Social Change, Behavior, and Movements

The Basics of Sociology. Editor: Kathy S Stolley. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Cultures and societies are dynamic. They constantly experience social change, meaning that the structures of cultures and societies transform into new forms. Changes may occur primarily within one society (e.g., a coup installs a new government) or encompass multiple societies (e.g., globalization brings a fast-food restaurant or department store to places previously without these entities).

Explaining social change has always been a major interest for sociologists. Sociologists who study social change focus their attention away from the routines of social life that are generally somewhat stable and predictable, as much as this book discusses. Instead, they examine collective behaviors, those spontaneous activities that involve large numbers of people violating established norms. Those behaviors occur when people react to something new or unfamiliar. The result may be minimal, unanticipated, or short-term changes. Those behaviors may also lead to social movements, organized collective activities that deliberately seek to create or resist social change. Social movements purposely result in long-term, sweeping changes. Such activities are increasingly referred to as collective action because of the intent to bring about a lasting change (Miller 2000, 5).

The study of collective action is subfield of sociology. Sociologists in the American Sociological Association have established their own interest group for this area. Collective action also overlaps with interests in a number of other disciplines, including public opinion studied in political-science courses, the movements studied in political and religious sociology, and mass behavior studied in popular-culture and mass-media courses (Shibutani 1988, 26).

Collective Behavior

Social change is both unplanned and planned, and can brought about by spontaneous or institutionalized means (Macionis 1995, 638-39). This section on collective behaviors focuses on the spontaneous activities that lead to social change. The social-movement section below addresses more purposive efforts to effect change.

Forms of Collective Behavior

Collective behaviors take a variety of forms, all of great interest to sociologists. Several of those forms are discussed here.

Fashions and Fads

Fashion is a social pattern of behavior or appearance embraced by large numbers of people for a long period of time. Although clothing may be the first thing many people think of as fashion, fashion actually incorporates much more than what we wear. It characterizes automobiles, architectural and decorating styles, home furnishings, entertainment, medical practice, business management, politics, the arts, language, and even names. By definition, fashion changes. One preference replaces another, then that preference is replaced, and so on.

Herbert Blumer, profiled below, viewed fashion as a form of modern collective social life “scarcely to be found in settled societies, such as primitive tribes, peasant societies, or caste societies, which cling to what is established and has been sanctioned through long usage” (1968, 342). Many analyses of fashion have focused on the role commercial interests (such as product manufacturers and marketers) play in dictating fashion. Georg Simmel (1957), profiled in chapter 5, studied the sociology of fashion a century ago. He saw the wealthy as fashion trendsetters, with others following their example. Thorstein Veblen (1967), profiled below, suggested that some people buy expensive things to show that they could afford them. He called this conspicuous consumption. Pierre Bourdieu (1984) also looked at the selection of products as related to, and reinforcing, social position.

To find out more about how and why fashions change over time, Stanley Lieberson (profiled below) conducted an extensive study on our fashion tastes, focusing on children’s first names. Unlike clothing and many of our material fashions, no commercial efforts are made to influence name choices. Therefore, names provide an opportunity to study what Lieberson calls pure mechanisms of fashion.

He found two major influences on our tastes: external social forces (such as commercialism) and our “internal taste mechanisms” (Lieberson 2000). These internal mechanisms work to generate fashion change because we simply find some things more appealing than others, and we get bored with the old. Lieberson applies his analyses to a variety of examples, including men’s fedoras, the length of waists on women’s garments, the use of nicknames by politicians and reporters, women’s titles, and music. He finds these two factors at work regardless of what fashion he is examining. Lieberson also found that the speed of fashion change depends on price and durability. Fashions in inexpensive clothing that is easily worn out change quickly. Fashions in expensive products, such as furniture, change slowly.

Fashions are contrasted with fads. Fads are typically seen as relatively novel behaviors that appear suddenly, spread rapidly, are enthusiastically embraced by a large number of people for a short period of time, and then mostly disappear. Robert Park and Ernest Burgess wrote about fads as early as 1924.

Unlike fashions that modify or build on previous preferences, fads appear, spread quickly, and generally disappear. Examples of fads have included activities as diverse as flagpole sitting (attempts to set records for sitting atop a flagpole) during the 1920s, goldfish swallowing on college campuses a decade later, dance marathons, pet rocks, smiley-face logos, streaking (running naked through public events), the Rubik’s cube puzzle, and toga parties (wearing togas to campus parties as in the 1978 movie “Animal House”). Not only do fashions last longer than fads, they also derive from something already there. For example, fashionable hemlines on skirts go up and down in different years, and the style changes from year to year. Skirts were not just suddenly all the rage at one point in history, only to relatively disappear a short time later, as did, say, the pet rock.


Rumors are unverified information spread through informal social interaction, and often derived from unknown sources. Rumor thrives when the subject is important as well as when accurate and reliable information on the topic is lacking or ambiguous (Allport and Postman 1947).

Sociologists have a long-standing interest in rumors. Jane Addams, one of the earliest female sociologists in the United States (profiled in chapter 11), reported on a case of rumor running wildly through a Chicago neighborhood. The neighborhood was served by Hull House, a settlement house Addams ran that provided a range of services to immigrant residents of the area. She wrote that for a period extending over many weeks, Hull House experienced a stream of visitors insisting on seeing a mythical “devil-baby” allegedly housed there. Variations of the rumor told of a baby supposedly born to a religious mother and an atheist father who had commented that he would rather have the devil in his home than a certain holy picture. The result was allegedly the devil taking his baby’s form and the fearful father delivering the child to Hull House. The number of visitors was so great that Addams (1914) reported that continuing the regular activities of Hull House became a challenge.

Although they can address any topic, most rumors involve some aspect of our everyday lives. That makes them seem relevant to many people. They may be either false or true, or at least have some aspect of correct information in them. Miller (2000, 85-90) summarizes a wide variety of rumors that deal with products we use in our daily lives (e.g., the quality or content of food products), disasters (the presence of dangerous situations or outcomes), and atrocities (e.g., wartime acts). He notes that the Internet has provided an especially fertile place for conspiracy rumors to flourish and has also made the spread of rumors even faster.

A famous and well-studied case of a rumor involves the popular rock group the Beatles at the height of their popularity. According to the rumor, member Paul McCartney was dead and had been replaced by an imposter. As summarized by Rosnow and Fine (1976, 14-17), the rumor may have originated among a small group at Eastern Michigan University as early as 1967 without being picked up by the public. The rumor was aired publicly on October 12, 1969 by a caller to a Detroit radio station. The caller claimed that if the Beatles’ song “Revolution 9” was played backwards, the words “number 9, number 9, number 9” were actually saying “Turn me on, dead man.” Filtering out background noises at the end of their song “Strawberry Fields Forever” allowed listeners to hear a voice say, “I buried Paul.”

On October 14, the University of Michigan newspaper carried the headline that Paul McCartney was dead, allegedly as the result of a 1966 automobile accident. The report, accompanied by a bloody photograph, stated that the singer had been decapitated in the accident and replaced by a look-alike. The article described the “clues” on the Beatles’ album covers. The design on the Sgt. Pepper album cover reputedly showed grave flowers resembling Paul’s guitar, or perhaps a letter P. The initials “O.P.D.” on an armband worn by Paul could mean “Officially Pronounced Dead.” Paul was the only Beatle not facing forward on the back cover. The photo on the cover of the Abbey Road album reputedly represented the group leaving a cemetery, with each member of the group representing a member of a funeral party. Paul was pictured barefoot and wearing a suit. He was interpreted to be, of course, the corpse. The license plate on a vehicle seen in the photograph read 28IF, interpreted to mean that Paul would have been age 28 if still alive.

Although the newspaper photograph and accident report would later be revealed as hoaxes, other “evidence” surfaced as the rumor swept across the country. Paul wore a black carnation while the other Beatles wore red carnations on the cover of the Magical Mystery Tour album. An apple insignia allegedly turned blood red on one album cover if immersed in water. Other clues were culled from the songs “I Am the Walrus” and “Glass Onion.”

As Rosnow and Fine (1976, 16-17) explain, the evidence did not support the rumor that Paul died. Some of the “clues” were explained by additional rumors. For example, the O.P.D. armband was reportedly from the Ontario Police Department. The statement, “I buried Paul,” may have actually been John Lennon commenting at the end of the recording session that some other element of the music had buried Paul’s musical part in the arrangement. Speculation also arose that the Beatles themselves, nearing the group’s break-up, had intentionally planted a number of clues. Both McCartney and Lennon denied this. Whatever the source of this rumor, it spread wildly, fueled by the intense interest in this very popular group, a lack of factual information, and possibly by intentionally placed “clues.”

Many rumors die a natural death as the public tires of them or as associated tensions or events are eliminated. Most rumors die due to being disproved, becoming irrelevant, or by “wearing out” and dissipating (Rosnow and Fine 1976). Additionally, most reborn rumors run their course relatively quickly.

Some rumors do not die; rather, they become part of popular culture. An example is provided by the wealth of rumors that surround the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Rosnow and Fine 1976). Rumors still abound about the number of shooters, those responsible, and possible involvement of other political figures.

Urban Legends

By definition, urban legends are realistic but untrue stories that recount some alleged recent event. They are typically entertaining tales of ironic and incredible things that have happened to some “friend of a friend.” The sources of, or eyewitnesses to, these alleged events are difficult, if not impossible, to trace or verify. Urban legends, like rumor, thrive on ambiguity and the possibility that the alleged event occurred. They may even be a very persistent form of rumor.

Urban legends are a modern form of ancient folklore traditions, and some can even be traced back to these folktales (Brunvand 1993, 71-73). One well-known urban legend recounts the tale of someone waking up in a hotel room after a night spent having sexual intercourse with a stranger. The person wakes to find they have had a kidney stolen by an apparently skilled surgeon. Another familiar urban legend relates the story of someone who arrives home to find their Doberman choking on a human finger. The finger’s owner turns out to be a burglar still hidden in the closet. Another urban legend, often told as a ghost story, tells the tale of a couple that finds the bloody hook of an insane, murderous escapee from a nearby institution hanging on the car-door handle after a tryst at Lover’s Lane.

Just as ancient folktales taught moral lessons, urban legends also often provide cautionary warnings about modern society. The one-night-stand and hook tales imply that casual sexual relationships are dangerous and even deadly. To be safe, we should behave “morally.” Yet there are inherent dangers of modern society incorporated that are outside of our control. There is evolving medical technology that makes human organs a valuable commodity. The Doberman tale warns us that there are bad people who will intrude into our own homes even when we have safeguards to keep out danger and are doing nothing wrong.

As society changes and people are faced with evolving and unfamiliar situations, urban legends arise as one response. As we rely more on virtual interactions and the Internet, urban legends find new and faster ways to spread.

Mass Hysteria

Mass hysteria occurs as a response to a real or imagined event. The event, or perceived event, triggers a reaction in which people become excited to the point of losing their critical-thinking abilities and acting irrationally. Theories of mass hysteria have suggested that a “circular reaction” occurs in which emotion and fear feed those emotions in others, spreading the “hysteria.” However, this idea remains to be tested by researchers. Although sociologists are quite interested in the phenomenon, journalistic accounts provide most of the documentation on mass hysteria. Empirical scientific research on mass hysteria is sparse, numbering around only a dozen or so by David Miller’s count (2000, 113-14).

A classic example of mass hysteria is the Halloween 1938 War of the Worlds radio-theater broadcast. A radio-theater group adapted an H. G. Wells novel about a Martian invasion, originally set in England, using the names of actual places in New York and New Jersey. Through a series of simulated news bulletins and reports interrupting a program of dance music, listeners heard announcers describe devastating Martian attacks in the New Jersey area and a nerve-gas attack on New York City. Many listeners had tuned in late and had not heard that the broadcast was staged. There were no commercials that would suggest the broadcast was not real. Although there were a few station breaks announcing that the program was staged, many listeners still believed they were hearing actual events. People panicked, fleeing the area. Listeners attempting to get more information flooded telephone lines for emergency services, hospitals, and media as well as calling friends and relatives. Ensuing media stories reported terrorized people stampeding out of theaters, having heart attacks, and even committing suicide. Although Miller notes that a number of these media stories were later shown to be unsubstantiated, some mass panic did occur, the event became part of American folklore, and new broadcast regulations were quickly put in place by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) (2000, 114-15).


The types of collective behavior discussed above involve activity by people dispersed across society. A sociological look at crowds draws attention to localized collective behavior. A crowd is a temporary collection of people in physical proximity who interact and have a common focus. People in the same place only become a crowd by definition when they find this focus.

Researchers have identified various types of crowds (Blumer 1969). One common type is a casual crowd. These are people who just happen to be at the same place at the same time. People gathering at the scene of a car accident or watching a crane place a steel beam on a high-rise building are all examples of a casual crowd. These types of crowds may be organized around crowd crystals—those who draw attention to themselves in some manner (Canetti 1962). A street-corner preacher or someone slipping on an icy curb might draw a casual crowd.

Stanley Milgram (profiled in chapter 10) and his associates studied casual crowds by having someone pause on a public sidewalk and look attentively towards the sixth floor of a nearby building. With this simple experiment, they were able to record the reaction of others passing by who, at least momentarily, joined the crowd by looking to see the object of interest. The researchers observed that almost all of the passersby looked up. The larger the crowd gathered at the scene, the more likely it was that passersby would actually stop long enough to stand with the crowd (Milgram, Bickman, and Berkowitz 1969).

Another type of crowd is a conventional crowd. These are deliberate gatherings bound by norms of behavior. Attendees at a wedding, fans at a rock concert, or the audience at a poetry reading are conventional crowds. Although the expected behavior differs greatly between these events, there are norms governing each of these settings that are generally observed by the crowd members. The members then disperse without incident when the event is concluded.

Some crowds function on emotion. These crowds may take different forms and may actually evolve from one form into another. An expressive crowd forms specifically around events with emotional meaning for the members, such as the championship game of a basketball tournament, a religious revival, or a political rally.

When emotions become intense, the result may be a crowd in action. As the crowd members interact, the emotional intensity builds into behavior that may be destructive or aggressive. The result may be a mob or even a riot. Mobs are crowds that take action toward an emotionally driven goal. Lynchings are well-known examples of mob behavior (Massey and Myers 1989).

Riots involve public disorder that is less directed and may be of longer duration than mob behavior. They may erupt as a result of an intensely emotional short-term event. For example, sports fans occasionally spill into the street after the conclusion of an important game, breaking windows, burning cars, and committing thefts or other destructive acts.

Riots sometimes occur as a response to some real or perceived social injustice. Urban riots have occurred over racial issues such as the death of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the videotaped police beating of motorist Rodney King and the subsequent acquittal of the officers involved (e.g., Baldassare 1994; Carter 1992; Gale 1996). Riots have occurred as prisoners react to their surrounding conditions (e.g., Colvin 1982; Useem and Resig 1999). Riots that erupted in New York City after police raided a well-known gay establishment have become known as the Stonewall riots (taken from the name of the raided nightspot) and mark the beginning of the gay-rights movement (Teal 1971; Thorstad 1995). This is one of the few social movements for which the date the movement first took public action can be established.

Theories of Collective Behavior

Sociologists have developed several theories regarding why people in collectivities behave as they do. They are concerned with the spontaneity of the behavior and the social factors that influence this behavior.

Contagion Theory

An early theory on crowd behavior was developed by Gustave Le Bon (profiled below), who is sometimes referred to as the “father of collective behavior.” His work was later refined by Herbert Blumer (1969). According to Le Bon’s contagion theory, being swept up in a crowd results in a hypnotic sort of influence on individuals. Conscious personalities, personal will, discernment, and restraint disappear. They are replaced by unconscious and instinctual behaviors that draw power from the sentiment and anonymity of the crowd. In Le Bon’s words, “in a crowd every sentiment and act is contagious, and contagious to such a degree that an individual readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest. This is an aptitude very contrary to his nature, and of which a man is scarcely capable, except when he makes part of a crowd” (1960, 10). Thus, emotions pass through the crowd in a “contagious” manner, similar to the spread of a disease, culminating in some violent behavior.

Later researchers (e.g., McPhail 1991) have argued that Le Bon’s assertions are, at the least, overly simplistic. Although crowds do have an impact on what people are willing to do, crowd members are not irrationally, unconsciously subsumed into some herd-type behavior. Contagion alone cannot explain all collective behavior, the cause of the behavior, and behavior that appears to be reasoned and rational.

Emergent-Norm Theory

Emergent-norm theory (Turner and Killian 1987) takes a social-interaction view of crowd behavior. According to this theory, new norms develop (emerge) as events happen. This norm development depends on communication and cues circulating among crowd members. It is guided by leaders that emerge as the situation progresses. Their behaviors serve as guides for action for other crowd members. Crowd participants interpret events, redefine the situation, follow the norms constructed by leaders, and establish “situational” behaviors.

Emergent-norm theory is often employed in studying disaster behaviors (Aguirre, Wenger, and Vigo 1998, 302). In the aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, people largely evacuated in groups after some period spent milling around seeking information and advice from others. They discussed what might have happened and the danger level before leaving. This theory alone, however, cannot explain how and why leaders emerge or why people take different roles in such situations. Other factors not originally envisioned as central in emergent-norm theory may also be important. For example, in the World Trade Center study, the closer their preexisting social relationships with those around them, the more quickly the people evacuated. Surrounded by people they already knew and perceived to be helpful in determining a course of action made people more likely to quickly join in the collective behavior of evacuation (312).

Aguirre, Quarantelli, and Mendoza’s (1988) study of streaking on college campuses shows that some behaviors that may take a bit of planning also fit into emergent-norm theory. Although streakers were often acting on impulse and emotion, they also understood the meaning and consequences of their actions.

Value-Added Theory

According to Neil Smelser (1962), there are six factors that contribute to collective behavior. Together, these factors set the stage for collective action as people react to situations and events. As the name value-added theory implies, each of the factors adds something of value to the collective action.

  • The first factor, structural conduciveness, means the social structure is arranged such that collective behavior becomes possible (e.g., when authorities do not, or cannot, squelch activities).
  • The second factor, structural strain, means that the fabric of the social structure is under tension. Deprivation, either real or perceived, can cause this (e.g., one group receiving, or being perceived as receiving, racial preference). Lack of good, accurate information can also add to strains, as rumors spread and people develop their own assessments of the “facts” as they believe them. (With this focus, this theory is sometimes called structural-strain theory.)
  • The third factor is generalized beliefs. People come to focus on some specific person or thing as a source of difficulty and in need of change. This focus could target a person in power or a group in control. Additionally, people begin to feel that they can actually have an influence and make a desired change happen.
  • The fourth factor, or the precipitating factors, identifies those events that confirm generalized beliefs and transform them into collective action. This might be a new governmental policy, enforcement of an existing law, or something else that focuses attention and energy.
  • The fifth factor, mobilization for action, occurs when a leader or leaders take some initial action (e.g., the first stone is thrown).
  • The sixth and final factor deals with the breakdown of social control by authorities. Due to inability, miscalculation, or lack of effort, existing social-control measures do not work. Protests and riots may occur, and disorder spreads. The result may even be a social movement.

Smelser’s example illustrating these factors at work is the stock market crash of 1929. The U.S. capitalist market, the ability to transfer large amounts of money, and the ability to make immediate transactions combined to provide the structural conduciveness for the crash. A soaring market, dangerous speculations, and an economic downturn in many indicators produced strain. The lack of understanding about market mechanisms when prices fell, especially among inexperienced investors, was a precipitating factor that fed a generalized belief that it was time to get out of the market. This led to the action, a sell-off that the financial sector was ineffectual in controlling.

This theory explains collective behavior only in terms of reaction, rather than pro-action. It does not include the variety of motivations for involvement in social behaviors that may actually be behind behaviors. For example, some riot participants certainly believe that some slight has occurred that deserves protest. Others may join in for the primary goal of looting stores. Still others might be swept up in the crowd, unable to leave the area.

Social Movements

Unlike the spontaneity of the collective behaviors discussed above, social movements intend to direct social change. These movements encompass a diversity of issues. Contemporary movements include efforts to draw attention to the rights of the disabled, animal rights, environmental activism, abortion (pro-choice and pro-life), AIDS activism, gay rights, civil rights, patients’ rights, rights of those who choose to be childfree, gun control, the right to die (i.e., euthanasia), Mothers against Drunk Driving (MADD), the open-source software movement, and women’s liberation, to name just a few. Sociologists are interested in how these movements form, why they arise, the forms they take and their life cycle, what change occurs, and the outcomes of that change.

Social movements work to accomplish their goals through actions that disrupt the established status quo, authority, and culture. Movement participants develop a sense of collective identity that bolsters their sense of having a shared cause and helps sustain their efforts, thereby sustaining the movement (Tarrow 1994). Some movements are fairly short-lived and either die out or accomplish their goals (e.g., local efforts to stop the construction of a nuclear power plant or prison). Other movements have long lives, some having adherents who participate for their entire lives (e.g., the NAACP) (Klandermans 2000, 246).

Formation of Social Movements

It is difficult to identify the beginning of most social movements as they are occurring. However, sociologists have suggested a number of factors that may be behind the birth of a social movement. These factors include the relative deprivation of one group to larger society, social unrest, dissatisfaction, a sense of injustice, ideology or beliefs, social stresses (such as a crisis or cultural lag), resources, organization, and an orientation toward change. Some factors seem to play a larger role in the formation of one social movement and less in others. However, social movements all involve collective action of people who work to enact some type of change they feel would be preferable in the social structure.

Freeman (1999, 19-20) studied four social movements of the 1960s and 1970s to better understand what is required for the formation of social movements. Her analyses of the civil rights, student protests, welfare rights, and women’s liberation movements prominent during this period identify four elements that are essential for a social movement to form. She finds that there must be (1) a preexisting communications network that can be (2) co-opted to disseminate the ideas of the movement, along with (3) crises that spur involvement in the cause and (4) an effort to organize interested groups into a movement.

Freeman’s analysis of the civil rights movement illustrates these elements. Churches and black colleges provided a communications network that predated the civil rights movement. Students and church members shared common experiences of racism and discrimination that led them to be receptive to the message of the movement when presented to them through these familiar and trusted networks. Emerging leaders, consisting of a number of church ministers, began to speak to these shared experiences and provide avenues for social action. Participation in social movements became, in Freeman’s word, logical. In Montgomery, Alabama, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger, those hearing the civil rights message had the spark to ignite action. While Martin Luther King Jr. served as spokesperson, the ensuing Montgomery bus boycott was then largely organized by E. D. Nixon, a Pullman car porter and activist with the already established NAACP.

Social movements also use tactics designed to encourage a sense of community and belonging during difficult periods. Music, for example, can be utilized for this purpose. The civil rights movement’s theme was the song “We Shall Overcome,” a piece that traces its roots back to two gospel songs sung by slaves. The song also aided in recruitment and garnering support for the cause.

Types of Social Movements

Sociologists have no one single way to classify social movements. Some classifications consider movement goals or methods employed to achieve those goals. Herbert Blumer (1969) classified social movements as general or specific. General movements involve a change of values across society—for example, changes in the views and status of women brought about by the women’s movement. These movements are not sharply focused on methods, which may actually be diffuse, with different branches of the movement supporting different activities (letter-writing campaigns, sit-ins, hiring a lobbyist, etc.). Specific movements have a more well-defined focus—for example, the antiabortion movement.

One commonly cited classification is provided by David Aberle (1966). He divides social movements into four types, broadly based on who they seek to change (individuals or society) and the extent of the change sought (small or sweeping). Alternative social movements focus on partial change at the individual level. Movements advocating birth control provide an example of this type of movement. Redemptive social movements seek a total change of individuals. Movements that aim to bring a state of grace to adherents are redemptive movements (e.g., born-again Christians). Like transformation movements, discussed below, they reject at least some features of the current society. Reformative social movements seek a partial change of society. Women’s suffrage and child-labor laws fit this definition by seeking to reform voting laws and the status of women as well as the situation of children. Transformative social movements support a total change of society. Examples include millenarian and revolutionary movements.

Another type of social movement is the reactionary social movement, sometimes called a countermovement. Countermovements organize in response to the changes brought about by other social movements. Members perceive a threat from these changes and seek to protect their own established positions. For example, in response to the animal-rights movement, a counter-movement has arisen defending targets of animal activism, such as factory farms and recreational hunting (Munro 1999).

Although there are many similarities between social movements and countermovements, their differences are important. As Johnson (1999) points out, since countermovements are protecting some already established economic and political interests, the resources are likely in place to facilitate their emergence and growth. Additionally, since they are responding to changes brought about by social movements, countermovements borrow the rhetoric of those movements but twist it to support their opposing goals.

Operation Rescue, an antiabortion movement that blockaded access to clinics that included abortion among their family-planning services, serves as an example of these tactics (Johnson 1999). Operation Rescue was devised as a part of a larger effort by right-wing Christian organizations to close abortion clinics nationwide. Beginning with a blockade at a New Jersey clinic in 1987, activists attempted to deny clinic access by surrounding clinic doors and windows. They prayed, sang religious and/or civil rights hymns, heard inspirational speeches, and utilized tactics including picketing, tying up clinic phone lines, and distributing “wanted posters” of clinic physicians. When arrested, activists went limp so that police had to carry them away.

Operation Rescue activists co-opted familiar rhetoric from progressive movements of the 1960s. They called themselves the “civil rights movement of the eighties,” calling for “civil rights for the unborn” and “equal rights for unborn women.” They sang freedom songs, held sit-ins, and cultivated media comparisons to the nonviolent tactics of the civil rights movement. As a result of a combination of injunctions, escalating violence attributed to their activists, and legislative and court action targeted to allowing clinic access, the countermovement was forced to refocus activities in new directions, such as picketing physicians’ offices, homes, and other places they frequented. Although, as Johnson notes, the movement did focus attention on fetal rights and reduce the number of abortion facilities and physicians for a period of time, it did not achieve a recriminalization of abortion or significantly reduce public support for abortion.

Some groups also actively seek to avoid social change. The Amish generally hold to their traditions, but social forces such as farm economics and a growing need to find employment outside of the Amish community are pressuring them to modernize. While they see change as neither good nor evil, they do see it as potentially tempting young people and pulling them away from traditional sources of solidarity within the Amish community. However, the Amish have accommodated some planned changes through careful and deliberate selection (Savells 2001). For example, some dairy farmers have generators in their barns to keep commercially sold milk cool per health-department standards. Batteries that provide taillights at night on horse-drawn transportation are also allowed as a safety measure.

Decline of Social Movements

A number of factors, including world events, movement ideologies and chosen tactics/strategies, and movement organization, interact to influence the history of social movements. Frederick D. Miller (1999) identified four often-linked reasons why social movements decline: success, failure, co-optation, and repression.

The movement may achieve its goals. Such was the case for the women’s suffrage movement. However, most movements have multifaceted agendas—for example, the civil rights movement. These movements may achieve some goals but find they must continue to work toward others. In an unusual case of a movement re-creating itself to address a different issue, the current March of Dimes organization began as a movement working to fight polio. After the development of the polio vaccine, the movement re-created itself to target birth defects, premature birth, and low birth weight.

The movement can end due to organizational failures. Strategies can be ineffectual, factional disputes can develop, or the movement may become so internally focused (encapsulated in Miller’s terminology) that it loses touch and appeal with those outsiders it needs to survive and attract as new members. Stoper’s study (1999) of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a 1960s movement founded to coordinate civil rights sit-ins, finds that the group moved on to organizing black voter registration and even seating black Mississippi delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. However, after apparent successes, the group faced several crises and organizational problems that resulted in its demise.

Leaders may also be enticed with rewards that serve their own interests rather than those of the movement. This diverts the leader’s attentions away from the goals of the movement. If leaders are rewarded for their position in the movement with more money or intangible benefits (e.g., status) than they could get from other occupations, their interest may become in maintaining their position rather than advancing the goals of the movement. Robert Michels (1962), profiled in chapter 5, argued that long-term political leaders’ interests turn to maintaining their positions rather than advancing causes.

Powerful interests may repress a movement by using tactics such as bringing criminal sanctions against members and leaders; infiltrating the movement with spies; harassing, attacking, or threatening members or recruits; and spreading false information. Governments have attempted to repress anarchist movements in various countries, for example. Although efforts at repression may have the effect of strengthening the solidarity and resolve of the movement, it may also destroy the movement.

Theories of Social Movements

There are a number of theories about how and why social movements arise and the paths they take. In searching for explanations, sociologists have developed several theories. Two older perspectives are deprivation theories and mass-society theory. According to deprivation theories, social movements arise when people feel deprived of something that others have or that they feel others have (Merton 1968). Expectations, rather than absolute measures, are the key to whether or not people feel deprived. The slight (or perceived slight) may be a range of situations from poor working conditions to standard of living to racial preferences.

Social isolation is the key to mass-society theory. Proponents of this perspective argue that modern society is alienating, immoral, apathetic, and discourages individuality, and that in this context, socially isolated people are attracted to social movements for personal reasons. Joining gives them a sense of importance and intent. This makes them easily manipulated and easily influenced to join movements (Kornhauser 1959; Giner 1976; Melucci 1989). Both of these perspectives have received mixed support in the research, finding some support and much criticism. Newer theories focus on collective action and tying individual experience to the movement’s goals.

Resource-Mobilization Theory

Sociologists have developed a different approach to understanding social movements that draws from our understanding of both collective action and organizations (see chapter 5). Resource-mobilization theory recognizes that social movements need to generate adequate, and often substantial, resources to achieve their goals (Zald and Ash 1966; see also McCarthy and Zald 2001). The resources they need to muster are extensive. They include money, membership, office facilities and equipment, communication processes, political influence, and a skill base with expertise in organization, leadership, and marketing the cause. Successes and limits are set by the resources a movement is able to mobilize.

These resources are mobilized through the efforts of social-movement organizations (SMOs), formal organizations that seek social change by achieving a social movement’s goals. These SMOs can be studied just as sociologists study any formal organizational system (Gamson 1975; Jenkins 1983). Rather than being loose or chaotic confederations of people with similar interests, successful SMOs follow a bureaucratic structure in regard to leadership and administration. They are goal-oriented and see political participation as rational.

There may be more than one SMO in a social movement. The civil rights movement, for example, has included the NAACP, the SNCC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Panthers, and a number of other groups (Appelbaum and Chambliss 1995, 545-46). Because these SMOs are competing for limited resources and the same potential members and support bases, systems exist in which SMOs interact with each other and with other groups that have desired resources. Examining these interrelationships has provided an important step in the need for a theory that explains “panoplies and cascades of movements rather than single movements in isolation” (Collins 1999, 37). SMOs may find the need to cultivate conscience constituents, people outside of the movement who provide resources but do not directly benefit from its goal accomplishment (McCarthy and Zald 1973). Social movement “industries” may even arise to garner support for the cause.

Resource-mobilization theory points out the importance of resources to SMOs. However, critics question whether it adequately accounts for those who have only occasional involvement in movements and how much members and leaders are really willing to invest in personal costs to the organization. Randall Collins notes that sociologists need to have a much better understanding of two areas. In his view, one of these major areas of study still remains in regard to mobilization. “First, what causes interests to be mobilized in the first place? And second, what determines the extent to which the entire array of mobilized movements is fragments or consolidated?… [R]esource mobilization theory … [has been able] to offer a fair answer to the first question. The second remains on the agenda” (Collins 1999, 38).

New Social Movements

Since the 1960s, new social movements have arisen that focus on “bringing about social change through the transformation of values, personal identities and symbols” (Scott 1990, 18). The women’s movement, the environmental movement, and the gay-rights movement all fit within this classification (Melucci 1980; McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald 1988). These new social movements are set apart from older movements by several features (Scott 1990). Unlike older movements, they are not primarily political. As such, they do not challenge the state and social structures directly. Rather, they are located in, and defend, civil society. Also unlike older movements, they do not rely on formal and hierarchical organizational structures. New movements utilize networking and grassroots mass-mobilization efforts to change cultural values and lifestyle alternatives. They emphasize personal autonomy and link personal experience to the ideology of the movement (Scott 1990, 21). For example, the women’s movement encourages women to empower themselves and understand how their own daily lives are shaped, and can be improved, by the movement’s concerns. Some observers, however, have argued that the differences between old and new social movements, especially their political efforts and organizational forms, are not as great as some theorists have suggested.

The activist organization AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) is a new social movement that formed in 1987 in response to federal policy and pharmaceutical companies that discriminated against people with HIV/AIDS. The organization’s efforts have included some traditional tactics, such as demonstrations and sit-ins. However, it has also focused on changing cultural perceptions and attitudes. Education and attention-getting tactics, including throwing condoms in public, are some of the strategies used. Efforts have resulted in changes in public policy (e.g., an improved drug-testing and accelerated approval process, getting more women and minorities into clinical trials). Community activists now work with the National Institute of Health’s AIDS Clinical Trials Group (NIH ACTG). Characteristic of new social movements, members themselves develop new skills, knowledge, and values. They become more educated on science and medicine, develop social skills, and become more assertive in dealing with their own health and health care professionals (Brashers et al. 2002).

Globalization and the Internet

Social movements take place around the world. Many movements focus on issues within a specific nation and seek to address concerns within that nation. For example, two decades of a fish workers’ movement in India has fought to protect the traditional fishing industry and the local marine environment (Chakraborty 1999). However, social movements may also embrace globalization in their causes. The environmental movement’s “Think Global, Act Local” slogan provides an example (Held et al. 1999, 376-413).

Global culture is also carried by various social movements (Berger 2002), with some movements occurring in numerous countries, adjusting their tactics and goals to fit differing cultures. The women’s movement, for example, has gone global, with supporters in each country working within their own cultural context and limitations. Arabic women have sought equal rights with men within the context of Islam (O’Kelly and Carney 1986).

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which are private organizations or groups of citizens that work against destructive government or large organizations, engage in collective action on a large scale (Boli and Thomas 1997, 62). Many of these NGOs focus on human-rights issues. The women’s movement has also learned to work with NGOs such as the United Nations (United Nations 2001). Among other movements teaming with NGOs are the environmental movement Greenpeace and campaigns to ban land mines (Roth 1998). This allows the movements to leverage the resources and influences of the NGOs. However, one review of the research concludes that social movements, with the possible exception of the environmental movement, have not been largely successful at transcending international borders (Klandermans 2000).

The Internet has provided a global and decentralized venue for the new social movements to operate and organize (Bell 2001, 173). For example, a Web-based attack on the sports-equipment company Nike focusing on the treatment of workers outside of the United States led to revised corporate policies (Hamon 1998). The Internet also provides extended opportunities to gain support and financial resources that did not previously exist. One aspect of Ron Eyerman’s (2002) look at music and social movements concluded that the Internet has opened up a new and extremely lucrative source of revenue for white supremacist groups. As he explains, “through the Net, widely dispersed individuals can find one another, and movements can coordinate their meetings and other activities. For underground and illegal organizations, such as white power groups, the Net has permitted the sale and distribution of compact discs, newsletters and magazines, as well as identifying symbolic items such as T-shirts, buttons and so forth. This has become a multimillion-dollar industry in Sweden, which is a world leader in the distribution of white power compact discs, sold primarily through the Net” (Eyerman 2002, 449). The Internet provides extensive networking and communication opportunities conveniently and at minimal cost.

Another example of collective action online is the Robert S. Jervey Place, a low-income public-housing development in Wilmington, North Carolina. A task force turned to the Internet as part of a Jervey Place redevelopment project after the relationship between residents and the local housing authority became strained. Residents went online to learn about architecture and urban planning, and found architects and lawyers to assist in designing the housing community in ways that would best fit their needs. They even designed a Web site on the redevelopment project, complete with history, culture, and status reports (Mele 1999, 22-23).

A very effective use of the Internet for social action has been demonstrated by Billed on their Web page ( as an organization “working to bring ordinary people back into politics,” builds electronic advocacy groups. One of their causes leading up to the March 2003 start of Operation Iraqi Freedom was an antiwar movement, “Win without War.”’s “Win without War” campaign used the Internet to build a coalition of 32 organizations, including the NAACP, Sierra Club, National Organization for Women (NOW), and others representing millions of Americans who favored allowing the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq over waging war. They also organized an antiwar Virtual March on Washington on February 26, 2003. Over 400,000 people registered to participate in advance. By the close of business on that day, more than 1 million phone calls, faxes, and e-mails had been directed to representatives in Washington, D.C. Just a month before, another group known as Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) had primarily used the Internet, e-mail, and telephones to organize antiwar demonstrations in 25 countries, along with “transportation from more than 200 U.S. cities in 45 states for the rallies in Washington and San Francisco” (CNN 2003). was also active in the 2004 US presidential campaign and has tackled issues as wide-ranging as Federal Comunications Commission rules on media control, working to save old growth forests, and overtime pay for American workers.


Herbert Blumer

Herbert G. Blumer (1900-1987) was a member of the famous Chicago school of sociology, discussed in chapter 8. He was central to the development of symbolic interactionism, and even coined the term. Blumer kept alive George Herbert Mead’s work when structural-functionalism arose as the dominant paradigm in American sociology during the 1950s (Shibutani 1988, 26). He was also influential in developing and proliferating ethnographic research (Prus 1996), a type of research discussed in more detail in chapter 10. Additionally, Blumer established collective behavior as a subfield of sociology.

However, Blumer was also a controversial figure. He was a critic of positivism in sociology, taking the position that humans could not be adequately studied using the same techniques applied to rats (Wellman 1988, 60). He also challenged some basic concepts, such as race relations, industrial relations, and public opinion, questioning whether they were adequate to describe what was being studied. Blumer’s own work provoked sharp criticism, with Blumer himself even being called “the gravedigger of America Sociology” by an author whose work he critiqued (quoted in Becker 1988, 15).

Blumer’s legacy, and American sociology, have endured. An entire issue of the journal Symbolic Interaction (vol. 11, no. 1, 1988) contained articles written in his honor, addressing both strengths and weaknesses of his work. In that issue, Blumer’s former student Howard S. Becker, who is profiled in chapter 6, writes of his teacher, “Although he was an inspiring and effective teacher, an administrator of unequaled ability, and an outstanding labor arbitrator, his importance for us lies in his also being one of the most profound thinkers sociology has ever been fortunate enough to have … That profundity affected the entire field, so that most sociologists, even those who would not think of themselves as his disciples, rely on his conceptual contributions” (1988, 13).

Gustave Le Bon

Although he held a doctorate of medicine and would be remembered as a founder of social psychology, the career of Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931) reflects successive interests in other areas. Le Bon was born in Nogent-le-Rotrou, France. As a young adult, he traveled in Europe, North Africa, and Asia. He wrote several books on anthropology and archaeology after these trips. President Theodore Roosevelt reportedly kept Le Bon’s Psychological Laws of the Evolution of Peoples (1894) in his room (Widener 1979, 23). Le Bon wrote an introduction to the 12th French edition of that work in 1927, when he was 86 years old.

After his travels, Le Bon turned his interests to the natural sciences. During this phase of his career, “he invented recording instruments … studied racial variations in cranial capacity, analyzed the composition of tobacco smoke, published a photographic method for making plans and maps … [published] the training of horses … and, finally, devoted more than ten years to research on black light, intra-atomic energy, and the equivalence of matter and energy” (Stoetzel 1968, 82).

In the third phase of his career, Le Bon finally turned his interests to social psychology. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1960, orig. 1896) “laid the foundations for the study of mass human action” (Widener 1979, 13). That work is still referenced in many sociology textbooks and courses today. Le Bon died at Marne-la-Coquette, France in 1931. He was 90 years old.

Stanley Lieberson

Stanley Lieberson (1933-) was born in Montreal, Canada, and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Lieberson began his college career at Brooklyn College where, as a freshman, he developed his initial interest in sociology. He had never heard of sociology until he took a survey social-science course taught by a sociologist. He was “turned on” by the course, finding that much of what he learned “rang true.” After two years at Brooklyn College, he was accepted into the University of Chicago’s graduate program where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology. Lieberson took a Greyhound bus from New York City to Chicago and started graduate school there at age 19, largely because that school offered him financial support (Lieberson 1985). There, he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology.

Several of Lieberson’s notable books have won honors. Ethnic Patterns in American Cities (1963) was a revision of his prize-winning dissertation. A Piece of the Pie: Blacks and White Immigrants Since 1880 (1980) received the Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Award of the American Sociological Association. A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change (2000) was a co-winner of the American Sociological Association’s 2001 award for Best Book in the Sociology of Culture, Culture Section, as well as the winner of the Eastern Sociological Society’s 2002 Mirra Komarovsky Book Award.

Lieberson has served as president of the American Sociological Association, the Sociological Research Association, and the Pacific Sociological Association. Other professional activities include being a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He is currently Harvard University’s Abbott Lawrence Professor of Sociology (Lieberson, “Stanley Lieberson”).

Neil Smelser

Neil J. Smelser (1930-) was born in Kahoka, Missouri. He is University Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of California-Berkeley. Smelser is from an academic family. Both of his parents were teachers, and all three of their sons ended up in academics. Smelser began his college career at Harvard University. He initially considered following in his father’s footsteps and getting a degree in philosophy. However, during his first year at Harvard, Smelser discovered the Department of Social Relations. After graduation, he went to Oxford, where he earned his master’s degree. There he decided that he wanted to focus on sociology (Smelser 1984). He earned his doctorate from Harvard in 1958.

Smelser joined the faculty at the University of California-Berkeley that same year. Over the course of his career, his research interests have included sociological theory, economic sociology, collective behavior, the sociology of education, social change, and comparative methods. The numerous books and articles he has authored or coauthored include the text Sociology, which has been translated into Italian and Russian; Social Change in the Industrial Revolution (1959); Theory of Collective Behavior (1962); Problematics of Sociology: The Georg Simmel Lectures (1995); and The Social Edges of Psychoanalysis (1999).

Smelser received a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University and a Guggenheim fellowship. His honors and awards include election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences. He also served as the 88th president of the American Sociological Association (“Smelser, Neil” 1983; Smelser, “Neil J. Smelser”).

Pitirim A. Sorokin

Pitirim A. Sorokin (1889-1968) was born in Russia. During the Russian Revolution, he participated in a number of anti-Communist activities, opposing leaders including Lenin and Trotsky. His efforts led to his imprisonment and even a death sentence imposed by the Communist government in his province.

After his release, Sorokin founded the first Department of Sociology at the University of St. Petersburg. He was also the department’s first professor and departmental chair. In 1922, he was finally banished by the Soviet government for his political activities (Sorokin 1963b).

Sorokin came to the United States first as visiting lecturer on the Russian Revolution, then as a faculty member at the University of Minnesota. In 1930, he became a naturalized American citizen, and the first professor and chair of Harvard University’s Department of Sociology. Sorokin remained at Harvard until his retirement in 1959.

Over the course of his career, Sorokin published 200 journal articles, even more editorials and essays, and 35 books, many of which were translated into other languages. His topics included philosophic thought, rural sociology, stratification, social mobility, social change, sexuality, personality, law, revolution, social organization, and the Russian-American relationship. Sorokin’s work influenced the theorizing of Harvard colleague Talcott Parsons and his well-known students including Jessie Bernard, Robert K. Merton, and George Homans (who are profiled in this book). Sorokin called his Fads and Foibles in Modern Sociology and Related Sciences (1956) “a serious criticism of some of the fashionable currents of thought and research in recent American sociology” and credited it with influencing C. Wright Mills’s Sociological Imagination (1963a, 296).

Thorstein Veblen

Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) was born on a Wisconsin farm. He was the 6th of 12 children. His parents were Norwegian immigrants, and Veblen later studied Scandinavian cultures and interests (Edgell 2001). Veblen’s father sent him to Carleton College, a conservative Christian school, without consulting his son as to whether he desired to attend. Veblen graduated from Carleton but never fit in. He was out of place as a Norwegian, an agnostic, and an irreverent student (Coser 1977, 277). Not fitting in was a pattern that followed Veblen throughout his subsequent studies at Johns Hopkins University and Yale, where he earned a doctorate in 1884. Veblen could not get a job after earning his doctorate, so he returned to the family farm. In 1891, after marrying, Veblen, “wearing a coonskin cap,” went to Cornell University to study economics (Davis 1968, 303).

Over the course of his professional career, he taught at the University of Chicago, Stanford University, the University of Missouri, and the New School for Social Research. He also held a government position. Veblen’s problems with fitting in followed him throughout these positions. His writings were radical and his teaching methods unorthodox. His affairs with women led to further employment problems.

Veblen “developed an economic sociology of capitalism that criticized the acquisitiveness and predatory competition of American society and the power of the corporation” (Abercrombie, Hill, and Turner 2000, 373). His most famous work was The Theory of the Leisure Class (1967, orig. 1899), which he wrote while at Chicago, analyzing patterns of “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous waste.” Veblen also used the concept of culture lag (see chapter 3) to analyze social processes (Davis 1968, 304). He also edited the Journal of Political Economy.

In 1918, Veblen became editor of the Dial, founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson. That led to his widespread popularity. Lewis Coser quotes one observer who noted that there were “Veblenists, Veblen clubs, Veblen remedies for the sorrows of the world … even … Veblen girls” (1977, 287). However, Veblen’s popularity eventually waned as he continued to publish controversial viewpoints and be at odds with professional colleagues. He became increasingly reclusive, thinking he had been forgotten, and died of heart disease in 1929. Ironically, Veblen’s work was rediscovered during the Great Depression that started the year of his death. His work was incorporated into sociology courses and sales of his books increased rapidly (Coser 1977, 289).