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Social Movement: Theories and Motives Video

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  • 0:05 Social Movement
  • 0:51 Deprivation Theory
  • 2:35 Mass Society Theory
  • 4:21 Structure Strain Theory
  • 6:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Valerie Houghton, Ph.D.

Valerie holds a Ph.D. in Health Psychology.

In this lesson, we will define what social movements are and discuss why they develop. We'll cover the deprivation theory, the mass-society theory and the structure strain theory, which are three theories that sociologists use to explain social movements.

Social Movement

A social movement is an organized effort by a large number of people to bring about or impede social change. Although social movements differ in size, they are all essentially collective. That is, they result from the coming together of people whose relationships are not defined by rules or procedures but who merely share a common outlook on society.

Sociologists have looked at social movements and offered several theories to explain how they develop. Three of those theories - deprivation theory, mass-society theory and structure strain theory - will be discussed in this lesson.

Deprivation Theory

Deprivation theory was first described by Robert Merton and states that social movements arise among people who feel deprived. According to this approach, when people compare themselves to others, they may feel that they are at a disadvantage. They join social movements with the hope of ending their grievances. This sense of having less than other people (money, justice, status or privilege), also known as deprivation, is the basis for the social movement. According to this theory, this comparison, which results in a sense of injustice, is the key to the start of the social movement.

Women wanting equal rights is an example of deprivation theory. Women were seen as second-class citizens who had a social status lower than men's. For example, women were expected to restrict their interests to home and the family. Women were not encouraged to obtain a college education or pursue a career. In addition, women did not have the right to own their own property, keep their own wages or sign a contract. All women were also denied the right to vote.

Although the women's rights movement focused mainly on the right to vote, it brought about other changes for equality as well. For instance, women's access to higher education expanded, and as a result, females began to enter traditionally male professions such as authors, doctors, lawyers and ministers.

Mass-Society Theory

A mass society is a society in which prosperity and bureaucracy have weakened traditional social ties. Mass-society theory was first developed by the political sociologist William Kornhauser. In his theory, Dr. Kornhauser suggests that people who feel isolated and insignificant within a society are attracted to social movements. Social movements, according to this theory, are influenced by the media, and they provide a sense of empowerment and belonging that the movement members would otherwise not have. The key components in this theory are:

  1. The media are a powerful force within society that can subvert essential norms and values and thus undermine social order.
  2. The media are able to directly influence the minds of average people.
  3. Once people's thinking is transformed by media, long-term consequences are likely to result.

The anti-communist social movement of the 1950s, started by Senator Joseph McCarthy, is an example of mass-society theory. McCarthy saw the media to be subversive and dangerous. In a climate where fear of communism was already peaking because of the events of the first half of the century, McCarthy cultivated further hatred and paranoia by claiming the widespread infiltration of the government by communists. Furthermore, any voice that would speak out against the injustices of the propaganda would face accusations of being unpatriotic or a sympathizer of the communist cause.

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