Seminar on Social Movements in Theory and Research
Note: This course is sometimes taught as Sociology 924 (seminar in political sociology) and sometimes as 913 (seminar in social change). It is the same basic course under either number. Both Sociology courses are “topics” numbers that can be taken multiple times. This course is taught from this basic on-line syllabus with changes each semester to adapt to the specific interests of students in the course. My own interests these days focus on issues of race & ethnicity in movements, Black movements in the US, mobilization processes, and the interrelations of news media and protests.
This seminar is designed to pull students into current theoretical and empirical issues in the study of social movements. Some class sessions will be devoted to providing a general overview of the field, sketching out those findings and understandings which are generally seen as well established, and pointing to new lines of inquiry and unanswered questions which are the focus of current research in the field. Other sessions will be devoted to more detailed discussion of specific debates or issues or movements. Special emphasis will be given to identifying strategies and methodologies for doing research in this area, and to discussing the empirical implications and utility of various theoretical approaches. The exact choice of topics to pursue in depth and the order of events will be determined after I learn more about the background and interests of the students enrolled in the course.
Research in this area has grown dramatically in the past thirty years, and it is no longer possible for us to read comprehensively within the scope of one semester. I have chosen readings with an eye to acquainting you with the range of theoretical and empirical issues being pursued by scholars in this area, but you will need to read beyond the materials on this syllabus if you wish to consider yourself well-read in this area.
In many ways, the study of collective behavior and social movements is the study of collective agency, as social movements arise when people act together to promote or resist social change. The field of collective behavior and social movements spans the usual micro-macro divide in sociology. On the micro end, the field overlaps with social psychology, and important issues include: how people come to decide to challenge authority and act collectively, the relative importance of instrumental and non-instrumental motivations to action, and the interactional processes whereby action comes about and meanings are constructed. At the meso or middle level, the field overlaps with the subareas of organizations and social networks, and issues include: the social organization of protest groups; studies of culture and movements; the constraints on and consequences of tactics and strategies; the relative importance of movement organizations and external or preexisting organizations; the impact of professionals, professionalism, and resource mobilization on movements; and the interplay between organizations and non-organizational crowd or mass behavior. At the macro level, the field overlaps with political sociology, and the focus in on how movements are constrained by and in turn affect the polities and economies within which they are embedded, both national and international. Theorizing in the social movements area has long tended toward the synthetic, and in recent years, theorizing has become increasingly dynamic, and interactive. It is a field that is focused on understanding how things work, not on dividing into polarized theoretical armies. Research and theory at any level of analysis will be improved by an awareness of the others, and I urge all students to work to develop some understanding of topics that are not of central interest to them.
Some resources on current social movements and current social movement debates