Social Movement Theory: Fields, Arenas, and Players

Social movement theory typically uses the concepts of fields, arenas, and players or actors. But these concepts seem to be conceptually similar. In this post, I critique two articles by prominent social movement theorists to understand fields, arenas, and players. At the end, I attempt a synthesis.

See also: Social Movement Outcomes

Social Movement Fields

Useem, Bert, and Jack A. Goldstone. “The paradox of victory: social movement fields, adverse outcomes, and social movement success.” Theory and Society 51, no. 1 (2022): 31-60.

The authors develop the concept of “fields” to understand the dynamics that govern the relation between movements and outcomes, including the duration of those outcomes. They claim that we must move from the simple dyad of “movement→target” to an accounting of the complex environment in which movements may or may not cause outcomes. The consequences of using only a dyadic relationship (e.g. challenger – incumbent or movement-target) in which the challenger/target has changed its behavior (from T1 to T2) has dire consequences: “if we do not escape from treating movement outcomes in the ‘challenger-incumbent’ view, we will stumble in seeking to explain paradoxical results and will misidentify actual outcomes” (35). Misidentification and misattribution are core problems in establishing causal relationships.

Outcomes are a change in “the alignment of the broader social movement feld” (32). “Success” is a “favorable” alignment in this field. Polarization is a particularly pernicious force that can lead to negative outcomes, including reversals of movement successes.

What is a field?

The concept of field is developed from Bourdieu and from DiMaggio and Powell. There is no single model (34). 

Fields consist of interactions between actors and institutions in the field. “social movement dynamics should always be seen as an interaction between movements, their targets, and other actors and institutions comprising a social movement feld” (36) This seems tautological — social movement dynamics are the dynamics of a social movement field. It makes no sense.

Who is in the field?

There are many actors in the field, including “potential allies, countermovements, the public, and multiple actors in positions of authority” (33). Later, the authors write more expansively about the “broader” movement field, “which includes not only the movement and its target, but also active and potential counter-movements, active and potential coalition partners, the broader public, and other organizations and actors who, though not the target of the movement, would be affected by the movement’s actions and goal” (34).

How to use fields?

They must be identified and “analyzed as a whole” (35 – 36). On p. 37, they attempt to show how to apply the concept of fields through the concepts of victory and success. They try to make a distinction between “victory” and “success,” an argument that only an academic could love. In reality, they are the same. I suppose what they wanted to argue is that “victory” is short-term, narrow, and potentially temporary and “success” is long-term, broad, and potentially durable. They could have just said so, but instead, they tried to make a clever distinction between synonyms. They elaborate further on p. 56.

Their empirical cases for this Theory & Society article are a comparison between Yale University and the University of Missouri. Each protested against racial injustice. Yale had a lasting success in changing aspects of the racially discriminatory system and UM had a polarizing and short-term “victory” on these scores. The empirical analysis they provide seems trivial: both percent of Black students enrolled and revenues may and likely have nothing to do with protests, and show only slight fluctuations anyway. The “field” may or may not matter because, as the authors themselves eloquently explain the divergent situation in the conclusion: 

“Yale is a rich private school in a generally progressive northeastern state, with exceptional resources to respond to requests for additional spending. The University of Missouri is a public university in a state with a long history of racial segregation (Mizzou admitted its first Black undergraduate only in 1950, eighty years after Yale had done so). The University of Missouri is also far more dependent on tuition revenues than Yale…” (50).

This shows the limits of “field” and its porous conceptual boundary with “context.” The “field” is embedded in an historical context. Obviously, one cannot attribute actions of each movement without considering the divergent historical contexts in which they operate. Yale and UM had similar actions, but the effect was likely not due to their actions in that field, but to the historical context. If UM should have acted differently, then the authors should have posited a counterfactual.


Jasper, James M. “Linking arenas: structuring concepts in the study of politics and protest.” Social Movement Studies 20, no. 2 (2021): 243-257.

The purpose of the article is to propose a superior vocabulary for understanding actions within social movements. The key concepts are arenas and players.  Jasper sets arenas and players as a superior vocabulary intended to clarify a myriad of other concepts, including “institutions, fields, spaces, systems, and related concepts (sectors, worlds, configurations, and more)” (253). Jasper believes that many social movement frameworks and concepts can be reduced to arenas and players.

Jasper’s main critical target is structures. He argues that actors and structures are integral and integrated, but structures constrain only to a point. Structural theories do not acknowledge their limits, he argues. Criticizing the extant literature of structures, he argues, “The lesson is that any theory of constraint and structure needs to be paired with a theory of players, intentions, psychology, culture, and action” (244). These are vague terms that need definition. For example, he never defines “intentions” or “action.” Jasper criticizes structures at length later in the article (pp. 246 – 249).

Despite my criticisms, I value this article because there are strong attempts at definitions of the main concepts. At least Jasper gives us something we can work with.

Definition of Arena

Jasper’s definition: “Arenas are physical places where players interact to generate decisions and other outcomes; they contain objects ranging from doors and seats to quotes chiseled into marble walls to illumination and amplification devices, but they also have formal rules and informal expectations, as well as something at stake in the decisions made.” (244) Parenthetically, he adds, “some authors usefully employ the term more metaphorically, or as an aggregate, such as public opinion or the media as arenas” (244).

Let’s break that down: Arenas can be physical and material or intangible and ideational. Rules and expectations, which can be formal or informal, influence thoughts and behavior of the actors within. I don’t know what “something at stake” means.

Whereas “Arenas are intended as micro-level building blocks, the places where weighty strategic engagements occur” (253), arenas may or may not be places of decisions — they may have other, I suppose non-decisional, activities within them (250).

Definition of Players

Jasper defined players as “individuals or groups who have some shared identity, some common goals, and who operate in at least one arena” (244). 

Let’s break that down: Players have a shared identity. Players can be in multiple arenas simultaneously, and have different roles and advantages and disadvantages within them. “Almost always, a player has access to some arenas but not others; more advantages in some arenas than in others; and some choice of which arenas to enter, which arenas to put resources and attention in.” (247). Players are not necessarily objectively verifiable networks. They may be “imagined communities or necessary fictions” (246). Despite the shared identity and aims, they are not necessarily unified: “Players are constantly shifting, dissolving, and recombining” (245). 

How do players interact?

They interact in “long sequences” of action and reaction. They do so within the historical circumstance: “players and arenas reflect the weight of history” (245). Their alliances shift and can be fragile (250). They compete and cooperate. 

Structures & Stability and Arenas & Players

Jasper downplays structures as objective realities and finds their importance in how people perceive structures. Jasper writes, “both arenas and players contain some structural influences” (245). Structures matter: “Cultural-strategic models like this one still recognize external constraints…“ (245). But Jasper emphasizes the subjective aspects of constraints: “…at least as filtered through our expectations and calculations” (245). These perspectives matter for how they view the possibilities of action: “a structural barrier is insurmountable if a player believes it is” (246). They may also be tougher than players realize, he also argues. He criticizes structures as downplaying nuance and favoring stronger, more powerful actors and institutions over everyone else.

There are static structures, but structures change. Players shift. Arenas morph: “Arenas also change constantly” (245).

Blurred Distinction between arenas and players

Most troublesome for Jasper’s argument is that arenas and players may be the same. “It can be difficult to distinguish a player and an arena,” he writes (246). “Players can become arenas (all of them do when they make decisions),” he writes (246). Indeed, “players and arenas are meant to be observable, tangible entities,” but they may not be (246). How a player can also be an arena, Jasper does not make clear.

If arenas and players are the same, then what are the conceptual boundaries that separate them? How can we meaningfully and empirically observe their differences? In short, what is the use of the concepts if we cannot profitably deploy them to understand reality?

Jasper’s Criticisms of Fields

Jasper criticizes fields. “A field, to be worthy of the name and of all this fuss, must exert a force of its own directly on the players in it, a force that does not come from other players” (249). Fields exert force because they are connected to structures, but this leads to a “potential circularity of fields: players have the gains and losses they do because of their positions on the field, but those gains and losses also place them on that field” (248). 

Fields, then, merge players and arenas, but this is not a good solution, according to Jasper. Even though Jasper writes that arenas and players may be difficult to distinguish (246), he argues that “The forthright solution is to separate players and arenas” (249). A field is a set of arenas: “A field might range from a single arena, in which case it is not very interesting, up to a whole set of arenas linked in various ways” (249). This is a precursor to his conceptual use of “aggregation.”

Jasper’s criticism of Spaces

Jasper also criticizes spaces. Jasper writes that “The term spaces promises, on the basis of its root metaphor, to identify locations of protest (251). But spaces are not necessarily physical: “Beyond the actual physical locations of protest activities, space primarily remains a metaphorical means to talk about the movement sector” (251). Jasper criticizes space, then, as having boundary issues, and then reduces it to the vocabulary of arenas and players: space is useful “as a way to talk about aggregations of linked players, especially around a set of issues” (251).


Jasper is concerned with aggregations, both appropriate and inappropriate. Are fields aggregations of players and arenas? (250). Are aggregations of fields the “protest space” or “social movement sector”? 

Jasper does not define aggregation, but we know it as “A whole formed by combining several separate elements.” (Oxford english dictionary online). The aim of constructing an aggregate is to enable social scientists to observe the phenomenon of interest. We aggregate to directly see some phenomenon that we believe to exist. If the aggregate was not there, we would never have directly seen that phenomenon.

Aggregations introduce boundary problems — where one thing has its place, aggregation groups it with others, and the boundaries between the individual (thing, node) and the newly formed aggregate blend. 

Fields and spaces may be aggregations. Fields may be aggregations of arenas: “we can preserve field as a reasonable word to get at aggregations of arenas” (252). Spaces may be aggregations, too, but of both arenas and players. “We are free to use fields to describe concatenations of specific arenas, and spaces to describe concatenations of players” (253).

Photo by Joe Yates on Unsplash

Combining Useem and Goldstone with Jasper: Fields and Arenas

Let’s call fields, arenas, and players as a conceptual framework (see: “Conceptual framework vs. Theoretical framework – and constructing each”). For a concept or conceptual framework to be useful, we must be able to define and observe it. We must be able to separate it from other concepts and conceptual frameworks. There must be useful, even if imperfect, boundaries.

Both the conceptual frameworks of fields and “arenas and players” have serious problems. Fields have a vague definition. Insomuch as they are a set of micro-meso-macro interactions, they still have porous boundaries; it is difficult to separate one field from another. Moreover, the conceptual distinction between fields and social structures is not sharp.

Arenas and players seem to have better conceptual definitions, but Jasper makes a series of arguments that muddy the clarity, and not in a good way. Players may be arenas, for example. Arenas and players constantly shift and morph. The boundaries between them are porous and hard to empirically distinguish.

OK. They have problems. Let’s see if we can synthesize them.

Let’s say that fields are a set of interactions that involve actors and institutions that operate within historical context and social structure. Fields’ actors have agency in which they attempt to change the structure, thereby altering the field. It is through action that fields change.

Because “set of interactions” is vague, let’s define a field further as an aggregation of arenas. Arenas are physical and material or intangible and ideational. Rules and expectations, which can be formal or informal, influence thoughts and behavior of the actors within. These rules and expectations are part of the social structure. 

For a social movement, the term “players” seems apt, as it imposes the idea of a shared identity and common goal. “Actor” is a vague term that does not have this imposition. 

For this to work, we need to resolve some problems. How can we deal with the extremely problematic blurring of arenas and players? We can ignore Jasper and say that players can not be arenas. We can also imagine other boundaries. How can we deal with aggregations? Are arenas and players the building blocks of fields and spaces? We can treat them as such, and say that arenas aggregate into fields, and “players” are the specific set of actors within those arenas.

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