Professor Marshall

LESSON 21: Social Change

Lesson 21

Target Competencies (Outcomes)

Understand different forms of collective behavior

Understand different types of social movements

Explain the importance of social change

You will demonstrate your competence by:

Completing the learning activities in this Learning Plan

Your performance will be successful when:

You can compare and contrast different types of collective behavior

You can articulate the importance of local, national and global social movements

You can apply various social movement perspectives to real-life social movements

You can explain how lack of access to resources brings about social change

Learning Activities

1. If you have not yet done so, READ Chapter 21 of your text.

2. COMPLETE the lesson below.

The System's Dead

What is Social Movement

According to the author of our text, social movements are activities that support or protest social issues. Some important social movements that have recently occurred in the US are the Civil Rights Movement , the Modern Environmental Movement, and the Feminist Movement.

Perhaps the biggest social changes of the last few hundred years have revolved around alterations in society that occured with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. As the Industrial Revolution began to get a foothold in the West, we saw a rapid rise in technology, invention and discoveries. While much of the West has industrialized (in many cases is now moving toward new kinds of structures) there are still many examples of countries around the world in various stages of industrialization.

Often, we don't think of change as the actual moving of society, but on a macro level, when enough of us work together to make what we feel are necessary changes, the structure of society does indeed move. When a group of people get together to engage in behaviors which aren't part of their normal routine, they are exhibiting collective behavior. Collective behavior can be dangerous, leading to violence, mob behavior, or hysteria. It can also be peaceful.

Why do we have Social Movements?

New ways of thinking often preceed social movement. Looking back, we can see how the Enlightenment forged new ways of thinking about the condition of humankind. We can also see how this era encouraged revolutions and wars to occur.

Social Movement theories present a few perspectives on why we have social movements, but essentially all of the major social movement theories say we change for the same reason: when we no longer feel that society is "fair" we change.

  1. Alternative Social Movements want to create limited changes specific to a particular group. An example of this type of movement might be MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). This group of women banded together to try to implement systematic changes to our laws about driving under the influence. From a beginning of only ONE person, the group has grown to be a powerful politial and social organization.
  2. Redemptive Social Movements focus on specific groups, but the change sought is radical, rather than limited. This type of movements wants to change an entire group's worldview or way of thinking. Missionaries who go into other countries seek this kind of change by wanting to change the worldview of entire societies.
  3. Reformative Social Movements seek limited change in society and can be either progressive (seeking to encourage change) or regressive (seeking to stop change). An example of progressive change would be domestic violence programs which seek to change the way we view and treat family violence. An example of regressive change would be arguments to only allow marriage between opposite sex partners.

Reolutionary social movements also seek to change us, but this type of movement seeks to transform all of society in a revolutionary way. Political coup d' etat or violent overthrowing of political systems often fall to this category of social change.  

What are the Theories Behind the Movements?

Conflict theorists say that change is normative (that change is GOOD) because it forces those in power to examine their motivations and it helps those who aren't in power to seek redress. Social movements are always in competition with each other for resources--whatever those resources are, and Resource Mobilization Theory seeks to explain social movement in the context of the struggle for resources.

Functional theorists assert that social movements become organized and institutionalized over time. While this theory does not expressly address the underlying problems that cause movement to occur, it does speak to the linear progression of movements from very disorganized to more organized over time. Leaders will begin to emerge and people will begin to seek out those emergent individuals and eventually these leaders and the movement will become reongized by the mainstream.

Another theory states that social change occurs when groups become dissatisfied with their lives in comparison to others in society. In this respect, Relative Deprivation Theory is used at a micro level, from the school of symbolic interaction. If the gap between what people expect and what they have is great, then this theory is at work. Some sociologists assert that deprivation causes discontent, and the discontented may choose to channel their feelings into trying to move society.The recent emergence of a new theory has occurred: New Social Movement Theory. This theory says that social movement takes plae when people recognize that quality of life issues are at stake. It also falls under symbolic interaction as the primary paradigm.

Why do we Resist Systemic Changes?

While there may be many people at any given time who are pressing for social changes, there are many more others who are quite happy with the way things are. Hirschman argues that we meet the call for change with three different styles of reaction:

  1. Futility: Futility is one way that change is discouraged. We resist change by thinking (or assuming) that the problem at hand is unsolvable. An example of this type of resistance to change can be seen in the Green Movement in society today whereby many people are fine with things the way they are, and also think that it is problematic to try to change due to myriad reasons. Maintenance of the status quo sounds easier, and change is discouraged.
  2. Perversity: Perversity happens when claims that attemps to fix a social problem will only make worse the issues that the change is trying to address. For example, the current Occupy Movements meet resistance from those opposed to the movement. Resistors challenge those in the movement to prove that what they propose will be better than the current system.
  3. Jeopardy: This type of argument is, in some ways, about priorities. People who use this type of argument against social change do so by arguing that highlighting "this" problem takes attention away from "that" problem.

Protestors at Occupy Wall Street

Zucotti Park - Occupy Wall Street, 11-11-11

Protest Photo

On the day that I was at the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, things were very peaceful. It is of interest to note that this was a mere three days before the NYPD moved in and forcefully removed the occupants, which resulted in dozens of arrests.

The park is a rather small park which is central to Wall Street, and only a half a city block from the former World Trade Centers.


Protest Photo

The park was clean and tidy when I was there. I didn't see any trash. The movement had several volunteer groups; among the groups was the sanitation department whose job it was to see that things were kept neat and tidy.

The encampment was organized into zones, with tents erected for specific functions: sanitation, library, legal aid, medical assistance, chow hall, and so on. Each of these tents was run by volunteers who had, if necessary, expertise in their particular area. Lawyers advised protestors what to do if they were approached by police. Doctors assisted with minor injuries that occured in the vicinity. The chow hall had volunteer executive chefs and restauranteurs serving free food to whomever was hungry.


Protest Photo

The protestors had a few small generators to provide light at night. When the NYFD told them they couldn't have the gasoline powered generators without the proper permitting, they designed bicycle powered generators that were staffed by a rotation fo volunteers. Water "specialists" designed systems to treat waste water so that it could be safely used to water the trees in the park. Local merchants allowed use of their facilities, and local residents allowed showers and respite in their homes for those protesters who needed a break from the park scene.



Whether or not you ever choose to participate in a social protest it is important for you to understand the political, social, cultural and personal motivations that people have who do. You are encouraged to continue to study the concepts of social movement from a sociological perspective--application of these ideas in the real world are abundant.