Types and Stages of Social Movements

Learning Outcomes

  • Distinguish between different types of social movements
  • Describe and apply the four stages of social movements

Types of Social Movements

We know that social movements can occur on the local, national, or even global stage. Are there other patterns or classifications that can help us understand them? Sociologist David Aberle (1966) addresses this question by developing categories that distinguish among social movements by considering 1) what it is the movement wants to change and 2) how much change they want. He described four types of social movements, including: alternative, redemptive, reformative, and revolutionary social movements.

  • Alternative movements are typically focused on self-improvement and limited, specific changes to individual beliefs and behavior. These include things like Alcoholics Anonymous, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and Planned Parenthood.
  • Redemptive movements (sometimes called religions movements) are “meaning seeking,” are focused on a specific segment of the population, and their goal is to provoke inner change or spiritual growth in individuals. Some sects fit in this category.
  • Reformative social movements seek to change something specific about the social structure. They may seek a more limited change, but are targeted at the entire population. Environmental movements, the women’s suffrage movement, or the more contemporary “Buy Nothing Day”, which protests the rampant consumerism of Black Friday, are examples of reformative movements.
  • Revolutionary movements seek to completely change every aspect of society—their goal is to change all of society in a dramatic way. Examples include the Civil Rights Movement or the political movements, such as a push for communism.
    How much change diagram showing the four types of social movements. Alternative social movements are limited in the amount of change but focused on specific individuals. Radical movements also focus on specific individuals but want more radical change. Reformative social movements focus on everyone but want limited change, while revolutionary movements focus on everyone and are also radical.

    Figure 1. David Aberle identified these four types of social movements, with some types of movements targeting either specific individuals or everyone, while some want limited changes, and others are more radical.

Other helpful categories that are helpful for sociologists to describe and distinguish between types of social movements include:

  • Scope: A movement can be either reform or radical. A reform movement advocates changing some norms or laws while a radical movement is dedicated to changing value systems in some fundamental way. A reform movement might be a green movement advocating a sect of ecological laws, or a movement against pornography, while the American Civil Rights movement is an example of a radical movement.
  • Type of Change: A movement might seek change that is either innovative or conservative. An innovative movement wants to introduce or change norms and values, like moving towards self-driving cars, while a conservative movement seeks to preserve existing norms and values, such as a group opposed to genetically modified foods.
  • Targets: Group-focused movements focus on influencing groups or society in general; for example, attempting to change the political system from a monarchy to a democracy. An individual-focused movement seeks to affect individuals.
  • Methods of Work: Peaceful movements utilize techniques such as nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. Violent movements resort to violence when seeking social change. In extreme cases, violent movements may take the form of paramilitary or terrorist organizations.
  • Range: Global movements, such as communism in the early 20th century, have transnational objectives. Local movements are focused on local or regional objectives such as preserving anhistoric building or protecting a natural habitat.

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Stages of Social Movements

Sociologists have studied the lifecycle of social movements—how they emerge, grow, and in some cases, die out. Blumer (1969) and Tilly (1978) outlined a four-stage process through which social movements develop.

  1. In the preliminary stage, people become aware of an issue, and leaders emerge.
  2. This is followed by the coalescence stage when people join together and organize in order to publicize the issue and raise awareness.
  3. In the institutionalization stage, the movement no longer requires grassroots volunteerism: it is an established organization, typically with a paid staff.
  4. When people fall away and adopt a new movement, the movement successfully brings about the change it sought, or when people no longer take the issue seriously, the movement falls into the decline stage.
Flowchart of the stages through a social movement: emerge, then coalesce, then bureaucratise, then come several things at the same time: success or failure, cooptation, repression, or going mainstream, and then a decline.

Figure 2. As social movements grow, they typically become increasingly organized and bureacratized, add members, which either leads to success or failure as a movement.

Social Movement Stages, Media, and Black Lives Matter

As we have mentioned throughout this text, and likely as you have experienced in your life, social media is a widely used mechanism in social movements. Earlier in the course, we discussed Tarana Burke first using “Me Too” in 2006 on a major social media venue of the time (MySpace). The phrase later grew into a massive movement when people began using it on Twitter to drive empathy and support regarding experiences of sexual harassment or sexual assault. In a similar way, Black Lives Matter began as a social media message after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, and the phrase burgeoned into a formalized (though decentralized) movement in subsequent years.

Social media has the potential to dramatically transform how people get involved in movements ranging from local school district decisions to presidential campaigns. As discussed above, movements go through several stages, and social media adds a dynamic to each of them. In the preliminary stage, people become aware of an issue, and leaders emerge. Compared to movements of 20 or 30 years ago, social media can accelerate this stage substantially. Issue awareness can spread at the speed of a click, with thousands of people across the globe becoming informed at the same time. In a similar vein, those who are savvy and engaged with social media may emerge as leaders, even if, for example, they are not great public speakers.

At the next stage, the coalescence stage, social media is also transformative. Coalescence is the point when people join together to publicize the issue and get organized. President Obama’s 2008 campaign was a case study in organizing through social media. Using Twitter and other online tools, the campaign engaged volunteers who had typically not bothered with politics. Combined with comprehensive data tracking and the ability to micro-target, the campaign became a blueprint for others to build on. The 2020 elections featured a level of data analysis and rapid response capabilities that, while echoing the Obama campaign’s early work, made the 2008 campaign look quaint. The campaigns and political analysts could measure the level of social media interaction following any campaign stop, debate, statement by the candidate, news mention, or any other event, and measure whether the tone or “sentiment” was positive or negative. Political polls are still important, but social media provides instant feedback and opportunities for campaigns to act, react, or—on a daily basis—ask for donations based on something that had occurred just hours earlier (Knowledge at Wharton 2020).

Interestingly, social media can have interesting outcomes once a movement reaches the institutionalization stage. In some cases, a formal organization might exist alongside the hashtag or general sentiment, as is the case with Black Lives Matter. At any one time, BLM is essentially three things: a structured organization, an idea with deep and personal meaning for people, and a widely used phrase or hashtag. It’s possible that users of the hashtag are not referring to the formal organization. It’s even possible that people who hold a strong belief that Black lives matter do not agree with all of the organization’s principles or its leadership. And in other cases, people may be very aligned with all three contexts of the phrase. Social media is still crucial to the social movement, but its interplay is both complex and evolving.

In a similar way, MeToo activists, including Tarana Burke herself, have sought to clarify the interweaving of different aspects of the movement. She told the Harvard Gazette in 2020:

I think we have to be careful about what we’re calling the movement. And I think one of the things I’ve learned in the last two years is that folks don’t really understand what a movement is or how it’s defined. The people using the hashtag on the internet were the impetus for Me Too being put into the public sphere. The media coverage of the viralness of Me Too and the people being accused are media coverage of a popular story that derived from the hashtag. The movement is the work that our organization and others like us are doing to both support survivors and move people to action (Walsh 2020).

Sociologists have identified high-risk activism, such as the civil rights movement, as a “strong-tie” phenomenon, meaning that people are far more likely to stay engaged and not run home to safety if they have close friends who are also engaged. The people who dropped out of the movement—who went home after the danger became too great—did not display any less ideological commitment. But they lacked the strong-tie connection to other people who were staying. Social media had been considered “weak-tie” (McAdam 1993 and Brown 2011). People follow or friend people they have never met. Weak ties are important for our social structure, but they seemed to limit the level of risk we’ll take on their behalf. For some people, social media remains that way, but for others it can relate to or build stronger ties. For example, if people, who had for years known each other only through an online group, meet in person at an event, they may feel far more connected at that event and afterward than people who had never interacted before. And as we discussed in the Groups chapter, social media itself, even if people never meet, can bring people into primary group status, forming stronger ties.

Another way to consider the impact of social media on activism is through something that may or may not be emotional, has little implications regarding tie strength, and may be fleeting rather than permanent, but still be one of the largest considerations of any formal social movement: money. Returning to politics, think of the massive amounts of campaign money raised in each election cycle through social media. In the 2020 Presidential election and its aftermath, hundreds of millions of dollars were raised through social media. Likewise, 55 percent of people who engage with nonprofits through social media take some sort of action; and for 60 percent of them (or 33 percent of the total) that action is to give money to support the cause (Nonprofit Source 2020).

Link to Learning: Black Lives Matter

Watch this video “BLM 5th Anniversary Trailer” as it explains the initial stages and goals of the Black Lives Matter movement.

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Occupy Wall Street

Perhaps the social movement that ran the most contrary to theory in recent history is Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Although it contains many of the classic developmental elements of a social movement described in this module, it is set apart by its lack of a single message, its leaderless organization, and its target—financial institutions instead of the government. OWS baffled much of the public, and certainly the mainstream media, leading many to ask, “Who are they, and what do they want?”

Watch It: Occupy Wall Street

On July 13, 2011, the organization Adbusters posted on its blog, “Are you ready for a Tahrir moment? On September 17th, flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street” (Castells 2012). The “Tahrir moment” was a reference to the 2010 political uprising that began in Tunisia and spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt’s Tahrir Square in Cairo. Although OWS was a reaction to the continuing financial chaos that resulted from the 2008 market meltdown and not a political movement, the Arab Spring was its catalyst.

Manuel Castells (2012) notes that the years leading up to the Occupy movement had witnessed a dizzying increase in the disparity of wealth in the United States, stemming back to the 1980s. The top 1 percent in the nation had secured 58 percent of the economic growth in the period for themselves, while real hourly wages for the average worker had increased by only 2 percent. The wealth of the top 5 percent had increased by 42 percent. The average pay of a CEO was now 350 times that of the average worker, compared to less than 50 times in 1983 (AFL-CIO 2014). The country’s leading financial institutions were, to many, clearly to blame for the crisis but dubbed “too big to fail.” These big banks were in trouble after many poorly qualified borrowers defaulted on their mortgage loans when the loans’ interest rates rose. The banks were eventually “bailed out” by the government with over $700 billion of taxpayer money. According to many reports, that same year, top executives and traders received large bonuses.

On September 17, 2011, an anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, the occupation began. One thousand outraged protestors descended upon Wall Street, and up to 20,000 people moved into Zuccotti Park, only two blocks away, where they began building a village of tents and organizing a system of communication. The protest soon began spreading throughout the nation, and its members started calling themselves “the 99 percent.” More than a thousand cities and towns had Occupy demonstrations.

This video gives an idea of the protest—what it looked like, and how it played out.

In answer to the question “Who are they?” Castells noted “. . . by and large the movement was made up of a large majority of democratic voters, as well as of politically independent minded people who were in search of new forms of changing the world . . . ” (Castells 2012). What do they want? Castells has dubbed OWS “A non-demand movement: The process is the message.” Using Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and live-stream video, the protesters conveyed a multifold message with a long list of reforms and social change, including the need to address the rising disparity of wealth, the influence of money on election outcomes, the notion of “corporate personhood,” a corporatized political system (to be replaced by “direct democracy”), political favoring of the rich, and rising student debt. Regardless, some in the media appeared confused about the protestors’ intentions, and articles carried titles like, “The Wall Street Protesters: What the Hell Do They Want?” (Gell 2011) from The New York Observer, and person-in-the-street quotations like, “I think they’re idiots. They have no agenda . . . ” from the Los Angeles Times (Le Tellier 2012).

The late James C. Davies suggested in his 1962 paper, “Toward a Theory of Revolution” (from the American Sociological Review, Vol, 27 Issue 1) that revolution depends upon the mood of the people, and that it is extremely unlikely those in extreme poverty will be able to overturn a government, simply because the government has infinitely more power. Instead, a revolution is more possible when expected need satisfaction and actual need satisfaction are out of sync. As actual need satisfaction trends downward and away from what a formerly prosperous people have come to expect—tracing a curve that looks somewhat like an upside-down J and is called the Davies-J curve—the gap between expectations and reality widens. Eventually, an intolerable point is reached, and revolution occurs. Thus, change comes not from the very bottom of the social hierarchy, but from somewhere in the middle. Indeed, the Arab Spring was driven by mostly young people whose education had offered promise and expectations that were thwarted by corrupt autocratic governments. Occupy Wall Street too came not from the bottom but from people in the middle, who exploited the power of social media to enhance communication.

Think It Over

  • Do you think social media is an important tool in creating social change? Why, or why not? Defend your opinion.
  • Describe a social movement in the decline stage. What is its issue? Why has it reached this stage?


alternative movements:
social movements that limit themselves to self-improvement changes in individuals
reform movements:
movements that seek to change something specific about the social structure
religious/redemptive movements:
movements that work to promote inner change or spiritual growth in individuals
revolutionary movements:
movements that seek to completely change every aspect of society
social movement organization:
a single social movement group
social movement sector:
the multiple social movement industries in a society, even if they have widely varying constituents and goals