Social movements are a specific type of group action in which large informal groups of individuals or organizations work for or against change in specific political or social issues.
Cultural Anthropologist David F. Aberle described four types of social movements based upon two fundamental questions: (1) who is the movement attempting to change? (2) how much change is being advocated? Social movements can be aimed at change on an individual level, e.g. Alcoholics Anonymous, which is a support group for recovering alcoholics or change on a broader group or even societal level, e.g. anti-globalization). Social movements can also advocate for minor changes such as tougher restrictions on drunk driving (see MADD) or radical changes like prohibition. The diagram below illustrates how a social movement may either be alternative, redemptive, reformative or revolutionary based on who the movement strives to change and how much change the movement desires to bring about Figure 1.
Other categories have been used to distinguish between types of social movements.
- Scope: A movement can be either reform or radical. A reform movement advocates changing some norms or laws while a radical movement is dedicated to changing value systems in some fundamental way. A reform movement might be a trade union seeking to increase workers' rights while the American Civil Rights movement was a radical movement.
- Type of Change: A movement might seek change that is either innovative or conservative. An innovative movement wants to introduce or change norms and values while a conservative movement seeks to preserve existing norms and values.
- Targets: Group-focused movements focus on influencing groups or society in general; for example, attempting to change the political system from a monarchy to a democracy. An individual-focused movement seeks to affect individuals.
- Methods of Work: Peaceful movements utilize techniques such as nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. Violent movements resort to violence when seeking social change.
- Range: Global movements, such as Communism in the early 20th century, have transnational objectives. Local movements are focused on local or regional objectives such as preserving an historic building or protecting a natural habitat.