What is a Social Movement?


Since, my research seeks to establish the existence of an International Social Movement for Afrikan Reparations (ISMAR) in the UK more generally, but focuses more specifically on the role of London based activists in shaping and advancing it, it is important to explain what a social movement is. In speaking about social movements, one tends to speak of movements as actors in themselves e.g. the ‘women’s movement,’ ‘peace movement,’ ‘environmental movement,’ or ‘labour movement’, for example. Normally studied from the perspective of sociology, several universities, such as the University of Sheffield, History Department focus their academic teaching and research on the role of social movements in historical change.[1]

Although there is no definition of social movement which enjoys scholarly consensus because definitions inevitably reflect the theoretical assumptions of the theorist, there are however some common characteristics that social more or less agree that social movements have in common. Social movements are therefore considered to be a type of group action which focuses on specific political or social issues. They are therefore commonly understood to include the sum total of all actors that are banded together by a shared collective identity. One common definition of a social movement is: “a sustained interaction, (formal as well as informal) among individuals and groups, collectives, networks and organisations that share a collective identity in order to bring about, prevent, or undo social, political or cultural change outside the established political institutions through extra-parliamentary tactics.” [2]

Other scholars have defined social movements as “purposeful undertakings by people who do not hold positions of authority or wealth, but who wish to redirect their society towards new goals and values by bypassing or defying those in power.” [3] Scholarly opinions about such movements vary tremendously. Nevertheless, the key point to grasp about social movements is that they encompass a wide range of social movements actors and organisations all working in different places and times towards achievement of a common overarching goal or securing of a common collective interest. The kinds of groups involved will undoubtedly vary from highly formalised organisations to informal ones. Each group or organisation may work on a different aspect of achieving the common goal and will adopt different strategies and tactics towards this end. Social movement scholar Mario Diani explains that:

They cannot be reduced to specific insurrections or results, but rather resemble strings of more or less connected events, scattered across time and space; nor can they be identified with any specific organisation, rather they consists of groups and organisations, with various levels of formalisation, linked in patters of interaction which run from fairly centralised to the totally decentralised, from the cooperative to the explicitly hostile; persons promoting and/or supporting their actions do so not as atomised individuals, possibly with similar values or social traits, but as actors linked to each other through complex webs of exchanges, either directed or mediated. Social movements are, in other words, complex heterogeneous network structures.[4]

Social movement-building is the long-term, coordinated effort of individuals and organised groups of people to intentionally spark and sustain a (reparations) social movement. According to social-movement scholar-activist and Associate Professor of Anthropology Jeffry S. Juris, it entails: “the creation of movement infrastructures required for sustained organising and mobilisation, including social relationships, organisational networks and capacity, affective solidarity, as well as movement-related identities, frames, strategies, skills, and leadership.”[5]



[1] http://www.shef.ac.uk/history/research/clusters/socialmovements (date accessed 11 November 2013).

[2] Hermann Maiba, ‘Grassroots Transnational Social Movement Activism: The Case of Peoples’ Global Action’, Sociological Focus vol. 38, Iss. 1, (2005) pp. 41–63 at p. 42.

[3] Cyrus Ernesto Zirakzadeh, ‘Social and Political Movements’, (USA, SAGE Publications Ltd, 2011). Available online here: http://www.uk.sagepub.com/books/Book235109?subject=A00&bookType=%22Reference%20Books%22&sortBy=defaultPubDate%20desc&fs=1 (date accessed 19, November 2014)

[4] Mario Diani and Doug McAdam, eds., ‘Social Movement Analysis: The Network. Perspective’ (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002).

[5] Jeffrey S. Juris, Erica G. Bushell, Meghan Doran, J. Matthew Judge, Amy Lubitow, Bryan Maccormack & Christopher Prener (2014) ‘Movement Building and the United States Social Forum’, Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, 13:3, 328-348.

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