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Social Movement Studies and Theories Essay

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Updated: Apr 15th, 2021

Social Movement

Social movement refers to collective actions whose outcomes tend to transform various aspects of society in a given time. The social movements of the 20th century, especially in the US in the 1960s, provide a good example of events that can be analyzed under these theories (Walder 394). Pluralist theory, social movement, and political opportunity approach are among the most applicable approaches to study social movements. However, these theories tend to exhibit a number of differences as well as similarities.

Pluralist theory is an approach to the study of people’s power. It places an emphasis on groups rather than individuals. According to this theory, the question of power is not who runs a government but whether groups have roles in running the state. Thus, the theory attempts to dwell on studying some specific outcomes (Walder 394). Proponents of this theory believe that inertia is the main aspect of humans that has the biggest role in governing behavior. Thus, they assume that the actual involvement of people in a group in an overt activity such as protests and social movements is an important marker of leadership (Walder 398). Moreover, the involvement of a group in taking an action comes with a number of costs involved. For instance, a group may lose if it fails to achieve its aim such as influencing some changes in society. In addition, there are costs in terms of time and effort. Pluralist theory also argues that power is attached to some social issues. Moreover, these issues tend to change or vary with time and duration (Walder 401). The theory also puts more emphasis on the roles of leadership rather than the actors of perpetrators of an action. Thus, the main goal of this theory is to determine the extent to which power structure has been achieved within a given society.

On the other hand, the political opportunity theory is an approach to social movements that relies heavily on the idea of political sociology. This theory stresses three aspects (Walder 377). First, the issue of insurgent consciousness is emphasized. According to theorists, a group or part of the society feels unsatisfied with the social system because of deprivation or mistreatment by the group in power (Walder 394). Thus, they develop grievances directed towards the social system, passing information that the system is unjust. Due to this state, the group develops motivation and become members of a movement. The theory further states that members of an activist group do not choose their goals in their actions, but the political context that brings about dissatisfaction forces the people to come together and push for a common goal or set of goals.

Secondly, theorists in this approach emphasize organizational strength. Like pluralist theory, it argues that strong leadership and adequate resources are needed to enhance the activities of social movements (Walder 383). These resources are external to the movement. In addition, it states that a number of groups or organizations also play an important role in the process of recruitment and motivation of individuals to join the social movements and participate in their activities. Finally, the theory emphasizes political opportunities. This component states that a political system that is vulnerable to social, economic, and political challenges tends to create opportunities for groups to develop issues and attempt to use such opportunities in pushing for change (Walder 399).

Unlike the pluralist theory, this approach does not study the outcomes of an event but attempts to study the whole process, especially the root causes and conditions that create opportunities for the development of social movements. Pluralists tend to look at the potential versus actual power in terms of people’s ability to compress others to join a movement, this approach studies the social, economic, and political gaps that tend to make some members of a society feel mistreated or discontented (Walder 394). In addition, this theory differs from the pluralist theory in that it studies the goals that a group desires to achieve by making changes in society. On the other hand, pluralist theory studies the power of groups or individuals in using resources to force others to join a movement (Walder 394). It does not look at the existing gaps and opportunities within the political system, which are believed to be the major causes of movements in the political opportunity theory.

Political Process/Political Opportunities

According to Karl Polanyi’s social theory, the restructuring of a given economy based on self-regulation of the market leads the society towards self-reassertion against money, labor, and land. This idea criticizes the capitalistic idea of a free market based on resistance to reforms. The idea is known as the “Double Movement” approach it explains social movements in two aspects. First, it refers to a group’s efforts to push for reforms in the free market. Secondly, it refers to counter-movements that cause spontaneous mobilization of the members of a group (Baum 197). First, the principle of economic liberalism states that a self-regulating market is a supreme mechanism that allows social and economic cooperation. It uses the instruments of Laissez-faire and free trade, where the forces of demand and supply determine market growth. Secondly, the principle of self-protection that explains how society reacts to preserve its productivity and nature through various methods such as associations, legislation, and other methods (Baum 208).

According to this theory, society is seen as a locus of both movements within Polanyi’s “Double Movement” idea. In the first aspect, the economic and social history of society proves that a society is a locus of the movement towards reforms on the free market. Britain’s history provides the best paradigm in explaining this phenomenon. In this context, Britain is arguably the foundation of industrialization. In most parts of the 18th century, British society pushed for a free-market reform, where individuals and groups were seeking to have the opportunity to participate in free and fair trade (Baum 242). They wanted little interference from the government in trade, allowing people to decide the price and space for the exchange of goods and services. With the increased participation of individuals in international trade as well as the presence of a large and ready market, Britain led in technological and industrial development. In this way, the movement towards free trade was evident. Industries determined the nature of trade. Forces of market and demand defined the progress, value, and direction of trade. The movement escalated with an increase in the presence of ready sources of raw materials. In addition, the reduction of government say in the free market led to an increase in the number of industries as well as the development of capitalism. According to Polanyi’s model, this historical aspect of Britain amounts to the first movement (Baum 221).

According to Polanyi, this movement was achieved in Britain through a self-regulating market, which created a class of individuals that owned and controlled the free market economy. On the other hand, society experienced the second movement, where it sought to safeguard itself through social forces that protect individuals, their culture, and property. In this way, Britain was both moving towards a blind economic improvement and habituating.

Therefore, the modern society in Britain, as well as all other nations that applied a capitalistic view of the free market economy, is a locus of the double movement. For instance, modern society remains in the continuity of the great social orders created by the 18th-century movement towards capitalism (Seligman 321). In addition, modern society reacts to protect itself against all the forces that tend to undermine the social solidarity therein. It also seeks to protect itself against the forces that threaten or distort the relations between society and the natural environment (Seligman 208). Therefore, modern society is a locus of the double movement.

This phenomenon can be supported through an analysis of Michael Edward’s ideas of civil society. According to Edwards, the term “civil society” refers to the reduction of the role of politics in a given society through an expansion of free markets as well as individual liberties. Edwards views civil society as associational life. In this case, civil society encourages solidarity, reduces the corrupting influence of politics and the dangers of cooptation (Seligman 243). However, it reduces the interdependence between the state and civil society. Again, this was observed in Britain during the reign of Margaret Thatcher, where the relationship between the state and labor movement soured, owing to the society’s nature of being a locus of the double movement (Seligman 201).

In addition, the vision of civil society being a good society implies that society provides materials and resources for the citizens. Within increased dependency on the free market, goods and services are made available through trade. In fact, this is a continuum of the double movement in modern society (Seligman 315). Moreover, Edward’s vision of civil society in the public sphere partly supports this hypothesis. For instance, civil society as the public sphere enables citizens to achieve a sense of their common goal or the aspects they have in common (Seligman 321). They sort through their differences in order to achieve this status. This is evident in the modern civil societies because the reduction of political impact on the economy and increase in groups that influence the market has allowed people and groups to determine their differences and sort them with little impact of politics.

Therefore, Polanyi’s idea of “double movement” is not only applicable in the case of Britain, but also in all the western countries that were the first to apply capitalism in their economies. According to this model, these societies remain under the frameworks that were developed during the movement towards capitalism. Edward’s idea of civil society provides evidence that the societies in these countries remain stagnated within the framework created by capitalists in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Works Cited

Baum, Gregory. Karl Polanyi on Ethics and Economics. London: Mc-Gill Queens University Press, 2011. Print.

Seligman, Adam. The Idea of Civil Society. New York: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.

Walder, Andrew G. “Political sociology and social movements.” Annual review of sociology 35 (2009): 393-412. Print.

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