How ‘Good’ Social Movements Can Triumph over ‘Bad’ Ones

Essay by Gilda Zwerman and Michael Schwartz: “…How, then, can we judge which movement was the “good” one and which the “bad?”

The answer can be found in the sociological study of social movements. Over decades of focused research, the field has demonstrated that evaluating the moral compass of individual participants does little to advance our understanding of the morality or the actions of a large movement. Only by assessing the goals, tactics and outcomes of movements as collective phenomena can we begin to discern the distinction between “good” and “bad” movements.

Modern social movement theory developed from foundational studies by several generations of scholars, notably W.E.B. DuBoisIda B. WellsC.L.R. JamesE.P. ThompsonEric HobsbawmCharles Tilly and Howard Zinn. Their works analyzing “large” historical processes provided later social scientists with three working propositions.

First, the morality of a movement is measured by the type of change it seeks. “Good” movements are emancipatory: they seek to pressure institutional authorities into reducing systemic inequality, extending democratic rights to previously excluded groups, and alleviating material, social, and political injustices. “Bad” movements tend to be reactionary. They arise in response to good movements and they seek to preserve or intensify the exclusionary structures, laws and policies that the emancipatory movements are challenging.

Second, large-scale institutional changes that broaden freedom or advance the cause of social justice are rarely initiated by institutional authorities or political elites. Rather, most social progress is the result of pressure exerted from the bottom up, by ordinary people who press for reform by engaging in collective and creative disorders outside the bounds of mainstream institutions.

And third, good intentions—aspiring to achieve emancipatory goals—by no means guarantee that a movement will succeed.

The highly popular and emancipatory protests of the 1960s, as well as the influence of groundbreaking works in social history mentioned above, inspired a renaissance in the study of social movements in subsequent decades. Focusing primarily on “good” movements, a new generation of social scientists sought to identify the environmental circumstances, organizational features and strategic choices that increased the likelihood that “good intentions” would translate into tangible change. This research has generated a rich trove of findings:…(More)”.