The Social Movement Reader – book review

November 6, 2006

The Social Movements Reader: Cases and Concepts
Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper, eds
Blackwell Publishing: 2006 

Jeff Goodwin is a professor of Sociology at New York University. Both Goodwin, and James Jasper have written a number of books on varying social movements, seeking to understand the process of revolution in a new way.  

Goodwin and Jasper attempt to provide a systematic study of the development, operation and impact of social movements.  Very little research and documentation has been done on social movements, and the editors try to bring together a number of articles and book chapters in order to study movements in an academic setting.   

Until recently social movements have been seen in a negative light, as rebellious affronts to the system. It is only in the past decades that social movements are no longer being seen as a threat to society, but rather a needed corrective to the world.  Goodwin and Jasper seek to answer the questions “why do social movements form,” “who joins them,” “how are the organized” and “what effect do they have on society.”  In order to do this, they draw on articles from a number of different social movements, including feminism, gay rights, environmentalism and the civil rights movement.  Throughout their research, Goodwin and Jasper found a number of characteristics of social movements.   

First, a social movement is more than just an isolated protest or discontent with society. It is an organized, prolonged attack on a governmental or societal structure.  It desires to change things, and to bring about a particular result. Second, in order for a social movement to grow, it must first see itself as a movement, and then utilize social networks in order to recruit more people to the movement.  Finally, social movements must retain their members and continue working towards a unified goal in order to succeed.  The social movements that have been the most successful, such as the civil rights movement, must be able to adapt their tactics to their environment, and to be flexible in how they obtain their goal.  In contrast, movements that loose their unified goal or that develop ridged plans of action tend to loose their effectiveness, similar to what occurred during the end of the feminism movement.    

The Social Movement Reader was filled with articles and stories about cultural transformation, providing me with very practical information on how to transform powers.  Some of the articles were inspiring, while others just reminded me how much further we have to go, but it did provide me with a plethora of information on the development and continuation of social movements. 

At the same time, while the reader enlightened me academically, as a leader, I don’t feel any more equipped to lead a movement than before I read this book.  If so much of the civil rights movement was driven by particular events, I cannot create similar events to fuel my own revolution.  I was moved by the power of emotions in social movements, but I fear the abuse that comes with this knowledge.  Yes, emotions are integral to human action, but how, as a leaders, do I walk the line between motivating people to care and abusing their emotions in order to produce the result I desire?  Naomi Klein reported on many stories of protest where emotions seemed worked up in order to gain the public eye.  Is this appropriate use of emotions? And, as many articles pointed out, media is a strong tool in social movements, but is often abused by opponents of the movement, as well as by the movement itself.  How do we, as Kalle Lasn suggests, promote true freedom of speech, without using media to manipulate people?   

While I feel like this book gave me many new pieces of information about social movements, I do not feel like it gave me the tools to put this knowledge into practice.  What good is it to study other movements and look at where the went wrong, if we don’t take the time to explore how we can do it better next time, coming up with practical tools for the leaders of the coming social movements?


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