Social movement

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In the social sciences, a social movement , or movement for short , is understood to be a collective actor or a social system that includes different forms of organization and tries to accelerate, prevent or reverse social change with different mobilization and action strategies.


Social movements can be differentiated on the basis of their degree of organization, their size, the strategies they have chosen and similar criteria. The movements undergone ideally several phases: the first clashes with the problem theming (most especially rejection of the status quo), formation of initiatives, groups and associations which is symbolic to collaborations, alliances, but also opposition comes a variety of demonstrative acts, often , but also concrete direct actions; occasionally more or less charismatic leaders appear, alternatives to the existing are developed, the establishment in everyday life is sought. Finally, the social movement slowly dissolves, either because the problem has been solved satisfactorily, because it is at least socially generally recognized as an important problem, or because other problem interpretations have become dominant.

A typical feature of a social movement is that initially very open, informal forms of organization predominate. In general, soon after a movement has arisen, people start to create structures ( associations , initiatives, etc.). In the further course it often happens that the movement loses its importance or is no longer perceived as relevant, while structures and Forms that have developed from it continue to exist and work. Often times this is understood as the death of a movement and abandonment of the original goals. In this context, the need for visions and dreams of a social movement as its motivation and driving force is pointed out in some places.

The establishment of new structures and changes in old ones differentiate a social movement: more radical ones accuse more moderate careerism or even treason , counter-accusations are utopianism or even dictatorial ambition. It recedes that a change in the established structures was the unifying goal. However, when entering Realpolitik, large parts of the original objectives are often lost, compromises are made, and the plurality that characterizes movements in their most active phases is institutionally impossible or difficult to maintain.

Worth mentioning here is the Movement Action Plan (MAP ) developed by Bill Moyer (1933–2002) in the USA , which outlines an ideal-typical course of social movements with political goals . Incidentally, there have been several relevant analytical attempts at typifying the development and course of revolutions ( see there ) at least since Crane Brinton ( The anatomy of revolution , 1938, ²1965).

Historical and current examples

Until the middle of the 20th century, political parties and organizations such as B. Trade unions, associations (especially war returnees, displaced persons) are the main protesters. In the so-called new social movements since the 1980s (starting from Europe) the focus has been on the problem of identity. With the identity problem, expressive aspects of protest come to the fore. The term New Social Movements thus marks a shift from social and political to identity-political protest motifs. So also to movements that combine their political goals with lifestyles and values. Protests are linked to collective identity patterns aimed at defending or improving individual ways of life. It is controversial among protest researchers whether only grassroots movements with emancipatory and social demands count as social movements, or whether movements with authoritarian goals such as fascism should also be called social movements.

For example, in the 19th and 20th centuries:

Examples of new social movements include:

New in the industrialized countries (e.g. European Union , Israel , USA) are senior political activities since the 1990s with the aim of securing income and health care in the increasingly important age of life .

In historical research on Jesus , numerous socio-historical studies on the Jesus movement have been carried out since the 1970s . In general in the sociology of religion , the paradigm of the charismatic movement or rule , which goes back to Max Weber , finds broad approval. Weber himself wrote studies on individual movements in history and his present.

Theoretical approaches to movement research

Structural strains approach

The structural strains approach sees the socio-structural characteristics of social movements as a central element of these movements. The structure of the company is decisive in two ways. On the one hand, this approach deals with the question of the extent to which, for example, social change, pushes of modernization or social structural tensions represent the starting point for the emergence of protest or social movements. On the other hand, the specific socio-structural composition of social movements is a point of reference for analyzes. In this case, the social structure does not represent the occasion, but the possibility of mobilization for social movements. Above all, already existing networks play a role, which can be activated for the respective social movement. As a result, the underlying networks always have an influence on the possibilities for the formation of collective identities. Social movements therefore show a certain “milieu arrest”.

Hellmann assigns the concept of “structural strains” to a Marxist school of thought, since the explanatory power of the approach is based on the social structure and the specific social constellations that are decisive for the mobilization of social movements. In addition, the socio-structural perspective with regard to the mobilization potential of social movements is closely linked to the “new social movements approach”. This perspective, which primarily focuses on existing networks, also builds a bridge to the concept of collective identity.

The structural strains approach criticizes the fact that the relationship between the socio-structural conditions and the mobilization potential of social movements remains unclear. In addition, the Mittag and Stadtland approach do not provide any concrete analysis options for transferring the macro-theoretical assumptions to a micro-theoretical level. It should also be taken into account that the typical milieus from which social movements are recruited are not the same in all parts of the world.

Political opportunity approach

The Political Opportunity Structure approach (POS) is based on the assumption that protest movements develop through environmental influences (especially political framework conditions). The investigation does not focus on internal (collective identity), but on external conditions of possibility. A protest does not necessarily have to be political - as can be wrongly assumed. It is of decisive relevance that political demands are made that relate to structures and events in the political system, as this is the only way to change the structures of society. In particular, the perspective of international comparison can create favorable opportunities for protest and mobilization. Conceptually, the POS approach can be summarized in several variants, each of which operate with their own category definitions and distinctions.

The POS approach shows a certain proximity to the structural strains approach, as both approaches are based on external factors that contribute to the emergence of social movements. The approach can also be arbitrarily combined with other medium-range theories to find a wider range of explanations for social movements (and other specific objects).

What can be criticized about this approach is its simultaneous starting point: the focus on political opportunity structures. The existence of several factors is decisive for the emergence of a social movement, not just a political event or, for example, the Chernobyl reactor disaster. In addition, reference should be made to a possible theoretical bias through which the political opportunity structures are interpreted (too quickly) as the starting point for a social movement. Furthermore, a lack of connection to socio-structural developments and (political) small-scale interaction as well as micropolitics is criticized.

Collective Identity Approach

The Collective Identity (CI) approach regards collective identity as a central criterion for social movements. It is the movement's most important mobilization resource and also central to its ability to act and self-control. The approach distinguishes itself from other theories of social movements, which see organization as the core of the movement and as the most important. The social movement is understood as a three-dimensional unit on a factual, social and temporal level that constitutes a collective actor capable of acting. In its approach, a movement works with the fundamental difference between "we" and "they". This is how she separates herself from her environment. The collective identity, the "we-them" distinction, is constructed on the one hand discursively (common fates, history, legends, language etc.) and on the other hand through practices (common rituals, symbols, fashions etc.). The collective identity approach examines movements primarily from an internal perspective. It thus complements the framing approach, which mainly examines the environmental relationship of the social movement.

Both approaches, CI and framing, are rooted in social constructivism . The approach was inspired by collective behavior research and therefore has references to mass psychology on the one hand and, in terms of social structure, references to Marxism on the other , the social movement constructs itself as a “class of its own ".

The weak points of the collective identity approach are generalization tendencies, overlooking external references (which makes a combination with the framing approach possible) and being too close to the movement itself, since the reference to the inner workings is dependent on the narrative of the movement itself. The CI approach therefore needs to be combined with other approaches in order to arrive at more meaningful research results.

Framing approach

The core idea of ​​the framing approach is that social problems do not reflect objective conditions, but that social problems must first be defined as such. This succeeds in that the problem is embedded in a certain context of meaning or in a context of meaning that enables a specific interpretation of the problem. For social movements, this means that protest topics first have to be constructed as social problems and embedded in an interpretative framework so that they can generate social resonance in other areas of society (especially politics and mass media) and mobilize the movement itself. Since the construction of a frame of meaning is always a selective process, it is then also a matter of the social movement in the “public arena” having to gain interpretative sovereignty over other actors in the construction of a frame of meaning. In addition, the framing approach often tries to show which “social mechanisms” (e.g. the news ratings of the mass media) have to be used so that a protest topic receives the necessary attention. Each frame contains the following three special frames:

  • diagnostic frame: offering a problem construction
  • prognostic frame: showing possible solutions
  • motivational frame: Motivation for commitment and willingness to mobilize

The framing approach in movement research most closely relates to the content of symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism, for example, emphasizes that frames must be negotiated in the interaction that help to interpret social phenomena. Both the framing approach in movement research and symbolic interactionism are about the fact that frames have to be constructed and enforced in order to be able to interpret social conditions. Since social movements have to trigger a resonance in the mass media in order to establish their frame, the generation of public attention can also be interpreted as a resource in the sense of the Resource Mobilization approach.

The framing approach is criticized for the fact that it has so far concentrated very strongly on efforts to interpret and persuade movements and then neglect the historical construction phase of the frame. So far, too little attention has been paid to the construction processes of frames and the actors and interests behind them. Furthermore, it should be noted critically that the framing approach - like many other theories of movement research - only deals with a partial aspect that is relevant for research into social movements. Overall, this field of research lacks an integrating theory that is able to describe social movements in their entirety.

Resource mobilization approach

The focus of the resource mobilization approach (RMA) is on the structural framework and the rationality of protest movements (macro level). The thesis is put forward that at the core of social movements so-called movement organizations act rationally as their "heads". These depend on the available human, immaterial and ideal resources that have to be acquired for collective mobilization. This can also be used to measure the success of social movements. Movement organizations can therefore be understood as a catalyst for the collective mobilization of protests.

The RMA follows the basic idea of ​​the Rational Choice Theory , according to which every actor acts rationally, i.e. wants to achieve the highest possible benefit with the lowest possible effort / costs.

The neglect of relationships between social movements and their environment can be noted critically in this theory, since decisions and actions within movements are primarily considered. In addition, the RMA emphasizes the instrumental character of movements and generally hides individual biographies and individual components. The interpretation of resources also causes difficulties due to the lack of definition.

Systems theory approach

In systems theory, systems are defined by an internal / external difference. Its environment is outside the system boundary. Structures and processes within the system relate to the aforementioned environment in order to make it possible in the first place. “The system is its relationship to the environment, the system is the difference between system and environment” (Luhmann 2009). It is characterized by the fact that “units (substances) are connected through relationships as parts to a whole” (Luhmann 1976). Implied in this, i.e. in the demarcation between the system and its environment, is an internal order that must ensure that these boundaries are maintained. This internal order, which is expressed in the context of actions within the system, creates meaningful relationships that are intended to protect the system from being influenced in its existence by changes in its environment. Systems are also described as autopoietic. In broad terms, an autopoietic system is one that creates and observes itself. The system is therefore its own product, but does not have “all the causes that are necessary for self-production.” (Luhmann 2006) System-theoretical approaches to movement research are based on the function of social movements. This function consists in the possibility of a public articulation of contradiction (Bergmann 1987), which can no longer be performed by individual interaction systems in the course of increasing levels of differentiation between interaction and society (Luhmann 2014). In this way, social movements act like an immune system in society (Mittag and Stadtland 2014; Bergmann 1987) that builds protective mechanisms against certain consequences of functional differentiation or protects functional differentiation against encroachments on individual functional areas (Tratschin 2016: 258). In contrast to approaches such as the Structural Strains Approach or the Political Opportunity Structures Approach (cf. Hellmann and Koopmans 1998), the emergence of movements in systems theory is not primarily seen as a result of external factors, but rather as a result of them assumed that “movements arise in a self-selectively unfolding conflict process” (Mittag and Stadtland 2014). There are various proposals in systems theory for the mechanisms of differentiation of social movements. Prominent suggestions aim at the selection-enhancing effects of elementary operations: while Luhmann mainly focuses on protests as elementary operations (1996), Japp particularly emphasizes fear communication as elementary operations of social movements (1986). In contrast, Ahlemeyer (1989) presents a suggestion that aims at the differentiating effects of mobilization communication and Bergmann refers to the importance of moral communication (Bergmann 1987: 374). A more recent article, on the other hand, points to the relevance of self-descriptions for the self-referential differentiation of social movements (Tratschin 2016).

The system-theoretical approach is criticized for the fact that protest movements are narrowed down, which means that social movements that do not generate themselves as a system of conflict are disregarded. For example, religious movements should be remembered (see Kühl 2014). A second point of criticism is their focus on new social movements, which so far does not allow for a historical perspective on earlier social movements (see Mittag and Stadtland 2014).


Social movement research examines:

  • political processes and their actors
  • social requirements
  • organizational constitution of social movements
  • social effects of the actions of political actors

See also


  • Harald F. Bender: The time of movement - structural dynamics and transformation processes. Contributions to the theory of social movements and to the analysis of collective action (= European university publications , series 22, sociology , volume 301), Lang, Frankfurt am Main 1997, ISBN 3-631-30053-0 (dissertation University of Heidelberg 1995, 274 pages, 21 cm ).
  • Steven M. Buechler: Social movements in advanced capitalism. The political economy and cultural construction of social activism , Oxford University Press, New York [u. a.] 2000
  • Susan Eckstein (ed.): Power and Popular Protest. Latin American Social Movements , University of California Press, 2001, ISBN 0-520-22705-0
  • Ulrich Dolata , Jan-Felix Schrape : Between enabling and control. Collective Formations on the Web , in: Research Journal Social Movements 28 (3), pp. 17–25 ( PDF )
  • Donatella della Porta , Hanspeter Kriesi, Dieter Rucht (eds.): Social Movements in a Globalizing World . Macmillan Press Ltd., London / Hampshire [u. a.] 1999
  • Robert Foltin : And yet we are moving. Social Movements in Austria , Ed. Grundrisse, Vienna 2004, ISBN 3-9501925-0-6 , online: PDF
  • Jo Freeman, Victoria Johnson (eds.): Waves of Protest. Social Movements Since the Sixties , Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham et al. a. 1999
  • Rudolf Heberle : Social Movements. An Introduction to Political Sociology , (1951), ²1970 (German: Hauptprobleme der Politischen Sociologie , 1967)
  • Janosik Herder: Social or Historical Movement? On the genealogy of social movement in Lorenz von Stein and Karl Marx . In: Berliner Debatte Initial 29th year (2018), no. 3, ISBN 978-3-945878-91-0 , pp. 119-132
  • Thomas Kern: Social Movements. Causes, effects, mechanisms , VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2008, ISBN 978-3-531-15426-8 .
  • Christiane Leidinger : On the theory of political actions. An introduction . edition assemblage, Münster 2015, ISBN 978-3-942885-96-6
  • Jürgen Mittag, Georg Ismar (ed.): ¿"El pueblo unido"? Social movements and political protest in the history of Latin America , Westfälisches Dampfboot, Münster 2009, ISBN 978-3-89691-762-1
  • Immanuel Ness (Ed.): Encyclopedia of American Social Movements . 2004, ISBN 0-7656-8045-9
  • Joachim Raschke (ed.): Social movements. A historical-systematic floor plan , Campus, Frankfurt am Main / New York, NY 1985, ISBN 3-593-33857-2 .
  • Roland Roth , Dieter Rucht (ed.): The social movements in Germany since 1945. A manual , Campus, Frankfurt am Main / New York, NY 2008, ISBN 978-3-593-38372-9 ( review / criticism of the book Analysis & Criticism - ).
  • Dieter Rucht , Friedhelm Neidhardt : Social movements and collective actions , in: Hans Joas (Hrsg.): Textbook of Sociology , Campus, Frankfurt am Main 2001, ISBN 3-593-36765-3 .
  • Charles Tilly : Social Movements, 1768-2004 . Pluto Press, 2004, ISBN 1-59451-043-1 .
  • Luca Tratschin: Protest and self-description, self- reference and environmental conditions of social movements , transcript, Bielefeld 2016, ISBN 978-3-8394-3691-2 .
  • Judith Vey, Johanna Leinius, Ingmar Hagemann (eds.): Handbook Poststructuralist Perspectives on Social Movements. Approaches, methods and research practice , transcript, Bielefeld 2019, ISBN 978-3-8376-4879-9 ( PDF 3.2 MB. )

Individual evidence

  1. Brigitte Rauschenbach, 2008, equality, difference, freedom? Change of consciousness in feminism after 1968 ( memento of the original from January 14, 2012 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link has been inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. (PDF; 244 kB), in: gender politics online queried on August 27, 2009. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  2. Michael N. Ebertz: The Charisma of the Crucified: to the sociology of the Jesus movement. Mohr, Tübingen 1987, ISBN 3-16-145116-3 , p. 11 f. .
  3. Hellmann, K. (1998). Paradigms of Movement Research. Research and explanatory approaches - an overview. In K. Hellmann & R. Koopmann (eds.), Paradigms of Movement Research. Origin and development of new social movements and right-wing extremism (pp. 9–30). West German publishing house.
  4. Mittag, J. & Stadtland, H. (2014). Theoretical approaches and concepts of research on social movements in history. Food: plain language.
  5. Hellmann, K. (1998). Paradigms of Movement Research. Research and explanatory approaches - an overview. In K. Hellmann & R. Koopmann (eds.), Paradigms of Movement Research. Origin and development of new social movements and right-wing extremism (pp. 9–30). West German publishing house.
  6. Mittag, J. & Stadtland, H. (2014). Theoretical approaches and concepts of research on social movements in history. Food: plain language.
  7. HELLMANN, KAI-UWE, 1998. Paradigms of movement research. Research and explanatory approaches - an overview, in: Hellmann, Kai-Uwe, Koopmans, Ruud (eds.): Paradigms of movement research - the emergence and development of new social movements and right-wing extremism, Westdeutscher Verlag GmbH, Opladen / Wiesbaden, p. 23ff.
  8. MITTAG, JÜRGEN, STADTLAND, HELKE, 2014. Social movement research in the field of tension between theory and empiricism, in: Mittag, Jürgen, Stadtland, Helke (ed.): Theoretical approaches and concepts of research on social movements in historical science, clear text, Essen , P. 34f.
  9. see also Hellmann 1998.
  10. K. Hellmann, Paradigms of Movement Research. Research and explanatory approaches - an overview. In: K. Hellmann, R. Koopmann (Eds.), Paradigms of Movement Research. Origin and development of new social movements and right-wing extremism. Opladen [u. a.] 1998, p. 20 f.
  11. ^ Goffman, Erving (1974): Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience . London.
  12. K. Hellmann, Paradigms of Movement Research. Research and explanatory approaches - an overview. In: K. Hellmann, R. Koopmann (Eds.), Paradigms of Movement Research. Origin and development of new social movements and right-wing extremism. Opladen [u. a.] 1998, p. 20.
  13. J. Mittag, H. Stadtland: Theoretical approaches and concepts of research on social movements in historical studies. Essen 2014, p. 40.
  14. Mittag, J. & Stadtland, H. (2014). Theoretical approaches and concepts of research on social movements in history. Food: plain language.
  15. Hellmann, K. (1998). Paradigms of Movement Research. Research and explanatory approaches - an overview. In K. Hellmann & R. Koopmann (eds.), Paradigms of Movement Research. Origin and development of new social movements and right-wing extremism (pp. 9–30). West German publishing house.
  16. ^ Opp, K. (1994). The “Rational Choice” Approach and the Sociology of Social Movements. Research Journal Social Movement, 2, 11–26.
  17. Mittag, J. & Stadtland, H. (2014). Theoretical approaches and concepts of research on social movements in history. Food: plain language.
  18. Hellmann, K. (1998). Paradigms of Movement Research. Research and explanatory approaches - an overview. In K. Hellmann & R. Koopmann (eds.), Paradigms of Movement Research. Origin and development of new social movements and right-wing extremism (pp. 9–30). West German publishing house.
  19. ^ Niklas Luhmann: Protest . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1996.
  20. Klaus P. Japp: Collective Actors as Social Systems? In: Hans-Jürgen Unverferth (Ed.): System and self-production. To unlock a new paradigm in the social sciences . Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 1986.
  21. ^ Heinrich W. Ahlemeyer: What is a social movement? For the distinction and unity of a social phenomenon . Journal of Sociology Volume 18 issue 3, 1989, p. 175-191 .
  22. Luca Tratschin: Protest and self-description. Self-reference and environmental conditions of social movements . transcript, Bielefeld 2016, ISBN 978-3-8394-3691-2 .