Social Movement Theory: Understanding the Roots and Development
Social movements have been an integral part of society, as they have played a significant role in bringing about social, economic, and political changes. The study of social movements has been an area of great interest for scholars from various disciplines.

Social movement theory is a framework that attempts to explain the formation, growth, and impact of these movements. But who developed this theory? Let’s take a closer look.

The Origins of Social Movement Theory

The origins of social movement theory can be traced back to the 19th century. At that time, scholars like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were exploring the concept of class struggle and how it drives social change. They argued that social movements emerge from conflicts between different classes in society.

In the 20th century, scholars like Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow expanded on this idea by introducing the concept of collective action. They focused on how people come together to achieve common goals and how they use various tactics to do so.

The Four Stages of Social Movements

One influential model for understanding social movements was developed by Neil Smelser in 1962. Smelser proposed four stages that all social movements go through:

Stage One: Structural Conductors

This stage involves changes in society’s values or structures that create openings for people to mobilize around new issues.

Stage Two: Structural Strain

In this stage, people begin to feel tensions or strains caused by these changes within society.

Stage Three: Generalized Belief

The generalized belief stage involves people beginning to attribute their problems to broader societal issues rather than individual failings.

Stage Four: Collective Action

The final stage is where people come together to act collectively against the perceived problem or injustice.

Contemporary Social Movement Theory

In recent years, social movement theory has evolved to include new perspectives and approaches. One such approach is the resource mobilization theory, which focuses on the resources that social movements need to be successful. Resources can include money, time, skills, and political connections.

Another approach is the political process theory, which looks at how political institutions and structures influence social movements. This theory argues that social movements are more likely to succeed when they are able to navigate these structures effectively.


Social movement theory has come a long way since its inception in the 19th century. Today, it is a vast field of study that encompasses various perspectives and approaches. By understanding the roots and development of this theory, we can better appreciate the complexities of social movements and their impact on society.