Social Movement

A social movement consists of a number of people organized and coordinated to achieve some task or a collection of goals, often the participants are interested in bringing about social change. Throughout the history of the United States, social movements have been a staple in the maturation of the country. Philanthropic acts of financial giving, voluntary action, and association between individuals have been the basis for U.S. social movements from abolition to women's rights to the Civil Rights


A social movement consists of a number of people organized and coordinated to achieve some task or a collection of goals, often the participants are interested in bringing about social change. Compared to other forms of collective behavior, movements have a high degree of organization and are of longer duration.

Historic Roots

Throughout the history of the United States, social movements have been a staple in the maturation of the country. Prior to the industrial revolution and development of the modern nation-state, insurgents organized within a small geographic area and pressed for change using idiosyncratic tactics. However, a number of broad social changes transformed the way people pursue collective action. From middle class white women's desire to be included in the American political process in the nineteenth century came the Women's Suffrage movement. The insurgence of a generation of African Americans who felt they had inalienable rights that deserved to be acknowledged by their government led to the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

As early as the American Revolution the sophisticated mobilization of the American people displayed the characteristics of a modern social movement. For instance, Philadelphia women proposed to create a national women's organizational movement to raise money for the troops and renounced the use of British tea and fabric. The women helped to ignite one of the earliest nonprofit organizations in the history of the nation, the Daughters of Liberty (which continues today). Women organized mass spinning bees for wartime clothing, conducted national boycotts and some women even disguised themselves as men and fought in the army (Evans 1989, 49).


A social movement is a continuous phenomenon that thrives on the ability of the progressive community to capitalize on political opportunities and translate such opportunities into social change, according to sociologist Doug McAdam's political process model. For example, the Settlement House movement in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century served as an aspect of a larger Anti-poverty movement. The settlement houses focused on various social services, such as unemployment, childcare, and city sanitary regulations (Boyer et al. 1998, 424). The federal government has adopted some portions of the settlement house movement's agenda as public works, while many of the poverty related issues that Jane Addams and her peers fought still exist and are being battled by current nonprofit agencies.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Philanthropic acts of financial giving, voluntary action, and association between individuals have been the basis for the social movements throughout history. Countless examples exist of African American and white people who placed themselves in harm's way, gave food and shelter to others, and spent considerable time devoted to the cause during the abolition and Civil Rights movements. Their cumulative effect on society was the abolition of slavery and voting and equal rights and opportunities for African Americans. The idea of public schooling and education for all citizens (including the poor, women, and minorities) grew from the devotion of a number of pioneers who formed schools in their homes, or in secret, in order to teach the marginalized. The early years of the Women's Rights movement was fueled by women who gave their time and financial resources to march, to advocate, and to raise public awareness for equal rights in society; often the struggle pitted them against other women and their own families.

Key Related Ideas

Studies of social movements have taken various forms offering many explanations for the genesis and eventual decline of American movements. The definition of social movement that was utilized for this project was based in part on three social movement models. First, there is the classical model of social movements, which argues that social change is the result of a systematic "strain" on the social infrastructure of the political system. Hence, the commotion associated with the "strain" is transformed into feelings of anxiety, frustration, and hostility that lead to the emergence of a social movement (McAdam 1982, 9). Secondly, the resource mobilization model argues that social movements are the result of the quantity of "social resources" that are accessible to "unorganized but aggrieved groups, thus making it possible to launch an organized demand for change" (Ibid., 211). Although both models offer valid points about the cause of social movements neither one offers a complete analysis of the American social movement.

The third model is Doug McAdam's political process model of the American Civil Rights movement and addresses the political and the sociological factors that neither the classical nor resource mobilization models focus on. The political process model is based on the assumption that political members reflect an abiding "conservatism" in order to substantiate political power. This conservatism encourages political members to "resist changes that would threaten their current realization of their interests even more than they seek changes which would enhance their interests" (Ibid., 38). Unlike the classical model, the political process model relies on the notion that a social movement is a continuous phenomenon that thrives on the interplay of four factors:

  • Emergence of broad socioeconomic processes that expand the capacity for more political opportunities over an extended period of time.

  • "Readiness" of the indigenous organizations when the political opportunities become available.

  • Emergence of a collective consciousness among the challenging groups that encourages the belief that the movement is leading in a successful direction.

  • Ability to win the support of external groups in order to broaden the opposition against the conservative political structure. (Ibid., 40)

Social movements have accompanied every generation of American society. While few have been mentioned, there have been many social movements based on political or religious convictions that sprung the desire to fight discrimination; and many economic tensions existed while philanthropy often served as the medium that helped to initiate social change. For instance, the Abolition movement, the Suffrage movement and the Civil Rights movement are clear examples of how socially conscientious philanthropists were able to make America a better place when the vast majority were reluctant to change.

Important People Related to the Topic

Jane Addams established the Settlement House movement in 1889 when she created the Hull House in a poor immigrant neighborhood in Chicago. The House benefited an area that could not satisfy even the most basic needs of its residents and, because of her undying efforts, settlement houses spread to other major cities throughout the early twentieth century.

Amiri Baraka, author, is one of the controversial leaders of the Black Arts movement. In 1956, Baraka began his career as a writer, activist, and advocate of black culture and political power. He formed several different associations with the goal of empowering black people. His early plays and poems dealt with such subjects as death, suicide, and self-hatred; by the 1970s, he focused on the separation of the races and political activism. After 1974, his political ideology underwent a change and he abandoned Black Nationalism and embraced Marxist Leninism, supporting the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system, black or white. While his ideas have continued to evolve, he has not mellowed and contentious debate arises as the result of his work even today.

Cesar Estrada Chavez founded and led the first successful farm workers' union in U.S. history. In the 1950s and 1960s, Cesar was a full-time organizer with Community Service Organization, a barrio-based self-help group that coordinated voter registration drives and battled racial and economic discrimination against Chicano residents. In 1962, he founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). In September 1965, the NFWA, with 1200 member families, joined an AFL-CIO sponsored union in a strike against major Delano, California, grape growers. Cesar led a successful five-year strike and boycott that rallied millions of supporters to the United Farm Workers and forged a national support coalition of unions, church groups, students, minorities, and consumers. The two unions merged in 1966 to form the UFW, and it became affiliated with the AFL-CIO. His work led to an agreement between the UFW and growers, but conflict arose, yet again, in 1973, and he organized an effective worldwide boycott against table grape growers. His accomplishments on behalf of farm workers was based on the principles of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is one the best known leaders of the American Civil Rights movement. In 1950, he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association and led the historic bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, which acted as a public catalyst for the movement. King is a figure that is revered within American history for his nonviolent approach toward social change and his charismatic leadership. The action he took toward eradicating prejudice and injustice led him to receive the Noble Peace Prize in 1964.

Lucretia Mott was a Quaker minister, a peace and temperance advocate, and an anti-slavery activist. She envisioned women's rights as part of a broader reform of society. She is credited with being one of the founders of the Women's Rights movement, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Mott's interest in women's rights coincided with her involvement in the Anti-slavery movement; her Quaker beliefs were the basis for her drive as a reformer.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

The Hull House Association of Chicago is a descendent of the original Hull House, established in 1889, and is still functioning with a philosophy of community service and social reform. The Association deals with issues related to childcare and domestic violence.

The National Urban League played a major role during the American Civil Rights movement and still serves over two million people today. The NUL's goals focus on economic equality and empowerment for African Americans.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was originally founded in 1909 and has had a major role in American history. The NAACP was a major sponsor of the series of legal victories that led to the Civil Rights Movement and is active in legal and political reform to this day.

Related Web Sites

Internet Modern History Source Book Web site contains links to a broad spectrum of historical information - including time periods, countries, and concepts (at

Nonprofit Organizations: America's Invisible Sector Web site is maintained by Lester M. Salamon, distinguished scholar in the non-profit sector (at

The Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775-2000 Web site, at, is designed for teachers, to help them explore topics related to women's history and social movements in the United States; the site also provides lesson plans.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

The Academy of American Poets. Amiri Baraka. [cited 10 January 2003]. Available from

Boyer, Paul S., Clifford E. Clark, Jr., and Sandra McNair Hawley. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Cesar E. Chavez Institute for Public Policy. Viva Cesar E. Chavez. [cited 10 January 2003]. Available from

Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty. New York: The Free Press, 1989. Paperback reprint: ISBN: 0684834987.

McAdam, Doug, Political process and the development of the black insurgency, 1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Paperback reprint: ISBN: 0226555526.

Martin, Douglas E. Collective Behavior and Social Movements. [cited 10 January 2003]. Available from

Stanford University. Martin Luther King Papers Project. [updated 28 June 2002; cited 9 January 2003]. Available from

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.