Expanding the Social Movements Research Agenda

BY Suzanne Staggenborg

In the 25 years since Mobilization was launched, it has published essential reading for scholars of social movements and collective action.  The journal is an outlet for important empirical and theoretical papers in the field and its editors have also organized thought-provoking forums for discussion of critical issues and works. When asked to write about a Mobilization article that has influenced my own scholarship and/or the field more generally, I had no trouble coming up with various candidates.  But the article and forum that came to mind as one to which I have frequently returned over the years is Mayer Zald’s “Ideologically Structured Action:  An Enlarged Agenda for Social Movement Research” published in the Spring 2000 issue and followed by a forum with comments by Mario Diani and Bert Klandermans and a response by Zald. Judging by the large number of citations garnered by the article, other scholars have also found it stimulating.

Zald argues that we can expand the social movements research agenda by thinking about “ideologically structured action” (ISA), a term first used by Dalton (1994), as movement activity. Zald’s view of movements as ISA directs us to look for movement activity in a wide variety of organizations and institutions, including political parties, religious institutions, government agencies, schools and families, as well as in social movement organizations (SMOs). As Mario Diani notes, some scholars (including him) have taken an ISA-type approach without awareness of the concept, and many agree on the need to enlarge our conception of social movements.  Bert Klandermans agrees that the social movements agenda should be expanded to focus more on ideology, culture and socialization, but he questions the need to redefine movements as ISA. Nevertheless, I think that the concept helps us to explain the origins, outcomes, and maintenance of movements. While movements are often thought of as “outside” challengers, some originate within government institutions, and policy gains are often the result of interactions between social movement activists and institutionalized actors, particularly state actors. For example, David Pettinicchio (2019) shows in his recent study of American disability policy how the disability rights movement operated as part of a field of actors that included institutional actors and political elites and entrepreneurs. Zald emphasizes political parties in his discussion of ISA, and there is now a fairly extensive body of work on movement-party interactions. One of the interesting questions is how political parties become ideologically structured. Dana Fisher (2019), for example, in her recent book American Resistance shows how participants in the Women’s Marches beginning in 2017 changed the Democratic Party as they became active in electoral politics and helped to bring about the “blue wave” of 2018. It will be interesting to see how lasting this change is and the extent to which the party helps to diffuse feminist ideology.

I find the ISA concept particularly helpful in thinking about what happens to movements and how they maintain themselves over time. For a special issue of Mobilization celebrating its 10-year anniversary, Verta Taylor and I were invited to write about “Whatever Happened to the Women’s Movement?” (Staggenborg and Taylor 2005).  (We thank Holly McCammon for her generous revisiting of our article in her December 2019 blog in Mobilizing Ideas on “What is Happening in the Women’s Movement Now?”)  The women’s movement had periodically been declared dead or in decline in what was frequently called “the post-feminist era.” In thinking about what had happened to the women’s movement and why such assessments were so common, we needed to go beyond a contentious politics approach, and beyond a focus on SMOs. That is, we needed to locate the movement in places other than public protests (though those remain important) and explicitly political movement organizations. One of the broader conceptualizations of social movements that helped us to think about this was Zald’s ISA approach. In particular, we could see the women’s movement in various institutions, in other social movements, and in feminist culture and alternative institutions.

Today, in the age of the Trump Resistance movement and annual women’s marches following the huge 2017 women’s march, there is no doubt that the women’s movement is alive and well. But to explain how the movement remained in “abeyance” (Taylor 1989) and later emerged from its “submerged networks” (Melucci 1996), we need to look at the various sites where feminism was nourished and maintained through ISA. As Mario Diani notes in his commentary on Zald, it is useful to think about how social movements are part of larger social networks and interactions that include individuals and organized actors of various types. ISA helps us to think about the various elements of movements beyond SMOs, which are part of what Buechler (1990) and others have called social movement communities. Through interactions at different levels, in cultural and political groups, movements can diffuse to new constituencies; we need more study of how this happens and Zald’s stimulating attempt to expand the research agenda of social movement scholars deserves revisiting.



Buechler, Steven M. 1990. Women’s Movements in the United States. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Dalton, Russell J. 1994. The Green Rainbow:  Environmental Groups in Western Europe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Diani, Mario. 2000. “The Relational Deficit of Ideologically Structured Action.” Mobilization5(1):17-24.

Fisher, Dana R. 2019. American Resistance: From the Women’s March to the Blue Wave. New York: Columbia University Press.

Klandermans, Bert. 2000. “Must We Redefine Social Movements as Ideologically Structured Action?” Mobilization5(1):25-30.

Melucci, Alberto. 1996. Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pettinicchio, David. 2019. Politics of Empowerment: Disability Rights and the Cycle of American Policy Reform. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Staggenborg, Suzanne, and Verta Taylor. 2005. “Whatever Happened to the Women’s Movement?” Mobilization10(1):37-52.

Taylor, Verta. 1989. “Social Movement Continuity: The Women’s Movement in Abeyance.” American Sociological Review54:761-75.

Zald, Mayer N. 2000. “Ideologically Structured Action: An Enlarged Agenda for Social Movement Research.” Mobilization5(1):1-16.


Leave a comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s