Unit 1: Social Movements, Social Class, and Power | The Socjournal

The great movements of our time against war and for global democracy are very much concerned with communication and power . . . . —(Miller & Dinan, 2008, p. 182)

Greetings and thank you for electing to take Sociology 288: Introduction to Social Movements. As we noted in the introduction to the course, we are going to define, examine and, we hope, come to understand, in a general way, what social movements are about, and how and why they occur.

Note: Before we begin, we ask that you contact the Athabasca University Library to request that the film The Vienna Tribunal [Rogers, G. (Dir.). (1994). St. John’s & Ottawa: Augusta Productions Ltd. & National Film Board] be sent to you. You will be asked to watch this film later in the unit.

In Unit 1, our first step is, of course, to understand what a social movement is. When you strip it right down, a social movement is just an organized group of people who, using the skills and abilities they have as human beings (human power, basically), work to get things done. When you look at some examples of social movements—for example the feminist movement (women fighting for women’s equality with men), or the labour movement (workers fighting to be treated like free human beings and not slaves)—you will see the accuracy of this definition. A social movement occurs when people get together, organize themselves and attempt to get something done.

Now although this definition is accurate, it is not really complete. When we look at the world around us, we see that there are many different groups of people who organize to make things happen. For example, hockey groups get things done and so do family groups. Family groups organize picnics and weddings; hockey groups organize tournaments and give out trophies. The local 4H and Lions clubs organize and “get things done” all the time, as do the Rotary, the Toastmasters, local theatre groups and so on. However, none of these groups could be considered a social movement because, while we agree that social movements are organized groups of people who get things done, we must also talk about the kinds of things that “get done” as a result of their activity.

Social movements are concerned with specific types of activities. When we look at a “classic” social movement, such as the women’s movement, the labour movement, the social justice movement or the environmental movement, we see that social movements are organized groups of people taking on what we might call “significant issues”: social, political or economic issues that have a significance and import that goes far beyond the more limited spheres of sporting and social clubs. These are issues that affect, usually in profound ways, the quality and course of people’s lives. This is certainly true of women’s rights and women’s liberation, but it is also true of environmental issues, economic issues of class and so on.

So, at this point, we have a definition of social movements that looks like this:

A social movement is an organized group of individuals working together to get things done around significant social, political or economic issues.

We are getting close, but the definition is still not quite right. The gap that remains is the question of what it means to “get things done.”

In the context of our discussion, to “get things done” means to change things. Social movements emerge basically when individuals take a look at current social, political or economic situations, decide that something is not right, and make a commitment to change things. In other words, social movements are about looking at current reality and saying, “This can’t be right, something needs to be done.” This was quite clearly the case with the early feminists, who took a hard look at the fact that women did not have the right to vote and decided that women’s political powerlessness needed to end, but it was (and is) also the case with all other social movements. As you will see throughout this course, all social movements, no matter what their specific issues, are concerned with change and transformation. They are about taking a look at reality, noticing that something is “wrong” and making things right.

A complete definition of social movements now might look like this.

A social movement is an organized group of individuals working together to change and transform social, political or economic realities.

This definition brings us to a couple of interesting points about social movements. It is true that social movements are about changing things. It is also true that they are about people getting together in groups (i.e., organizing) to tackle social or political issues and “make things right.” But what does “making it right” really mean? When you look at history of social movements, you find that neither “seeing what is wrong” nor “making things right” is as straightforward as you might think. These days it would be considered transparently clear that women should have the vote and be treated as equals. But 150 years ago, that didn’t seem so obvious. In fact, 150 years ago “common sense” dictated otherwise. If you had asked people on the street if women should have the vote, most probably would have guffawed at how “lacking in common sense” such an idea was. Back then, most people (women included!) believed that women neither needed or wanted, nor could handle, the vote—and that was common sense!

Two things must be highlighted here. On the one hand, and quite clearly, “seeing what is wrong” is not as straightforward as we would like to think. While it is tempting to dismiss or criticize the gender notions of men and women from 150 years ago, to most people in society back then, it was natural that women should not have the vote. Few people saw anything wrong with denying women the vote, and so, few people perceived any kind of need to “make things right.” As a result, few people supported a social movement to make things right.

On the other hand, we also see that “setting things right” can be difficult. Social movements, whatever the issue, often face resistance. Because of the way reality is often defined, and because social movements often go against the “common sense” or mass view of reality, there is often considerable resistance to them, at least at the beginning. This was certainly the case with the women’s suffrage movement, which had to face down intense social, political and economic resistance, and it is the same with all social movements. Social movements usually represent some sort of antagonism or struggle between people, between those who see nothing wrong and therefore resist change, and those who want to change reality. In other words, a social movement is never a walk in the park. We do not just get up one day, decide to change society, and do it. If social movements represent organized activity, they almost always face organized resistance. The women’s movement faced resistance by men and even other women who did not see what was wrong with disenfranchisement; the civil rights movement was resisted by a white society that felt that segregation was a good thing; and the environmental movement faces resistance as well.

At this point, the question becomes “Why?” Why do we get resistance? Why can we not simply agree that certain things are right and other wrong? Why are social movements not straightforward?

Well, there are a few reasons.

One reason is that people have different economic interests; that is, people come from different social classes and these social classes often translate into antagonistic interests. In this context, what is “right” for some may be “wrong” for others. For example, keeping a low minimum wage may be the right thing to do for business owners struggling in a hyper-competitive capitalist market, but for individuals trying to raise a family on a minimum wage, it is the wrong thing to do. The civil rights movement that occurred in the 1950s and 60s in the United States provides another example. Obviously, keeping African Americans suppressed allowed white business owners to benefit from what was tantamount to slave labour, but it was wrong from the perspective of equity and human rights. Or consider the environmental movement. Corporations benefit when environmental laws are lax and they can dump their effluent into public spaces without charge. Corporations may thus resist attempts to strengthen environmental laws, while the general public may push for tighter controls and higher fines. And again, 100 years ago it was in men’s interest to prevent women from having the vote. Doing so allowed the economy and the polity to run primarily in the interests of the upper-class men who ran things.

This is way it is with most social movements, and this is the principal reason why social movements are not straightforward: society is made up of social classes, and these classes have interests (social, political, economic) that are rarely coincident and often antagonistic. Social movements themselves are often expressions of this antagonism, so it is not surprising that we often find struggle, resistance and outright battle when we look at the history of social movements.

Another and related reason why social movements and social change are not straightforward concerns the issue of power. As noted above, social movements are often struggles between groups with different interests. It has to be said in this context that the struggle itself is often not a fair one. Power, or the lack of power, becomes a key factor in understanding social movements. As we will see in the course, people with power have a much easier time changing reality to suit their needs than people without power, who face an uphill struggle, often (though not always) succumbing to the terrible cost of attempting social change from the bottom of the class hierarchy.

And what is power?

Many students of society define power as “the ability to get things done.” When you get up in the morning and get your kids off to school, you have the power to do that. When you clean your driveway or paint your house, you have the power to do that. If you can mobilize resources to build an office building, then you have the power to do that.

This is a very simple definition of power, but a sensible (and empirically verifiable) one. You can always measure someone’s power by looking at what they are able to get done. You can assess the power of individuals, as in, “Bill Gates has a lot of power to determine Microsoft’s product strategy or the charitable activities of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.” You can also assess the power of groups, as in, “the pharmaceutical lobby in Washington has a lot of power to influence legislation and get laws passed that favour its members’ economic interests” (see Wikipedia, November 29, 2010). By contrast, a female single-parent, dumped by her partner, unable to find inexpensive childcare and forced to take care of the children alone has (when it come to changing things in her favour, or in the interests of other female single-parents) very little power at all.

To say that power is simply the ability to get things done is certainly true, but a lot more needs to be said about power before we understand it. For example, using the above definition of power, we can see clearly how power is linked to human labour and effort. If I want to change the look of my house (i.e., get something done) by painting it, somebody has to do the work. I could do the work myself, in which case I am relying on my own (labour) power to get things done. Alternatively, if I have money, I could hire someone else to do it. In this case I am using money to acquire somebody else’s (labour) power for my own needs. Finally, if I am charismatic and clever, like Tom Sawyer in the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I could manipulate somebody into doing it for me (Twain, 1884, pp. 29-32). As you can see, however things gets done, they get done by human labour. Outside of human labour, there is no power.

With this definition of power—as the ability to get things done through human labour—we can also make a clear link between power and money. Obviously, people with more money have more power. As long as we are physically healthy and able to do things, we all have a certain amount of power. However, and equally obviously, those with money are able to mobilize labour and resources in ways that those without cannot. In other words, those with more money have more power.

Clearly, money is not distributed equally among the people and groups of this world, and therefore neither is power: some people and groups have more, others have less. So how does this inequality of power relate to social movements?

When we consider the fact that social movements arise out of differing economic, political or social interests, and that social movements are all about changing reality by redefining what is right and wrong, the relevance of power becomes obvious. Groups with more power have an easier time mobilizing resources or (as we shall see in Unit 3) redefining reality. Similarly, those with power can often find ways to resist and even crush the social movement activities of groups with less power. In fact, when studying social movements, such as the women’s movement, the labour movement, union movements, the anti-smoking movement, etc., we often see the blatant exercise (and abuse) of power. In the unit on public relations, we see quite clearly how people with power are able to use the media, the police and even the laws of the land to ensure that their interests are preserved. We would not be going too far to say that the history of social movements is the history of the exercise of power.

As a sociologist, I find that the most fascinating question arises after you become aware of the importance of power (or rather, inequalities of power) in society. When you become aware of class interests, social antagonisms and power differentials, then the obvious question becomes, “How does one group with less power and influence (e.g., women at the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans during the civil rights movement in the United States) succeed in pushing forward social change?” How do social movements that often face intense and even violent resistance become successful in changing the way things operate?

This is the primary question we examine in this course: “What are some of the factors involved in successful social movements?” Obviously, this is a big question, and this introductory course cannot even consider promising a complete answer, but we can definitely look at some of the key factors, principally ideology and power, and we can examine how these factors interact to create conditions for successful social movements. As we shall see, social movements begin with a struggle for the mind of the people, progress through the successful mobilization of human labour, and end, sometimes, with the successful transformation of reality.


On completing this unit, you should be able to

  1. discuss the factors that distinguish a social movement from other kinds of collective activities.
  2. describe several examples of important social movements in North America.
  3. discuss the relevance of class to social movement actions.
  4. define “power,” and discuss the intersections of power and money, and power and social institutions.
  5. define, in your own words, and use in context, the key terms introduced in this unit.
  6. discuss, in your own words, the significance of the key events, movements and organizations identified in this unit.

Key Terms and Concepts

Note that your understanding of these terms may develop as you work through the course. Some of them may be found in more than one unit. Be careful to review, correct and expand your definitions as you proceed.

  • body politic
  • collective action frames
  • collective behaviour theory
  • deep ecology
  • discourse analysis
  • frame
  • frame dispute
  • framing process
  • free rider problem
  • Indian Act
  • mobilization

Key Events, Movements and Organizations

Note that your understanding of the significance of these events, etc. may develop as you work through the course. Some of them may be discussed in more than one unit. Be careful to review, correct and expand your notes as you proceed.

  • abolition movement
  • Abortion Caravan
  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • anti-war movement
  • Assembly of First Nations
  • Climate Action Network
  • fair trade movement
  • Friends of the Earth
  • New Left movement
  • Vienna Tribunal

Reading and Viewing Assignment

Note: You may wish to read through the “Study Questions” provided at the end of this unit, and keep them in mind, along with the unit objectives, as you complete this reading and viewing assignment.

Read the textbook identified below; it is included in your course package.

Staggenborg, S. (2006). Social movements. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.

Go to the Digital Reading Room for Sociology 288 and read the article below.

Wikipedia. (2010, December 6). Women’s suffrage in the United States. Retrieved December 7, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_suffrage_in_the_United_States

Note: The DRR version will likely have a later date. When you cite the article, make certain that you indicate the date of the version you are referencing. You can find the most recent date at the bottom of each Wikipedia article.

Watch the film identified below, which you have requested from the Athabasca University Library.

Rogers, G. (dir.). (1994.) The Vienna Tribunal. St. John’s & Ottawa: Augusta Productions Ltd. & National Film Board.

Study Questions

Answer each of the questions below, and submit your answers to your tutor for marking. Expected word counts are provided in brackets after each question. Two hundred words equals a paragraph or two, 400 words is a page, 800 words is two pages, and so on. Use these word estimates as guides only. The goal is to right a lucid, grounded and comprehensive answer for each question. Post one of your answers on the unit forum, and respond to the post of another student.

  1. What makes a social movement different from say, a wedding committee or a social group? (200)
  2. What relevance does social class have for the study of social movements? (400)
  3. What is power? Why is it important to analyse power when looking at social movements? (800)
  4. Use the Internet to research the women’s suffrage movement. Why is the suffrage movement a good example of a social movement? What arguments did men used to resist the women’s suffrage movement? Why couldn’t women have the vote? What arguments did women use to support their position? How was the movement mobilized? (800)
  5. Discuss the film The Vienna Tribunal. What were your thoughts and feelings as you watched the film? (800).