A Multi-Stage Approach to Social Movements

By Doron Shultziner

The Civil Rights Movement (henceforth, CRM) is the best known case of social movements in both theory and action. It was one of the earliest, most dramatic, politically important, and internationally influential cases of a social movement. As such, the CRM was (and still is) the paradigmatic case study that has informed and shaped the field of collective behavior and social movements theory. Central theoretical and conceptual contributions are based on studies of the CRM (e.g., Morris 1983; McAdam 1982).

These approaches and accounts of the CRM have various merits, and they highlighted important factors that are part of the vocabulary and thinking about social movements, such as resource mobilization, political opportunities, and framing. However, there are also many agreed limitations in the field of social movements (della Porta and Diani 2007: chapter 1; for insiders’ critiques see Morris 2000 and McAdam 2004). The field is ripe with various explanatory factors, and there are new cases of social movements that are not well explained by existing approaches.

In this context, I would like to make two related points about the study of social movements. The first is an argument that the main approaches to social movements are “too wide” and therefore leave out important aspects. The second is a proposal to develop a multi-stage approach to social movements that will separately deal with the origins, action, and outcome stages of movements, instead of attempting to explain all these stages at once by the same set of factors. I will discuss these two issues in turn.

Explanations of ‘social movements’ are too wide

The common approaches to social movements seek to explain ‘the emergence and persistence of a collective of people who coordinate their behavior to achieve a social or political goal over a recognized scope of time.’ This is a huge challenge because such a common understanding of social movements assumes a single theoretical framework for explaining the emergence of a movement and its persistence, coordination within a movement, and its outcome. Put differently, the problem is that the dependent variable, ‘social movement,’ actually encapsulates independent social phenomena and different research questions that correspond to distinct stages in this complex social process.

This is most visible when we consider the CRM literature. Major explanations of the CRM have treated the emergence of the movement in the mid-1950s, the persistence of the movement over at least a decade, coordination within various movement organizations during this decade, and the successes of the movement in the mid-1960s as a continuous social process known as the CRM.[1] For example, mobilization of resources, strategic and rational decisions of leaders, and structural political opportunities were employed to explain why the CRM began, why and how it persisted, and why and how it succeeded in reaching its goals. This gave rise to very broad and often flat and inaccurate explanations of various movements and events between the mid-1950s and the 1960s.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott movement is an example of the limitations of this approach. The bus boycott movement is considered the constitutive event of the CRM. Yet this boycott was a unique movement (Shultziner 2013). The participants were mature, working, family men and women from a generation that did not fight either before or after the bus struggle. After the boycott, the city did not experience another mass mobilization, not withstanding the famous march from Selma that ended in the capital Montgomery. In fact, for four years, until the students’ sit-ins of 1960, mass mobilization was quite dormant: the main civil rights struggles were important legal battles over school integration, but not massive coordinated efforts of active mobilization on national scale, as they would become from 1960 on. Moreover, central questions about why mass mobilization began in Montgomery and not elsewhere, and why at the end of 1955, are not answered by the common accounts. This is a result of an approach that attempts to explain the origins, actions, and outcomes of a particular movement by a very wide account of varied experiences of various movements in a period of more than a decade.

By trying to explain “too much,” this general approach ends up explaining too little, leaving out crucial aspects, factors, and unanswered questions. Based on what we now know from decades of research on social movements, it is quite clear that one set of factors – i.e., political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and framing, as wide as they have become – would not be able to account for the causes of movement emergence, the causes that keep movements going, and the determinants of their success or failure.

A multi-stage approach: origins, action, and outcome

An alternative to the limitations described above could be an explanation that is based on the distinct stages in social movements. Indeed, Herbert Blumer suggested we pay attention to four stages in the life-cycle of movements – social ferment, popular excitement, formalization, and institutionalization – as far back as 1951 (dela Porta and Diani 2007: 150; Christiansen 2009). Yet this contribution remained incomplete and did not develop into an independent alternative theoretical approach to analyze social movements. Based on my research on social movements and democratization (see relevant summary in Shultziner 2010: 174-178) and on the Montgomery bus boycott (Shultziner 2010, 2013), I would like to briefly delineate such an approach and to explain why it could be useful for analysis.

Generally, this theoretical approach calls for an analytic distinction between three known stages in the life-cycle of movements: origins, action, and outcome. These distinct stages of movements are explained and dependent upon quite different factors and causes. Factors and causes that operate in one stage may be remarkably different both in type and in scale than those that operate in another stage. Each stage could arguably be classified as a phenomenon in itself. The three stages and their main factors are presented below and summarized in the table.


Social movements are made of people who become motivated to mobilize in some way for a common goal. This motivation is not a constant factor or a given fact. “We should never assume a willingness, even eagerness to protest (if only the opportunities were there!) but must see how this is created” (Goodwin and Jasper 1999: 51). The origins of movements are the stage in which social and psychological experiences prepare the hearts and minds of the future participants in a movement. The people who undergo those experiences may not necessarily understand them, they may not know that they will become future participants in a movement, and they may not yet even see themselves as part of the affected group that will eventually mobilize. Furthermore, those experiences may occur over a long period of time, or they may result from a sudden dramatic or transformative event.

Main factors

The important point is that in order to explain the emergence of social movements, we must explore what caused the initial motivation to act for a common goal. There are various social and psychological experiences that could be responsible for the emergence of such protest motivations. In my paper, I highlighted the importance of social factors in the form of changing social interactions involving power relations on buses in Montgomery. I delineated psychological factors involving increasing humiliation and low self-esteem in the two years before the boycott. In addition, inspiring and dramatic events can encourage or anger people and generate the motivation to form movements, as the Arab Spring vividly demonstrated. Macro-social and -economic factors are another general set of factors that can create experiences leading to protest motivations (e.g., economic downturn, breakdown of infrastructure, outbreak of social conflict). Policy decisions may also have similar widespread effects on various groups (e.g., sudden price raises in basic foods, policies that harm a certain group). While crucial at the origins stage, these factors may be unimportant or completely absent in the next stages.

Main Research Questions

The origins stage of social movements also corresponds to specific research questions that are relevant to this stage and not to others. For example, when exactly did a wide motivation to join a movement come about, in what ways, and which were the important factors? Generally, the analysis at this stage is likely to center on the social-psychological aspects underlying the emergence of the movement.


The stage in which groups of people take action has received much attention in the social movements literature, and the CRM literature in particular. This can be termed the stage of action in social movements. It is first and foremost characterized by an observable action by a group of people, some sort of movement within society. The phase of action may last several days, weeks, months, and in some cases even years. Within this stage a social movement makes its first appearances and builds its momentum and resilience. If the movement lasts more than days, participants usually begin to build new organizations, strengthen existing ones, discover leaders, garner resources, appeal to the media, recruit more supporters, define collective aims, communicate with key players, strategize, and strive to achieve goals more effectively by applying various means of pressure.

Main factors

Research is extensive on the various factors and dynamics in an array of collective behaviors and social movements. I will only classify broad sets of factors that become important at this stage. Social factors could be important, such as the formation of personal identity (e.g., feminist) and group identity. Different psychological factors come into play, such as turning a sense of humiliation, low self-esteem, and anger into pride, positive self-esteem, high self-efficacy, and joy about being able to struggle, and tying one’s self-evaluations with the action or broader struggle (see Jasper 2006, 2012; in Montgomery see Shultziner 2010: 150-156). Structural factors are often crucial at this stage, such as the effectiveness of the movement’s organizations, internal communication, leaders’ mobilization capacities, and the type and amount of material resources they can muster. Strategic factors can also be highly important at this stage, such as choice of media frames, strategic choices of protest, choice of tactics, skills of movement leaders, as well as the same factors and choices of available to their opponents.

Main research questions

The ‘action’ stage of social movements involves different research questions (than the origins stage) to understand and explain this stage. For example, which set of factors was most important in maintaining action, momentum, and resilience in the particular social movement at hand? How was the sequence of events and movement progress related to new factors that came into play? Which specific factors were dominant in the interplay between the movement and its opponents? Generally, structural and strategic factors are expected to be the focus of the analysis, but social-psychological factors could be important to a complete understanding of the movement at this stage as well.


The final stage is the outcome of a movement. At this stage, the collective of people may achieve their goal, achieve some goals, or fail to do so. Most people who coordinated their actions to achieve a goal will return to the ordinary demands of life (e.g., study, work, family obligations), a few will continue to participate in some sort of formal or informal organizational structures and networks. The large movement itself will decline and eventually disappear.[2] The important point about this stage is that the outcome of the movement is sometimes affected by factors internal to the movement, but often it is determined by factors and causes that are external to the movement. Furthermore, the factors that are prominent in determining the outcome may have had nothing to do with the previous two stages.

Main Factors

The very existence of a large group of people who demand a certain objective could be a formidable means of pressure to bring it about, such as a huge demonstration for policy change or blocking a city to remove an undemocratic ruler. The most important factor that determines the outcome of a movement is the amount of effective pressure the group applies on those who are able to grant those goals. This is not a quantifiable factor, but it is an axiom that meaningful social and political change does not happen without applying some sort of pressure. However, pressure alone may be insufficient to achieve a movement’s goals. Movement outcomes, such as replacement of governments and rulers, democratization of systems, policy changes, human rights issues, and much more, are often determined by a set of strategic or political factors that could be affected by a movement, but are also external and independent of it to various degrees.

For example, the two US court decisions about the unconstitutionality of bus segregation were clearly affected by talented CRM lawyers (Gray 2002), but they were independent decisions nevertheless. If one of the two courts had decided differently or was slow to deliver, the course of the movement would have been very different. Similarly, if the white city leaders had accepted the initial proposal of the black leadership for a new segregation system, the whole movement would have finished early and bus segregation would have remained intact (see Shultziner 2010: 97-104).

Outcomes of movements are thus primarily dependent on a set of highly dynamic and uncertain choices, both on the side of movements and their opponents. The main factors at this stage are strategic decisions and skills of movement leaders, recognizing and creating concrete political opportunities for change, decisions of the movements’ opponents, and positions and decisions of key institutional players (e.g., politicians, courts, international organizations, and NGOs). These factors are in interplay in a context of the amount of pressure that is exerted by the group.

Main Research Questions

The outcome stage of social movements involves a separate set of research questions that are relevant to discovering the factors underlying the success or failure of a movement. Some of the main questions are, Which key players were responsible for the outcome? Was the success or failure of the movement a factor of its internal strengths/weaknesses or its opponents’ strengths and weaknesses? What were the main strategic considerations of the movement, did its leaders and/or opponents actually realize them, and – if so – when? Generally, strategic or political factors are expected to have a major role in answering these questions and explaining this stage of the movement.


Stages of
Social Movement






interactions involving power relations; Inspiring or dramatic events; Macro
social and economic conditions

Personal and Group Identity formation

– –


low self-esteem about one’s condition; anger; moral outrage

Pride; Positive self-esteem about the struggle

– –


– –

effectiveness; Resources

– –


Harmful policy decisions

Media frames; Strategic choices, tactics and skills of movement
leaders and their opponents

Strategic decisions and skills of movement leaders, their
opponents, and other key players


The scholarly focus on providing a single comprehensive explanation to the CRM helped develop important concepts and ways of thinking about social movements. However, the approach which emerged also obscured distinct stages, factors, and collective-action processes in various movements, including within the CRM itself.

In my research paper on the Montgomery bus boycott I distinguished between factors that explain a movement’s emergence from those that explain their momentum and outcome. Social, psychological, structural, and strategic factors have different weight and play different roles in distinct stages of a movement. Leadership skills and wisdom and can be extremely important to the success or failure of campaigns, but they have little explanatory value in understanding the emergence of movements. Strong organizations and networks are critical to the ability of a movement to grow and persist in the face of challenges, but they do not explain why contention emerges in the first place. Similarly, social interactions and emotions that are so important to the origins of a movement may be transformed into completely new experiences and emotions in the next two stages.

These stages and their respective factors and causes correspond to clear and consistent research questions that are expected to be applicable to most movements. The differentiation of the stages and recognizing their special characteristics can help both academics and activists to think more clearly about advancing collective action to the common good.


Christiansen, Jonathan. 2009. Four Stages of Social Movements. EBSCO Research Starters. At http://www.ebscohost.com/uploads/imported/thisTopic-dbTopic-1248.pdf

Della Porta, Donatella, and Mario Diani. 2006. Social Movements: An Introduction (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Goodwin, Jeff, and James M. Jasper. 1999. “Caught in a Winding, Snarling Vine: The Structural Bias of Political Process Theory.” Sociological Forum 14(1): 27-54.

Gray, Fred D. 2002. Bus Ride to Justice: The Life and Works of Fred D. Gray, Preacher, Attorney, Politician. Montgomery, AL: NewSouth Books.

Jasper, James. 2006. “Motivation and Emotion.” Pp. 157-167 in Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis, edited by Robert E. Goodin and Charles Tilly. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 2011. “Emotions and Social Movements: Twenty Years of Theory and Research.” Annual Review of Sociology 37: 285-303.

McAdam, Doug. 1982. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 2004. “Revisiting the U.S. Civil Rights Movement: Toward a More Synthetic Understanding of the Origins of Contention.” Pp. 201-32 in Rethinking Social Movements: Structure, Meaning, and Emotion, edited by Jeff Goodwin and James Jasper. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Morris, Aldon D. 1984. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York and London: Free Press; Collier Macmillan.

———. 2000. “Charting Futures for Sociology: Social Organization—Reflections on Social Movement Theory: Criticisms and Proposals.” Contemporary Sociology 29(3): 445-54.

Shultziner, Doron. 2013. The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott: Social Interaction and Humiliation in the Emergence of Social Movements. Mobilization 18(2): 117-142.

———. 2010. Struggling for Recognition: The Psychological Impetus for Democratic Progress. New York: Continuum Press.

[1] For example, “…the task here is to explore and analyze the origins and development of the ‘modern civil rights movement.’ That term refers to the black movement that emerged in the South during the 1950s, when large masses of black people became directly involved…” (Morris 1984: ix).

[2] I do not discuss here Blumer’s fourth stage, namely, after the movement has achieved its goals or not. This is, of course, another separate phenomenon.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Origins of Social Movements

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