Social movements are organized groups that have been set up on purpose in order to pursue a certain cause. They are aimed at creating social change in one way or another. The groups may be trying to bring about change, to resist change, or to form a political voice for individuals who otherwise would have been disenfranchised. Organizations are always developing and adjusting so as to meet societys changing needs. Throughout the course of history, social movements have influenced societal shifts. This essay looks at how people explain social movements. It will also explore the different theoretical perspectives that seek to explain social movements, their rise, fall, and continuance.
There are three perspectives through which sociology looks at social movements: the functionalistic perspective, the critical perspective and the symbolic interaction perspective. The functionalistic perspective focuses on the manner in which all aspects of the society contribute to its continued health and wellbeing. A functionalist looks at the big picture, concentrating on why social movements develop, which social purposes they are meant to serve, and why they are still in existence. These groupings are known to emerge in case there is a disharmony in the way systems relate to one another. A good example is the trade union movement that emerged in the 19th century. It developed after the economy could no longer distribute wealth and resources in a way that provided sufficient sustenance for laborers and their families. Functionalists are aware that social movements must adjust their goals once the initial aims are met. Failure to do this means they risk being dissolved. For instance, a number of organizations whose efforts were directed at eradicating polio were disbanded after an effective vaccine was created that made the condition virtually extinct.
The critical perspective is all about how inequality occurs and the way it is reproduced. Anyone who applies this perspective will probably be interested in how systematic inequality leads to the creation of social movements. He or she would most likely want to know how social change is inevitable, as well as the constant and quick manner in which it takes place. As a matter of fact, the conflict that the critical perspective perceives as found in social relations actually triggers social change. A good example to explain this perspective is the formation of NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) back in 1908. One of the reasons that the organization was formed was in response to the brutal lynchings that were taking place in the southern states of the US at the time. Later, it began fighting to secure the constitutional rights found in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. These are the same rights that brought an end to slavery, established equal protection for everyone under the law, together with universal male suffrage. Having achieved those goals, NAACP remains active even today. It continues to fight against civil rights inequalities while also dealing with discriminatory practices. The symbolic interaction movement looks at the day-to-day activities of social movements, what people think getting involved in such movements means, and the individual experience of undergoing social change. An interactionist who is studying social movements may explore their tactics, norms and individual motivations. For instance, a certain social movement may be formed as a result of a certain group or community feeling discontented or deprived. However, some individuals may join that social movement for reasons that are not related to the cause. Such individuals may have a friend or relative in the movement they wish to support, may want to feel important, or may just wish to be part of a gathering.
Social movements emerge when people figure out there is a specific issue in the society that needs to be addressed. Such realization can be triggered by people being dissatisfied about something, or access to knowledge or information about a certain issue. The earliest stage of a social movement is referred to as emergence, and it involved a definition of the issue that it will be addressing. In this stage, a social movement is usually rather preliminary, with little organization or none at all. While potential members may be disgruntled by a certain policy or social condition, they are yet to do something about it. In case they have taken some action, most likely it is the effort of an individual rather than a collective effort. For instance, an individual may comment to colleagues that he or she is not happy about a certain issue.
Coalescence is the second stage of the life cycle of a social movement. In this stage, the sense of dissatisfaction and discontent is more clearly defined. It is no longer merely a general sense of dissatisfaction, but now a sense of what this dissatisfaction is all about and who or what is causing it. This is the point where the social movement and the problem it hopes to address becomes known to the general public. The movement outlines its course of action, recruits people to become members, forms networks, solicits funds and resources, and organizes protest marches. Most importantly, this is the point where the movement ceases to be a group of random, disgruntled people as now they are strategic and organized in their outlook.
In the life cycle of a social movement, the third stage is referred to as bureaucratization. Often, as the movement grows and expands, it has a tendency of becoming bureaucratized. Volunteers that were there when the movement began are now replaced by employed staff members. In addition, clear lines of authority are developed; with more attention being devoted to raising funds. If a social movement fails to bureaucratize to at least some extent, it is likely to lose focus and not have sufficient funds to keep it moving forward. Many social movements are known to falter at this stage. They eventually fizzle out since members find it difficult to sustain the momentum and emotional excitement of the initial two stages. Another reason for the fizzling of a movement is that continued mobilization becomes too much of a hassle for members and participants.
Social movements can be formed on the local, national or international stage. There are also certain categories that can help in differentiating social movements on a basis of the issues they address and the amount of change they wish to achieve. Reform movements aim at altering a specified issue concerning the social structure. Revolutionary movements aim at doing a complete overhaul of all aspects of the society. Redemptive movements seek meaning in something; with their goal being to induce spiritual growth or inner change in people. Excellent examples of these movements include New Age and Alcoholic Anonymous. Alternative movements concentrate on self-improvement together with minor and specific changes to individual behavior and beliefs. Resistance movements aim at preventing changes in the social structure or undoing such change. A good example is the Ku Klux Klan.
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