Ideology and Social Movements – Introduction – The Socjournal

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Sosteric M. Ideology and Social Movements – Introduction. The Socjournal. 2010. Available at: Accessed July 14, 2010.

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This is the problem: Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war? It is common knowledge that, with the advance of modern science, this issue has come to mean a matter of life and death for civilization as we know it; nevertheless, for all the zeal displayed, every attempt at its solution has ended in a lamentable breakdown.

The ill-success … of all the efforts made during the last decade to reach this goal leaves us no room to doubt that strong psychological factors are at work, which paralyse these efforts. Some of these factors are not far to seek. The craving for power which characterizes the governing class in every nation is hostile to any limitation of the national sovereignty. This political power-hunger is wont to batten on the activities of another group, whose aspirations are on purely mercenary, economic lines. I have specially in mind that small but determined group, active in every nation, composed of individuals who, indifferent to social considerations and restraints, regard warfare, the manufacture and sale of arms, simply as an occasion to advance their personal interests and enlarge their personal authority.

But recognition of this obvious fact is merely the first step towards an appreciation of the actual state of affairs. Another question follows hard upon it: How is it possible for this small clique to bend the will of the majority, who stand to lose and suffer by a state of war, to the service of their ambitions?… An obvious answer to this question would seem to be that the minority, the ruling class at present, has the schools and press, usually the Church as well, under its thumb. This enables it to organize and sway the emotions of the masses, and make its tool of them. (Albert Einstein letter so Sigmund Freud, quoted in Sigmund Freud Why War, 1932)



Welcome to Sociology 288: Introduction to Social Movements. This three credit, junior level university course is the companion course to Sociology 287 Introduction to Sociology and together provides a full year introduction to the study of sociology.  This course is designed to introduce you to the study of social movements. Beginning with a theoretical introduction to social movements in unit one, we move on to an exciting examination of the world of social movements.

Typically when sociologists talk about social movements they talk about the labour movement, the feminist movement, or the “new” social movements that have emerged in recent decades. In this course we don’t start out so grand. Instead in chapter two we look at homework as a both a social issue and as a potential social movement. As you will see when you read the text for unit one, our taken for granted notions about the usefulness of homework (i.e. it builds good study habits, builds character, etc) are, especially when it comes to young children, often diametrically opposed to the difficult reality and family disruption that homework can cause. And while at first glance it doesn’t seem like a serious issue, when you consider the social and emotion destruction that often attends an overemphasis on homework, it becomes important enough to take action on. And as you will see, movements around excessive homework have happened from time to time as parents and educators have criticized and condemned the practice.

Our unit on homework is important not just because it provides an example of an issue that is close to home, but also because it begins to point to the importance of belief and ideology in the construction and mobilization of social movements. As we will see in unit three, most of us have adopted the idea that competition is something that is good for us, good for careers, and good for the economy. It is a natural fact (i.e. competition is a fact of nature where survival of the fittest is the rule of life) and the basis of our capitalist societies. As we will see however, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, when you look at the social and psychological research, there isn’t any evidence to support the idea that competition is anything other than destructive. Nevertheless as a society we pretty much worship the idea. The media, as we see in unit two, spends a lot of time pumping and glorifying competition, almost to the point of religious experience—witness our bi-annual homage to competition known as the Olympics. Very little is ever said about the negative impact though from time to time you will see the media bare witness to the physical and emotional costs of competition.

So how does that happen?

How do we become convinced of the reality and beneficence of something despite the fact that contrary evidence is right before our eyes, or at least potentially so?

Well, this is the role of propaganda or, as you likely know it, public relations and in unit two we take an in depth look at the field of public relations to see just what’s up with that. As we learn in unit two, and as no less than Albert Einstein commented on, people with money and power spend a lot of money on public relations to ensure that “the masses” think and see the appropriate things. The book we use, A Century of Spin, doesn’t cover homework and the ideology of competition per se, but it does definitely highlight how PR is used to manipulate political, economic, and social opinion, and effect conditions, and from there it is a short jaunt over to see how PR and the media is used to support other key ideologies.

In our unit on competition we are introduced to what can be called the corporate social movement. This a social movement organized by corporate power, using the money and resources available to large corporations, to influence politics, government, and social opinion in favour of group corporate interests. The book A Century of Spin provides a veritable text book on how to successfully organize and direct public opinion, thereby creating mass action and movement in the direction of small special interest groups. What is most ironic about the whole PR industry is while most of the world is being sold the “benefits” of competition, the people who run PR and other institutions of social control are all about cooperation and coordination of effort.

So where does this leave us? Well, at the end of unit four of this course we have a basic understanding of (social) movements and have one example using the corporate media of how resources may mobilized. We also see how ideology penetrates deep into our home lives and we may also get a sense of just how difficult it is to organize a social movement in opposition to dominant interests in society. The question isn’t just about getting people together, the question is about breaking through propaganda and programming to get people to even consider the possibility of alternative social arrangements. This idea is highlighted in our consideration of homework. It takes lot of effort to get an individual who has been convinced of the advisability, and even necessity, of homework, to open to question. Indeed, many people would even resist the suggestion that homework is not a good thing, but a bad thing.

Nevertheless, and as difficult as it might be, resistance does, as we see in unit five, happen. Indeed, resistance is often most intense, and most effective around those issues that impinge on the livelihood of people and in the book Stolen Harvest we see this quite clearly as people in developing nations mobilize in order to resist the incursion of market organizations, corporations, and economic arrangements that sacrifice majority interests for minority enrichment. It’s not easy of course, especially considering the might and power against which these social movements are arrayed, and especially considering the power and reach of corporate propaganda, but it is not impossible as both Vandana Shiva, and the Internet, demonstrate. In fact, and as we see in unit six, it may be argued that now more than the Internet, because of the potential way it democratizes media, provides an opportunity for the global mobilization of people around key political and economic issues.

By the end of this course you will have a good idea of movements, both corporate and social, how they emerge and how they are suppressed. Throughout the course our emphasis is on ideology, the penetration of ideology into public consciousness, and the way ideology and “public relations” is implicated in the definition of reality and the exaltation of corporate movements, and the suppression of social movements. By the end of this course you’ll also have a sense of the potential power of the Internet for returning a sense of balance to the “democratic” arena. Of course, with the proliferation of porn and fluff on the Internet, the noise level can be hard to get through, but not impossible. This makes the Internet a viable alternative to corporate controlled mainstream media for the formation and mobilization of social movements.

Course Objectives

There are four course objectives. These are:

  1. Provide an overview of theoretical, methodological, and substantive issues surrounding the investigation of social movements.
  2. Examine common themes and issues in social movement research, with a focus on ideology and propaganda.
  3. Introduce you to the Internet and the WWW as tool of democratic change.
  4. Continue the process (initiated in Sociology 1000) of teaching you how to think like a critical sociologist.

Student Manual and Study Guide (this booklet)

This Course Guide contains the introduction, objectives, reading assignments, evaluation criteria, and other information students will need to complete the course successfully. Students should take time now to review the information in this document in order to become familiar with the design of the course.


Kralovec, Etta & Buell, John (2003). The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning. Boston: Beacon Press.

Miller, David and Dinan, William (2008). A Century of Spin: How Public Relations Became the Cutting Edge of Corporate Power. Pluto Press: Ann Arbor MI.

Sharp, Michael (2009). The Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Money and the Economy. Accumulation and Debt.

Staggenborg, Suzanne (2008). Social Movements. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kohn, Alfie (1992). No Contest: The Case Against Competition. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Shiva, Vandana (2000). Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global food Supply. South End Press. Cambridge, MA.