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Unit information: Understanding Social Movements in 2019/20

Please note: Due to alternative arrangements for teaching and assessment in place from 18 March 2020 to mitigate against the restrictions in place due to COVID-19, information shown for 2019/20 may not always be accurate.

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

Unit name Understanding Social Movements
Unit code SOCIM0028
Credit points 20
Level of study M/7
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Morgan
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies
Faculty Faculty of Social Sciences and Law


Once established, social structures can prove remarkably resistant to change, especially change from below, and especially when powerful interests are invested in maintaining and reproducing a particular social order. Occasionally however, people do come together to organise, mobilise, and protest in order to bring about social transformation or to defend against externally-imposed transformations. This unit will provide an introduction to the major perspectives that have been developed within sociology to understand such processes, drawing upon empirical case studies ranging from the American civil rights and environmental justice movements to the anti-apartheid movement, and more recent examples such as the Occupy protests and the Arab Spring. No prior knowledge of social movements is required but students will be encouraged to explore historical cases and keep track of developments in contemporary movements as they unfold. The unit will attempt to define what we mean by ‘collective action’ and ‘social movement’, and investigate attempts to explain such phenomena from early accounts of ‘crowd behaviour’ and functionalist theories of social strain to rationalist theories of collective decision-making and popular models of resource mobilisation and political process. It will introduce the analytical approaches that grew up in response to the so-called ‘new social movements’ that emerged during the late 1960s and assess the adequacy of this new focus on issues of identity, emotion, framing, narrative, and culture. The unit will question how movements coordinate social action and how decision-making takes place, for instance between the use of peaceful or violent tactics. It will track the various stages in the development and decline of social movements, and examine how modern communication technologies, especially the internet, have influenced both the form and capacity of recent mobilisations. Throughout, the unit will draw upon historical and contemporary examples of social movements from across the globe, consistently testing the adequacy of the theory against these cases.

The aims of the unit are:

  • To introduce students to the main sociological approaches to understanding social movements and enable them to critique these approaches.
  • To help students comprehend how and why movements mobilise, how they acquire and deploy both material and symbolic resources, how they capitalise upon political opportunities, how they make decisions concerning which tactics to deploy, how they frame themselves, their opponents, and relevant political issues, how they rely upon, tap into, and elicit emotions, how they are able to instigate social change, how they are able to exploit new technologies, and how and why they eventually decline and disappear.

To equip students with the tools necessary to perform their own independent analyses of concrete historical and current examples of social movements.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of the unit, students will be able to demonstrate via the unit assessment the ability to:

- Understand the variety of ways in which different generations of sociologists have understood collective behaviour and social movements. - Critically evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of such approaches. - Apply the various approaches to concrete examples of social movements, both historical and current. - Understand how resources, structures, networks, ideas, emotions and identities can impact the different stages of the rise, development, operation, and decline of social movements.

Teaching details

10 x 2-hour seminars

Assessment Details

Formative assessment: 1500 word essay

Summative assessment: 4000 word essay (100%)

All essay questions (formative and summative) will be designed to allow evaluation of student performance in relation to Intended Learning Outcomes 1-4 as detailed below.

The 1500 word formative essay will allow for provision of feedback from the unit owner on the extent to which students have demonstrated an ability to meet the aims and intended learning outcomes of the unit, with suggestions for further improvement.

The summative essay will allow for assessment of students’ ability to meet the Intended Learning Outcomes 1-4, detailed below, by requiring students to develop an in-depth essay argument over a length of 4000 words that draws upon relevant readings, materials and debates covered in the unit.

Reading and References

  • Castells, M., (2015), Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Hardt, M., & Negri, A., (2017), Assembly, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Jasper, J. M. (1997). The Art of Moral Protest: Culture, Biography, and Creativity in Social Movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • McAdam, D. (1982). Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. University of Chicago Press.
  • McCarthy, J. D., & Zald, M. N. (1977) ‘Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory’ American Journal of Sociology, 82(6), 1212–1241.
  • Melucci, A. (1980). ‘The New Social Movements: A Theoretical Approach’ Information (International Social Science Council), 19(2), 199–226.
  • Tarrow, S. (1998). Power in Movement: Social Movements, Collective Action and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Touraine, A. (1981). The Voice and the Eye: An Analysis of Social Movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.