social movements

Sociology of social movements

Sociologists have generally focused on how and why socio-political movements spread at particular times. Previous studies argued that protests occur when ‘political opportunities’ are created by structural dislocation, that is, people participate in collective action when external circumstances (political instability in government or economic collapse) force them to seek a change in their political and economic condition.

The period 1789 to 1848 was indeed a period of several major structural dislocations and political opportunities opened up by crises in the state and economic depression. But in his work on ‘contentious gatherings’ in this period, the sociologist and historian Charles Tilly showed that there was no historically direct correlation between significant structural changes and patterns of protest. Rather the connection was indirect, ‘mediated by changes in political alignments and relations of power’.[1] Social movements never emerge everywhere or at the same time.

‘Resource mobilisation’ theories suggested that the level of participation depends on their access to resources and networks.

Other sociologists argued that activists interpret political change to their followers through a process of ‘framing’ using culture and the media.

More recent scholars, notably Michael Biggs, Francesca Polletta and Jeff Goodwin have focused on narratives and emotion as part of this process of cultural interpretation. They argue that stories about past victories or defeats for the movement, and the emotions invoked by them, make certain tactics seem attractive to protesters, ‘regardless of how effective those options are likely to be’.[2] Narratives and emotion were especially important in explaining, at least in part, why Peterloo became a totem for later radical movements, who repeated its story as a metonym for loyalist elite repression in order to claim a longer heritage and legitimacy. Emotions aroused by fear of the new poor law, imposed and resisted throughout northern England from 1837 onwards, were another uniting feature of opposition around which all kinds of movements began their organisation and built their ideas of resistance.


[1] D. Snow et al (eds), The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements (Oxford, 2004), p.22; D. McAdam, S. Tarrow and C. Tilly, Dynamics of Contention (Cambridge, 2001); S. G. Tarrow, Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics (Cambridge, 2011), p.16.

[2] F. Polletta, It was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics (Chicago, 2009), p.54; M. Biggs, ‘Positive feedback in collective mobilization: The American strike wave of 1886’, Theory and Society, 32:2 (2003), 229; J. Goodwin, J. M. Jasper and F. Polletta (eds), Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements (Chicago, 2001).

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