Four Stages of Social Movements

Four Stages of Social Movements

One of the earliest scholars to study social movement processes was Herbert Blumer, who identified four stages of social movements’ lifecycles. The four stages he described were: “social ferment,” “popular excitement,” “formalization,” and “institutionalization” Since his early work, scholars have refined and renamed these stages but the underlying themes have remained relatively constant. Today, the four social movement stages are known as:

• Emergence,
• Coalescence,
• Bureaucratization, and
• Decline

Although the term decline may sound negative, it should not necessarily be understood in negative terms. Scholars have noted that social movements may decline for several reasons and have identified five ways they do decline. These are:

• Success,
• Organizational failure,
• Co-optation,
• Repression, or
• Establishment within mainstream society

Stage 1: Emergence

The first stage of the social movement life cycle is known as the emergence, or, as described by Blumer, the “social ferment” stage (Within this stage, social movements are very preliminary and there is little to no organization.

Instead this stage can be thought of as widespread discontent . Potential movement participants may be unhappy with some policy or some social condition, but they have not
taken any action in order to redress their grievances, or if they have it is most likely individual action rather than collective action. A person may comment to friends and family that he or she is dissatisfied with conditions or may write a letter to the local newspaper or representative, but these actions are not strategic and not collective. Further, there may be an increase in media coverage of negative conditions or unpopular policies which contributes to the general sense of discontent.

Stage 2 Coalescence

At this next stage in the life cycle, social movements have overcome some obstacles which many never overcome. Often, social unrest or discontent passes without any organizing or widespread mobilization. For example, people in a community may complain to each other about a general injustice, but they do not come together to act on those complaints and the social movement does not progress to the next level. Stage two, known as coalescence, or the “popular stage,” is characterized by a more clearly defined sense of discontent. It is no longer just a general sense of unease, but now a sense of what the unease is about and who or what is responsible. Rex D. Hopper in examining revolutionary processes, states that at this stage “unrest is no longer covert, endemic, and esoteric; it becomes overt, epidemic, and exoteric. Discontent is no longer uncoordinated and individual; it tends to become focalized and collective” . Further he states “this is the stage
when individuals participating in the mass behavior of the preceding stage become aware of each other” . At this point leadership emerges and strategies for success are worked out. Also, at this stage mass demonstrations may occur in order to display the social movement’s power and to make clear demands. Most importantly this is the stage at which the movement becomes more than just random upset individuals; at this point they are now organized and strategic in their outlook.

Stage 3 is known as bureaucratization.

This stage, defined by Blumer as “formalization,” is characterized by higher levels of organization and coalition  ased strategies. In this stage, social movements have had some success in that they have raised awareness to a degree that a coordinated strategy is necessary across all of the SMOs. Similarly, SMOs will come to rely on staff persons with specialized knowledge that can run the day-to-day operations of the organization and carry out movement goals. Social movements in this stage can no longer just rely on mass rallies or inspirational leaders to progress towards their goals and build constituencies; they must rely on trained staff to carry out the functions of organizations. In this phase their political power is greater than in the previous stages in that they may have more regular access to political elites.

Many social movements fail to bureaucratize in this way and end up fizzling out because it is difficult for members to sustain the emotional excitement necessary and because continued mobilization becomes too demanding for participants. Formalization often means that paid staff can fill in when highly enthusiastic volunteers are not readily available . The gay rights movement is an example of a movement that has passed through this stage. The gay rights movement moved from agitation and demonstrations to having many formal organizations that now work toward the goals of the gay rights movement. Some of these organizations include the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination (GLAAD). If they did not form these bureaucratic organizations, many movements would have most likely faded away and their demands would have gone unmet.

Stage 4 Decline

Finally, the last stage in the social movement life cycle is decline, or “institutionalization.” Decline does not necessarily mean failure for social movements though. Instead, Miller argues, there are four ways in which social movements can decline:

• Repression,

• Co-optation,

• Success, and

• Failure.