Theories of Social Movements

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Theories of Social Movements

Social movements have for many years provided an opportunity to form networks of informal engagement between individuals with like-minded individuals, organizations, and groups, taking part in cultural or political clashes, on the basis of shared common goals and ideologies. For example, it took the formation of a social movement to see Harold Washington become the first Black mayor of Chicago. Such a movement must display certain qualities to be effective, and become more effective when they follow certain theories of social movement. An analysis of the social movement aimed at helping Harold clinch the mayor position reveals that it adhered to key models that define how such approaches take shape and influence followers. The paper illustrates that considering available opportunities and threats as well as taking advantage of available resources present an opportunity for politicians to achieve their ambitions that they seek to achieve through social movements.

What Existed Before the Political Process Model

Examining the social movement that helped Harold to secure the political seat revealed that the team behind the call adhered to political process model as well as earlier forms such as deprivation and resource mobilization theories. Sidney Tarrow’s political process model, is a framework of social movements that is largely impacted by political sociology (Tarrow 27). It purports that the failure or success of social movement is impacted significantly by political opportunities (Tarrow 27). Looking at Harold’s case, he succeeded because of certain available opportunities. For instance, he had contested in earlier elections where he gained much fame despite losing. Another political opportunity that boosted Harold’s social movement that helped him ascend to leadership is the acceptance not only by the Black community, but also by organizations in the White and Latin neighborhoods that supported his ideologies, especially the call to end corruption. Nonetheless, the opposition he faced from some Whites who felt that his ascension to power would disrupt and threaten their authority that has prevailed for many years. Hence, based on the argument in political process model, the success Harold achieved from the social movement could be attributed to the political opportunities accessible to him and his team.

However, some frameworks for social movement existed even before the political process model. One good example is the deprivation theory that was first formed by Robert Merton. The theory holds that social movements emerge among people who feel alienated and less cared for. According to the model, when a group of people relate themselves to others, they may feel that they do not get adequate attention (Tarrow 22). Consequently, they become part of one or more social movements with the aspiration of brining to an end their constraints and concerns (Tarrow 22). An analysis of the case reveals that the African American population as well as minority groups such as Latin Americans felt that electing a fellow minority would give allow them to overcome or at least address the inequality that prevailed in the U.S., especially during the time Harold was running for the position. Minority groups felt that joining the social movement calling for the election of Harold would present them with a chance to be more vocal in their call and to advocate for what would bolster sameness in resource allocation as well as avail other opportunities. The chief strength of the theory is it helps to understand how lack of access to particular resources could lead people to team up with the same objective. However, the evident limitation is that the model does not describe why some individuals, who lack the opportunity to reach or enjoy resources, do not take part in social movements to achieve those resources or privileges. However, the theory is still effective in describing what contributes to the success or failure of social movements.

Another framework that existed before the political process model is the resource mobilization theory, which holds that the prosperity of social movement is dependent on available resources such as skills, money, and time. The theory further asserts that the success of a social movement depends on how well teams use available sources (Tarrow 23). The theory posits that social movements develop and function effectively when people who share challenges are in a position to amerce resources and take suitable action (Tarrow 23). The model places resources at the core of both the formation and prosperity of social movements. Looking at Harold’s case, resource mobilization is at play because the contestant and his team takes advantage of available resources to make the practice successful. For example, he received the support of abled team members such as David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett and Barack Obama who helped to execute his agenda. The movement also succeeded because Harold and his team channeled resources to facilitate political education classes for the team steering the campaign. The contribution of groups such as the Independent Grassroots Youth Organization, Concerned Young Adults, and Citizens for Self-Determination also served as vital resources that helped Harold to sell his agenda. The primary strength of the resource mobilization theory is that it adequately shows the connection between needed material and non-material resources, mobilization, and political structures, while the weaknesses look into the framework’s dependence on economic frameworks and its absence of a historical view.

Repertoires of Contention in the Election Campaign

Repertoires of contention refers to the use of various resources and tools to protest or counter unwelcomed ideas. Some common forms of repertoires of contention in social movement or political activity include formation of coalitions and partnerships with a specific objective, taking part in public meetings, protests, riots, boycotts, public rallies, and strikes (Tarrow 29). Construction of contention provide an opportunity to advocate for particular ideas and interests, especially when the group rallying for change encounter some opposition.

Networks and Mobilizing Structures

Social movements are likely to excel when leaders or members have reliable and effective networks and depend on appropriate mobilizing structures. Networks refer to how members are affiliated to other influential groups that may offer needed support (Tarrow 30). For example, Harold knew that the votes of Black people alone would make him win so he formed networks with White organizations that increased the strength of his bid. Harold also relied on mobilizing structures such as the youth groups that helped to facilitate the door-to-door campaigns. Hence, reliable networks and mobilizing structures are essential when forming and running social movements or political groups.

Examples of Construction of Contention

Referring to the case on Harold presents good examples of construction of contention, which entails forming or holding events that sensitize people about particular issues (Tarrow 31). For example, Harold held meetings with various groups to sell his manifesto. The public meetings and rallies presented him the chance to interact with the electorate. However, construction of contention may take any form so long as the target group gets the message.

Example of Political Opportunities and Threats

Various political opportunities and threats could determine whether social movements progress or fail and could influence how political aspirants handle their attempt to clinch a political seat. An example of a political opportunity that may help individuals or groups of politicians to facilitate their campaign are groups that are formed with the objective of selling a political agenda or aspiration (Tarrow 32). Examples include the Independent Grassroots Youth Organization and the Citizens for Self-Determination that were instrumental in helping Harold to achieve his political ambitions. Another example of a political opportunity is an enabling environment that allows one to conduct his political campaigns without constraint. For instance, the overwhelming support Harold received from various quarters allowed him to clinch the seat.

However, it is necessary to watch out for the threats that could derail one’s attempt to achieve their political aspirations. Common threats to political activities encompass civil unrest, criticism, lack of adequate support, and change in leadership (Tarrow 33). A threat that Harold faced during his campaigns is that some groups, especially Whites opposed his bid. It is imperative to pay considerable attention to the threats because they could easily deter one’s ambitions.

Limitations of the Political Process Model

The political process model presents a better chance to understand how availability of opportunities impact the success of social movements. However, it is possible to identify certain limitations associated with model. Many consider the model as appropriate because it helps to understand how to make a social movement more effective while relying on available opportunities (Tarrow 28). The knowledge may help leaders or members of a social movement to make use of accessible political opportunities to drive their agenda as it happens with Harold who relies on the grass root support and the experience he gained during his first attempt. However, criticism has been launched against the political process model, thus clarifying its weak aspects. The model has been criticized both conceptually and structurally. Critics content that proponents of the political process utilize overly-broad descriptions as to what form political opportunities, and those descriptions vary considerably on the historical nature of the social movement.

Further criticism exist, which portrays the political process model as being ineffective in its explanation of how social movements work. Critics contend that the five components of political opportunity structures such as repression, influential partners, divided parties, changing dynamics, and escalating access are not inclusive of all factors (Tarrow 29). Some evaluators of the model feel that various other factors (opportunities) could impact on an individual political ambitions.


The paper addresses how social movements work and refers to a case study about the election of Harold as the first Black mayor of Chicago to examine how the various models apply to the case. The study shows that the political process model emphasizes the availability or absence of resources as playing important roles in determining the success or failure of a social movement. Harold took advantage of political opportunities such as the experienced he gained earlier during his first failed attempt as well as of the support he gained from minority groups, young people, and some Whites who supported his call for an end to corruption. Criticism against the political process model include that it does not give specific descriptions and the five elements of political opportunity structures are not inclusive. However, deprivation and resource mobilization theories that emerged quite earlier also play fundamental roles in describing how social movements take effect. Thus, those leading social movements should understand the strengths and weaknesses of each aspect.

Work Cited

Tarrow, Sidney. Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. Cambridge

            University Press, 2011.

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