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Types of Social Movements

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Social movements refer to group actions taken with an objective to challenge and change specific political or social situations. It requires continuous collective action by people demanding a similar change. Such movements are mostly a consequence of distrust or dissatisfaction between the political institutions running the government and the society. Some social movements are driven to reform current systems and set up, that is, they are motivated by the forces of revolutionary and radical ideas. All in all, social movements break out when people feel deprived of their relative living standard or when people become knowledgeable which convinces them that their way of living is unacceptable. These movements of sustained collective action take place through the organization, that is, it justifies the role of its leadership and members and the ways to make decisions.

Many political scientists have divided social movements into two broad categories – old and new social movements.

  • Old Social Movements:  Social movements of this type revolve around traditional issues of economic equality, material resources, and the struggle for political power. Old social movements are concerned with the question of the arrangement and organization of society and state.
  • New Social Movements: New social movements are a result of cultural and modernistic ambitions which aim to bring a change in the mindset of societal and cultural norms. An appropriate example for a new social movement would be the human rights movement, feminism, LGBTQ, environmental concerns, etc.

The Basic Differences between Old and New Social Movements:

  • Old social movements were an initiative within the framework of a political party, it did not involve the question of power distribution in society or concerns about the quality of life offered to citizens by its government
  • New social movements are central to cultural anxieties, aspirations related to quality of life issues, etc. These new social movements struggle to include beliefs that are in contradiction with a dominant cultural orientation
  • The old and new social movements differ in directing their energies. While the old movements advocated the interests of the working-class, new social movements are interested in the provision of intangible goods

India has long witnessed many instances of social movements throughout history. Some of the famous social movements are proposals for reservation in education and employment, the peasants’ movement, Dalit and other lower-caste struggles, etc. Social movements can also be classified as redemptive, revolutionary, and reformist. Both redemptive and reformist social movements involve incremental steps towards change in personal and political arrangements respectively. It is important to note that new social movements are not structured on class lines or inequalities. On the contrary, it unifies people from different class boundaries. For instance, feminist movements include women from different backgrounds – rural and urban areas.

Difference Between Social Movements And Revolutionary Ideas:

Type Of Transformation

  • Such new social movements, though influenced by modernity, are different from revolutionary ideas. While new social movements aim to bring in cultural transformation, it is different from revolutionary ideas in a manner.
  • Revolutionary ideas relate to transforming society and the political situation of a nation.  Such ideas are capable of capturing state-held political power to improve social relations.
  • For example, the French Revolution replaced monarchy by establishing and recognizing their nation as a republic and the anti-apartheid movement led to the end of the white racist regime in South Africa. Similarly, in India, the Naxalite movement to rule out the structures of oppressive landlords is an example of revolutionary ideas.

Macro and Micro level:

  • New social movements and revolutionary ideas are different phenomena. Revolutions are mainly perceived from the view of the macro-level. These ideas originate with an objective to replace an already established governmental regime or to transform the whole socio-economic or political order prevalent in society. Such utopian ideas are likely to cause violent conflicts and attacks.
  • On the other hand, new social movements occur at the micro-level. The goal of such movements is neither to replace the existing regime or to bring in an entirely new social order. These groups are a result of the mobilization of like-minded people. Such movements network individuals in pursuit of a change in public opinion. The agenda of such groups are included in the social and political order or specific modifications in the policies and programmes. Social movements use peaceful methods to express their discontents such as marches, boycotts, and other peaceful demonstrations. Such movements are likely to take place in liberal societies wherein citizens are granted freedom of speech and expression.


  • Social movements are a vital component of change in society but it is difficult to assess their role as an ingredient of political change.
  • Revolutionary ideas, on the other hand, are easily anticipated as harbingers of political change. Thus, both of these phenomena differ in the field of change that they bring. Social movements are associated with social change, whereas revolutionary ideas are inclined towards political ones.

Even though new social movements and revolutionary ideas begin with tensions and conflicting opinions between the government and society, political scientists consider the two approaches to differ from each other. Despite the common feature these two phenomena share, both of them generate different outcomes. Social movements often result in improving governance in contrast to revolutionary ideas aimed at throwing away the government through guerrilla movements. The goals of these movements and ideas vary in a sense to facilitate or restrict change in society. New social movements are concerned with bringing social transformation so much to change specific cultural, political, or social identities. Revolutionary ideas are concerned with bringing radical and rapid reform to the political institution of the country.

Last Updated : 09 Nov, 2021
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