What is a social movement?

Movement picThe aim of 53 Million Artists to become a social and self-sustainable movement requires first an understanding of what a social movement is (and is not). Social movements can be broadly understood as a type of collective action that brings about social change. The diverse and wide-ranging nature of social movements, their ideology, organization and desired consequences means that there are contrasting conceptualisations of what exactly a ‘social movement’ is. The dramatic increase in projects and collective forms of action calling themselves social movements since the 1960s has led some to argue that we are living in a “movement society” (Meyer & Tarrow, 1998).

The theoretical underpinnings of social movements have been debated and defined differently by various scholars, participants, and political groups. For instance, Diani (1992: 1) defines social movements as “networks of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups and/or organizations, engaged in political or cultural conflicts, on the basis of shared collective identities.” Whilst Benford and Hunt (1992) view movements as communicative “dramas” that construct and interpret power. Snow, Soule and Kriesi (2004) provide a somewhat convoluted definition as they want to be as inclusive as possible: “collectivities acting with some degree of organization and continuity outside of institutional or organizational channels for the purpose of challenging or defending extant authority, whether it is institutionally or culturally based, in the group, organization, society, culture, or world order of which they are a part” (2004: 11). Following Edelman (2001), understanding social movements as ‘collective action’ is straightforward and adequate because it covers a multitude of cultural and social activities.

It is important to note the difference in terminology between ‘social’ movements and ‘cultural’ movements, in addition to ‘subcultural’ and ‘counter-cultural’ movements. ‘Social’ movement is the primary term used by scholars and theorists in the discussion of collective action. Social movements can be aimed at change on an individual level, or change at a broader societal level. A ‘cultural’ movement in contrast, tends to refer to a convergence of disciplines including the arts, philosophy, science and architecture e.g. renaissance, classical, gothic, post-modern and so on. ‘Counter-culture’ movements are anti-establishment in nature and oppose mainstream cultural mores and mass cultural values (Whiteley, 2012). ‘Subcultural’ movements are groups of people within larger mainstream society or culture, and are identity-based (Kriesi, 1995).

Social Movement Theory

There is no single standard or typology of social movements, but a range of theories. The five most widely known ones are mass-society, relative deprivation, resource mobilization, political process and new social movements theory. Social movements tend to be more widespread in industrialized societies as diverse groups of people are less bound by societal or cultural customs and expectations. Since the 1980s there has a been a ‘cultural turn’ (Williams, 2004) in the study of social movements, where the focus has shifted from economic distribution to cultural, moral and identity issues. The (contested) ‘New Social Movements’ paradigm leads this shift, though all the other previously predominant theories will be discussed briefly before considering new social movements.

Mass-society theory

The theory of mass-society holds that the most isolated individuals who feel disconnected and insignificant in large societies join social movements to overcome a sense of alienation (Buechler, 2004). According to this theory, by creating or joining a social movement and participating in collective behaviour, people gain a feeling of empowerment and belonging.  The theory has not enjoyed much support, as research has suggested that often a motivation for joining a movement is that individuals already have a friend or acquaintance that is a member (Aho, 1990).

Relative deprivation theory

Relative deprivation theory, developed by Denton Morrison (1971) sought to understand why people join social movements. Denton argues people are motivated to join a movement when they feel as though they are not receiving their ‘fair share’ of what seems available. When people find a benchmark that indicates they could be better off than they are, the psychological strain can trigger participation in collective behaviour (Buechler, 2004). As such, social movement participants are not necessarily deprived socio-economically, for instance university students or civil rights activists, but people who feel relatively deprived and act to improve (or defend) their conditions. The problem with this theory is that most people have some feeling of deprivation or discontent almost all of the time, regardless of their place in society.

Resource mobilization theory

Resource mobilization theorists view social movements as extensions of institutionalized action and an attempt to alter elements of social structure so as to represent the interests of groups excluded from the polity (Jenkins, 1983: 529). Resource mobilization theory stresses the ways in which movements are shaped by, and work within, limits set by resources (for instance, economic, political, labour and communication) available to groups, and their organization of those resources. As such, the success of a social movement is dependent on those involved mobilizing the resources at their disposal. This could include securing financial support, forming coalitions with other organisations, and building effective campaigns.

The emphasis on the mobilization of resources means that theorists downplay factors such as ideology, identity-change and consciousness-raising to focus on the measurable impact on social movements (Jenkins, 1983). Critics of the theory argue the shortcomings of this theory are precisely for these reasons, that personality or cultural change is not taken into account (Diani, 2004). Other critics have argued there is too much of an emphasis on resources, specifically financial resources, as many movements are successful without these means because they focus on members’ time and labour instead.

Political process theory

The theory of political process focuses on the macro-sociological issues that make social movements possible. Political process theory emphasises organizational strength, cognitive liberation and political opportunities as the key factors in social movement emergence (McAdam, 1982). The theory posits that the wider political system, namely the government, open and close up opportunities for resistance. Although the political process approach was very popular in social movement research, the primary concept at its core, ‘political opportunity’ has proven elusive (Kriesi, 2004) and suffers from definitional sloppiness (Sartori, 1991).

New social movements theory

New Social Movements (NSM) makes a break with traditional social movement theory by arguing that since the 1960s, movements have been concerned with lifestyle and quality of life rather than issues surrounding industrialism. The two core concepts that characterise the paradigm are, first, that NSM are a product of the shift to a post-industrial society, and second, that NSMs are unique and as such different from social movements of the industrial age (Pichardo, 1997). Proponents of the new social movements paradigm (Cohen, 1985; Melucci, 1980; Touraine, 1981) emphasise that the shift of protest has moved away from Marxist ideas and the working-class to cultural, moral and identity issues. Critics of the NSM theory argue that it is not an entirely coherent school of thought and question whether it is ‘new’ at all as claims that distinguish the paradigm from other theories are overstated (Pichardo, 1997).

53 Million Artists as a ‘New Social Movement’

movement handsA defining characteristic of a NSM is that they are first and foremost social and cultural, and secondarily (if at all), political. This core idea fits the 53 Million Artists rationale – it is about social and cultural change on an individual level and not revolutionary change aimed at politics and the government. The ‘cultural turn’ in the study of social movements, as Williams (2004: 92) explains is about “the content of movement ideology, the concerns motivating activists, and the arena in which collective action was focused – that is, cultural understandings, norms, and identities rather than material interests and economic distribution.” 53 Million Artists is concerned with improving the quality of life of participants and revealing their creative identity rather than economic distribution.

Creating and maintaining meaningful identities are viewed as a central component of ‘new’ movements (Oliver et al., 2003) so there has been a proliferation of various concepts being developed to cater for the ‘identity-oriented’ paradigm (Cohen, 1985). Johnston et al (1994) distinguished between individual identities, collective identities, and public identities, while others have focused solely on the notion of collective identities (Berezin, 2001; Jasper, 1997; Taylor & Whittier, 1992). Polletta and Jasper (2001: 285) define collective identity as “an individual’s cognitive, moral, and emotional connection with broader community, category, practice, or institution. It is a perception of a shared status or relation, which may be imagined rather than experienced directly, and it is distinct from personal identities, although it may form part of a personal identity.” As with 53 Million Artists, individuals who participate in the movement share a collective identity with other participants in becoming everyday artists, even though they may never meet each other but form an identity based on creative practice, which may or may not be part of their personal identity.


Various scholars have pinpointed the key spheres of what comprises a social movement and the issues to focus on. For instance, Jenkins (1983) identified formation, process of mobilization, organization (centralised or decentralised) and outcome, whereas Melucci (1980) suggested ideology, leadership, organization, and mobilization. Similarly, Pichardo (1997) argued it was ideology and goals, tactics, structure, and participants. Klandermans and Oegema (1987) were more specific in singling out mobilization, recruitment networks, motivation to participate, barriers to participation, campaign at a local level, and results, as the key features of social movements. Although they all slightly differ, the authors put forward clearly identifiable aspects to take into consideration when wanting to start a social movement or studying existing or past ones: ideology, leadership, goals, membership, organization, and consequences.

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