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Understanding the Nature of Social Movements: Why Movement-Relevant Theory Matters

Emilie S. By Emilie S. Published on February 22, 2016

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It was not too long ago, where the leaders of the labour, civil rights, anti-nuclear and feminist movement were considered irrational and uneducated. Today, these leaders have taught generations ahead of them insofar the causes they have fought for have become common sense. What happened since then? Social movements have transformed the way we learn. This essay seeks to explore the reason for the change in nature of social movements that allows for academics and activists, involved in social movements, to learn through the adoption of the movement-relevant theory. Following, I provide an example of The Global Citizen Movement as a current social movement that hinders learning.


Literature on social movement learning considers action research (AR) as the most powerful tool for social change. By inquiring the way social groups interact with one another, engaging in dialogue, and collectively participating in a learning process to achieve social change, AR is significant in the adult education movement. Instead of seeing change as an individual task, it considers change to be a group of human interactions collectively working together towards the same goals. This perspective believes the most effective way to change any goal-driven activity is by changing the way people interact within a community (Glassman, Erdem and Batholomew, 2012, pp. 272-273). Developed by a number of individuals and groups, AR derives from the work of social activists, governmental and nongovernmental organizations, and researchers having direct and indirect influences (Glassman, Erdem and Batholomew, 2012, p. 273). As a social/education-based intervention for a community faced with challenging and deep problems, AR weaves together many theories that promote democracy (Glassman, Erdem and Batholomew, 2012, pp. 277).


Which theories promote democratic ideals brought forth by AR? As Charles Perrow notably claimed, “one test of good theory is that it have practical implications” (Bevington and Dixon, 2007, p.185). In the context of social movement theory, social movement activists rely on practical measures to achieve their goals. Historically, due to their methods of broad political and economic context, ideologies, discourses and learning, social movements have been so powerful as to change world views (Bevington and Dixon, 2007, p. 132). Therefore, as history tells the story of changing economies, politics, ideologies, discourses and learning, theories must also reflect these changes. Social movement learning recognizes that the entire world is a platform for learning. Describing social movements is challenging as it involves “all sites of formative learning” such as family, school, church, clubs, work, union, to name a few (Dykstra and Law, p. 135). Hence, a formative analytical framework, bridging culture and politics together in an educational way is critical.

What kind of framework will work? As Douglas Bevington and Chris Dixon (2007) suggest, today’s generation of “activist-intellectuals” existing in and outside the academic world have stronger ties to movements. On the contrary to contemporary social movement theory, which is not always relevant to the movement it studies, movement-relevant theory seeks to focus on movement-relevant social movement theory (Bevington & Dixon, 2007, p. 189). Aiming to bridge the divide between social movement academic work and the nature of movements themselves, this theory provides “useable knowledge for those seeking social change” (Flacks, 2004, p. 138 in (Bevington & Dixon, 2007, p. 189). It is concerned with a theory that can be applied to different contexts and translated into a structure that can be easily applied by all movements to new situations (Bevington & Dixon, 2007, p. 189).

Once the theory is applied to other contexts, what is the educational dimension to social movements? Choudry points out, scholars who seek to understand social movement and non-government organization (NGO) networks, and the education, learning, and knowledge production associated with them, need to be ready to answer questions from social movements and activist research. These questions are crucial in understanding the way the power dynamics of learning are created (Choudry, p. 6,7). Hence, what kind of learning is produced in social movements? Various types of learning grow out of social movements, such as critical pedagogy, which seeks to engage people to think critically and experiential learning, which seeks to engage people in action, imagination and dialogue (Dykstra and Law, 1994, p. 124). For instance, Shauna Butterwick’s research on Filipino advocacy groups explores the role of arts-based methods in understanding the depths of knowledge mobilization (Butterwick, S., Chovanec, D., Palacios, C., Rubenson, K., Walter, P.). The purpose of the research is to investigate how the arts allow for activists’ critical consciousness to develop. Butterwick’s research in merely one example of many activist-researchers seeking to understand the value of learning growing out of social movements.


Confrontations around social inequalities are growing and will continue. The last decade has seen multiple social movements, such as: Occupy Wall Street, Indian farmers burning Monsanto’s biotech crops, and the Zapatistas struggle for autonomy in the Mexican military occupation as forms of protest and so forth. Yet, while none of these causes are new, what is new is the level of engagement by activists. The Global Citizen Movement is an example of a current, international social movement focused working towards alleviating world inequalities. Intrigued by the work of the movement, I have been following its movement activities over the past three weeks. As indicated on its website, created by individuals who wish to learn about and take action, the movement’s goal is to unite activists from across the world to “take action on the world’s biggest challenges” (Global Citizen, About Us). It primarily seems to speak to a young generation as the movement revolves around creating an impact through social media and celebrity musicians such as Beirut and Coldplay in a fun and interactive way. By partnering with major international organizations such as: UNICEF, Oxfam America, Save the Children, United Nations Foundation, CARE, World Vision, the movement aims to create a powerful impact. Moreover, its partners include: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Pratt Foundation, Unilever, and other wealthy companies and organizations. Through these organizations and partners, activists can learn and get involved in the movement.

However, the very existence of wealthy companies and organizations leads one to question the transparency of their causes and as a result, jeopardizes the learning element. Celebrities who have become recognized for their humanitarian work, have become symbols of positive change, and are meant to encourage people to get involved and donate. For instance, campaign Chime for Change, founded by Gucci and co-founded by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Salma Hayek, are encouraging to women support women in the campaign. Separated by three sections: overview, reports and gallery, the campaign website seems to provide little information on the background and procedure of getting involved with the campaign. The lack of reports and detailed information about the causes supported by the movement is questionable. If activists need to get involved in The Global Citizen Movement, it is critical they must learn about the cause(s) they believe in, and to some extent, ‘get their hands dirty’. Furthermore, other than the activists’ lack of true participation in the movement, it seems to lack true social movement leadership. Leaders involved in the movement are the same ones silently supporting major issues of inequality, healthy, education, etc. Therefore, although the movement seems to demonstrate passion for its cause, its integrity is in danger.

The Global Citizen Movement begs to return to the earlier question, whose knowledge matters in social movements? The history and evolution of theories of adult education social movement learning emphasizes the importance of nurturing critical learners. Yet, despite the progress of social movements, today’s movements force activists to be critical over everything. Even within social movements themselves, activists must question who has the power over knowledge and whose knowledge matters?


Needless to say, the art of social movement learning involves a combination of activist and academic knowledge. As social movement learning is changing, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define for it involves the heart and soul of individuals fighting for social justice. Aiming to link social movement academic work and the nature of movements, movement-relevant theory provides a framework for using knowledge for those seeking social change. As a social justice activist, I have become a critical in questioning all aspects of a social movement. Social movements around the world are only increasing and the future of social movements is moving towards the direction of transforming society to influence policies, culture, and daily life to continue to produce knowledge and shape our learning society.

Reference list

Bevington, D. & Dixon, C. (2005). Movement-relevant theory: Rethinking social movement scholarship and activism. Social Movement Studies, 4(3), 185-208.

Butterwick, S., Chovanec, D., Palacios, C., Rubenson, K., Walter, P. Learning and Knowledge Production in Social Movement Learning: Different Lenses, Different Agendas, Different Knowledge Claims, Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/2019431/Learning_and_Knowledge_Production_in_Social_Movement_Learning_Different_Lenses_Different_Agendas_Different_Knowledge_Claims.

Chime for Change, Retrieved from http://www.chimeforchange.org/project/help-young-women-rebuild-nepal/#overview.

Choudry, A. (2009). Editorial: Learning in social action: knowledge production in social movements. McGill Journal of Education, 44(1), 5-10.

Dykstra, C. & Law, M. (1994). Popular social movements as educative forces: Towards a theoretical framework. Proceedings of the 35th Adult Education Research Conference, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, 121-126.

Global Citizen, Retrieved from https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/.

Glassman, Michael; Erdem, Gizem;Bartholomew, Mitchell. (2013). Action Research and Its History as an Adult Education Movement for Social Change. Adult Education Quarterly, 63(3) p 272-288. 

As a community development researcher, Emilie is fascinated by creative educational initiatives with social development purposes.

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