Social Movement Theory: A Primer

On Social Movement Theory: An Introduction




Below you will find a brief introduction to social movement (SM) theory and its main tenets from a sociological perspective. I include the three dynamics that serve as the foundation in the studies of SMs today: resource mobilization theory, political process theory, and framing processes. Hopefully this paper will inspire you to do some of your own research if you plan on engaging in contentious politics. I believe that all actors practicing collective action would be much aided with such a line of research.

 All of the referenced material here can either be found in a downloadable .pdf format at Google Scholar or cited for reading at your local university’s library.


Before we embark on our studies of social movement theory, we need to begin with a clear conceptualization of what a social movement is. Social movements (SMs) are “…collectives acting with some degree of organization and continuity outside of institutional or organizational channels for the purpose of challenging or defending extant authority, whether it is institutionally or culturally based, in the group, organization, society, culture, or world of which they are a part” (Snow et. al, 2004). They are engaged in “politics by other means”, as Gamson wrote (Gamson, 1975).

I know that this is a very broad definition, but it is needed to include all of the SM’s studied ranging from the macro-level national revolutions, to labor disputes from the early 20th century, and everything from “new social movements” (movements that began to spring up in the 1960’s which do not deal with material disputes but rather with cultural issues like second-wave feminism and gay rights movements [Krips, 2012]), down to NIMBY SMs (local, mostly grassroots movements fitting the NIMBY acronym, “not in my backyard” [Snow et al. 2014]). They are all very different in size and scope, but they all fit the concept of a SM.

There are three central dynamics studied by SM scholars that form the foundation of SM research. I will be introducing to you in this paper resource mobilization theory, political opportunity processes, and framing processes.


Resource Mobilization Theory

According to Edwards and Gillham (2013), scholars interested in resource mobilization theory (RMT) analyze “…the uneven distribution of resources in a society, and seek to understand how individual and collective actors endeavor to alter that distribution in order to direct resources to social movements.” (Edwards and Gillham, 2013). In other words, it’s the study of what resources are needed and/or desired by a social movement and the analysis of how the said resources are/are not obtained by the movement.

Scholars analyze concepts such as the four mechanisms of resource access (self-production, aggregation, co-optation/appropriation, and patronage) and with matters such as resource types (moral resources, cultural resources, human resources, material resources) and social-organization resources (Edwards and Gillham (2013). Research into RMT used to be focused mainly on the macro level of resource obtainment, but now it can also be found on the micro-level as well. And unlike political opportunity processes and framing process, RMT can be much more easily measured with qualitative analyses.


Political Process Theory

[NOTE: People refer to this dynamic as either political process theory (PPT) or political opportunity structure (POS), but in a proper analysis it is to be referred to as PPT because POS is PPT’s central concept. Heed if one wants to do further research.]

The political process theory (PPT) approach looks to study the existing political opportunity structure (POS), to understand what possible strategies, if any, can affect change in that structure (Kriesi, 2004)

For example, a SM cannot organize, much less conduct “politics by other means”, under an authoritative, totalitarian regime if the powers that be do not allow the right to peaceably assemble. But in a liberal democracy, like those prevalent in the West, SM existence and SM action are common and can affect change.

According to Kriesi (2004), “Typically, authors working within this approach explain a specific aspect of political contention…by a change in the political opportunity structure….The ‘political opportunity structure’ constitutes what we could call the hard core of the political process framework. The basic idea of the framework is that ‘political opportunity structures’ influence the choice of protest strategies and the impact of social movements on their environments’ (Kitshcelt 1986:58).” (Kriesi, pg. 69).

As I have alluded to in my example above, PPT is not studied often in modern liberal democracies. There is usually the ability, and often the right, to form a collective and act within those societies. But it is extremely informative when looking at trans-national, comparative studies and historical movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement in America during the 1950’s and 60’s when the POS was more restrictive for African Americans.

Framing Processes

Framing processes are the last of the three dynamics in SM studies that serve as its foundation. And I find it the most interesting and best suited for more exploration through further research.

For the lack of a better term, I feel that a newcomer to this topic should conceive of framing processes as the layman’s conception of “spin” (Benford, 2014). SMs want to apply their own “spin” on an issue in an effort to gain supporters, refute counter-arguments from antagonists, and to initiate action from members/supporters. And further, as Benford et al. (2014) stated in terms of the concept of “spin” that came to the fore in the 1980’s:

“Social movement activists found it necessary to develop rhetorical skills that would help them counter the hegemonic discourse of power elites, convert bystanders, and mobilize sympathizers and adherents.”

But it’s more complicated and intriguing than that. From an SM’s official press releases to, say, down to the basic conversations between supporters/members/protagonists, “framing” and the production of “collective actions frames” are occurring. As Benford and Snow (2000) explain it:

“From this perspective, social movements are not viewed merely as carriers of extant ideas and meanings that grow automatically out of structural arrangements, unanticipated events, or existing ideologies….Rather, movement actors are viewed as signifying agents actively engaged in the production and maintenance of meaning for constituent, antagonists, and bystanders or observers (Snow and Benford 1988). They are deeply embroiled, along with the media, local governments, and the state, in what has been referred to as “the politics of signification” (Hall 1982).”

If you’re still a little shaky on the concept of what “framing” is and how it works, maybe the best way to further understand it is to elaborate on the specifics. The SM literature groups framing processes into two characteristic features: “core framing tasks” (Snow and Benford 1988) and the interactive, discursive processes that tend to the core framing tasks (Benford and Snow, 2000).

There are three core framing tasks identified in the literature: diagnostic framing (what is the stated problem/issue), prognostic framing (what we should do to remedy the problem/issue at hand), and motivational framing (a “call to arms” created through the vocabulary produced through discursive processes that rally members to remedy the problem/issue at hand). These are the most important framing tasks in creating collective action frames which all SM’s must engage in.

There have also been identification and elaboration on collective action frames’ variable features (Snow & Benford, 2000)

Problem identification and direction or locus of attribution

  • Flexibility and rigidity, inclusivity and exclusivity
  • Interpretive scope and influence
  • Degree of resonance

And three sets of overlapping processes that can be conceptualized as discursive, strategic and contested. (Snow & Benford 2000)

Discursive processes

    • Frame articulation
    • Frame amplification or punctuation

Strategic processes

Contested processes

The literature then covers the role of framing in diffusion processes, as Benford and Snow (2000) characterize it:

“How do movement ideas, collective action frames, and practices spread from one movement to another and from one culture to another? How do framing processes affect the diffusion of movement beliefs, objects, and practices?” (Benford & Snow 2000) pg. 627

Framing processes are also affected by a number of elements of the socio-cultural context in which they are embedded. The three areas focused on by the literature are (Benford & Snow 2000):

  • Political opportunity structure
  • Cultural opportunities and constraints
  • The targeted audiences.

Framing processes and the manufacture of collective action frames can be difficult to grasp for many upon their introduction to SM theory. But I would highly suggest that if one is still unsure, look to the bibliography for the entrance by Benford & Snow from 2000. It provides a more in-depth and example-related review of all of the framing processes. And although it is 15 years old, it is still the most heavily cited work on the subject.


Benford, R. D., & Snow, D. A. (2000). Framing processes and social movements: An overview and assessment. Annual review of sociology, 611-639.

Edwards, B., & Gillham, P. F. (2013). Resource mobilization theory. The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements.

Gamson, W. A. (1975). The strategy of social protest (pp. 89-109). Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.

Kriesi, H. (2004). Political context and opportunity. The Blackwell companion to social movements, 67-90.

Krips, H. (2012). NEW SOCIAL MOVEMENTS, POPULISM AND THE POLITICS OF THE LIFEWORLD. Cultural Studies, 26(2-3), 242-259.

Snow, D. A., & Benford, R. D. (1988). Ideology, frame resonance, and participant mobilization. International social movement research, 1(1), 197-217.

Snow, D. A., Benford, R. D., McCammon, H. J., Hewitt, L., & Fitzgerald, S. (2014). The Emergence, Development, and Future of the Framing Perspective: 25+ Years Since” Frame Alignment”. Mobilization: An International Quarterly, 19(1), 23-46.

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