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

  • Introduction
  • Core Texts

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Communication Social Movements
Michael McCluskey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0075


Scholarly interest in social movements, especially in regard to communication, has developed significantly since the 1960s, when ideologically oriented movements had profound influences on public and social policy. Communication is closely tied to the internal and external strategies of social movements as a means to attract and mobilize adherents and to amplify movement goals to a broader audience. The complexity of separately defining communication and social movements has created a literature that broadly encompasses a wide variety of academic disciplines, approaches, and theoretical understandings. From a communication standpoint, this means a mixture of interpersonal and mediated messages, oriented both internally and externally, that are meant to be persuasive or informative. Social movements can include formal and informal organizations, with even the formal social movement organizations being described with terms like “advocacy groups,” “interest groups,” and “activists.” The complexity of definition also elicits numerous disagreements. Is a threshold of size or influence necessary for something to be described as a social movement? Do large, professional organizations fit as part of social movements, or should they be considered something different? Does the breadth of interests represented in European political parties mean that those issues should be considered within institutional politics rather than as social movements? The questions point out the complexity of understanding the relationships among types of communication and types of social movements. The evolution of new information communication technologies has further changed the relationship between communication and social movements, spawning its own related but separate literature.

Core Texts

Research indicates the breadth of available ways to examine the relationship between communication and social movements. This means that no single published work is sufficient to capture the relationship, perhaps because each element targets a different audience. In the field of communication, overviews of the way mass media operate (especially the news media) will sometimes include segments on social movements and related political processes. Core texts in sociology and political science examine the use of communication, including mass media, by social movements or discuss how communication influences the way these groups are featured in the mass media. More recently, work in information communication technology (ICT) bridges the communication/social movement perspectives to populate its own growing literature. All of these core texts are useful for broad audiences, including undergraduate and graduate students. Principal texts from communication focus on the various internal and external influences that determine what gets news coverage as well as how it is covered. Gans 1979, Shoemaker and Reese 1996, Johnson-Cartee 2005, and Tuchman 1978 each give perspectives of news making within the context of social movements. Key texts focused on the perspectives of social movements also highlight the importance of communication in various ways; these include Tarrow 1998, McAdam, et al. 2001, and McAdam, et al. 1996. Books that are focused on computer-mediated communication and political action, such as Bimber 2003 and Chadwick 2006, mix together communication and social movements in various ways.

  • Bimber, Bruce A. 2003. Information and American democracy: Technology in the evolution of political power. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511615573

    Focuses on the transition of American democracy in the changing information and technological environment, including new forms of political advocacy. Author argues that traditional structure-oriented social movement theories may be inadequate to explain new types of political advocacy. Author offers examples of new forms of collective action.

  • Chadwick, Andrew. 2006. Internet politics: States, citizens, and new communication technologies. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Comparative overview of Internet politics around the world; includes use by social movements.

  • Gans, Herbert J. 1979. Deciding what’s news: A study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time. New York: Pantheon.

    Sociological investigation of how newsrooms work, including details about news norms and news values. Sections include news treatments of movements and actions challenging the power structure.

  • Johnson-Cartee, Karen S. 2005. News narratives and news framing: Constructing political reality. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

    Synthesizes scholarship related to the construction of news with a focus on creation of news frames. Book includes major sections on treatment of contentious politics, including social movements.

  • McAdam, Doug, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald, eds. 1996. Comparative perspectives on social movements: Political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and cultural framings. Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Edited collection that covers many of the key approaches to social movements, including resource mobilization theory and political process theory and framing. Several chapters are directly relevant to understanding communication and media.

  • McAdam, Doug, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly. 2001. Dynamics of contention. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Overview and synthesis of contentious politics, primarily social movements, based on a wide range of events and actions around the world. Book includes segments related to news and framing.

  • Shoemaker, Pamela J., and Stephen D. Reese. 1996. Mediating the message: Theories of influences on mass media content. 2d ed. White Plains, NY: Longman.

    Examines multiple levels of influence upon news, from journalist characteristics to ideology. Book includes extensive sections on media treatment of protest, deviance, and social movements.

  • Tarrow, Sidney. 1998. Power in movement: Social movements and contentious politics. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Overview of key topics related to social movements. Includes a chapter on framing with many vivid examples. Issues and examples related to communication are integrated into several other chapters.

  • Tuchman, Gaye. 1978. Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.

    Examines the constitution of news frames, structural constraints on news, and the influence of organizational practices. Includes examples from news coverage of the US women’s movement.

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