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

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AMA citation:

Sosteric M. Unit 1: Social Movements, Social Class, and Power. The Socjournal. 2010. Available at: http://www.sociology.org/courses/sociology-288-social-movements/unit-1-social-movements-social-class-power/. Accessed July 14, 2010.

APA citation:

Sosteric, Michael. (2010). Unit 1: Social Movements, Social Class, and Power. Retrieved July 14, 2010, from The Socjournal Web site, http://www.sociology.org/courses/sociology-288-social-movements/unit-1-social-movements-social-class-power/

Chicago citation:

Sosteric, Michael, “Unit 1: Social Movements, Social Class, and Power”, The Socjournal, posted June 21, 2010, http://www.sociology.org/courses/sociology-288-social-movements/unit-1-social-movements-social-class-power/ (accessed July 14, 2010).

Harvard citation:

Sosteric, M 2010, Unit 1: Social Movements, Social Class, and Power, The Socjournal. Retrieved July 14, 2010, from

MLA citation:

Sosteric, Michael. “Unit 1: Social Movements, Social Class, and Power.” The Socjournal. 21 Jun. 2010. 14 Jul. 2010

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The great movements of our time against war and for global democracy are very much concerned with communication and power. David Miller and William Dinan

Study Guide

Unit 1: Introduction to Social Movements


At the end of this unit, students will be able to:

  • Define a social movement
  • Name several key historical examples of social movements in North America
  • Identify the relevance of class to social movement action
  • Define power and understand the intersection of power and money, power and social institutions.

Core Readings

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

Rocket Scientists Guide to Money and the Economy. Accumulation and Debt. (download essay)


Order from the library and watch the film The Vienna Tribunal


Greetings and thank you for electing to this introduction to social movements. As noted in the introduction to this course, we are going to define, examine, and hopefully come to understand, in a general way, what social movements are about, and how and why they occur.

Our first step on this journey to understand social movements is of course to define what a social movement is. When you strip it right down, a social movement is basically an organized group of people who, using the skills and abilities they have as human beings (human power basically), work to get things done. It doesn’t really have to be more complicated than that and when you look at some examples of social movements, like for example the feminist movement (a group of women fighting for women’s equality with men), or the labour movement (workers in factories fighting to be treated like humans and not slaves), you’ll basically see the veracity of this definition. A social movement occurs when people get together, organize themselves, and attempt to get something done.

Now as accurate as the above definition might be, it is not really sufficient to totally define what a social movement is all about. If you take a look at the world around you will see that there are lots of 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, and hockey groups organize tournaments and give out trophies. And it doesn’t stop there. The local 4H or Lions club organize and “get things done” all the time. Despite this fact, none of these groups could be considered a social movement because, in addition to the stipulation that social movements are organized groups of people who get things done, we also have to talk about the kinds of things that “get done” with the activity of social movements. That is because social movements are concerned with specific types of activities. When you look at the women’s movement, a classic social movement, or the labour movement, or 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.” These significant issues are social, political, or economic issues that have widespread significance and import far beyond the more limited spheres of sporting and social clubs. These are issues that impact, 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. As we will see throughout this course, and especially in unit five, social movements are focussed on significant social, political, or economic issues.

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 to get things done around significant social, political, or economic issues.

That’s getting close, but the definition is still not quite right. The only lacuna we have in the definition now is that we don’t have an understanding of what it means to get things done. Understanding that is not rocket science, however. In the context of our discussion on social movements, getting things done means changing things. Social movements emerge basically when individuals take a look at current social, political, or economic situations, decide that there is something 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 women’s disenfranchisement (i.e. women did not have the right to vote) and decided that the political powerlessness of women 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” (like it is wrong that women did not have the vote, and it is wrong to treat workers like slaves), 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 to change and transform social, political, or economic realities.

This brings us to a couple of interesting points about social movements. Social movements are about changing things it is true. 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 seeing what is wrong and making things right is not as straightforward and easy as you might think. These days it would be considered a no-brainer that women should have the vote and be treated equal. But 150 years ago that didn’t seem so obvious. In fact, 150 years ago common sense dictated otherwise. If you asked anybody on the street a hundred years ago if women should have the vote, most people probably would have guffawed at how “lacking in common sense” such a thing was. Back then most people (women included!) believed that women neither need, wanted, nor could handle the vote and that was common sense.

Two things need to be highlighted here. On the one hand, and quite clearly, seeing what is wrong is not as straight forward as we would like to think. While it is tempting to dismiss or criticize the gender notions of men and women from a hundred years ago, to most people in society back then it was common sense that women should not have the vote. Indeed, few people in the pre-enfranchisement days of North American society would have seen anything wrong with denying women the vote and so few people would have seen any kind of need to “make things right.” As a result, few people would have 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 issues are, 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, at least at the beginning. This was certainly the case with the women’s suffragette 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, and those who want to change reality. In other words, social movements are never walks in the park. We don’t 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 about disenfranchisement, the civil rights movement was resisted by a white society that felt that segregation and slavery was a good thing, and the environmental movement faces resistance as well.

I suppose the question at this point becomes why do we get resistance and why can we not simply agree that certain things are right and other wrongs.

Why are social movements not straightforward?

Well, there are a few of reasons for that. 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 in the United States provides a similar example. Obviously, keeping African American’s suppressed allowed white business owners to benefit from slave labour, but it was wrong from the perspective of equity and human rights. Or consider the environmental movement. Corporations benefit when environmental laws that are lax and they can dump their effluent into public space without charge. Corporations may thus resist attempts to strengthen environmental law while the general public may push for tighter controls and higher fines. Similar to all these, one hundred 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 principle reason why social movements are not straight forward. As you learn in introductory sociology, society is made up of social classes and these classes have different interest (social, political, economic) that are rarely coincident, and often antagonistic. Social movements themselves are often expressions of this antagonism so it is no wonder that we often find struggle, resistance, and outright battle when we look at the history of social movements.

Another reason that social movements and social change is not “straightforward” is the issue of power. As noted above, social movements are often struggles between groups with different interests. It has to be said that in this context the struggle itself is often not a fair struggle. Power, or 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 while people without power face an uphill struggle, often succumbing (though not always) to the terrible cost of attempting social change from the bottom of the social class hierarchy.

And what is power?

Well, I like to define power as basically the ability to get things done. When you get up in the morning and get your off to kids to school, you have power to do that. When you clean your driveway or paint your house, you have power to do that. If you can mobilize resources to build an office building, then you have power to do that. In my view, power is simply the ability to get things done.

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. For example, you can assign power to individuals, as in Bill Gates has a lot of power to get things done. You can also assign power to groups, as in the conservative pharmaceutical lobby in Washington (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharmaceutical_lobby) has a lot of power to influence United States legislation and get laws passed that favour their economic interests. By contrast a single parent female, 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 single parent females), 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 truly 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, 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, like Tom Sawyer in the book Huckleberry Finn was, I could manipulate somebody into doing it for me. 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 (i.e. the ability to get things done through human labour) we can also make a clear link between power (which is the ability to get things done) and money which is (as outlined in The Rocket Scientists Guide to Money and the Economy: Accumulation and Debt) accumulated labour power. Obviously, people with more money have more power. As long as we are physically healthy and able to do things, we’ve all got a certain amount of power. However, and equally obvious, those with money are able to mobilize labour and resources in ways that most people cannot. In other words, those with more money have more power.

Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the world and see that money is not distributed equally amongst the people and groups of this world and therefore neither is power. Some people and groups have more, others have less. Although the relevance of this to a course on social movements may not be immediately apparent, when you 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 three on the media) redefining reality. Similarly, those with power can often find ways to resist and even squelch the social movement activities of groups with less power. In fact, when studying social movements like the women’s movement, the labour movement, union movements, even the anti-smoking movement, etc. you often see blatant exercise (and abuse) of. In our unit on public relations we will see this quite clearly as people with power are able to use the media, the police, and even the laws of the land in order to ensure that their interests are preserved. We would not be going too far out on a limb to say that the history of social movements is the history of the exercise of power.

As a sociologist the most fascinating question for me arises after you become aware of the importance of power (or rather unequal 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 (for example women at the turn of the 19th century, African Americans during the civil rights movement in the United States) manage to succeed in pushing forward social change. That is, 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 will be examining in this course, what are some of the factors involved in successful social movements. Obviously this is a big question and in this introductory course I cannot even consider promising a complete answer, but we’ll definitely look at some of the key factors, principally ideology and power. We’ll examine how these factors interact to create conditions for successful social movements. As we shall see as we move through this course, social movements begin with a struggle for the mind of the people, progress through the successful mobilization of human labour and then end, sometimes, with the successful transformation of reality.