Social movements are found in many countries, especially in those that allow some modicum of free speech, voluntary association, and rights to assemble in public spaces. The United States, almost from its inception, has provided fertile ground for the growth of social movements. Indeed, although social movements predate the American Revolution, it can be seen as an amalgam of many local acts of protest carried out by groups of people discontented with British rule. Over the centuries there have been a large number of movements, some aimed at changing laws and government policy, and others aimed at changing religious, social, and cultural institutions and modes of expression. There have been ebbs and flows of movements, so that some periods of time see a large number of movements with relatively large numbers of participants and other periods when there are fewer movements and little mobilization. The last several decades, roughly beginning in the early 1960s, have seen an upsurge in social movements, both in the United States and elsewhere. This upsurge has been accompanied by an increase in academic attention to social movements and their components. Scholarly debates have flourished about how to think about movements, what theories and concepts are most useful, and what methods of study should be used.
During the last half century there has also been an increasing concern with health as a personal and public matter. The public is more informed about health issues, and health institutions loom larger on the public policy agenda. The percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) spent on health and medicine has more than doubled, and the absolute growth of medical and health organizations and practice has grown even faster. This growth, too, has been accompanied by a rising number of social movements, from self-help groups concerned with personal and familial experience of health-related problems, to professional movements aimed at rearranging the boundaries of specialization and of service delivery, to attempts to reconfigure the governance and financing of health care, as well as attempts to influence the health-related behaviors of the population. Increasingly these movements have attracted the attention of medical sociologists, sociologists of science, and scholars concerned with specific movements, such as the environmental justice movement, and the mobilization of groups to limit tobacco usage, and specific studies of particular community conflicts around toxic environments.
One might have thought that, since health is so highly valued and supported, scholars who theorize and do research on the general topic of social movements