Social Movements Essay

Elspeth Wilson
A Partial View of Political Process
Social movements require a fairly complex and multi-dimensional paradigm in order to adequately explain the multiplicity of factors that contribute to their development and sustenance. Like both McAdam and Costain, I believe that the political process model is a much more appropriate theory for social movements than either the classical model (with its emphasis on psychology) or the resource mobilization model (with its ultra-capitalistic approach to all socio-political interactions). Indeed, unlike the classical and resource mobilization theories, the political process model incorporates a number of different factors, making it significantly more realistic and versatile. Both McAdam and Costain analyze a set of empirical evidence in order to judge the credibility of the political process model as a comprehensive paradigm for social movements. While I except the political process model as the most accurate theoretical description of social movements, I do not agree with Costain’s reformulation of ‘political process.’ Indeed, I believe that Costain succumbs to a subtle regression into elitist theory.

In Social Movements as Interest Groups, Costain begins by stating that “traditional measures of interest group influence frequently fail to capture the impact social movements have on legislation” (p. 285). From this opening, we can assume that she intends to reveal the actual impact of social movements on legislation through a non-traditional method of measurement. In this context, Costain searches for a theory that captures the influential dynamics of social movement success. Her answer is the political process theory, which “suggests that the presence of leadership and resources (particularly those provided by external groups) is less important in determining movement success than the structure of political opportunity faced by the movement” (p. 288). But what exactly constitutes this structure of political opportunity?
Costain argues that movements only emerge when the federal government becomes more favorable and supportive towards the members and goals of the movement. Thus, according to Costain, the mild support of the government was instrumental in the psychological preparation of the movement’s members; a favorable government encouraged women to realize that there was a possible political solution to their discontent. In this way, at the base of every successful social movement, Costain establishes a prerequisite of an increasingly favorable government (that spurs the psychological state necessary for a large-scale social movement). Thus, the government indirectly influences the formation of the social movement, and the social movement then pressures its (oftentimes reluctant) supporter to pass legislative or protective action. In Costain’s model, the government is the key figure in both the formation and the success of the social movement.

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While the government clearly plays an important role in almost every stage of the formation and proliferation of a social movement, I do not think that it is nearly so crucial to the birth of social movements. Indeed, I find Costain’s emphasis on government a sort of regression to the earlier elitist theories concerning the resources necessary for the success of a social movement. The national government is essentially an elitist institution. Federalism (combined with the basic prerequisites of contemporary successful politicians) makes a certain degree of elitism a necessary reality of American representative democracy. Thus, Costain’s paramount emphasis of governmental influence on the formation of social movement is not entirely consistent with political process theory. Furthermore, I believe that there is sufficient evidence that governmental support does not always precede the formation of successful social movements.
While both the civil rights movement and the women’s movement might both seem to superficially conform to the ‘governmental support clause’ of Costain’s political process paradigm, this is certainly not the case with all movements. For example, a movement that is particularly hostile towards the government (or seeks to negatively influence the actions of the government) would probably find the government to be fairly unreceptive to their views. This type of negativity would remove the step of governmental support from the equation because it would be exceedingly illogical for the government to support a group that was fundamentally against it. Thus, when analyzing a movement that takes a stand against the direct actions of the federal government, we would clearly not expect the emergence of the movement to be preceded by governmental support for its cause.
The anti-war movement represents one of the more significant and widespread social movements of the twentieth century. The government, however, had little interest in the facilitation of the movement’s goals for world peace and an end to the Vietnam War. Because of this, I must argue that government facilitation and support of movements is not necessarily the primary requirement for the formation of all social movements. Instead, I believe that a movement can have a profound impact by inciting the sympathies of large sections of the American populace—this is what most contemporary social movements tend to do.
It is likely that this type of sympathetic identification is also a fairly modern phenomenon, and has resulted primarily from the advent of sophisticated forms of mass media (particularly television news programs that reach a large sector of the population). Indeed, it is the sympathetic response of people to profound cases of injustice that seems to place government in the oftentimes-uncomfortable position of having to remedy the situation. For instance, during the civil rights movement, people were horrified and outraged at the violent means used by the police to subdue peaceful black protestors. Similarly, the anti-war protests at colleges like Kent State, Berkeley, and Santa Barbara, resulted in horribly violent encounters between the students and the police. Regardless of whether or not the public agreed with the students’ goals, there amassed widespread sympathy for the peaceful protestors that were consistently assaulted by the police. While war is traditionally a time of patriotism, mass protests coupled with media coverage of the horrors of the actual fighting, lead to a stigmatization of the Vietnam War and the resignation of President Johnson from the presidential race.
I understand that the anti-war movement may be a difficult social movement to analyze due to its lack of organization. However, I believe that it represents an important exception to Costain’s emphasis on the role of the government at the beginning stages of social movements. While the government may often alter its convictions towards a movement, and become more supportive, I do not believe that this is a necessary component for the development of a successful movement. Indeed, with the help of the press and the media, a large grassroots movement can certainly work its way from the people (bottom) to the government (top), rather than beginning with the government before becoming an important influence in American society. Contemporary social movements are much more dynamic and less predictable than Costain’s argument implies. While I disagree with Costain, I do not believe that my skepticism actually harms the political process theory (as I was expressed by McAdam). Indeed, political process theory remains the most plausible explanation for the complex and dynamic nature of American social movements.
Political Issues


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