While technology, population, environment factors, and racial inequality can prompt social change, only when members of a society organize into social movements does true social change occur. The phrase social movements refers to collective activities designed to bring about or resist primary changes in an existing society or group.
Wherever they occur, social movements can dramatically shape the direction of society. When individuals and groups of people—civil rights activists and other visionaries, for instance—transcend traditional bounds, they may bring about major shifts in social policy and structures. Even when they prove initially unsuccessful, social movements do affect public opinion. In her day, people considered Margaret Sanger's efforts to make birth control available extreme and even immoral, yet today in the United States, one can easily purchase contraceptive products.
Social scientists interest themselves in why social movements emerge. Do feelings of discontent, desires for a “change of pace,” or even yearnings for “change for the sake of change” cause these shifts? Sociologists use two theories to explain why people mobilize for change: relative deprivation and resource mobilization.
When members of a society become dissatisfied or frustrated with their social, economic, and political situation, they yearn for changes. Social scientists have long noted that the actual conditions that people live under may not be at fault, but people's perceptions of their conditions are. Relative deprivation refers to the negative perception that differences exist between wants and actualities. In other words, people may not actually be deprived when they believe they are. A relatively deprived group is disgruntled because they feel less entitled or privileged than a particular reference group. For example, a middle‐class family may feel relatively deprived when they compare their house to that of their upper‐class physician.
For social discontent to translate into social movement, members of the society must feel that they deserve, or have a right to, more wealth, power, or status than they have. The dissatisfied group must also conclude that it cannot attain its goals via conventional methods, whether or not this is the case. The group will organize into a social movement only if it feels that collective action will help its cause.
The relative‐deprivation theory takes criticism from a couple of different angles. First, some sociologists note that feelings of deprivation do not necessarily prompt people into acting. Nor must people feel deprived before acting. Moreover, this theory does not address why perceptions of personal or group deprivation cause some people to reform society, and why other perceptions do not.
Resource mobilization deals with how social movements mobilize resources: political pull, mass media, personnel, money, and so forth. A particular movement's effectiveness and success largely depends on how well it uses its resources.
Members of a social movement normally follow a charismatic leader, who mobilizes people for a cause. Charisma can fade, and many social movements collapse when this happens. Other movements, such as bureaucratic ones, manage to last, however, usually because they are highly organized.
Norms of behavior develop as people become part of a social movement. The movement may require its members to dress in special ways, boycott certain products, pay dues, attend marches or rallies, recruit new members, and use new language. Concerning the latter, recent social movements have given rise to new terms like Hispanic American, African American, feminists, and psychiatrically disabled.
For a social movement to succeed, leaders must heighten their followers' awareness of oppression. To stimulate their social movement in the 1960s and 1970s, feminists convinced women that they were being discriminated against in various arenas, including work, school, and home.
Unlike the relative‐deprivation theory, the resource‐mobilization theory emphasizes the strategic problems faced by social movements. Specifically, any movement designed to stimulate fundamental changes will surely face resistance to its activities. Critics feel the theory does not adequately discuss the issue of how opposition influences the actions and direction of social movements.