The Shaping of Politics Through Social Movements

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Due to their loosely organized nature, social movements can prove difficult to analyze. There is no membership, nor is there an assigned or elected leader of a movement. In fact, a movement may not even be focused on a single issue. These characteristics have led to much distress among scholars interested in studying social movements and how they work.

Social Movement Importance

Nonetheless, the importance of social movements in the contemporary political world is unquestionable. While there is no formal organization of a social movement, there are often specific organizations that provide supporting structure and taking up their issues. Similarly, they often have a number of unofficial leaders or charismatic individuals to provide a voice to the movement. Furthermore, working towards somewhat vague goals creates a “catch-all” movement that can generate broad support. These amorphous qualities can be misleading regarding the effectiveness of these movements.

What is the Appeal?

In reality, it may be these characteristics that make social movements so appealing. For example, there is no buy-in. They do no require anything of their supporters other than sharing a common belief. Because of this, the line marking the entry into a social movement is fairly obscure. Therefore, joining a movement takes relatively little effort, incentivizing participation. Alternatively, social movements can become a significant part of our culture, particularly among the youth. From this perspective, they grow simply due to their insertion into the conversation, with awareness increasing participation. In this scenario they can even become equivalent to an ideological fad and identifying with a certain movement becomes personable.

Social Movements Force Change

Regardless of how social movements grow, they can force change on a virtually endless number of issues if a successful movement builds. Even if a movement does not achieve some of its central goals, it forces the public conversation and works to change minds. With enough backing, a movement can even pique the interest of politicians, furthering the cause. Though the social movement may not have enough political clout to move beyond this point of acknowledgement, they successfully serve the role of facilitating debate among politicians and the greater public. This may be the most significant impact of social movements, as they are effective in guiding public discourse and bringing light to issues that may not have been a key debate in mainstream politics. In attracting a large group of individuals and creating discussion, the social movement is capable of creating a political force that ultimately generates action.

They also create a unique effect on individuals that participate. The voluntary, self-motivated nature of these movements creates a distinctive bond among the like-minded participants. The relationships built and networking occurring within a movement inspires and motivates. Group solidarity and the social capital created out of such movements form a powerful political tool capable of altering the course of political discussion, and often, political and societal change.

Grassroots Movements

Thus, social movements are characteristically grassroots movements. A staple of modern democracy, they are a core component of participatory democracy. These movements give power to citizens, creating a more vibrant democracy and solidifying the idea of citizens as the primary source of power. Though the most pressing goals of a movement may not be fully realized, the movement, nonetheless, creates a lasting impact across society and the institutions within.

By: Salem Thomas, EKU graduate assistant

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