Glossary of Terms Used to Study Social Movements

The purpose of this glossary is to provide a basic vocabulary of terms used in studying social movements. Like all key concepts, the terms listed here are open to multiple interpretations and occur in significant variations. Thus, these particular definitions are not intended to be the last word, but rather a beginning point for further elaboration.

Collective Behavior Theory.

The dominant school of sociological thought on social movements in the 1940s and 1950s, collective behavior scholars linked movements to such things as riots, crowds, and mass hysteria. Shaped in part by the recent memory of the fascist movements in Germany, Italy and Japan, and by the conformist mood of the 1950s, this school stressed the irrational dimensions of movements and often saw them as potentially dangerous, temporary aberrations in the otherwise smooth-flowing social system. While parallels between movements and other forms of collective behavior are still studied, this dark, irrationalist view of movements has largely been superseded by more complex and varied approaches.

Collective Identity.

Collective identity is the name given to the tendency of many social movements to form a group self-image shaped by, but in turn shaping the consciousness of, individual participants. Social movement theorist Alberto Melluci emphasizes that such collective identities are not so much fixed as in process and offers this more specialized definition: "Collective identity is an interactive, shared definition produced by several individuals (or groups at a more complex level)... that must be conceived as a process because it is constructed and negotiated by repeated activation of the relationships that link individuals (or groups) [to the movement]." See Melluci, “The Process of Collective Identity,” in Johnston and Klandermans, eds., Social Movements and Culture (1995).

Cycles of Protest.

A phrase used to note the patterns of rising and falling action experienced by individual movements as well as the tendency of movements to generate other movements in waves of activity and inactivity (or latency). The concept is most closely identified with political scientist Sydney Tarrow, Struggle, Politics, and Reform: Collective Action, Social Movements, and Cycles of Protest (1989).

Direct Theory.

A term coined by feminist social movement theorist Noël Sturgeon to describe the highly self-conscious process of collective thinking and acting she observed in the anti-nuclear and anti-militarist direct action movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Sturgeon argues that the decision-making process and the ritual actions of certain movement groups reflect, shape and enact a democratic political philosophy, a theory of social change and a sense of historical connection to earlier movements. See Sturgeon, “Theorizing Movements: Direct Action and Direct Theory,” in Darnvosky, et al. eds., Cultural Politics and Social Movements (1995).

Dramaturgical Analysis.

A kind of cultural analysis (derived from anthropology, performance studies, or literary studies) applied to the more dramatic, or ritualistic dimensions of movements, working from the analogy that much political activity generally, and social movement action in particular, has highly theatrical elements (i.e., sit-ins, protest marches, civil disobedience involving symbolic breaking of laws or trespassing).

Frames, Framing, Frame Analysis.

Deriving originally from the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis (1974), the concept of frames or framing is used in the contexts of some social movement analysis to mean patterns of perception and/or schemata of interpretation employed by social movement participants or social movement organizations viewed collectively. A frame might be imagined as a kind of template or filter that organizes how one processes new information encountered in the world. Frames organize that information based on previously held beliefs or previously shaped patterns of perception and interpretation. See also, H. Johnston, “A Methodology for Frame Analysis,” in Johnston and Klandermans, eds. Social Movements and Culture (1995).


A grievance is the issue (or issues) around which a social movement develops. Grievances stem from a shared perception that a group of individuals is being denied rights, opportunities, proper respect, safety, or some other form of social good simply because of who they are. Newly articulated grievances are generally the focal points around which movements are organized, but initial grievances are frequently elaborated upon and new grievances often emerge as movements evolve.

Marxist Theory.

Marxism as an ideology and theory of social change has had an immense impact on the practice and the analysis of social movements. Marxism arose from an analysis of movements structured by conflicts between industrial workers and their capitalist employers in the 19th century. In the twentieth century a variety of neo-Marxist theories have been developed that have opened themselves to adding questions of race, gender, environment, and other issues to an analysis centered in (shifting) political economic conditions. Class-based movements, both revolutionary and labor-reformist, have always been stronger in Europe than in the US and so has Marxist theory as a tool for understanding social movements but important Marxist movements and theories have also evolved in the US. Marxist approaches have been and remain influential ways of understanding the role of political economy and class differences as key forces in many historical and current social movements, and they continue to challenge approaches that are limited by their inability to imagine serious alternatives to consumer capitalist social structures.

Movement Cultures.

The shared values, styles, behaviors, language, traditions, symbols, and/or other forms of group definition by which a social movement marks itself as unique. A movement-specific ideology or set of beliefs is perhaps the most conscious marker of a movement culture, but much of a movement culture may be unspoken, invisible, such as a sense of connection based on shared past experiences. Tangible markers of a movement culture might include: a special way of talking (a shared slang, or movement-specific slogans); rituals or ritualized behaviors (singing in a circle, a special kind of handshake); a uniform or stylized clothing (ethnicity-specific clothing, overalls to mark sympathy with poor farmers); a symbol (a black panther, the Aztec eagle of the farmworkers flag); a movement-identified form of artistic expression (black freedom songs, Chicano murals); movement folklore (stories of past victories or defeats, jokes about an opponent's follies); identification with tradition (a hero of the past, a history of previous struggles, revival of a suppressed or forgotten ethnic custom). A variety of other terms have been suggested to name the phenomena of a movement developing a special pattern of connection, including: movement communities, oppositional subcultures, cultures of solidarity, cultural havens. All these have in common the sense that movements create special patterns of interaction and expression that distinguish them from the wider, surrounding culture. Movements clearly differ in the degree to which they develop a specific culture, and no movement is ever fully isolated from or free from the influences of the larger culture(s) of which it is a part. For an attempt to categorize and characterize differing degrees or intensities of movement culture, see John Lofland, “Charting Degrees of Movement Culture: Tasks of the Cultural Cartographer,” in Johnston and Klandermans, eds. Social Movements and Culture (1995).

New Social Movement Theory.

New Social Movement Theory developed initially in Europe to help explain a host of new movements that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s that did not seem to fit a model of Marxian class conflict that had been the predominant model in much European social movement theory. The "newness" of the putatively new social movements is said to consist of such things as a greater emphasis on group or collective identity, values and lifestyles rather than or in addition to developed ideologies, and a tendency to emerge more from middle than working class constituencies. The Green Party in Germany with its emphasis on environmental and peace issues, feminism, and alternative non-consumerist lifestyles is often portrayed as the umbrella group representing a synthesis of new social movements aimed at a broad, general social liberation. Some new social movement theorists emphasize a change in the economic structure of the First World from an industrial, heavy manufacturing based "Fordist" (after Henry Ford's assembly line) to a "post-industrial," "postmodern" or "post-Fordist" economy centered more around the service sector (i.e. fast food restaurants) and computer-based information industries as a structural force shaping the new movements. See Mayer and Roth, "New Social Movements and the Transformation into a Post-Fordist Society," in Darnovsky, et al. eds. Cultural Politics and Social Movements (1995).

Organizing vs. Mobilizing.

A distinction developed by Civil Rights activist Ella Baker and elaborated by scholar-activist Charles Payne, “I've Got the Light of Freedom” (1995), mobilizing refers to the process by which inspirational leaders or other persuaders can get large numbers of people to join a movement or engage in a particular movement action, while organizing refers to a more sustained process whereby people come to deeply understand a movement's goals and empower themselves to continued action on behalf of those goals.

Political Process Model.

The form of social movement analysis that stresses the ways in which the wider political system, especially the federal government in the US, opens up and closes down opportunities for organizing resistance. An example of the opening up would be the positive Supreme Court decision against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, while an example of closing down would be the infiltration and repression of Black, Red, and Brown Power groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the FBI and other state agencies. The most influential example of this approach is Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 (1982). PPM is closely connected to Resource Mobilization Theory (see below) but looks more broadly at the political context in which movements mobilize their resources.

Resource Mobilization Theory.

This school of social movement analysis, developed from the 1960s onward, has been and remains the dominant approach among sociologists, though it has increasingly been challenged in recent years. RM theory stresses the ways in which movements are shaped by and work within limits set by the resources (especially economic, political and communications resources) available to the group and the organizational skills of movement leaders in utilizing those resources. It is especially interested in direct, measurable impacts of movements on political issues, and less interested in the expressive, ideological, identity-shaping and consciousness-raising dimensions of movements. More recently, the attention of scholars in this school has been turning slowly toward some of these more cultural questions. An important pioneering work in this latter vein is Aldon Morris, Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (1984), which stresses African American church language and church music as cultural resources drawn upon by the early civil rights movement.


In the context of thinking about social movements, a ritual can be defined as a structured event designed to create, enhance, and/or express the belief system and/or emotional tone of a movement culture.