amount of social change they seek.
  1. Two types seek to change people but differ in terms of the amount of change desired: alternative social movements seek to alter only particular aspects of people (e.g., Mothers Against Drunk Driving); while redemptive social movements seek to change people totally (e.g., a religious social movement such as fundamental Christianity that stresses conversion).
  2. Two types seek to change society but also differ in terms of the amount of change desired: reformative social movements seek to reform only one part of society (e.g., the environment); transformative social movements seek to change the social order itself and to replace it with their own version of the ideal society (e.g., revolutions in the American colonies, France, Russia, and Cuba).
  3. Today some social movements, called new social movements, have a global orientation, committed to changing a specific condition throughout the world. The women’s, environmental, and animal rights movements are examples.
B. Tactics of social movements are best understood by examining levels of membership, publics they address, and their relationship to authorities.
  1. Three levels of membership are the inner core (the leadership that sets goals, timetables, etc.); people committed to the goals of the movement, but not to the same degree as members of the inner core; and people who are neither as committed nor as dependable.
  2. Publics can be described as sympathetic (sympathize with goals of movement but have no commitment to movement), hostile (keenly aware of group’s goals and want the movement stopped), and people who are unaware of or indifferent toward the movement. In selecting tactics, the leadership considers these different types of publics.
  3. The movement’s relationship to the authorities is important in determining tactics: if authorities are hostile to a social movement, aggressive or even violent tactics are likely; if authorities are sympathetic, violence is not likely. If a social movement is institutionalized, accepted by the authorities and given access to resources they control, the likelihood of violence is very low.
  4. Other factors that can influence the choice of tactics include the nature of friendships, race, and even the size of towns.
C. In selecting tactics, leaders of social movements are aware of their effects on the mass media. Their goal is to influence public opinion about some issue.
  1. Propaganda is a key to understanding social movements. Propaganda simply means the presentation of information in an attempt to influence people.
  2. The mass media play a critical role in social movements. They have become, in effect, the gatekeepers to social movements. If those who control and work in the mass media are sympathetic to a “cause”, it will receive sympathetic treatment. If the social movement goes against their own biases, it will either be ignored or receive unfavourable treatment.
VI. Why People Join Social Movements
A. In the mass society theory, William Kornhauser proposed that social movements offer a sense of belonging to people who have weak social ties.
  1. Mass society, characterized as an industrialized, highly bureaucratized, impersonal society, makes many people feel isolated and, as a result, they are attracted to social movements because they offer a sense of belonging.
  2. However, Doug McAdam (who studied those involved in civil rights movements) found that many who participate in social movements have strong family and community ties, and joined such movements to right wrongs and overcome injustice, not because of isolation. The most isolated (the homeless) generally do not join anything except food lines.
B. According to deprivation theory people who are deprived of things deemed valuable in society (whether money, justice, status, or privilege) join social movements with the hope of redressing their grievances.
  1. Absolute deprivation is peoples’ actual negative condition; relative deprivation is what people think they should have relative to what others have, or even compared with their own past or perceived future.
  2. While the notion of absolute deprivation provides a beginning point for looking at why people join social movements, it is even more important to look at relative deprivation in trying to understand why people join social movements.
  3. Improved conditions fuel human desires for even better conditions, and, thus, can spark revolutions.
C. James Jasper and Dorothy Nelkin note that people join a particular social movement because of moral issues and an ideological commitment to the movement. It is the moral component, they argue, that is a primary reason for some people’s involvement in social movements.
D. An agent provocateur is a special type of social movement participant.
  1. An agent of the government or of a social movement, the agent provocateur’s job is to spy on the leadership and sabotage their activities. Some are recruited from the membership itself, while others go underground and join the movement.
  2. On occasion a police agent is converted to the social movement on which he or she is spying. Sociologist Gary Marx noted that this occurs because the agent, to be credible, must share at least some of the class, age, ethnic, racial, religious, or sexual characteristics of the group. This makes the agent more likely to sympathize with the movement’s goals and to become disenchanted with the means being used to destroy the group.
  3. Sometimes the agent provocateur will go to great lengths, even breaking the law, to push the social movement into illegal activities.
VII. On The Success and Failure of Social Movements
A. Social movements have a life course; that is, they go through five stages as they grow and mature.
  1. Initial unrest and agitation because people are upset about some social condition; at this stage leaders emerge who verbalize people’s feelings.
  2. Mobilization of resources include time, money, people’s skills, technologies, attention by the mass media, and legitimacy among the public and authorities.
  3. An organization emerges with a division of labour, with leadership that makes policy decisions and a rank and file that actively supports the movement.
  4. Institutionalization occurs as the movement becomes bureaucratized and leadership passes to career officials who may care more about their position in the organization than about the movement itself.
  5. The organization declines, but there may be a possibility of resurgence. Some movements cease to exist; others become reinvigorated.
VIII. An Overview of Social Change
A. Social change is a shift in the characteristics of culture and societies over time.

IX. How Technology Changes Society
A. Technology refers to both the tools used to accomplish tasks and to the skills or procedures to make and use those tools.
  1. Technology is an artificial means of extending human abilities.
  2. Although all human groups use technology, it is the chief characteristic of postindustrial societies because it greatly extends our abilities to analyze information, to communicate, and to travel.
  3. The way technology alters people’s way of life is of great significance.
B. Modernization (the change from traditional to modern societies) produces sweeping changes in societies.
C. William Ogburn identified three processes of social change.
  1. Inventions can be either material (computers) or social (capitalism); discovery is a new way of seeing things; and diffusion is the spread of an invention, discovery, or idea, from one area to another.
  2. Ogburn coined the term cultural lag to describe the situation in which some elements of a culture adapt to an invention or discovery more rapidly than others. We are constantly trying to catch up with technology by adapting our customs and ways of life to meet its needs.
D. Ogburn has been criticized because of his view that technology controls almost all social change.
  1. People also take control over technology, developing the technology they need and selectively using existing technology. Both can happen; technology leads to social change, and social change leads to technology.
E. New technologies can reshape an entire society. Five ways in which technology can shape an entire society are (1) Transformation of existing technologies; (2) Changes in social organization; (3) Changes in ideology; (4) Transformation of values; and (5) Transformation of social relationships.
F. The automobile is an example of technological change. The automobile has pushed aside old technology; it has changed the shape of cities; it has changed architecture; it has changed courtship practices and sexual norms; and it has had a major effect on women’s roles.
G. The computer is another example; changing medicine, education, and the workplace. On the negative side are increased surveillance of workers and depersonalization. H. With the information superhighway, homes and businesses are connected by a rapid flow of information. The implications of this superhighway for national and global stratification are severe.
  1. On a national level, we may end up with information have-nots, thus, perpetuating existing inequalities.
  2. On a global level, the highly industrialized nations will control the information superhighway thereby destining the least industrialized nations to a perpetual pauper status.
X. Contemporary Theories of Social Change
A. Alternative theories of social change include: Evolutionary theories (unilinear or multilinear), Marxist conflict theories, cyclical theories, feminist theories, and postmodern theories.

XI. The Difficult Road to Success
A. Social movements rarely solve all of society’s social problems, as movements must appeal to a broad constituency in order to effectively mobilize resources. However, many have become powerful forces for social change, as they highlight problems and provide direction towards a resolution. Others become powerful forces in resisting undesirable social change.

Copyright © 1995-2010, Pearson Education, Inc. Legal and Privacy Terms