Social Change and Social Movements

Why do large-scale social changes occur when they do? Societies have a particular social order, cultural values and ideologies, institutions, hierarchies, vectors of authority, and economic relations, and then at particular moments, these become susceptible to small or even profound transformations—gradual or abrupt. How have people created the open moments of plasticity that make such transformation possible? What does it mean to band together with others and act collectively to change things? Humans have engaged in individual acts of resistance—breaking tools, not paying taxes, running away, avoiding military service or impressment, adulterating food, defying a tribal order, refusing gendered expectations, praying, engaging in religious dissent—in many time periods and throughout the world. When and how does such resistance become a social movement? Under what conditions does spontaneous action turn into deliberate, planned, strategic action? How have people built and exerted power? What have been the possibilities and limits of solidarity?
These pathway courses enable us to see strategies used at the local, regional, national, and international level; to establish connections among organizing and policy and politics, state and family, and migration, immigration, and empire; to explore how migrations of people and ideas generate transnational connections among movements. Why do some take up arms and use violence? In other places and locales, pacifist movements could bring down even the mightiest of imperial powers, as the Salt Marches did in British-occupied India. Studying social movements can take us through the study of peasant resistance to land enclosures, revolutions, abolitionism, labor rights and women’s rights, anti-colonialism, indigenous rights, Christian fundamentalism, liberation theology, apartheid, the modern conservative movement, the Islamic Revival, and nationalism of all sorts.  Social movements can be studied through the prism of ideas and intellectual history, social history, gender, history of sexuality, political history, and environmental history. As we reflect on what constitutes the success or failure of a social movement, we confront the intriguing question—what is the connection between social movements and broad political or economic change over time?