Reviewing the Field: What movements have we studied?

In beginning to write a book chapter on movements and social problems, I’ve realized the connections between these two areas are not nearly as developed as I had assumed. It is clear that movements matter because they raise consciousness about social problems and collectively try to address them.

Yet, I can’t seem to find much research explicitly connecting these two areas.

In particular, I am left wondering several questions about bridges, or the lack there of, between scholarship on movements and social problems.

 What movement cases have we studied over the past hundred years, and how does that compare to the field of social problems over that time period?

This seems like a basic question but is quite difficult to answer.

Several very good overviews of social movement theory (Morris and Herring 1984; Moss and Snow (forthcoming); Weber and King 2014) and scholarship (Snow, Soule and Kriesi 2004) hint at the types of movements scholars have focused on under different theoretical paradigms. Most reviews give excellent overviews of the common dimensions of movements and important contextual factors in mobilization. However, there is less direct attention to the kinds of movements studied and what their targets were.

Very generally, reviews of movement scholarship discuss how there was a shift from examining Marxist labor/poor people’s movements in early movement scholarship to the movements of the 1960s and 1970s (e.g. Civil Rights, women’s movement, anti-war movement, environmental movement, new social movements). In the past decade we have shifted to study more broadly movements targeting multiple institutions (Armstrong and Bernstein 2008; Rojas 2007; Soule 2009; Van Dyke et al. (2004)) and various kinds of structural, cultural, and individual outcomes.*

Is there a comprehensive review or meta-study of the movement targets studied in major publications over the last fifty or seventy-five years?

From there, it would be interesting to compare the field of movement scholarship to scholarship on social problems.

     Are there kinds of social problems that movement scholarship, or movements more generally, have tended to neglect?

In addition,

 Are movements better at initiating change for some kinds of social problems than others?

These are important questions and I’d love to hear your thoughts on them.


*Jennifer Earl’s website and database provide a useful overview and suggested readings on movement outcomes.


After this post, colleagues recommended the following very helpful resources on the field of movements at different points in time, changes in civic collective action tactics over time, biases and gaps in movement scholarship, and causality in the relationship between movements and social problems:

Bartley, Tim and Curtis Child. 2007. “Shaming the Corporation: Globalization, Reputation, and the Dynamics of Anti-Corporate Movements.” in annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, New York. Available at http://www. allacademic. com/meta/p184737_index. html.(Accessed March 1, 2009.): Citeseer.

Caren, N., Ghoshal, R. A., & Ribas, V. 2011. “A social movement generation cohort and period trends in protest attendance and petition signing.” American Sociological Review, 76(1), 125-151.

Gamson, William A. 1975. The Strategy of Social Protest: Dorsey Press Homewood, IL.

Klandermans, Bert and Nonna Mayer. 2005. Extreme Right Activists in Europe: Through the Magnifying Glass: Routledge.

Linden, Annette and Bert Klandermans. 2007. “Revolutionaries, Wanderers, Converts, and Compliants Life Histories of Extreme Right Activists.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 36(2):184-201.

McAdam, Doug, Robert Sampson, Simon Weffer and Heather MacIndoe. 2005. “” There Will Be Fighting in the Streets”: The Distorting Lens of Social Movement Theory.” Mobilization: an international quarterly 10(1):1-18.

Sampson, Robert J, Doug McAdam, Heather MacIndoe and Simón Weffer‐Elizondo. 2005. “Civil Society Reconsidered: The Durable Nature and Community Structure of Collective Civic Action1.” American Journal of Sociology 111(3):673-714.


Filed under Daily Disruption

3 responses to “Reviewing the Field: What movements have we studied?

  1. Hi, Jennifer!

    This is an important question, and I’m glad you’re asking it. I have a forthcoming piece at Sociology Compass that addresses, somewhat, the emphasis in research on social movements on movements whose aims we tend to agree with, as opposed to movements whose aims we tend to abhor. More specifically, the piece is about genocide as contentious politics, and I explain how the field was not only focused on Marxist/poor people’s movements prior to the shift of the 60s and 70s, as you note above, but how also, a significant body of work in the late-40s and the 1950s actually was inspired by the Holocaust and thus many theories of collective action & social movements characterized actors as irrational masses who were somehow disconnected from society. With the 60s, 70s, and the birth of the political process model later on, as you note, researchers have come to focus more on movements targeting multiple institutions (though I would say the emphasis is still most often on the state) and structural/cultural/individual outcomes (as well as movement actors as rational and deeply connected, I would add). More work, however, has also come to focus in recent years on violent political action (i.e. Einwohner, Su, Goodwin, Maher, Bosi, Demetriou, Giugni, Alimi, Beck, Viterna, in no particular order), and especially on terrorism. So, a long way to go about answering your question, “What movement cases have we studied over the past hundred years, and how does that compare to the field of social problems over that time period?” I would say that it’s important not to neglect the history of the field as founded, partly, in response to the horrors of the Holocaust (see Meyer 2004 on this point as well), and as turning recently, as well, to look at more violent forms of mobilization. On the latter, see: Mobilization 2012, vol. 17; Qualitative
    Sociology 2008, vol. 31, and the recent edited volume by Demetriou et al. (2014) “Dynamics of Political Violence.”

    I hope this is helpful!


  2. *I am so sorry – I just realized the author of the post above is Jaime, not Jennifer. My apologies!


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