Social Movements: Exploring the Meaning and Definitions for Understanding Social Change

The term Social Movements has often been defined in several ways by scholars. It can be related to historical trends like modernity and industrialization. It is usually related to the activities adopted by various organizations to bring a dynamic change in society. Many scholars have argued and written that Social movements have undergone a dramatic change in advanced or developed countries since the late 1960s. It is related to industrialized nations.

In the early 19th century in Europe, the term social movements significantly gained prominence as it was the era of social change. Certain events occurred during the 19th century, like a clash between the Church’s authority and prevailing superior powers. The political leaders are only concerned with the narrow and limited scope of social movements, like creating new social order by emancipating the exploited sections.

Several scholars have different understandings and views on the political system and political strategy for bringing out the social change in society. For example, the action of a group of people or MOB in the streets, despite collective behavior, cannot be called a social movement. Hence, it represents the negative side of the social movement. Therefore, the dynamic nature of social movements necessitates different definitions, meanings, and contexts. Since the general people have high hopes and aspirations to bring forward their real cause, social issues, and challenges, social movements remain trapped at the symptomatic level. Thus, they were unable to pass the core issue.

In general terms and understanding, a social movement is an organized group of people or social groups that acts with coordination and continuity to bring social change. It is to be done by peaceful means of resolving and resisting the ongoing and persistent issues. Social movements are characterized by the collective and organized form of people’s behavior in a sustained manner.

Social movements always have a close connection with the past as they tend to become organized and coherent social organizations. Some Social Movements can become an instrument of revolutionary social change. It has often been seen that they are confined to a single geographical area but spread to far-reaching areas and people, bringing a revolutionary change in that society. The social movements with cross-national organizational structures and activities are called “Transnational Social Movements.” It is a form of collective behavior and activity of people who shared similar definitions, aspirations and objective to achieve an respectable place in the society and become the instrument for social change.

The riots likely to be seen in the cities with the economic deprivation among the racial ethnic minority groups. The riots mainly occurred in those cities and region where the grievances of rioters unheard and remain unresolved. The rapid upsurge of new population group in the cities are the common characteristics where riots occur. The duration and sustenance of riots activity depends upon the its resources available with the group.

Some scholars believe that the collective actions of people in social movements play a significant role in bringing social change in different spheres, such as religion, politics, government, health, education, corporate, and several other institutions. But, Social Movements, which have been an essential instrument for social change for decades, are now becoming more complex in the global arena. The scope of social movements from defending and challenging the prevailing system of authority is now adding a new dimension to the changing world context.

Scholarly Definition of Social Movements

Now, you may have understood that no single definition explains the social movements in today’s context. But there are following definitions given by scholars which attempted to define What is Social Movement?

PAUL WILKINSON

So, the first scholar, Paul Wilkinson, interprets social movement. According to Wilkinson, a social movement is “A deliberate collective endeavor to promote change in any direction and means, not excluding violence, illegality, revolution or withdrawal into a utopian community. Social movements are, in this sense, obviously distinct from historical movements, upheavals, or waves. In this connection, however, it is obligatory to remember that such propensities and inclinations and the effect of the material or insensible factors in human behaviour may be of vital significance in enlightening the problems of interpreting and explaining social movement.”

HERBERT BLUMER

According to Herbert Blumer, “Social movements can be viewed as collective enterprises to establish a new order of life. They have their inception in the condition of unrest, and derive their motive power on the one hand from dissatisfaction with the current form of life, and on the other hand, from wishes and hopes for a new scheme or system of living.” 

DONG MACADAM

Dong Macadam defines social movements as “Those organized efforts, on the part of excluded groups, to promote or resist changes in the structure of society that involve recourse to non-institutional forms of political participation.”

SIDNEY TARROW

According to Sidney Tarrow, a social movement is “Collective challenges, based on common purposes and social solidarities in sustained interaction with elites, opponents and authorities.” 

From the above-given definitions of social movements, three common crucial features are to be noted as follows –

  1. Collective Initiative, 
  2. Social Transformation, and 
  3. Common purposes. 

Hence, agitation or protests are quite strictly different from social movements as they do not seek to bring out social change. They do not interpret that they recoil to certain conditions.

The three essential features of the above definitions are collective action, social change or transformation, and common purpose. It is very fitting to say that protests and agitations are not social movements because they do not perform any activity to bring social change. Conversely, social movements develop over time and generally begin with protest and agitation. When engineering college students in Gujarat protested against the mess bill, it was, in reality, a spontaneous act. But that protest takes the shape of Navnirman Andolan of 1974 in Gujarat. Hence, we can say that riots are not social movements but are more often than not related to social movements.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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