Social movements are intentional, collective efforts to transform social order. They are a distinctly modern phenomenon, resting on the sociological insight that society is a social construction that is susceptible to reconstruction through collective action. The unfolding of modernity has enhanced the reflexivity about social order that is the hallmark of both the sociological imagination and social movements.
As the twentieth century draws to a close, there are substantial reasons for pessimism about whether this increased capacity for reflexivity will be used to enhance the quality of life in an equitable manner. And different observers will arrive at very different balance sheets about the cumulatively positive or negative effects of collective action on the shape of the modern world.
There is little doubt that some social movements have and will continue to succumb to revolutionary dogmatism, sectarian infighting, rigid fanaticism, and genocidal hatred. But the sociological imagination requires that our judgments of such movements be tempered with an analysis of the circumstances that provoke such responses, and that we not divorce these movements from their social contexts.
The sociological imagination also requires not just recognition but cultivation of the promise of social movements. Movements can be sites of heightened reflexivity and enhanced capacity to direct the self-production of society. Movements can be opportunities for ordinary people to make their own history. Movements can be carriers of evolutionary alternatives in a rapidly changing world. Movements can be vital learning mechanisms in an era of increasing complexity. Movements can be effective means of resisting instrumental rationality and the commodification of everyday life. Movements can be powerful ways of identifying problems, redistributing resources, broadening participation, and building solidarity. Movements can be havens in a heartless world