By Jennifer Malat
Recently I had lunch with Patricia Hill Collins, a prominent social theorist at the University of Maryland, and our upcoming symposium keynote speaker. As we talked about the widespread enthusiasm for the idea of The Cincinnati Project, I shared that it has been surprisingly easy to find people who would like to partner with us.
Is this because we are living in a new social movement?
Dr. Collins and I discussed this question. She told me that she worked with students last fall on this very subject. From their research, they concluded that we are, indeed, living in a new social movement. Their specific research and findings will be discussed at a later date.
How do we define a social movement? There have been many efforts by sociologists to clarify the criteria for a social movement. A concise definition by Blumer and Park in 1939 defined social movements as “collective enterprises to establish a new order of life. They have their inception in the condition of unrest, and derive their motive power on one hand from dissatisfaction with the current form of life, and on the other hand, from wishes and hopes for a new scheme or system of living.”*
Sociologists tend to modify the definition when witnessing a new social movement. For example, in the early twentieth century, a social movement polarized around unrest with the current political model. Since around the 1990’s, a “contention” model of social movement is more widely used, and this allows for the definition to include those who are seeking to change culture, not just politics or economics.**
Usually people who are living during a social movement aren’t aware of it. Only later do historians and sociologists tell a story of action that changed the direction of society.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leading a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965.
From 1954– 1968, The Civil Rights Movement conducted coordinated efforts including boycotts, sit-ins, and marches, along with the individual efforts of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Junior. It’s easier to see the collective impact of these efforts after the fact.
Today, we see signs of a social movement in the actions and words from many people of our society: grassroots organizing, government officials speaking out, and artists making demands and expressing the emotions of millions in their work. Black Lives Matter is the most prominent of the current movement, but attention is also being given to high rates of poverty and inequality as well. Since we have recognized that we are in the midst of a social movement, our challenge to our students, our peers, our partners is,
“How will we use this social movement to make our community a better place for ALL people?”
*Herbert Blumer. “Collective Behavior,” in Robert E. Park, ed. An Outline of the Principles of Sociology. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1939, p. 199.
**McAdam, Doug, Sidney G. Tarrow, and Charles Tilly. Dynamics of Contention (Cambridge Studies in Contentious Politics). New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.