Social Movements in Advanced Capitalism: The Political Economy and Cultural Construction of Social Activism

By Steven M. Buechler | Go to book overview

2
Social Movement Theory A Sociology of Knowledge Analysis

Despite their role in shaping modernity and sociology, social movements have received only intermittent sociological attention. This variability in theorizing about movements is best understood through the sociology of knowledge, which suggests that the "story of social movement theory can be told only together with the story of social movements themselves" ( Garner, 1997:1). Indeed, the prevailing view of social movements at a given historical moment reflects not just existing movements but also the larger sociohistorical climate, the dominant sociological paradigms, and the biographies of scholars themselves. From this perspective, the twists and turns in social movement theory reflect societal and disciplinary trends as much as they mirror collective action. Like other subfields in sociology (and other disciplines as well), the history of social movement theory is less the story of cumulative scientific progress than one of paradigm shifts ( Kuhn, 1962) that qualitatively redefine the central issues in the field, rendering old questions uninteresting and new ones compelling. The last major paradigm shift in social movement theory occurred in the 1970s, in response to the social activism of the 1960s as well as broader societal trends. What changed was not just the prevailing view of collective action, but also the sociohistorical climate, dominant theoretical paradigms, and typical scholarly biographies. It remains to be seen whether these developments will lead to a more profound reconceptualization of the discipline itself.

This chapter provides a brief sketch of this theoretical history. In some respects, it parallels a recent interpretation of social movement theory by Roberta Garner ( 1997) that identifies three processes that have contributed to paradigm shifts in social movement theory. Internal imperatives refer to unsolved intellectual puzzles within existing paradigms. External pressures include changes

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