Resource Mobilization Theory and New Social Movements

Stu Crawford

Resource Mobilization Theory (RMT) attempts to explain social movements by viewing individuals as rational actors that are engaged in instrumental actions that use formal organizations to secure resources and foster mobilization (McCarthy and Zald, 1987). RMT can be broken down into two parts. First, RMT attempts to explain people joining social movements with rational actor theory. Secondly, RMT attempts to explain the actions of the social movement organizations (SMOs) that are formed by these rational actors by viewing the SMOs as an organization which functions for self preservation and to market its products.

Rational actor theory states that people will join social movements when the benefit of joining these groups outweighs the cost to that individual. This benefit cannot just be the possibility of achieving the social movement's purported goal (McCarthy and Zald, 1987). The goal a social movement is to achieve some collective good. Because the benefit is collective, few individuals will on their own bear the costs of working to obtain them. It does not benefit individuals to work towards the common good because they can free-ride and allow someone else to act for them while taking in the benefits. According to RMT, the possibility of free-riding means that we must explain why individuals join social movements by looking at incentives, cost-reducing mechanisms, and career benefits of such behaviour (McCarthy and Zald, 1987). Individuals must join social movements for a resource gain other than that promised by the social movement's end goal.

Because individual participation in social movements is explained only by a cost/benefit analysis of resources, cultural things such as grievances and mechanisms for social cohesion of groups are not the deciding factors for when social movements will arise. Grievances are considered to be a background factor (Beuchler, 1993). Because they are always present in a society they have no explaining power for predicting social movements. In fact, grievances and discontent may be created and manipulated by issue entrepreneurs trying to form SMOs for personal resource gain (McCarthy and Zald, 1987). These social movements arise when an elite class has the resources available to mobilize a group. People do not become involved in these groups because they have a cause, they become involved to incur personal resource. The purpose of these groups is to aggregate resources for themselves (McCarthy and Zald, 1987). RMT presumes that such aggregation of resources requires some organization, and so it focuses on understanding the SMOs that are formed.

The success and failure of SMOs is determined by external factors affecting resource flow to and from the organization (McCarthy and Zald, 1987). A supply and demand model can be used to describe resources in and resources out. Each SMO is part of a social movement industry and produces a product, just like any other industry (McCarthy and Zald, 1987). This product is the purported target goal of the SMO. The resource flow into the SMO is dependent on individuals 'purchasing' the product of that SMO (i.e. giving resources to that SMO to help it achieve its goal). The products of different SMOs within a social movement differ depending on the extremity of the solution, the means, and the efficiency of the organization (McCarthy and Zald, 1987). Adherents to a particular social movement purchase the target goal product based on a conception of product quality (McCarthy and Zald, 1987). The perceived quality of the product depends on how successful the SMO is perceived to be and is heavily dependent on the media.

The SMO must use some resources to pursue its goal or adherents will not purchase the target goal product, but an SMO does not solely concentrate on achieving its goal. The first priority of an SMO is self preservation. The purpose of an SMO is not to clash with authorities in an effort to create social change, but to maintain or increase membership and resource flow (McCarthy and Zald, 1987). The SMO divides its resources between recruiting new people, maintaining its constituents, and directing activity towards its stated goal (McCarthy and Zald, 1987). The way that the SMO divides its resources depends on its resource base and its constituents, as well as the cultural setting (McCarthy and Zald, 1987). The actions of an SMO can be explained by looking at what the SMO has to do to survive.

Resource Mobilization Theory works very nicely to explain social movements because it explains the actions of individuals by just looking at selfish behaviour and does not some sort of deviant, unexplained mechanism to force individuals to behave altruistically. However there are a few problems with RMT when it is applied to certain social movements. One problem is that RMT focuses almost solely on social movement organizations. Many New Social Movements (NSMs) do not have any traditional organization. Instead they have what could be better called a social movement community (Beuchler, 1993). The social movement is very decentralized and can not be fit into the SMO framework provided by RMT.

RMT also discounts the necessity of the formation of a collective identity. For a SMO to form and be effective the individuals within it need to form some sort of collective identity so that they can act with some degree of social cohesion (Beuchler, 1993). This collective identity is not always formed, therefore it is necessary to look at collective identity formation to determine when SMOs will arise. The collective identity of an SMO also affects the methods that it will use, and so it is necessary to look at the collective identity of an SMO to understand its actions (Beuchler, 1993). In NSMs the collective identity formed often dictates very specifically what sorts of actions can be taken.

Because of RMT focus on a centralized organization and its lack of consideration of the role of the collective identities that are formed it has difficulty explaining the activities of many NSMs. These factors could possibly be accounted for if RMT was expanded to take the role of collective identities and decentralized organizations in to consideration. But RMT also has difficulty explaining why individuals become involved in NSMs. Rational actor theory just doesn't always work. Often there doesn't seem to be any resource gain on the part of individuals who join NSMs (Beuchler, 1993). It would appear that individuals are not resource utilitarians. They are not acting in the manner that gives them the highest resource gain.

A body of New Social Movement Theories have been developed to explain individual participation in NSMs using social constructionism. NSM Theory states that NSMs are different than other social movements. The modernization of post-industrial revolution society produces conflicts around democratization, self-determination, and individualism. NSMs are seen as a reaction to these colonizing intrusions of state and markets into modern society (Buechler, 1995). Because of the differences between NSMs and traditional social movements, NSMs cannot be adequately explained without using social constructionism.

NSMs are different from traditional labour based movements. Traditional Marxian movements tended to be focused on a struggle for political power. These movements were worker-class based and did not seek to challenge the goal structure of Western society, but rather to simply redistribute the resources. This differs from the goals of NSMs, which are generally to create a new social paradigm that challenges the dominant goal structure of Western societies by advocating post-materialist, anti-growth, libertarian, and populist themes (Buechler, 1995). To achieve these goals, NSM tend to emphasize symbolic action, self determination, post materialist values, collective identities, grievance articulation, and self referential organization instead of the direct political confrontation traditional worker-based social movements used to maximize influence and power (Buechler, 1995). NSM theory would also maintain that NSMs are different than traditional romantic or utopian movements because they strive for the expansion of the structural differentiation of society into a post-materialist society instead of a dedifferentiation and regression of society (Buechler, 1995).

NSMs tend to draw from a constituent base that is not particularly class focused. Constituents tend to not be bonded by a common class, but rather by a common ideology (Buechler, 1995). Most members of NSMs are from the middle-class which is an undefined, residual class between the poles of capital and labour (Buechler, 1995). These constituents do not tend to be individuals bonded together by common grievances in their immediate life (Buechler, 1995). In fact, they can often be characterized as spoilt rich white kids getting together to protest.

There is variation within NSMs but they are bonded by common ideological and political styles. They tend to be more cultural than political, struggling for progressive social change (Buechler, 1995). They consciously avoid or reject institutionalized politics, which makes them hard to co-opt but also means that they can lack an effective strategy for confronting state power (Buechler, 1995). Instead of using institutionalized politics NSMs may use apolitical introspection, emphasizing politically correct lifestyles and substituting personal transformation for political activity (Buechler, 1995).

Social constructionism looks at framing processes and identity formation. A 'frame' is an interpretive schema that an individual uses to interpret reality by selectively omitting and emphasizing various aspects of the world (Hunt et al, 1994). Framing processes can link individuals ideologically and by forming and supporting collaborative identities (Hunt et al, 1994). Actions of the NSM also help to form collaborative identities of participants (Hunt et al, 1994). NSM theory conceptualizes changes in identity formation as manifestations of macro social changes in industrial societies (Hunt et al, 1994). These changes in identity formation and framing processes result in NSMs, and so the framing processes and identity formations are given prime consideration in determining when individuals will join NSMs. Grievances are closely linked with the frame and identity of the individual (Johnston et al, 1997), and so NSM Theory also considers grievances to be important.

The framing processes place values on certain aspects of individual identity and change is noted or encouraged (Hunt et al, 1994). Various frame alignment processes reconcile individual identities of NSM members to enable the formation of collective identities. By finding commonalities in personal identities and stressing them, creating new personal identities, and attempting to minimize conflicts (possibly by stressing the commonality of diversity), collective identities are created and maintained (Hunt et al, 1994). Antagonist identity fields also serve to strengthen the collective identity. Boundary frames identify 'us' and 'them' and serve to bind the group together (Hunt et al, 1994). Particular lines of collective action arise not because of objective conditions, but because of how the actors perceive the objective conditions which is a result of framing processes and collective identities (Hunt et al, 1994).

If a social movement addresses global concerns that are far removed from everyday life, movement cohesion requires the selective incentives of a strong collective identity (Johnston et al, 1997). This doesn't just apply to NSMs. Other social movements, such as neofascist and nationalist movements, use collective identities for group cohesion as well (Johnston et al, 1997). But because of the unique characteristics of NSMs, collective identity formation seem essential for group cohesion and motivation of individuals to join the group.

Although NSM Theory provides a framework to explain individual participation in NSMs when rational actor theory fails, NSM Theory doesn't even attempt to explain anything about when NSMs will form, how they will form, when they will grow or shrink, or what their outcome will be (Buechler, 1995). RMT attempted to explain the organization and strategy of social movements, when they would form, and whether they could succeed. RMT is a theory to explain the formation and activities of social movements, while NSM simply tries to explain the motivation behind participants in a select group of social movements.

NSM Theory is not adequate as an explanation of social movements. Its applicability is to narrow. RMT needs to be modified to explain NSMs. RMT explains individual participation in social movements from a behaviourist viewpoint. Individuals will do something if they are rewarded for doing it. But RMT only allows for this reward to be the acquisition of resources. This tends to work in the western cultural context that RMT has been applied in because in that cultural context resource gain coincides with the accepted reward system. But NSMs defy this with their anti-materialist, anti-growth, non-consumerist ideology. NSMs therefore require a reward system other than resource gain.

Humans are social animals, and NSMs play on our innate social cohesion mechanisms to recruit constituents. The resource gain of actors in NSMs could be looked at in terms of the dopamine reward that the individual gets for participating in a collective identity. RMT just needs to consider the reward of being part of a collective identity, of gaining social prestige, or just of having fun as being a resource gain on the part of the actor. This would incorporate NSM Theory into RMT by allowing RMT to consider the formation of collective identities when predicting participation in social movements.

References cited

Beuchler, S. M. 1993. Beyond resource mobilization? Emerging trends in social movement theory. In: Social Movements: Perspectives and Issues. Ed. S. M. Buechler and F. K. Cylke. 1997. Mayfield Publishing Company, Mountain View, California. Pp 193 - 210.

Buechler, S. M. 1995. New social movement theories. In: Social Movements: Perspectives and Issues. Ed. S. M. Buechler and F. K. Cylke. 1997. Mayfield Publishing Company, Mountain View, California. Pp. 295 - 319.

Hunt, S. A., R. D. Benford, and D. A. Snow. In: New Social Movements: From Ideology to Identity. Ed. E. Larana, H. Johnston, and J. R. Gusfield. 1994. Temple University Press, Philadelphia. Pp 185 - 208.

Johnston, H., E. Larana, and J. R. Gusfield. 1997. Identities, grievances, and new social movements. In: Social Movements: Perspectives and Issues. Ed. S. M. Buechler and F. K. Cylke. 1997. Mayfield Publishing Company, Mountain View, California. Pp 274 - 295.

McCarthy, J. D., and M. N. Zald. 1987. Resource mobilization and social movements: A partial theory. In: Social Movements: Perspectives and Issues. Ed. S. M. Buechler and F. K. Cylke. 1997. Mayfield Publishing Company, Mountain View, California. Pp 149 - 172.