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Updated bibliography and citations to reflect recent research. The section "Identity-based Social Movements" has been updated to include the use of social media and digital technology.

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date: 25 February 2018

Social Movements

Abstract and Keywords

Since the 19th century, social movements have provided U.S. social work with its intellectual and theoretical foundations and and furnished many of its leaders. Social workers were among the founders of the Progressive movement and have played important roles in the labor, feminist, civil rights, welfare rights, and peace movements for over a century. More recently, social workers have been active in New Social Movements (NSMs), that have focused on issues of identity, self-esteem, critical consciousness, and human rights, and in transnational movements, such as the Occupy movement, which have emerged in response to the consequences of economic globalization, environmental degradation, and major population shifts, including mass immigration.

Keywords: collective action, progressive movement, labor movement, populism, New Social Movements, resource mobilization theory, feminism, civil rights, pacifism, Socialism, Rank and File Movement

Since the 19th century social movements have significantly influenced the development of U.S. social work (Day, 2008). They have provided its intellectual and theoretical foundations and goals, and furnished most of its strongest allies and leaders. Many social workers have held leadership positions in national and international social movements (Reisch & Andrews, 2001). Although fewer social workers play such roles today, social movements continue to have an important impact on social work theory and practice in the U.S. and throughout the world (Annetts, 2009); (Rossinow, 2008).

The Nature of Social Movements

Modern social movements have used a variety of sustained, organized, and public activities to advance their diverse goals and to portray their members as worthy, unified, numerous, and committed to specific changes (Tilly, 2009). Most social movements share several common traits. As “collective challenges based on common purposes,” they assert particular claims on society for tangible resources, recognition, and status. They consist of groups of actors who share common goals yet compete over tactics, resources, and the distribution of benefits, as illustrated by the conflicts that have emerged after the recent "Arab Spring." Although they usually emerge locally, social movements eventually become established on a regional, national, or international basis and, as a result, become dependent on the support of external sponsors (Banaszak, 2010; Karatzogianni & Robinson, 2010).

Theorists of social movements focus on the following issues:

  • Tensions between structure and spontaneity;

  • Origins of movements;

  • How movements articulate goals, frame their message, mobilize members, cultivate collective consciousness or identity, obtain and utilize resources, develop and implement strategies, and take advantage of opportunities.

Today, the term “social movement” is often mistakenly applied to all forms of collective action, even those without clear political goals (Staggernborg, 2011; D'Arcus, 2006). Social movements, interest groups, or political parties are frequently equated. A movement's collective action is often conflated with actions undertaken by the organizations within it; these entities and their leaders are sometimes identified with the movement itself (Khasnabish, 2008). Discussions of social movements frequently assume internal unity, overlooking their dynamic and conflict-ridden internal relationships, which influence their process of mobilization and the forms of collective action they take (Opp, 2009).

Although retrospectively, the formation of social movements may seem clear, their beginnings often go unnoticed (McAdam & Snow, 2010; Meyer, 2007). They generally emerge within preexisting networks and in homogeneous communities, whose members shape its ideology and goals. Although they eventually take oppositional positions, they often reflect and influence mainstream politics. An unanticipated crisis or the deliberate, planned interventions of individuals or small groups usually crystallizes these conditions into a movement and establishes its legitimacy among constituents, other political actors, and the general public (Della Porta, 2009; Maeckelbergh, 2009). Today, the impact of social media has hastened the speed at which such processes occur (van de Donk, 2004).

A social movement generally takes one of three structural forms. Segmented movements are constantly changing coalitions of diverse groups, similar to that of broad-based political parties. Polycentric movements incorporate two or more competing organizations into ad hoc alliances around common goals, such as the pan-Islamic movement (Moghadam, 2009). Reticulate movements create loosely integrated networks with multiple formal and informal connections, as in the U.S, and global feminist and environmental movement (Karatzogianni & Robinson, 2010).

Many social movements focus on the pursuit of social justice, although their varied definitions of social justice have varied depending on the historical context in which they emerged and the demographic composition of their members (Della Porta & Caiani, 2009). Social movements have influenced public policy by addressing its substance and goals, the structures through which it is developed, and the processes that determine and implement societal priorities. Often, the “window of opportunity” for movements to shape policy and their potential impact in a given period are limited, although some movements have maintained long-term involvement in the policymaking process by building institutions which are compatible with existing political structures (Rossinow, 2008). The evolution of the U.S. labor movement is a good example of this transformation (Berg, 2003).

Different theoretical models proffer varying explanations for the failure of social movements. The classical model attributes their decline to tendencies toward oligarchy and conservatism, or the institutionalization of the movement's values and goals into the dominant culture. Resource mobilization theorists emphasize the loss of critical assets, particularly from key external supporters. Theorists who focus on political processes stress changes in “opportunity structures” and the ways in which allies, neutrals, and opponents respond to the challenges movements present. Their studies conclude that the environmental “set” is often as significant as the strategic choices of movements in determining their success or failure. Finally, some theorists analyze the internal dynamics of movement organizations and attribute their decline to inflexible structures, failure to accommodate new members, gaps between members' and leaders' goals, and a misdirection of energy and resources toward internal disputes, rather than external enemies (Opp, 2009; Wallerstein, 2008).

While previous research focused on the compatibility of movement goals and strategies with dominant values and institutions, scholars have recently examined how governments or mass media deliberately suppress movements through such means as resource depletion, stigmatization, disruption, intimidation, and marginalization (Boykoff, 2006). States engage in direct violence, prosecute and harass movement leaders, blacklist movement members, conduct surveillance against movement organizations, infiltrate groups to promote factionalism and spread disinformation, and adopt a variety of repressive laws (Bumiller, 2008). The media shape the perception of social movements, often in negative ways, and distort public awareness of their values, goals, and activities.

Social Movements and the Emergence of Social Work

During the formative years of U.S. social work, social movements arose in reaction to rapid socioeconomic changes produced by industrialization, urbanization, and mass immigration. Inspired by secular and religious ideologies, they challenged institutional discrimination and sought to correct prevailing inequalities in the distribution of resources, rights, power, opportunities, and status. While some of these movements reflected strong anti-egalitarian biases against non-native born Americans, especially Catholics, Jews, and immigrants of color, others sought to diminish growing social tensions by recreating a pre-modern “organic community” comparable to efforts by the contemporary communitarian movement. In fact, in its origins, social work reflected many of the characteristics of a social movement that combined both secular and religious ideas (Reisch, & Andrews, 2001).

Industrial workers organized trade unions in large numbers, often influenced by European ideas such as socialism and anarcho-syndicalism. Many clients of early social service organizations belonged to these unions (Karger, 1988). Their problems—low wages, terrible working conditions, slum housing—inevitably came to the attention of social workers who were compelled to take a stance on “the Social Question.”

Other movements also shaped the character of social work. An unprecedented multiracial coalition of agricultural workers, small farmers, small business owners, and industrial workers created populism, a unique form of American radicalism. Before racial divisions led to the movement's demise, populists challenged the growing dominance of trusts and banks and the concentration of wealth and power among the elite (Postel, 2007). Elements of the legacy of this movement still exists in the left-liberal strand of U.S. politics (Rossinow, 2008).

The “first wave” of American feminism and the beginnings of the modern civil rights movement also had major impacts on social work. Many social work leaders, such as Florence Kelley, Lillian Wald, Ellen Gates Starr, and Jane Addams, played active roles in feminist organizations around issues such as suffrage, industrial exploitation, public health, and the concept of legal rights (Parker, 2010). Along with African American leaders such as W. E. B. DuBois, Mary Church Terrell, Ida Wells-Barnett, and George Edmund Haynes, they helped found civil rights organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League and anti-lynching crusades. While participation in such movements was not without conflict, the involvement of white, middle and upper class social workers with African Americans, immigrants, and ethnically and religiously diverse trade unionists broadened their understanding of social conditions and sharpened their interest in social justice.

Progressivism and the Settlement House Movement

Not all social movements of this era, however, emerged from disadvantaged segments of society. Many well-educated middle and upper class men and women became increasingly dissatisfied with the nation's direction and their future roles within it. Under the banner of Progressivism they organized a movement to redirect the country from its heedless pursuit of material wealth and to address the serious social consequences of the new political-economic environment.

Progressivism thrived in the generation before World War I (Davis, 1967). Its ranks included such diverse figures as philosophers John Dewey and William James, journalists Herbert Crowley and Walter Lippman, politicians Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and social workers like Jane Addams. Its future-oriented goals, which focused on education, child welfare, the amelioration of urban and industrial conditions, the assimilation of immigrants, and the expansion of democracy, were well-suited for the emerging field of social work (Lubove, 1965). Many reforms advocated by social workers—the establishment of the juvenile court, the expansion of state-funded education and recreation, the eradication of child labor, and the promotion of public health measures—originated within the Progressive movement (Axinn & Stern, 2012). Progressivism also appealed to many social workers because it promised reform without violent social conflict or a dramatic transformation of the nation's class structure or culture (Wenocur & Reisch, 1989).

Social Work and the Labor Movement

The organization of individual trade unions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries took on the character of a social movement due to the sheer size of this phenomenon, the emergence of powerful leaders, and the infusion of unifying ideologies, including socialism and anarcho-syndicalism (Berg, 2003). While serious political and ideological divisions often divided the labor movement, the movement as a whole called increased attention to poverty and socioeconomic inequality and their consequences for human health and well-being (Rossinow, 2008).

The relationship of organized social work with the labor movement reflected the ambiguities and tensions of class differences. Some social workers, such as Florence Kelley, Lillian Wald, Ellen Gates Starr and, later, Mary van Kleeck and Bertha Reynolds, helped organize trade unions, particularly among women, investigated industrial conditions, developed programs that served working families, and advocated for policies abolishing child labor and establishing better wages and working conditions. Although many others sympathized with industrial workers and their families, only a minority supported the labor movement's more radical goals.

Feminism, Pacifism, and Socialism

In the era before World War I some social workers were drawn to more radical social movements, which sought not merely to reform but to transform U.S. society. The Socialist movement was particularly influential among urban social workers, especially those from immigrant families. Florence Kelley, the head of the National Consumers League, was a leading Socialist who corresponded with Friedrich Engels and produced the first American translation of his work. Lillian Wald, the founder of public health nursing and director of the Henry Street Settlement, was also an active Socialist, as was Ellen Gates Starr, who co-founded Hull House with Jane Addams. Through the socialist movement, they had contact with radicals like Emma Goldman and Crystal Eastman, whose ideas shaped their views on issues from income support to reproductive rights (Day, 2008; Reisch & Andrews, 2001).

Social workers held leadership positions in the National Women's Party and helped organize the Women's Trade Union League. Mary van Kleeck conducted the first investigations of factory conditions affecting women and girls, such as those leading to the tragic 1911 Triangle fire (Karger, 1988). Many social workers, however, disagreed with other feminists over issues such as contraception and the Equal Rights Amendment. Addams was reluctant to support birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, due to a combination of residual Victorian morality and fear of alienating Catholic supporters. Kelley opposed the first Equal Rights Amendment because she thought its passage would undercut efforts to improve the conditions of women. She favored a “maternalist” strategy to provide the “wedge” that would ultimate expand social benefits for all Americans (Sklar, 1995).

The outbreak of World War I united social workers with diverse allies within the pacifist movement. Some, like Addams, opposed war on religious or moral grounds; others like Wald and Kelley linked their opposition to domestic policy concerns (Reisch & Andrews, 2001). Their outspoken critiques of American militarism prompted scathing attacks on their patriotism which persisted into the 1920s and seriously undermined public support for the causes they espoused.

The Rank and File Movement

After a period of political quiescence, the Great Depression spurred the growth of new social movements and revived others of a radical nature. The Socialist and Communist movements attracted many converts and sympathizers, particularly among urban immigrants and social workers. Beginning in 1931, activist social workers organized discussion clubs and unions, ultimately leading to the formation of the Rank and File Movement, which included such notable social workers as Bertha Capen Reynolds, Mary van Kleeck, Jacob Fisher, and Harry Lurie. By 1936, it had more members than the American Association of Social Workers and developed close ties with left-wing political parties and organized labor, particularly the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Until it dissolved in the early 1940s, the Rank and File Movement pressured the Roosevelt administration to adopt more sweeping reforms in social welfare and industrial policy (Reisch & Andrews, 2001).

Civil Rights, Welfare Rights, and the War on Poverty

The anti-Communist crusades of the postwar McCarthy period seriously diminished the size, scope, and influence of social justice-oriented movements in the United States. Left-wing unions, including public and private sector social work unions, were broken up, progressive social workers were investigated by legislative committees, and many social workers were fired by nonprofit agencies and universities because of their political beliefs. This climate produced a general decline in social activism within the United States and the social work field (Schrecker, 1998).

One exception to this political quiescence was the resurgence of the civil rights movement among African Americans, whose participation in military and defense industries during World War II strengthened their commitment to social equality. Inspired by the 1954 Brown decision and the courage displayed by civil rights activists in the 1955–1956 Montgomery bus boycott, the freedom rides of the early 1960s, Southern voting rights campaigns, and protests against the war in Vietnam, a new generation of activists arose. Although few social workers led civil rights or anti-war organizations, many joined movement-based groups that were inspired by these broader efforts. Social workers and future social work faculty, such as Richard Cloward, Francis Fox Piven, and Tim Sampson, however, played significant roles as strategists and organizers in the welfare rights movement. As in the 1930s, considerable conflict erupted between supporters of these movements and their more mainstream, reform-minded colleagues within the social work field (Nadasen, 2005).

Identity-Based Social Movements

The nature of social movements changed dramatically in the 1960s and early 1970s. New social movements (NSMs) among women, gays and lesbians, people of color, and the disabled appeared, which differed substantially from past social movements in their missions, actions, and structure (Rimmerman, 2008). They combined anti-government and anti-institutional goals with attempts to acquire legal protections and tangible resources from the state. They challenged prevailing hierarchies and privileges and emphasized egalitarian behavioral norms and organizational structures. They replaced or augmented class-based, often Marxist-oriented worldviews with a focus on identity politics and the roles of experience and positionality (Gosse, 2005; Roussopolous, 2007).

These changes prompted a revision in the theoretical frameworks used to analyze social movements. Resource mobilization theorists challenged prevailing paradigms which looked at social movements and collective behavior through the lens of irrationality. Instead, they emphasized the rationality of collective action and focused primarily on an assessment of social movements' response to environmental threats, risks, and opportunities (Annetts, 2009). New social movement theory stressed the subjective, nonrational experiences of oppression, identity, autonomy, and culture, and the ways in which NSMs consciously reject dominant institutions and their “integrating rationalities,” including meta-analyses of history and society. Other theorists looked at a combination of resource, institutional, and ecological factors, including the roles of informal networks, local grassroots groups, spatiality, and personal relationships (Kelly, 2001).

During the 21st century, social movements have reflected a variety of new organizational, strategic, and ideological trends. These include more frequent transnational alliances which focus on both global issues and their local manifestations; the growing linkage of socio-economic and environmental concernts (Deere & Royce, 2009; Della Porta & Caiani, 2009; Ellis & van Kessel, 2009; Mullings, 2009); the emergence of movement coalitions that transcend long-standing identity boundaries; and the increased use of social media and digital technology for purposes of intra- and inter-organizational communication, recruitment, planning, research, information sharing and publicity (Hamel, Lustiger-Thaler, Pieterse, & Roseneil, 2001).

Globalization, NSMs, and Social Work

During the past several decades economic globalization has significantly affected the distribution of income and wealth within and between nations, transformed the character of work and labor-management relations, heightened inter-generational tensions, and altered the nature of property and property relations. It spurred and been abetted by the emergence of new communication technologies which have also speeded the flow of information about its consequences. Globalization promoted the consolidation of corporate power, the growth of supra-national international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and the emergence of new conflicts between these institutions and increasingly anachronistic national governments. NSMs responded to these developments by changing their structure, scope, and strategies.

NSMs no longer function solely within national boundaries or even cross-nationally as movements did in the past. Increasingly, they attempt to combine a complex array of global, local, and personal/identity factors in a dynamic, interactive relationship (Moghadam, 2009; Khasnabish, 2008). From one perspective, the core issues facing NSMs involve the democratization of institutions; from another, they reflect the challenge of new demographic patterns, the merger of local and global cultures, and the advent of cross-cutting issues such as global warming and the relationship between humans and nature (Maeckelbergh, 2009).

NSMs are more loosely structured than traditional social movements and are more likely to address local as well as international concerns from an anto-systemic perspective (Wallerstein, 2008). Although they tend to emphasize identity and personal equality to a greater extent, they are—paradoxically—less driven by narrow ideologies. At least in theory, they reflect the reduced importance of formal organizations, which increases the opportunity for resource-deprived groups to influence developments. In response to the rapidity of change, their strategies are more fluid and their action campaigns less segmented, with increased roles for symbolic and virtual politics (Karatzogianni & Robinson, 2010; Della Porta, 2009).

A consistent thread connecting NSMs with social work is that both are linked, philosophically and practically, to the expansion of democracy and the promotion of social justice globally (Smith, 2008). To realize these lofty goals, social workers will have to revise long-standing assumptions about their constituents and clients, their relationship with the state, and their strategies of personal and social intervention. As potential participants in the global social justice movements of the 21st century, social workers can help expose the consequences of globalization and develop viable alternatives to existing institutional arrangements. This will require greater imagination, flexibility, and adaptability in defining and addressing new and persistent social issues such as poverty, inequality, and the relationship between universal rights and distinct cultural ideas about social justice. It will also require social workers to clarify the meaning of their basic concepts, examine their fundatmental assumptions, and assess the efficacy of longstanding approaches to change in an increasingly globalized and multicultural environment.


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Further Reading

Daniels, R. V. (2006). The fourth revolution: Transformations in American society from the sixties to the present. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Kaplan, T. (1997). Crazy for democracy: Women in grassroots movements. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

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Minkoff, D. C. (1995). Organizing for equality: The evolution of women's and racial-ethnic organizations in America, 1955–1985. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Find this resource:

Pope, D. (Ed.). (2001). American radicalism. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.Find this resource: