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Social Movements

Abstract and Keywords

Since the 19th century, social movements have provided US social work with its intellectual and theoretical foundations and many of its leaders. Social workers were among the founders of the Progressive movement and have played important roles in the labor, feminist, civil rights, welfare rights, and peace movements for over a century. Since the 1960s, social workers have been active in New Social Movements (NSMs), which have focused on issues of identity, self-esteem, human rights, and the development of oppositional critical consciousness, as well as international movements that have emerged in response to economic globalization, environmental degradation, and major population shifts, including mass immigration. More recently, they have played a supportive role in the transnational Occupy movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and movements to establish marriage equality, protect immigrants and refugees, promote the rights of transgender persons, and advocate for environmental justice.

Keywords: collective action, progressive movement, labor movement, populism, New Social Movements, resource mobilization theory, feminism, civil rights, pacifism, Socialism, Rank and File movement

For over a century, social movements have significantly influenced the evolution of the social work profession (Day, 2013). They have provided its intellectual and theoretical foundations and its policy goals and have furnished most of its strongest allies and leaders. Many social workers have held leadership positions in national and international social movements (Reisch & Andrews, 2002). Although fewer social workers play such roles today, social movements continue to shape social work theory and practice in the United States and throughout the world (Annetts, 2009; Rossinow, 2008). As potential participants in the global social justice movements of the 21st century, social workers can help expose the personal and community consequences of globalization and climate change and can develop viable alternatives to existing institutional arrangements.

The Nature of Social Movements

A social movement is “A collectivity acting with some degree of organization and continuity outside of institutional channels for the purpose of promoting or resisting change in the group, society, or world order of which it is a part” (McAdam & Snow, 1997, xviii, emphasis added). The media, however, frequently apply the term social movement incorrectly to all forms of collective action, even those without clear political or policy ends (D’Arcus, 2006; Staggenborg, 2011). In addition, a social movement’s collective actions are often confused with the action undertaken separately by the various organizations or groups within it (Khasnabish, 2008). This often produces the mistaken assumption that social movements have internal unity; it ignores their internal divisions and conflicts, complex goals, and ability to adapt to changing circumstances (Opp, 2009).

Modern social movements use a variety of sustained, organized, and public activities to advance their diverse goals and to portray their members as worthy, unified, numerous, and committed to specific changes (Tilly & Wood, 2009). As “collective challenges based on common purposes” (Tilly & Wood, 2009, p. 2), they assert particular claims on society for tangible resources, recognition, and status. They consist of groups of actors who may share broad common goals yet compete over tactics, resources, and the distribution of the benefits of success, as illustrated by the conflicts that emerged after the recent “Arab Spring.”

Despite such conflicts, all social movements possess a number of common features. They represent a collective challenge to specific institutional or structural arrangements based on a collective purpose and a widely shared analysis—often based on a common ideology—of the sources of society’s problems. They assert specific new claims on society or give new life to previously asserted claims by framing them in new ways. The movement for marriage equality is an example of the former; the Black Lives Matter movement is a prominent example of the latter phenomenon.

Social movements usually have local origins and, if successful, become regional, national, or even international in scope, as the Occupy movement and the environmental justice movement illustrate (Banaszak, 2010; Gitlin, 2012; Karatzogianni & Robinson, 2010). This process occurs more quickly today because of the digital revolution and the power of social media to communicate shared grievances, mobilize diverse populations, and disseminate critical information (Ferguson, 2016; Philip & Reisch, 2015). The use of social media has also diminished, but not entirely eliminated, the need for social movements to become dependent on sponsors outside of the movement organization for financial and political support.

The Origins of Social Movements

Theorists of social movements focus on the following issues:

  • Whether structure and strategic planning or spontaneous action best serves a movement’s goals.

  • The environmental features that facilitate the emergence of movements.

  • Strategies and tactics of movements. These include how they articulate goals, frame their message, mobilize members, cultivate collective consciousness or identity, obtain and utilize resources, develop and implement strategies, and take advantage of opportunities.

Although conditions of unrest, crisis, or widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo may exist for years, the initial phases of social movements often go unnoticed by mainstream political and cultural institutions and leaders because they emerge in marginalized, largely homogeneous communities that have their own preexisting networks (McAdam & Snow, 2010; Meyer, 2007). The members of these communities share a common history, common values, problems, and goals. The development of the welfare rights movement is a prime example (Nadasen, 2012). Often, an unanticipated crisis or series of crises draws increased attention to a longstanding issue (such as police violence towards African Americans) and establishes the legitimacy of the movement’s issues among its constituents, external political actors, and the public (Della Porta, 2009; Maeckelbergh, 2009). The response to these crises, recently intensified and hastened by the use of social media, may augment previous perceptions among movement leaders and members that existing institutions, policies, and systems have failed and that dramatic action is necessary to produce desired changes (van de Donk, 2004).

A social movement generally takes one of three structural forms. Segmented movements are constantly changing coalitions of diverse groups, similar to that of broad-based political parties. To some extent, Black Lives Matter falls into this category because it has expanded the issues it addresses beyond its initial focus on police violence in African American communities and has joined forces with other social justice movements on such issues as immigrant rights. In different ways, the Tea Party falls into this category, although it has consistently maintained an anti-government focus in its policy advocacy despite the somewhat ambiguous quality of its alliances and allegiances. Polycentric movements incorporate two or more competing organizations into ad hoc alliances around short-term common goals, such as the pan-Islamic movement (Moghadam, 2009). Reticulate movements create loosely integrated networks with multiple formal and informal connections, as illustrated by the feminist and environmental justice movements in the United States and globally (Karatzogianni & Robinson, 2010).

Many social movements frame their goals through the language of social justice, although their definitions of social justice have varied depending on the historical context in which they emerged and the demographic and cultural composition of their members (Della Porta & Caiani, 2009). This sometimes created a situation where two opposing movements both proclaim the social justice of their cause (Reisch, 2002). It often occurs during civil wars, such as the current situation in Syria, where the opposition to the Assad regime emerged from different conceptions of social justice. Religious beliefs inspire the Islamic State (ISIS) and its supporters, while their erstwhile allies (the so-called moderate opposition) express a more secular conception of social justice.

Whatever their structure and underlying ideology, social movements have influenced public policy by addressing its substance and goals, the structures through which it is developed, and the processes that determine and implement societal priorities. The window of opportunity for movements to shape policy is limited, however; although some movements have maintained long-term involvement in the policymaking process by building institutions that are compatible with existing political structures (Rossinow, 2008). The rise and demise of the US labor movement is a good example of this transformation (Berg, 2003). Gamson (1990) argues that this process of institutionalization is critical to the long-term success of social movements.

Conversely, different theoretical models proffer varying explanations for the failure of social movements. The classical model attributes their decline to tendencies toward oligarchy and conservatism (Michels, 1999), the cooptation of the movement’s values, goals, and leaders by the dominant culture, or to the movement’s failure to capitalize on rare opportunities when they arise (Piven & Cloward, 1979). Resource mobilization theorists emphasize how the loss of critical assets, particularly from key external supporters, can lead to the demise of a movement (Tilly, 1978). Theorists who focus on political processes stress changes in opportunity structures and the ways in which allies, neutrals, and opponents respond to the challenges that movements present. Their studies conclude that the environmental set is often as significant as the strategic choices of movements in determining their ultimate success or failure (Piven & Cloward, 1979). Finally, some theorists analyze the internal dynamics of movement organizations and attribute their decline to one or more factors. These include inflexible structures, failure to accommodate new members, gaps between the goals of members and leaders, inability of the movement to address the personal needs of its members, and a misdirection of energy and resources toward internal disputes, rather than external enemies (Opp, 2009; Perlman, 1976; Wallerstein, 2008).

While previous research focused on how the relationship between the compatibility of a movement’s goals and strategies with dominant values and institutions contributed to their success (Gamson, 1990), recent scholars have examined how the government or mass media deliberately suppress movements through such means as resource depletion, stigmatization, disruption, intimidation, and marginalization (Boykoff, 2006; Gutiererz & Lipman, 2016). States engage in direct violence, prosecute and harass movement leaders, blacklist movement members, conduct surveillance against movement organizations, infiltrate groups to promote factionalism and spread disinformation, and adopt a variety of repressive laws (Bumiller, 2008). The media shape the public’s perception of social movements, often in negative ways, and distort its awareness of their values, goals, and activities (Gitlin, 2003).

Social Movements and the Emergence of Social Work

During the formative years of the social work profession, social movements in the United States arose in response to the rapid socioeconomic changes produced by industrialization, urbanization, and mass immigration (Reisch, 2012). Inspired by secular and religious ideologies, they challenged institutional discrimination and sought to correct prevailing inequalities in the distribution of resources, rights, power, opportunities, and status. While, like today, some of these movements reflected strong anti-egalitarian biases against non-native born Americans, especially Catholics, Jews, and immigrants of color, others sought to diminish growing social tensions by recreating a pre-modern organic community, comparable to efforts by the contemporary communitarian movement. (The evolution of the 19th century populist movement illustrates the former tendency, as do some 21st century so-called populist movements in both the United States and Europe.) In its origins, organized social work, particularly in the settlement house movement, possessed many of the characteristics of a social movement (Reisch & Andrews, 2002).

Workers in factories, mines, mills, and forests, for example, organized trade unions in large numbers, often influenced by European ideas such as socialism and anarcho-syndicalism. Many clients of early social service organizations belonged to these unions (Karger, 1988). Their problems—low wages, terrible working conditions, slum housing, epidemics—inevitably came to the attention of social workers who were compelled to take a stance on “the Social Question” (Reisch, 2009). Agricultural workers in the West and Southwest were inspired to mobilize by traditions of mutuality and group solidarity in the African American, East Asian, and Mexican communities (Carlton-LaNey, 2001; Chan, 1991; Hernandez, 1983).

Other movements have shaped the character of social work, particularly in the early years of its development. An unprecedented multiracial coalition of agricultural workers, small farmers, small business owners, and industrial workers created the populist movement, reflecting a unique form of American radicalism. Before racial divisions led to the movement's demise, populists challenged the growing dominance of trusts and banks and the concentration of wealth and power among the elite (Postel, 2007). Modern versions of this movement appear on both the right (Tea Party) and left (Occupy movement) ends of the political spectrum, as demonstrated by the 2016 Presidential campaign, the “Brexit” vote, and the election of many “progressive” candidates in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections.

The first wave of American feminism and the beginnings of the modern civil rights movement also had major impacts on social work. Many social work leaders, such as Florence Kelley, Lillian Wald, Ellen Gates Starr, Ida Wells-Barnett, and Jane Addams, played active roles in feminist organizations. Following the leadership of activists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, they opposed the horrors of lynching of African Americans. They also addressed such issues as women’s suffrage, industrial exploitation, and public health (Parker, 2010). Along with African American leaders such as W. E. B. DuBois, Mary Church Terrell, Forrester Blanchard Washington, and George Edmund Haynes, they helped found civil rights organizations, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League. Social workers in the YWCA, such as Dorothy I. Height and Nannie Helen Burroughs, were particularly active in this area. While interracial and inter-ethnic participation in such movements generated some conflict, the involvement of white, middle and upper class, largely WASP social workers with African Americans, immigrants, and ethnically and religiously diverse trade unionists broadened their understanding of social conditions and sharpened their interest in social justice. Ironically, although some white leaders of the settlement house movement found common cause with African Americans around a range of socio-economic issues, the settlement houses they founded excluded people of color until after World War II (Lasch-Quinn, 1993).

Progressivism and the Settlement House Movement

Not all social movements of this era, however, emerged from disadvantaged segments of society. Many well-educated middle and upper class men and women became increasingly dissatisfied with the nation's direction and their future roles within it. The Progressive movement they created sought to redirect the country from its heedless pursuit of material wealth and to address the serious social consequences of the new political-economic environment.

Progressivism thrived in the generation before World War I (Davis, 1967). Its ranks included such diverse figures as philosophers John Dewey and William James, journalists Herbert Crowley and Walter Lippman, politicians Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and social workers like Jane Addams (Elshtain, 2002; Knight, 2010; Opdycke, 2012). Its future-oriented goals, which focused on education, child welfare, the amelioration of urban and industrial conditions, the assimilation of immigrants, and the expansion of democracy, were well-suited for the emerging social work profession (Lubove, 1965). Many reforms advocated by social workers—the establishment of the juvenile court, the expansion of state-funded education and recreation, the eradication of child labor, and the promotion of public health measures—originated within the Progressive movement (Stern & Axinn, 2012). Progressivism also appealed to many social workers because it promised reform without violent social conflict or a dramatic transformation of the nation's class structure or culture (Wenocur & Reisch, 1989).

Social Work and the Labor Movement

The organization of individual trade unions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries took on the character of a social movement due to the sheer size of this phenomenon, the emergence of powerful leaders, and the infusion of unifying ideologies, including socialism and anarcho-syndicalism (Berg, 2003). While serious political and ideological differences often created sharp internal divisions, the labor movement as a whole produced increased attention to poverty and socioeconomic inequality and their consequences for human health and well-being (Rossinow, 2008).

The ambiguous and often tense relationship between organized social work and the labor movement reflected the class differences that existed between the profession and its clients or constituents. During the Progressive Era, some social workers, such as Florence Kelley, Lillian Wald, and Ellen Gates Starr helped organize trade unions, particularly among women, and advocated for policies abolishing child labor and establishing better wages and working conditions. Through her role as a research director at the Russell Sage Foundation, Mary van Kleeck conducted the first investigation of factory conditions affecting women and girls, such as those that led to the tragic 1911 Triangle fire (Karger, 1988). Later, during the 1930s and 1940s, radicals like Bertha Capen Reynolds developed programs that served union members and working families and advocated for policies that promoted the cause of organized labor. Although many other social workers sympathized with industrial workers and their families, only a minority supported the more radical goals of the labor movement (Reisch, 2015).

Radical Social Movements

Prior to World War I, some social workers participated in the radical social and political movements of the period. These movements sought not merely to reform but to transform US society and its basic institutions. The Socialist movement, for example, was particularly influential among urban social workers, especially those from immigrant families. Florence Kelley, the head of the National Consumers League for three decades, was a leading Socialist who corresponded with Friedrich Engels and produced the first American translation of his work (Sklar, 1995). Lillian Wald, the founder of public health nursing and director of the Henry Street Settlement in New York City, was also an active Socialist, as was Ellen Gates Starr, who co-founded Hull House with Jane Addams. Through the socialist movement, these women had regular contact with radicals outside the profession, like Emma Goldman and Crystal Eastman, whose ideas shaped their views on issues ranging from income support to reproductive rights (Day, 2013; Reisch & Andrews, 2002).

During this period, social workers held leadership positions in the National Women's Party and helped organize the Women's Trade Union League. Many social workers, however, disagreed with other feminists over issues such as contraception and the Equal Rights Amendment. For example, Jane Addams was reluctant to support birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, due to a combination of residual Victorian morality and fear of alienating Catholic supporters (Elshtain, 2002; Knight, 2005). Florence Kelley opposed the first Equal Rights Amendment because she thought its passage would undercut efforts to improve the conditions of women. She favored a maternalist strategy to provide the “wedge” that would ultimate expand social benefits for all Americans (Sklar, 1995).

The outbreak of World War I united social workers with diverse allies within the worldwide pacifist movement. Some social workers like Addams, opposed war on religious or moral grounds; others like Wald and Kelley linked their opposition to domestic policy concerns and support for international working class solidarity (Reisch & Andrews, 2002). Their outspoken critiques of American militarism prompted scathing attacks on their patriotism that persisted through the 1920s and undermined public support for the causes they espoused, such as maternal and child health and social insurance (Day, 2013; Reisch & Andrews, 2002).

The Rank and File Movement in Social Work

After a period of political conservatism during the 1920s, the effects of the Great Depression inspired the growth of new reform-oriented social movements and revived others of a radical nature. The Socialist and Communist movements attracted many converts and sympathizers, particularly among urban immigrants and social workers. Beginning in 1931, activist social workers organized discussion clubs and unions in both public and private sector agencies, ultimately leading to the formation of the Rank and File movement. By 1936, this movement, which included such notable social workers as Bertha Capen Reynolds, Mary van Kleeck, Jacob Fisher, and Harry Lurie, had more members than the mainstream American Association of Social Workers. It developed close ties with left-wing political parties and organized labor, particularly the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (Reisch, 2015). Until it dissolved in the early 1940s, the Rank and File movement pressured the Roosevelt administration to adopt more sweeping reforms in social welfare, labor, and industrial policy (Reisch & Andrews, 2002).

Civil Rights, Welfare Rights, and the War on Poverty

The anti-Communist crusades of the post-war McCarthy period seriously diminished the size, scope, and influence of social justice-oriented movements in the United States. Left-wing unions, including public and private sector social work unions, were broken up, legislative committees and the FBI investigated progressive social workers, and many social workers were fired by nonprofit agencies and universities because of their political beliefs. This climate produced a general decline in social activism within the United States and the social work field (Schrecker, 1998).

One exception to this political quiescence was the resurgence of the civil rights movement among African Americans, whose participation in military and defense industries during World War II strengthened their commitment to social equality (Hamilton & Hamilton, 1997). Inspired by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the courage displayed by civil rights activists in the 1955–1956 Montgomery bus boycott, the freedom rides of the early 1960s, voting rights campaigns in Southern states, and protests against the war in Vietnam, a new generation of social work activists arose. Social workers like Whitney Young and Dorothy I. Height played leadership roles in the civil rights movement (Crewe, 2009; Sims, 1971). Inspired by civil rights and anti-war activists, many others joined movement-based groups. Other social workers and future social work faculty, such as Richard Cloward, Francis Fox Piven, and Tim Sampson, played significant roles as strategists and organizers in the welfare rights movement (Triece, 2013). As in the 1930s, considerable conflict erupted between supporters of these movements and their more mainstream, reform-minded colleagues within the social work field (Nadasen, 2012; Reisch, 2018; Reisch & Andrews, 2002).

The New Identity-Based Social Movements

The nature of social movements changed dramatically in the 1960s and early 1970s. New social movements (NSMs) among women, gays and lesbians, people of color, and the disabled appeared. These new movements differed substantially from past social movements in their missions, actions, and structure (Rimmerman, 2008). They combined anti-government and anti-institutional goals with attempts to acquire legal protections and tangible resources from the state. They challenged prevailing hierarchies and privileges and emphasized egalitarian behavioral norms and organizational structures. They replaced or augmented class-based, often Marxist-oriented worldviews with a focus on identity politics, the creation of oppositional critical consciousness, and the roles of experience and positionality (Gosse, 2005; Roussopolous, 2007).

These changes prompted a revision of the theoretical frameworks used to analyze social movements and ultimately changed the focus of social work practice and education. Resource mobilization theorists challenged prevailing paradigms that looked at social movements and collective behavior through the lens of irrationality. Instead, they emphasized the rationality of collective action and focused primarily on an assessment of social movements’ response to environmental threats, risks, and opportunities (Annetts, 2009). At the same time, some new social movement theorists stressed the subjective, non-rational experiences of oppression, identity, autonomy, and culture and—influenced by post-modernism—the ways in which NSMs consciously reject dominant institutions and their integrating rationalities, including meta-analyses of history and society. Other theorists looked at a combination of resource, institutional, and ecological factors, including the roles of informal networks, local grassroots groups, spatiality, and personal relationships (Kelly, 2001).

Globalization, NSMs, and Social Work

During the past several decades, economic globalization has significantly affected the distribution of income and wealth within and between nations, transformed the character of work and labor-management relations, heightened inter-generational tensions, and altered the nature of property and property relations (Xing, Jizhen, & Winther, 2009). It spurred the emergence of new communication technologies that have contributed to the globalization process itself and sped up the flow of information about its consequences. Globalization also promoted the consolidation of corporate power, the growing power of supra-national international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and the emergence of new conflicts between these institutions and increasingly anachronistic national governments (Rosow & George, 2015). NSMs responded to these developments by changing their structure, scope, and strategies (Moghadam, 2009).

On such issues as environmental justice and socio-economic inequality, NSMs no longer function solely within national boundaries, or even cross-nationally, as movements had in the past. Increasingly, they attempt to combine a complex array of global, local, and personal/identity factors in a dynamic, interactive relationship (Khasnabish, 2008; Moghadam, 2009). From one perspective, the core issues facing NSMs involve the democratization of institutions; from another, they reflect the challenge of new demographic patterns, the merger of local and global cultures, and the advent of cross-cutting issues such as climate change and the relationship between humans and nature (Maeckelbergh, 2009). Increasing awareness of the impact of these issues has intensified movement activities around the world.

In addition, partly due to the expanded use of social media, NSMs have looser structures than traditional social movements and are more likely to address local as well as international concerns (Wallerstein, 2008). Although they tend to place greater emphasis on matters of identity and personal equality, for the most part narrow ideologies play a less central role. (Some radical Islamist or fundamentalist Christian movements are notable exceptions.) At least in theory, the behaviors of these movements reflect the reduced importance of formal organizations, which increases the opportunity for resource-deprived groups to influence developments. In response to the rapidity of change, their strategies are more fluid and their action campaigns less segmented, with increased roles for symbolic and virtual politics (Della Porta, 2009; Karatzogianni & Robinson, 2010).

Summary and Conclusion

What binds many contemporary social movements most closely with the social work profession, both philosophically and practically, is their common commitment to the expansion of democracy, and the promotion of human rights and social justice on a global scale. To realize these lofty goals in the current and future tumultuous environment, social workers will have to revise long-standing assumptions about their constituents and clients, their relationship with the state, and their strategies of personal and social intervention. As potential participants in the global social justice movements of the 21st century, social workers can help expose the consequences of globalization and develop viable alternatives to existing institutional arrangements. In an increasingly multipolar and multicultural environment, this will require greater imagination, flexibility, and adaptability in defining and addressing new and persistent social issues. It will also require social workers to clarify the meaning of fundamental concepts, such as social justice and empowerment, to critically examine longstanding assumptions about practice, and to assess the efficacy of current approaches to individual, community, and social change.


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