Study Campaigns, Not Social Movements

Some people study the effects of digital media on social movements.  I don’t, I study campaigns.  Here’s why.

Social movements and campaigns are not interchangeable terms, yet they are connected. There are a range of interpretations of the term social movement, but the consensus definition requires organized collective action, some of which is extra-institutional, with change-oriented goals and some degree of continuity.  According to Charles Tilly, a campaign is “a sustained, organized public effort making collective claims on target authorities” and is one of the three constitutive elements of a social movement.  These definitions, unfortunately, underline the commonality between the concepts of social movement and campaign, rather than highlighting their differences.

For this reason, sociologist George Lakey’s description of the relationship between the campaign and the social movement is useful. According to Lakey, a campaign is a subsidiary unit of a social movement, with a goal that furthers the goals of the movement, but which is ancillary.

For example, the Civil Rights Movement is a twentieth-century social movement dedicated to racial equality in the United States. The Montgomery bus boycott was the most famous tactic of a multi-tactic campaign that was part of the Civil Rights Movement, and had the subsidiary goal of achieving racial equality in the city of Montgomery, Alabama, specifically with regard to the seating arrangements on public buses.

Because sociologists perceive campaigns to be a subsidiary unit of their primary unit of analysis the social movement, most of the literature on campaign success is actually literature on social movement success. Most measures of success in the literature are valid at multiple levels of analysis. However, some measures of social movement success are not relevant to the analysis of campaigns. Where a measure of success from the social movement literature is relevant to the study of campaigns, I will interpret and explicate it in context of campaigns.

There are two practical reasons for choosing campaigns as one’s unit of analysis if one’s concept of interest is success. The first is that there are simply more possible outcomes to look at.  Since each movement includes multiple campaigns, there are more of the latter than the former.

The second reason to study campaigns is that they end, which means they have clearer outcomes.  Movements are multi-year processes of collective action. Many of the most well-known, such as the Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Gay Rights Movement, the Global Justice Movement, and the Environmental Movement, are still in process. When a movement does “end,” it is often as a result of socially constructed periodization (as in the waves of the Women’s Movement) or “extinction,” a dire circumstance in which the movement loses its bargaining power.  Without an ending, it is hard to evaluate an outcome, since no result is final.

The paucity of units of analysis is also methodologically restrictive. Most studies of social movement outcomes are case studies that look at one (admittedly complex and multi-faceted) movement. Amenta and Young, for example, look at the Townsend Movement for old age pensions (1999). Mueller looks at the Women’s Movement (1987). Kitschelt looks at the Anti-Nuclear Movement (1986). Kolb looks at both the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Nuclear Movement (2007). The generalizability of findings is limited because the scope of the studies is narrow.

Studies that do comparative activism research at scale are rare, and scholars who undertake them are forced to reframe social movements into smaller units in order to do this work. In his famous 1975 study, Gamson took challenging groups (organizations seeking to mobilize social movements) as his unit of analysis. Drawing his population from histories and other studies of these groups, he was able to identify “between five and six hundred” groups between 1800 and 1945 (1990, p. 19). From this population he took a random sample of 53 groups to study.

More recent international comparative studies of activism have used the campaign, rather than the challenging group, as their unit of analysis. George Lakey’s Global Nonviolence Action Database included, at last count, case studies describing 830 nonviolent campaigns from before the birth of Christ to 2013. In their 2011 study on the effectiveness of nonviolence, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan made an international survey of all “maximalist” nonviolence campaigns between 1900 and 2006 whose objectives were regime change, the end of an occupation, or national succession. They found 323 campaigns that matched their inclusion criteria and all were included in the study.

The Global Digital Activism Data Set, v 2.0 (GDADS2), which I use in my research, follows the logic of Chenoweth and Lakey but, without the criteria of nonviolence or maximalism, draws from a much larger population. The 426 campaigns in the data set come from a relatively small time period, 2010 to 2012, and represent a purposive sample of the campaign population.

There is a lot of theory in the social movements literature that is relevant to the study of campaigns.  In fact, most of it is relevant.  However, I hope, for the reasons above, that more people decide to study campaigns.


Amenta, E., & Young, M. P. (1999). Making an impact: Conceptual and methodological implications of the collective goods criterion. In M. Giugni, D. McAdam, & C. Tilly (Eds.), How social movements matter. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gamson, W. A. (1975). The strategy of social protest. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press.

Kitschelt, H. P. (1986). Political opportunity structures and political protest: Anti-nuclear movements in four democracies. British Journal of Political Science, 16(01), 57–85.

Kolb, F. (2007). Protest and opportunities: the political outcomes of social movements. Frankfurt; New York: Campus Verlag.

Lakey, G. (2011, October 8). Campaigns, not movements. Global Nonviolent Action Database. Retrieved October 10, 2013, from

McAdam, D. (1999). Political process and the development of black insurgency, 1930-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mueller, Carol M. (1987). Collective consciousness, identity transformation, and the rise of women in public office in the United States. In M. F. Katzenstein & C. M. Mueller (Eds.), The Women’s movements of the United States and Western Europe: consciousness, political opportunity, and public policy (pp. 89–110). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Snow, D., Soule, S. A., & Kriesi, H. (2007). Mapping the terrain. In D. A. Snow, S. A. Soule, & H. Kriesi (Eds.), The Blackwell companion to social movements (pp. 462–488). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Tilly, C. (2004). Social movements, 1768-2004. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Image: Flickr/Floris M. Oosterveld

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