Essay on Theories of Social Movements



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Social movements arise because; social conditions create dissatisfaction with the existing ar­rangements. People join specific social movements for an almost infinite variety of reasons — in­cluding idealism, altruism, compassion, political considerations, practical benefits, religious fervour, as well as neurotic frustration.

It is indeed true that one of the main issues in the study of any movement, concerns its emer­gence. This point leads to three basic questions? What are structural conditions under which move­ments emerge? What are the motivational forces? What are the theories which conceptualise the beginning of a movement?

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According to M.S.A. Rao, there are three main theories concerning the emergence of social movements. They are: (a) The Relative Deprivation Theory; (b) The Strain Theory, and (c) The Revitalisation Theory.

(a) The Relative Deprivation Theory:

“Relative Deprivation” is a concept developed by Stouffer (1949). “It holds that one ‘feels’ deprived according to the gap between expectations and realisations. The person who wants little and has little, feels less deprived than the one who has much but expects still more”.

“A point that is coincident by relative deprivation theorists is that a position of relative depri­vation alone will not generate a movement. The structural conditions of relative deprivation provide only the necessary conditions. Sufficient conditions are provided by the perception of a situation and by the estimate of capabilities by certain leaders that they can do something to remedy the situa­tions.”— (M.S.A. Roa)

Relative deprivation is increasing throughout most of the underdeveloped countries. A weak­ening of the traditional and tribal controls generally leads to an enormous increase in desires. People long for so many things, better living conditions, facilities, luxury goods (like phone, T.V., Vehicles, electrical appliances, etc.) without knowing the difficulties involved in producing them and supply­ing them to all the people.

Hence the recently established independent governments of Third World Countries have no hopes of keeping up with their peoples’ expectations. The clouds of mass move­ments and revolutions seem to be widespread in these countries. “Revolutions seem most likely to occur not when people are most miserable, but after things have begun to improve, setting off a round of — rising expectation”—(Brinton).

Though this theory seems to be more acceptable, it is yet to be proved beyond doubts. Feelings of deprivation are easy to infer but difficult to measure. It is still more difficult to measure it over a period of time. This factor could be taken as only one among the many factors in social movements.

(b) The Strain Theory:

The ‘Strain Theory’ of social movement has been propounded by Smelser (1962). This theory considers structural strain as the underlying factor contributing to collective behaviour.

Structural strain may occur at different levels such as norms, values, mobility, situational facilities, etc. Because of these structural strains some generalised belief that seeks to provide an explanation for the strain, may emerge. Both strain and generalised belief require precipitating factors to trigger off a movement.

Smelser’s analysis of the genesis of social movements is very much within the structural func­tional framework. Smelser considers strain as something that endangers the relationship among the parts of a system leading to its malfunctioning. It places stress on the feeling of deprivation also. On the contrary, the “relative deprivation theory”, though emphasises the conflict element (which con­tributes to change) fails to consider it (conflict) as something that may contribute to the malfunction­ing of the system.

(c) The Theory of Revitalisation:

The “Relative Deprivation Theory” and the ‘Strain Theory’ — give us an impression that social movements necessarily arise out of negative conditions such as ‘deprivations’ and ‘strains’. In this context, Wallac (1956) has asserted “That social movements develop out of a deliberate, organised and conscious effort on the part of members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture for themselves”— (quoted by M.S.A. Rao)

Wallace who analysed the dynamics of revitalisation theory has mentioned about its four phases: “period of cultural stability, period of increased individual stress, period of cultural distortion and consequent disillusionment and period of revitalisation”.

The revitalisation theory suggests that adaptive processes are employed to establish equilib­rium situation. Social movements no doubt develop a programme of action. But these movements tend to be like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they express dissatisfaction, dissent, and protest against existing conditions, and, on the other, they offer a positive programme of action to remedy the situation.

The Theory of Relative Deprivation is more acceptable: M.S. A. Rao:

According to M.S.A. Rao, the relative deprivation theory offers a more satisfactory explana­tion of the emergence of social movement. Its merit is that it is pivoted around conflict and cognitive change. It is motivating and mobilising people around some issues and interests.

It’s another merit is that “it offers the best explanation for the change orientation of movements rather than looking at movements as adaptive mechanisms restoring functional unity and equilibrium”—(M.S.A. Rao).

The theory of relative deprivation, as M.S.A. Rao opines requires refinement in two directions: Firstly, “it is necessary to make the concept sociologically more relevant by eschewing individual and psychic deprivations” such deprivation remain “personal, arbitrary and even frivolous” ; Secondly, in considering areas of deprivation, it is necessary to include the areas such as religion, caste, etc.

The area of religion, though some sociologists (like Aberle, Glock and others) have not included in the purview of this theory, M.S.A. Rao feels, is as important as those of economics, education and politics.

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