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Study explores how social movements are born


As the social web has blossomed, so too have attempts to both understand and instigate viral movements online.  There have been numerous attempts to understand how social movements form and blossom, with little in the way of replicable success.  There is a clear crossover into the organizational world however, where a good deal of cultural change is attempted using similar tactics used when trying to make something go ‘viral’ online.

A recent study from the University of Arizona has attempted to explore how social movements are born, and how they flourish.  The study focused upon the various hashtags adopted by social movements, whether it was the #BlackLifeMatters used after the shooting in Ferguson, or #OccupyWallStreet or one of the many others adopted for various other movements over the years.

The researchers identify three core things that tend to be associated with the formation of new social movements:

  1. Single issue movements are rarer and rarer, with many joining forces with other issues
  2. New movements are increasingly forming as a result of multiple grievances that become known to a large group of people
  3. Technology is increasingly aiding the development, growth and sustainability of movements

They go on to identify two clear schools of thought on how social movements arise and are sustained.  One suggests that they organize themselves around grievances, whilst the other identifies political opportunity as the core motivating factor, with issues such as the resources to organize the movement and the media to propagate it supporting this core motivation.

What binds most movements together are issues involving political and social equity.

“Social movements are typically born out of some deep, shared concern and need to make change, and while they are often organized on behalf of social justice, they may also congeal around shared values, as in the anti-abortion movement,” the researchers say. “They often attract people who may be marginalized vis-à-vis the dominant society or group.”

They go on to say how important the rise in social media has been in facilitating the growth and spread of social movements.

“Movements need direction, communication, and shared vision—something that has become quite easy to provide in our digital age, where social media has both ignited and enabled various movements,” they say.

There are some clear parallels with major organizational change efforts.  Most tend to be driven by a major event that reinforces the need for change and acts as a catalyst to bind people together.  Whilst technology has clearly been deployed to try and accelerate cultural change, the research suggests that without that initial grievance, it will be a challenge to sustain activity.

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