In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Movements

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Texts
  • Research Methods
  • Anthologies and Dictionaries
  • Journals

Sociology Social Movements
Donatella della Porta
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0050


Four elements are common in social science definitions of social movements: a network structure, the use of unconventional means, shared beliefs and solidarity, and the pursuit of some conflictual aims. Once a marginal area in the social sciences, social movement studies grew into a main field of study in sociology and a significant one in other proximate disciplines, such as political science, anthropology, geography, history, and psychology. This growth was accompanied by significant shifts in the ways in which social movements have been addressed. Before the 1970s, especially (but not only) in the United States, social movements were conceived of as forms of collective behavior, different from “normal” behavior because of high emotionality and, often, anomic syndromes; in Europe instead, especially the main historical social movement, the labor movement, was addressed within a Marxist perspective, with attention paid to the structural conditions for its development. Since the 1970s, both approaches were shaken by the spread of new forms of protest. First of all, in the United States, studies on the civil rights movement showed that it was neither irrational nor anomic, being instead guided by strategic behavior and strong normative systems. Social movement organizations started therefore to be seen as actors that mobilize resources in their environment for collective action. In Europe, the emergence of the student, the women’s, and the environmental movements were considered as examples of new social movements, bound to substitute for the increasingly institutionalized labor movement. Class-based approaches were therefore supplanted by an attention to emerging collective identities. Social movement studies in the 1970s and the following decade focused mainly on macro-level political opportunities for protest and organizational forms and strategies at the meso level, with only limited attention to social structures and individual commitment. Since the 1990s, this structural bias was then challenged by a renewed attention to various cultural aspects, as well as to the causal mechanisms that intervene between structure and action in a field redefined as contentious politics and covering social movements as well as revolutions, democratization, and other contentious phenomena.

Introductory Texts

There are several introductory books to social movements. Several of them can be used as textbooks but also go beyond that function by arguing for some specific approaches. In the form of a companion to main concepts and movements, Snow, et al. 2004 offers a most useful introduction to social movement studies (especially by Anglophone authors). Della Porta and Diani 2006 is a widely used introduction that covers the by now traditional resource mobilization and new social movement approaches but also, in the second expanded edition, the more recent “cultural turn” and the causal mechanisms in contentious politics. Tilly and Tarrow 2007 is devoted to the latter topic; it provides a synthetic analysis of this new approach. The French volume Cefaï 2007 presents a very complete critical analysis of social movement studies, covering both the English-language literature and the French. Similarly, Crossley 2002 goes beyond the English-language literature, attempting to combine it with the work of European social scientists such as Melucci, Habermas, Bourdieu, and Touraine. While these texts cover mainly works within sociology and political science, Klandermans 1997 presents an innovative introduction to relevant psychological approaches to social movements.

  • Cefaï, Daniel. 2007. Pourquoi se mobilise-t-on? Les théories de l’action collective. Paris: La Découverte.

    This is a dense and thick (727 pages) introduction to main approaches in social movement studies. Moving chronologically from the collective behavior approach of the Chicago school to the resource mobilization and new social movement approaches, it pays particular attention to the micro-level analyses developed from the symbolic interactionism of Ervin Goffman and his contributions on frames and ethnographic views. Especially worthwhile for those who want to go beyond English-language literature.

  • Crossley, Nick. 2002. Making sense of social movements. Buckingham, UK: Open Univ. Press.

    A useful introduction to social movement studies on both sides of the Atlantic, this book also presents a critique of the structuralist bias in mainstream approaches, arguing for a synthesis of social movement studies with French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of practice.

  • della Porta, Donatella, and Mario Diani. 2006. Social movements: An introduction. 2d ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Broadly used for undergraduate and graduate courses, this introduction to social movement studies bridges European and American approaches in the field. The chapters cover theory and empirical research on issues such as social and political opportunities, frames, networks, and repertoires of action. Originally published in 1999.

  • Klandermans, Bert. 1997. The social psychology of protest. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

    That social psychology is relevant to explain protest behavior does not mean that activists are endowed with pathological personality. In this introduction, Bert Klandermans supports the resource-mobilization approach with social psychology.

  • Snow, David A., Sarah A. Soule, and Hanspeter Kriesi, eds. 2004. The Blackwell companion to social movements. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Twenty-nine chapters written by major experts on main concepts in social movement studies. The most useful volume for all those who need a guided introduction, but also for those who are already familiar with the field.

  • Tilly, Charles, and Sidney Tarrow. 2007. Contentious politics. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

    Very readable, this volume provides an easily accessible introduction to contentious politics, with rich examples on various social movements in different geographical and historical contexts. A very useful tool for undergraduate teaching.

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