The contemporary social world is an historical product. Its contours are the result of past purposive action as well as unintended and unanticipated consequences whose complex effects are inscribed in the social world. Among the most intriguing purposive actions are social movements. Throughout the modern era, diverse groups have banded together in explicit efforts to transform the social order. Although such efforts rarely met with complete success, their cumulative impact has been substantial. Alongside other influences, the contemporary social world is the product of prior collective efforts to transform old social orders into new ones.
The historical nature of the social world is rarely recognized in everyday consciousness. Such consciousness is present oriented, with little sense of the linkages among past action, present realities, and future possibilities. It is natural to take the existing world for granted -- as if it could not be and never has been other than it is. An ahistorical perspective has also been a dominant feature of much twentieth-century American positivist sociology as it followed a restricted notion of social science. In pursuit of this goal, positivist sociology has reified social reality and obscured its historical shaping by past collective action.
In the subfield of sociology devoted to the study of collective behavior and social movements, there are new opportunities for restoring a more profoundly historical understanding of collective action. Social movement theory and research have recently become some of the most active areas within the discipline, producing a tremendous volume of work on diverse aspects of collective action. As with other rapid advances in knowledge, the growth in this area has exceeded our ability to assess, judge, and critically reflect on how this specialized body of knowledge is related to the broader discipline of sociology and to our everyday understanding of the social world. This book provides one such assessment of these larger issues through six overlapping themes.