Social Movements

Social movements are organized efforts to drive social or political change or resist change through collective action and advocacy.

Social Movements


Social movements have long been a driving force for change in society, bringing together like-minded individuals with a common purpose. These movements are a testament to the power of collective action and their ability to influence social and political change. In this article, we will delve into the intricate world of social movements, exploring their characteristics, goals, and the distinction between old and new social movements.

Social Movements: A Closer Look

A social movement, in its essence, represents a loosely organized group of individuals who unite to pursue a shared objective, agenda, or purpose. Social movements have played a crucial role throughout history, either in bringing about significant change or resisting unwelcome alterations in society. These movements are a testament to the power of collective action and the determination of individuals who consciously strive to shape the policies and future they desire.These movements often serve as a platform for the collective efforts of a significant portion of society to initiate change, typically within the realms of social or political transformation. 

The concept of social movements gained prominence in the Western world during the 19th century, primarily in Europe. This growth was facilitated by mass education, increased awareness of individual rights, and the mobility of labor brought about by industrialization and urbanization. Social movements consist of five main components:

  • Objectives
  • Ideology
  • Programs
  • Leadership
  • Organization

These elements work together to give structure and purpose to a social movement, guiding its actions and strategies.

As described by various scholars, social movements are characterized by their organizational structures and strategies that empower oppressed populations to challenge and resist the more powerful elites and authorities.

MSA Rao defined “social movements as a sustained collective mobilization of informal or formal organization which is generally oriented towards bringing about change”. 

According to Paul Wilkinson, a social movement can be defined as a deliberate collective endeavor to promote change in any direction, using various means, which may even include violence, illegality, revolution, or withdrawal into ‘utopian’ communities. In simpler terms, it’s a vehicle for change through collective action and a common purpose.

Features of Social Movements

Group-Based: Every social movement is composed of individuals who are united by personal, structural, or ideological ties. This shared identity is a driving force behind the movement.

Commitment: Participants in a social movement must be deeply committed to their cause. Dedication and unwavering commitment are the lifeblood of these movements.

Creation of Change: Social movements aim to create a new social, economic, or political order. They are motivated by a desire to transform the existing societal landscape.

Collective Action: Social movements are characterized by collective actions rather than individual-focused efforts. People come together to effect change.

Varied Nature: Social movements can be organized or unorganized, peaceful or confrontational, and they do not have a fixed lifespan.

Stages of Social Movements

According to Blumer and Tilly, almost all social movements go through similar stages:

Stage 1 – Emergence: Widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo provides the initial impetus for a social movement. This marks the beginning of the movement.

Stage 2 – Coalescence: Once a social issue gains momentum, the movement must define itself, choose leaders, and develop strategies to attract public attention through collective action.

Stage 3 – Bureaucratization: As the movement progresses, it needs to establish itself and become organized. However, this stage can be perilous when leaders become too engrossed in building the organization.

Stage 4 – Decline: Social movements may lose significance over time, especially when their goals are achieved or through compromise and cooperation, or due to repression.

The Rise of New Social Movements

New Social Movements (NSMs) are distinct from traditional social movements. They emerged in the post-industrial era and are more focused on social and cultural concerns than economic or political issues. NSMs are often characterized by educated middle-class participants who form informal, loosely organized groups. These movements begin with the black civil rights movement in the West in the 1950s and the 1960s, which begin in America. These movements expanded for the Students movement, the women movement, Gay rights and animal rights etc and gained prominence in the 1970s.

Characteristics of New Social Movements

  • Diverse Participation: NSMs involve participants from various backgrounds, including youth, students, women, minorities, and professionals.
  • Non-Ideological: These movements are challenging to categorize as conservative or liberal, right or left. They focus on cultural issues rather than economic ones and have complex and multifaceted approaches.
  • Personal Life Impact: NSMs encompass personal aspects of life, such as lifestyle, consumption, and behavior. Nonviolence and civil disobedience are typical characteristics.
  • Diffuse and Decentralized: NSMs lack centralized structures and are often decentralized, with a focus on participation at various levels.

It is clearly elaborated by Habermas that new social movements are the ‘new politics’ which is about quality of life, individual self-realization and human rights whereas the ‘old politics’ focus on economic, political, and military security. However, it is wrong to say that in the past people did not raise and struggled for identity and autonomy. For instance, the Birsa Munda movement in Chhota Nagpur during the 1899-1900 period was the struggle to resist the intervention of the British state in their life. It was the movement to protect their autonomy.

In fact, Andre Gunder Frank and Marta Fuentes (2002) argue that the ‘classical’ working class movements are the product of the 19th century industrial society. “On the other hand, peasant, localist communities, ethnic/nationalist, religious, and even feminist/ women’s movements have existed for centuries and even millennia in many parts of the world (2002).”

Examples of New Social Movements

Chipko Movement: Originating in the 1970s in the hills of Uttarakhand, this movement involved villagers, mainly women, hugging trees to prevent their felling, ultimately becoming an organized environmental movement.

Anti-Tehri Dam Movement: This movement opposed the construction of the Tehri Dam in 1992 due to environmental concerns, despite the dam’s approval by the Indian Planning Commission.

Narmada Bachao Andolan: Launched to save the Narmada River and protest the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, which would displace hundreds of thousands of people.

Silent Valley Project: Environmental groups successfully opposed the construction of a dam across the Kunti River in Kerala, preserving the ecological balance of the biodiversity reserve.

Difference between Old and New Social movements 

Traditional social movements have historically centered on tangible, materialistic objectives such as labor rights, wages, and class-based struggles. These movements were typically organized around shared economic interests and often sought to redress grievances within existing societal structures. They aimed at improving the economic conditions of a specific group or class within society.

On the other hand, New Social Movements (NSMs) are characterized by their focus on non-materialistic concerns that go beyond traditional state, class, and societal boundaries. NSMs are decentralized and diffuse, uniting people under shared identities and shared values. They prioritize issues like human rights, environmental conservation, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and cultural preservation. NSMs often transcend the limitations of traditional political structures, advocating for broader societal transformation and inclusivity.

In essence, while traditional social movements revolve around economic disparities and class-based issues, NSMs are more concerned with fostering a sense of belonging and addressing broader, often global, social and cultural challenges. They underscore the significance of personal and collective identities and values in the pursuit of social change, thereby reshaping the landscape of contemporary activism.


Social movements are a powerful force for social and political change, with old and new social movements differing in their goals, structures, and priorities. While old social movements traditionally aimed at capturing state power, new social movements prioritize issues related to identity, autonomy, and human rights within a multi-class, grassroots framework. Understanding these distinctions is essential for comprehending the ever-evolving landscape of social activism and its potential for shaping the future.

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