The trend of social movements in America: professionalization and resource mobilization

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Citation: J.D. McCarthy, M.N. Zald (1973) The trend of social movements in America: professionalization and resource mobilization.
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): The trend of social movements in America: professionalization and resource mobilization
Tagged: Sociology (RSS)


In this paper, McCarthy and Zald lay the groundwork for their future paper that will more fully lays out the resource mobilization theory. In this paper, they make the basic justification for the theory by arguing against what they call the "classic" theory of social movements that is predicated on a "hearts and minds" approach where a particular grievance makes many people upset which leads to mobilization. In the classic theory, there's some direct connection between the effect or impact of a particular grievance and the size of the social movement that results to oppose the grievance.

McCarthy and Zald suggest that this model is particularly poorly suited to describe what they argue is a large and growing number of social movement organizations whose staff are essentially professional and bureaucratized. Their context is very much the 1970s. They argue that there has be an increase in social movement activity not because grievances have gotten worse during the middle part of the twentieth century but because a series of things have led to the fact that there are now more resources available for social movement activity and for social movement organizations.

The paper lays out a series of arguments to show that participation in membership organizations -- especially political organizations and other measures of political participation like voting -- has not increased over the the last few decades. They also try to present data to suggest that the United States is not creating a large middle class with large amounts of expendable time to be put toward social movements.

The authors then review and code up grants from foundations (all that are larger than USD 10,000) to show that there is a large increase in money going to what they would describe as social movements organizations over the same period. They do similar things (although usually with less data) to argue there is an increase in resources from foundations, governments, for-profit companies, churches, and universities. They also argue that dissent itself has become heavily industrialized.

Their basic argument is that many social movement organizations are essentially requiring very little form their memberships and are working on their own with their own professional staff. They suggest that, "the definition of grievances will expand to meet the funds and support personnel available."

The classical model would predict that in poor economic times, we would see more movement activity (since there would be more grievances to move against). The resource-based theory would suggest the opposite, the increase of slack and available resources for social movement organizations would increase movement activity. They argue that this theory based on, "supply and demand of labor...[and other resources]" is a critical piece of how we should begin to understand movements.