Using Social Movement Theory for Movements in Action


Rasmus Grobe

The purpose of this article is to remind us that Social Movement Research can help actual movements coming to terms with certain issues of their struggles and a better understanding of themselves and their strategies.

Over the last decades Social Movement Research has established itself as a distinct discipline within the Social Sciences. And while it might be true that scholars pursuing their task of understanding or explaining social movements have become somehow detached from the "real life“ experiences of people "out there“ on the streets, in the blockades or in their group-meetings, the findings of their research might nevertheless give some insights for practical application.

When asking people who do training work in Nonviolent campaigns which theoretical concepts of social movements they know many will mention Bill Moyer's Movement Action Plan (MAP), which is based on experiences and case studies of various movements. However, there are other – more “scientific” - models and concepts around, which have been subject to debate amongst scholars of Social Movement Research. And it is surprising how little even the core concepts are known in the sphere of activism. However, it must be mentioned that these theories aim to explain the formation or development of movements and are not intending to guideline practical action – although knowing them might be useful when doing so. The following paragraphs will introduce the most common theoretical approaches (which implies that there are many more...).

Resource Mobilisation

According to resource mobilization theory, a movement can't develop, nor succeed without resources - with time and money people are willing to give in support of a movement being the most important resources. Thus there is a need for a group of people and certain structures within a movement which work towards bringing money, supporters, attention of the media, alliances with those in power, and refining the organizational structure. Social movements need these resources to be effective, because dissent and grievances alone will not generate social change.

Political Opportunities

Political opportunity theory argues that the actions of the activists are dependent on the existence - or lack of - of a specific political opportunity. Political opportunity refers to the receptivity or vulnerability of the existing political system to challenge. This vulnerability can be the result of a growth of political pluralism, a decline in effectiveness of repression, an elite disunity (i.e.the leading factions are internally fragmented, a broadening of access to institutional participation in political processes and/or support of organized opposition by elites.

In the dynamic type of the political opportunity approach – sometimes also called political process approach – the changes in the political opportunity structures (in a country) are taken into account for explaining the formation or development of a social movement.


The concept of Framing refers to the development and proclamation a specific pattern of meaning which is being constructed by a social movement to explain a conflict, the goals of their campaign and their approach to action. The framing approach states that the quality of their framing is key to a movement's success, resource mobilisation being a part thereof.

So, how can these concepts be of relevance for practical work?

The question of Resources probably is most common when it comes to planning a campaign or action: the initial campaign group will ask themselves what it will take to achieve an aim. The task of setting achievable goals itself has a lot to do with assessing their own resources. Also, the character of a campaign might be determined by a critical assessment of the resource base – i.e. rather than trying a protest march with a small number of people and experience a feeling of relative failure, it might be decided to start with an awareness-raising campaign and later expand it to a mobilization campaign – and eventually, when the resource base seems to be strong enough, the campaign might seek confrontation.

Identifying Political Opportunities is a task which some activists have troubles to come to terms with. Maybe this is, because in many instances it means to look deeper into the real world of political decision-making which doesn't look very appealing for grass-roots activists.

And maybe also, because most of the times the predictable and ritualised processes of policy-making don't give much space for action from outside the politico-economic power-structures. One basic insight the approach might give is to be aware that there are conditions which are outside the influence of social movements and that activists are invited not to ignore those opportunity structures but to consider them when choosing their issues, types of action and definiton of goals. However, crucial to the behavior of people and social movement organisations is not reality as such but the way social movements make sense of it.

The real challenge lies with identifying those issues which are controversial both within society but potentially amongst elites – and then, when there comes the particular moment in time, be quick and get your campaign ready. Ironically, or sadly, often those “Windows of Opportunity” open up when disasters happen or a scandal breaks: e.g. recently the horrible disaster of Fukushima served as the ultimate trigger for the German Anti-nuclear movement to press for a return to the decision to phase out nuclear power plants. Clearly, this would not have happened without the groundwork being laid in decades of grass-roots campaigning and established networks who were ready to organise marches and protest events within a few days.

Last, to develop a proper Frame for a campaign is key to it's success. According to theory a “master frame” consists of three components:

  • First, the diagnostic framing consists of the problem definition. Here it is being described what really is the core of the problem, why this is and who is responsible for it. Part of the diagnostic framing should be an appropriate and recognizable name, an identifcation scheme and a problem description, as well as criteria for assessment and the assessment itself.
  • Second, the prognostic framing develops an understanding of how, by whom and by which means the problem identified can be resolved. Important is not only to have an abstract problem solution, but also concrete guidelines for action.
  • Third, the motivational framing looks at the interlinkages between the problem and the individual person and presents incentives or motivation to participate in or support the campaign.

The mobilising power of the frame rests on these three components and their interplay. If it is done well the frame can and has to be used repeatedly for producing all kinds of mobilising materials, speaking to the media, reaching out to allies etc.

To sum up: looking at theory can give new insights for practical action – and inform debates on strategy.

Suggested readings:

  • Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, Mayer N. Zald (eds.): Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings. Cambridge University Press 1996.
  • JoAnn MacAllister, Mary Lou Finley, Bill Moyer (eds.): Doing Democracy: The Map Model for Organizing Social Movements: The Map Model for Organising Social Movements. New Society Press 2001.
  • Sidney G. Tarrow: Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. Cambridge University Press, 3rd ed. 2011.
  • Felix Kolb: Protest and Opportunities: The Political Outcomes of Social Movements. Campus Verlag 2007.

Bewegungsakademie ("The Movement Acadamy“), Verden, Germany

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