Summary of Charles Tilly's Social Movements

Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll talk about how the sociologist Charles Tilly defines social movements. We'll talk about his definition, what social movements do, and what they need to be successful.

Who is Charles Tilly?

What do you think of when you hear the term 'social movements?' Something along the lines of a big group of protesters, maybe carrying signs, perhaps chanting, probably comes to mind. You might think of the the Civil Rights Movement, or the various feminist movements, or the Occupy Wall Street movement. You might think about a group of workers protesting for higher wages outside a fast food restaurant.

Sociologists spend a lot of time thinking about social movements. Charles Tilly was a sociologist who wrote a lot about social movements. He was a professor of sociology at Columbia University for many years and is one of the most well known social movement scholars. In this lesson, we'll talk about how he explains social movements.

Social Movements

Tilly argues that social movements formed at a specific point in our history. They began somewhere around the mid-1800s, signaling a change in the way that people participated in politics in places like Great Britain. They spread throughout the Western world, as well as into colonized countries.

Dr. Martin Luther King during a civil rights protest
Tilly; social movements; MLK

The first thing we need to do is define what Tilly means by 'social movement.' He differed from many other scholars who wrote about social movements because he provides us with a more specific definition of social movements. Think back to the opening of this lesson. Charles Tilly would consider some of these scenarios social movements, but not all of them. More specifically, Tilly considers protests different from social movements. Social movements need to have a few specific things to fit Tilly's definition.

At the most basic level social movements are all about social interaction. They aren't just a group of people who have gathered to protest something. They are interacting in specific ways with one another. According to Tilly, social movements seek to launch a challenge against the people in our society who hold power.

How Social Movements Work

First, social movements make their claims and launch their challenges through what Tilly calls their campaign. A social movement campaign is all about claims. For example, let's say a social movement is trying to organize around raising wages. The claim here is that wages are too low. The challenge is leveled against policy makers and business owners. The claim is that workers should be paid more.

So now that we have made a claim, how do we express this? Tilly argues that social movements do this through their repertoire of actions meant to bring attention to the claim. This might be holding meetings or holding rallies or protests.

A post from Occupy Wall St. This is part of the repertoire of this social movement
Tilly; social movements

Finally, social movements need a public display of numbers. In other words, they need to gather up enough people so that those in power might take their claims seriously. Tilly argues that social movements do this through WUNC, an acronym he came up with that means worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment.

Worthiness is basically the way people within the movement present themselves. It might be things like always keeping a serious demeanor during a protest.

Unity is a way that a social movement expresses that it's united around a cause. This might mean wearing the same color or creating matching T-shirts and wearing them at protests.

Numbers is exactly what it sounds like. You want a lot of people. Imagine a social movement with five members versus one with 200. You'll probably have a lot more faith that the bigger one can get things done.

Commitment is all about how much sacrifice members are willing to make for the movement. Are people willing to camp out all night, night after night, even in the pouring rain, in front of city hall? This is a much bigger commitment to the cause than, say, showing up once or twice for a rally.

According to Tilly, this is what makes true social movements different from actions like participating in electoral politics or joining a one-time protest in front of city hall.

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