Social Movement Outcomes

Do social movements cause social change? How would we know?

We look to the success of the civil rights movement in the United States and conclude, “Yes, social movements matter.” But, there are many social movements around the world, and there are many social changes.

How do we know if social movements cause social change? Unfortunately, many factors contribute to social change and it is difficult to draw a straight line between social movement actions and the changes they seek. To understand why, we first must consider the problem of causality.

What is causality?

Let’s say that X represents a factor, such as a “social movement activity.” Let’s say Y is the outcome, such as “social change.” How do we know X –> Y?

  • An association between X and Y exists
  • X precedes (is before) Y in some meaningful way
  • The relationship between X and Y is not caused by Z, another factor, i.e. eliminating “spuriousness.”

Let’s look at X → Y

In this simplest version, assume that X causes Y. How? X comes before Y, in some meaningful temporal way. Even if we measure X at the same time as Y, we can still build a model in which X comes before Y.

But, what if there are many factors and many possible outcomes?

What if…

(i) there are multiple X (X1, X2, …Xn) that could reasonably impact Y and

(ii) we cannot isolate these factors, i.e. a real world situation in which the units of observation cannot be controlled? 

This problem applies to the study of social movement outcomes: there are multiple real-world factors that we cannot manipulate in an experiment that would cause Y. Moreover,

(a) there are factors regarding power that we cannot observe;

(b) we have multiple possible Y;

(c) all possible Y may change over time.

Without understanding the chain of causality, we risk misidentifying actual outcomes and misattributing outcomes to the movement. In other words, we may not observe outcomes we could have observed, and we may think the movement mattered when, in fact, it did not.

The movement may be a spurious factor.

How do we define “social movement”?

If we are going to measure the impact of a social movement on social change, we need to define what a social movement is. Let’s look at three common definitions of the term.

  • A social movement may be defined as an organized effort by a large number of people to bring
    about or impede social, political, economic, or cultural change.” They work outside of the system.
  • “Social movements are defined as networks of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups and/or organizations, engaged in political or cultural conflicts, on the basis of shared collective identities” (Dani 1992). From Diani, M. (1992). The Concept of Social Movement. The Sociological Review, 40(1), 1–25.

See also: “Social movements” created by Sydney Brown. The video is lively and helpful.

As we can see, it is difficult to define the term. Some think of it in terms of organizations. Some in terms of networks and informal interactions.

Let’s say we pick a definition of social movement. How do we know if it causes social change?

Before I give you my answer, let’s ask OpenAI’s ChatGPT. This is an AI program that answers open ended questions. The answers are short (ca. 170 words).

Q: How do we know if a social movement causes social change?


We can know if a social movement causes social change by examining the impact of the movement on the social, political, and economic structures of society. Some key indicators of social change include:

Changes in laws and policies: If a social movement leads to changes in laws or policies, such as new laws being passed or existing laws being amended, this can be a sign of social change.

Changes in social norms and attitudes: If a social movement leads to changes in social norms and attitudes, such as increased acceptance of marginalized groups or greater awareness of social issues, this can be a sign of social change.

Changes in social institutions: If a social movement leads to changes in social institutions, such as schools, hospitals, or government agencies, this can be a sign of social change.

Changes in the distribution of power and resources: If a social movement leads to changes in the distribution of power and resources, such as increased access to education or healthcare for marginalized groups, this can be a sign of social change.

By examining these and other indicators, we can determine if a social movement has caused social change in a society.

Pretty good, chatbot AI! But, let’s look to the human literature for an in-depth answer.

Social Movement Outcomes: Problems and Solutions

This is based on two articles, plus some of my own thinking.

Identify the movement

Does the movement have a clear form, or a clear organizational core? If not, researchers would have to piece together the different strands of the movement to identify it as an entity with goals.

Identify the goals of the movement

The application of “success” or “failure” applies to whether we can identify a clear set of stated goals of the movement and compare them to their outcomes. However, a “social movement” may be large and unorganized with no agreement among its members on any specific goal.

We must also be able to identify the goal at T1 to know if there was a change in T2.

Identify the target of the movement

A movement must interact with its target. But first, what are the specific targets of the movement?

Time matters

To measure outcomes, we need to identify the short-term vs. long-term goals. Again, this is difficult if we cannot identify the goals.

Domains of outcomes

Social, economic, cultural, political? What is their specific form, duration, and magnitude?

Let’s look at the domain of outcomes as according to Bosi and Uba (2009):

Political: “changes in policies, legislation, political institutions, and regimes, or the actions taken by political parties”

Cultural: “changes in the values and ideas of the public, the development of new cultural products and practices (for example, popular culture and language), and the formation of collective identity and subcultures”

Biographical: “the impact of mobilization on the lives of sympathizers and participants in social movements”

Why not economic change?

Scope of Outcomes

Narrow vs. Broad: Outcomes can be narrow, as observing specific actions and changes to intended targets. They can be too broad, such as unintended consequences.

Changes in outcomes over time

One outcome can seemingly become a “success” or “failure” as time passes. At T1, the outcome for a domain was (…), but at T2, the outcome for a domain became (…). How durable is the change?

Direct vs. indirect effects

One outcome may be, theoretically, the direct effect of a movement, but another outcome may be directly caused by another factor. However, the movement may have impacted that factor:

Direct: X → Y
Indirect: X → Z → Y

“The direct effect of social movement means that the impact of a movement is determined by controlling for other factors that could lead to the outcome of interest. The second effect suggests that social movements first affect some factor that later appears as crucial for a political, cultural, or biographical change.” (410)

Conditions matter

Movements may have an impact in some places but not others, because of differences in the social, economic, cultural, or political conditions. Under what conditions do these movements matter?

Mechanisms matter

What are the actors and actions on the chain between the movement and the outcome that caused change?

Imagine the complexity of methods: to understand biographical change from an intersectional approach to dynamic changes in outcomes over differing time spans. Our methods cannot cope. It is too difficult to track, statistically speaking. The best we can do is to create stories from qualitative methods, and hope the stories will spark intellectual understanding.

Bosi and Uba (2009) “Future perspectives”

  1. To understand the steps between movement and outcome, reach out to other fields;
  2. More cross-national, cross-time comparisons;
  3. Better measurement from collecting various forms of data, multi-source and complex databases;
  4. Examine a wider range of examples (cases), especially those outside of liberal left wing movements that dominate the literature;
  5. Go beyond governments to other targets, such as the elite, or corporations, or lobbying groups, etc.;
  6. Discuss multiple outcome domains in the same study.

This post was funded by the National Science Centre, Poland (2021/43/B/HS6/01155), “The Construction of Post-Pandemic Society: Covid-19 Street Protest in Poland.”

Copyright Joshua Dubrow 2022



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