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Social Movement Stages: Emergence, Coalescence, Bureaucratization & Decline

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  • 0:05 Social Movements
  • 1:16 Stage 1: Emergence
  • 2:50 Stage 2: Coalescence
  • 4:38 Bureaucratization
  • 5:56 Decline
  • 6:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Valerie Houghton, Ph.D.

Valerie holds a Ph.D. in Health Psychology.

Although social movements around the world differ from each other in many ways, they all generally go through a life cycle marked by the progressive stages of emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization, and decline. In this lesson we will discuss the four stages of social movements.

Social Movements

Have you ever been asked to tweet, friend, like, or donate online for a cause? Perhaps you have 'liked' a local nonprofit on Facebook, prompted by one of your friends liking it, too. Nowadays social movements are woven throughout our social media activities. Although many of the past and present social movements around the world differ from each other in many ways, they all generally go through a life cycle marked by the progressive stages of emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization, and decline. In this lesson, we will discuss the four stages of social movements.

A social movement is not necessarily a political party or interest group, nor is it a mass fad or trend. Instead they are somewhere in between. They are defined as a group of people with a common ideology who try together to achieve certain general goals. Some characteristics of social movements are that they are involved in conflicts with clearly identified opponents, and they share a collective identity. Their goals can either be aimed at a specific policy or more broadly aimed at cultural change.

Stage 1: Emergence

Social movements start when people realize that there is a specific problem in their society that they want to address. This realization can come from the dissatisfaction people feel or information and knowledge they get about a specific issue. At the first stage, the social movement defines the problem it is going to address.

The first stage of the social movement is known as emergence. Within this stage, social movements are very preliminary, and there is little to no organization. Potential movement participants may be unhappy with some policy or some social condition, but they have not yet taken any action in order to redress their grievances, or, if they have, it is most likely individual action rather than collective action. For example, a person may comment to family that he or she is dissatisfied with a particular issue.

The early unorganized Civil Rights Movement reflects the emergence stage of social movement
Emergence example

An example of this stage would be the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1950s. There was, of course, a general and long standing sense of discontent among the African-American population in the South. However, they were not yet organizing the mass and continued actions that came later, characterized by the Civil Rights Movement. It was not until after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954, which outlawed segregation in public schools, and the 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to comply with segregation laws on city buses by giving up her seat to a white man, that the Civil Rights Movement would proceed to the next stage.

Stage 2: Coalescence

Often, social unrest or discontent passes without any organizing or widespread mobilization. For example, people in a community may complain to each other about a general injustice, but they do not come together to act on those complaints, and the social movement does not progress to the second stage.

The second stage of the social movement life cycle is known as coalescence. Stage two is characterized by a more clearly defined sense of discontent. It is no longer just a general sense of unease, but now a sense of what the unease is about and who or what is responsible. This is the stage when the social movement and the issues it focuses on become known to the public. At this stage, a social movement develops its plan of action, recruits members, holds protest marches, forms networks, and gets resources. Most importantly, this is the stage at which the movement becomes more than just random, discontented individuals; at this point, they are now organized and strategic in their outlook.

The American Civil Rights Movement again provides a good example. After the initial emergence, the movement began a series of high profile campaigns that sought to highlight the plight of African-Americans in the segregated South. These campaigns included the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the lunch counter sit-ins in which African-American students would sit down at segregated counters and wait to either be served or to be dragged out by the police. These events galvanized support for the movement, and prominent leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began to emerge. After many years of successful but hard fought campaigns and strong leadership, the movement became a more prominent political force.

Stage 3: Bureaucratization

The third stage of the social movement life cycle is known as bureaucratization. As a movement grows, it often tends to become bureaucratized, and paid leaders and paid staff replace the volunteers that began the movement. It also means that clear lines of authority develop. More attention is also devoted to fundraising.

At the same time, if movements do not bureaucratize to at least some degree, they may lose their focus and not have enough money to keep on going. Many social movements fail to bureaucratize and, in this way, end up fizzling out because it is difficult for members to sustain the emotional excitement of the first two stages and because continued mobilization becomes too demanding for participants.

The gay rights movement has moved into the bureaucratization stage
Bureaucratization

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