Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Social movement motivation

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Social movement motivation:
What motivates people to join social movements?


Social movements have shaped our world in both positive and negative ways - across nations, across societies, and across the globe. But what brings individual people to join such causes? Are internal or external influences the reasoning behind the motivation? It is in these questions that an insight into the human mind and behaviour can be found.

Social movements are organised groups of people with the same goal of bringing some form of change into society. They push for unity and awareness and have had lasting impacts on modern society. Through years of social change, several types of movements have been defined to enable a better understanding of how a social movement can impact the world, and from this an insight into the motivation of social movements can be developed.

Psychology and sociology have developed theories and models which are used to identify aspects of motivation, helping explain the motives and actions of people involved in social movements. These theories consider psychological behaviours and cognitive development, identity and the self-being influenced by others, and how resources can motivate people to bring change.

Approaching the question of what motivates people through the lens of these theories will help to answer the question of what draws people into joining social movements.

What is a social movement?[edit]

A social movement is an organised and sustained group of people who strive for a common goal. This goal generally focuses on society, the environment or legal policy that is deemed in need of change. The effects of a movement are usually a gradual process of change, sometimes with a continuous lifespan.

Figure 1. David Aberle’s four types of social movements can be used to reflect on possible motivations to join movements.

David Aberle defined four main types of social movements[factual?]. These are categories in two ways[Rewrite to improve clarity]: what the movement is trying to change, and how much the movement is trying to change. From this, four types of movements are described: Alternative movements, Redemptive social movements, Reformative social movements and Revolutionary social movements. [1]

Defining four types of social movements can help categorise a social movement for psychological and sociological research. Using Aberle's social movement types help to define a social movement's direction, and considers motivations of the movement and its participants. Reflecting on this, someone motivated to make a large societal change is likely drawn to social movements that fall into the revolutionary category, whereas someone motivated to defend or prevent a social change would be likely to join a resistance type of social movement (Snow, Zucher, & Olson 1980).

The style of recruitment used by a social movement effects motivation of participation. Snow et al. (1980) found that people felt more motivated to join a movement when they were asked directly to participate or knew peers also involved in the movement. This reflects on many aspects of the solidarity social movements [missing something?] depend on (Jenkins, 1983; McCathy & Zald, 1977). Growing technologies have also been a topic of interest in regards to impacting the motivations of social movement participation. With social movements having increased access to people and an increased ability to advertise themselves and their cause through emerging technologies, it has been observed that this modern technology is helping to motivate individuals who might not have shown an interest in movements before (Garrett, 2006; Jenkins 1983; Snow et al., 1980).

Table 1.

Social Movements: Past & Present

These movements have involved the efforts of women to change society on issues including the right to autonomy and the place of women in society, and have also effected others outside of womens issues.

Mens Rights Movement

This movement seeks to gain equal rights for men in various areas in which it is perceived that men are disadvantaged on the basis of their gender.

These movements have been important in shaping modern and Western society. The results of the movement have included legislating equal pay, demanding access to food and water for all, establishing social and financial autonomy, and equalising social standings.

These movements have a focus on protecting the environment for future generations. This involves taking actions to reduce climate change, protecting animals and animal rights, and working towards clean energy.

Theories and behaviour[edit]

[Provide more detail]

Helping and Prosocial Behaviour[edit]

Helping behaviour and prosocial behaviour are behaviours and actions that a person or group of people actively commit. These actions benefit the well-being and integrity of those on which they are enacted (Brieif & Motowidlo, 1986; Eisenberg & Miller, 1987). This behaviour is done either to purely benefit the person who the actions are taking place on, or the person committing the behaviour might be doing so in order to also benefit in some way from the outcome of the actions (Eisenberg & Miller, 1987). 


Although this[what?] theory of behaviour does not summarise itself into generalised categories, three main areas are observable to interpret not only how this behaviour affects people, but also how it affects motivation to join a social movement. Firstly, the idea that some human behaviour is in our nature has been hypothesised to be a motivator to perform prosocial behaviour (Brief & Motowidlo, 1986). This relates to the second idea of empathy being the sole motivator to behave in a helping manner towards others, while lastly a less complete idea of personality and traits being the root to prosocial behaviour and motivation to be a part of social movements[Rewrite to improve clarity]. The study of why people perform helping and prosocial is ongoing and will continue to develop ideas into the inner complexities of human motivation.

Figure 2. People can feel an urge to help those in need, without expecting a personal reward

When looking at helping and prosocial behaviours, it has been argued the motivation to help others is in built into human nature (Brief & Motowidlo, 1986). This aspect of behaviour has been attributed to the idea of altruistic behaviour (Eisenberg & Miller, 1987). These actions might be believed to be the same, however, prosocial behaviours are not always done to solely benefit the person they are for, unlike what is described as altruistic behaviours of fully acting in a way to benefit someone else with no regard for your own self (Einsenberg & Miller, 1987). Applying this concept to social movement participation motivation, it can be observed that since people have an innate predisposition to help each other, humans are likely to join movements to fulfil this innate human behaviour.

Empathy has also been considered a motivator to positive behaviour towards others (Eisenberg & Miller, 1987; Fultz, 1986). Fultz (1986) observed the study of empathy in relation to how people scaled with high levels of empathy compare to people with low levels of empathy in how they react to a person in distress. This study found that people who scored higher levels of empathy were more like to comfort someone in distress than those with lower levels of empathy. Reflecting on this, it could be argued that people with higher levels of empathy are more likely to empathise with people who use social movements as support, therefore are more likely to join that movement. Empathy can also be triggered when someone observes an individual or group acting against [missing something?] situation (Nolan, Schultz, Cialdini & Griskevicius, 2008). Supporting Passini and Morselli's (2008) finding that people who witnessed an unjust action or behaviour, [missing something?] a sense of motivation to correct the behaviour or action is observed. If an individual has high levels of empathy, a drive to help others can be fostered from this feeling alone (Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006; Eisenberg & Miller, 1987). To implement this toward motivation and social movements, people who have high levels of empathy are more likely to feel personally connected to the causes social movements are fighting against. This would motivate people to join the movements they empathise with in order to help those they are in support of.

Personality is also thought of as a motivator of behaviour. The study of personality is complex due to the subjective nature of the area, however, empirical research is bringing forward new areas of motivation and behaviour analyses. In regards to performing prosocial behaviour, personality traits are thought to affect how likely someone is to behave positively towards others (Brief & Motowidlo, 1986). Personality traits that feed the ego of an individual might also explain prosocial behaviour as the person will behave in ways to help others that also serve to gain external validation for their positive behaviour (Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006; Fultz, 1986). This would be related to an individually felt motivated to join a social movement for the recognition of joining the movement from their peers, and also the validation the social movement would give them in return for joining their cause. A person's traits might be the motivator for the person to act in prosocial ways around social movements if the motivation of the movement appeals to the person's traits.

Reliability of Prosocial Behaviour[edit]

There are several criticisms of this interpretation of behaviours surrounding motivation, with some research debating if altruistic-like behaviours are actually a part of human nature (Brief & Motowodlo, 1986; Eisenberg & Miller, 1987) or the complexities of personality and empathy. Nonetheless, it can be seen that portions of these qualities are important in understanding motivation. However, it has been discussed by Jenkins (1983) that personality traits are harder to pin to social behaviour and that it would be difficult to determine what traits are the resonation behind certain motivations of behaviour. The bystander effect is also a phenomenon that would argue against the concept of people having innate motivations to help others (Nolan et al., 2008). In this frame of reference this would mean that individuals might not feel motivated to join social movements as they feel the people already involved will accomplish the task without their help.

Social Identity Theory[edit]

Social Identity Theory (SIT) explains an individual’' behaviour towards identifying within a group and towards other groups. SIT defines possible actions of intergroup behaviour on an individual level using cognitive processes of categorisation, identification and comparison (Tajfel & Turner, n.d). A person will identify with groups or social movements that enhance their self-concept and nurture their current perceptions of the world. This self-classification towards groups helps explain the motivation to join social movements (Ashforth & Mael, 1989). SIT also identifies group member identity involving individuals who agree on equal emotional involvement and the direction of the group (Tajfel & Turner, n.d). This would also help identify factors of motivation to join social movements through identity confirmation through group solidarity.


Three main areas of SIT identify aspects linked to motivations in joining social movements. These are: the categorisation of groups into those that a person feels related to and those they feel unrelated to, the identification that can manifest as self-concept and identity when a person feels connected to the ideals that a group represents, and the comparison that occurs when a person then compares the group they identify with to the groups they do not identify with (Hogg & Terry, 2000).

Figure 3. Tajfel's Theory of Social Identity

Categorisation is the idea that an individual makes distinctions between in-groups and out-groups and where the individual fits in among them, often favouring the group the person feels connected to (Brown, 2000; Tajfel & Turner, n.d). Categorisation is an important cognitive function that helps people process their environment, so it is natural to automatically categorise social movements into groups that represent ideas with which the individual can identify, and ideas that clash with established self-concepts (Tajfel & Turner, n.d). Reflecting on this process of establishing in-groups and out-groups would be the starting motivation towards feeling connected to a movement. Once a person places themselves in a group, they are most likely to favour that group, making it the in-group (Hogg & Terry, 2000).

However, in categorising one’s self into an in-group or an out-group the potential to perceive one is in they are a part of the out-group (Hogg & Terry, 2000)[Rewrite to improve clarity]. This reflects a large portion of social movements as these groups feel they are of less status compared to perceived in-groups. SIT identifies a person's need to obtain a positive identity and as social movements can reflect this in their actions what they represent, people will be drawn to either improving the group they are categorised in or feel it necessary to move to a group or movement that help improve their self-concept (Ashforth & Mael, 1989; Tajfel, 1982)[Rewrite to improve clarity]. SIT could also explain a person joining a social movement that is the out-group for they might also feel they are in an out-group unrelated to a social movement[explain?].

Identification is also an important aspect of SIT, suggesting an individual's potential to join a social movement depends on their identification with that movement's identity. Stets and Burke (2000) found the identity of an individual can be dependent on the identity of the group as a single body, feeding the motivation to obtain a positive self-concept and identity. This would suggest a person's motivation to join a social movement is to help develop a positive self-concept through the actions of the movement, but also from the support of other members (Hogg & Terry, 2000; Stets & Burke, 2000). When an individual gains a performative identity through a social movement, their identity is shaped by the glorified archetype the group has developed, thus the support of embodying this representation from the rest of the social movement motivates the person to continue with supporting the social movement (Brown, 2000; Stets & Burke, 2000).

Comparison brings together the two previous aspects of SIT, categorisation and identification, using the information gathered to compare the in-group the person identifies with the out-group the person may feel they least identify with, or they wish to be a part of (Hogg & Terry, 2000; Tajfel, 1982). An individual's motivations towards supporting or joining a social movement could be fully supported through this process of comparing groups the person identifies with (Hogg & Terry, 2000). If the person’s identity can be positively improved or built upon by associating with a social movement that supports them, they will then compare an out-group to the movement that enforces their own actions to maintain solidarity to their in-group. The process of comparing groups leads to further favouritism towards the group the person identifies with (Hogg & Terry, 2000; Tajfel, 1982).

Reliability of SIT[edit]

A negative outcome that develops from this theory is the development of stereotyping. Negative stereotypes are made when categorising the in-group from the out-group causing further divide between people involved in those groups (Tajfel, 1982; Tajfel & Turner, n.d). This only creates further animosity towards perceived out-groups which can lead to negative forms of behaviour. Recent clashes of social movements have demonstrated the negative impacts stereotyping the other group can cause with escalated behaviour of violence and destructive behaviours during social movement demonstrations[for example?]. However, SIT also allows for a stronger analysis of cognitive processing in identity. Being able to develop a way to further understand human cognitive thinking can open new understanding of identity and motivation (Hogg, Terry, & White, 1995). 

Resource Mobilization Theory[edit]

Resource Mobilization Theory (RMT) is an emerging theory centered around the development of social movements in which the main factor influencing movements is stated to be resources. Obtaining and using resources is considered pivotal to a movement's success (Edwards & Gilham, 2013; Jenkins, 1983). These resources include finances, media exposure, knowledge, solidarity and labour. The relative competence of a social movement in utilising these resources will influence the development of the movement, how larger society views the movement, and the outcome of the movement's overall goals.


RMT is used to explain the inner workings of a social movement's evolution, however it can also be used to analyse the reasoning behind why someone might decide to join a movement. For someone to feel connected to a social movement, a common feeling of grievance or deprivation must be felt (Jenkins, 1983; McCarthy & Zald, 1977). This is a base level for understanding the motivation of a social movement in general, as well as its participants. Leading on from this, other factors of this theory play a key role in explaining possible levels of motivation to join a social movement.

Figure 4. Actress and celebrity Scarlett Johansson speaking at the Women's March on Washington.

As several factors are involved with RMT, these factors work in combination to influence people and the wider community to join the movement and adopt its goals and behaviour. Financial resource are very important to social movements in RMT. This is because income gains are pivotal for the success of the movement. If a social movement has access to enough finances they will be more likely to fulfill the goals of the movement. This support is bought in by the people within the movement (Jenkins, 1983; McCarthy & Zald, 1977). A social movement may gain financial stability through political or business support, however many groups depend on the charity of its people or the wider community (Edwards & Gillham, 2013). McCathy and Zald (1977) addressed the current development of careers from being members of a social movement, and the funds gained through the movement are enough to support members into being full-time advocates of the movement. This type of financial situation could influence those who desire to be in a similar position of financial support to join the movement with ulterior motives.

The influence of the media is also partly responsible for a social movement's ability to obtain resources. It is also a resource in itself. This means media is strongly desired to help gain members and support (Jenkins, 1983). Media give a platform to advertise the movement through a wide range of coverage and this increases the chances of finding people who have similar needs and desires to join the group (McCathy & Zald, 1977, Edwards & Gillham, 2013). Related to the effects of media influences, cultural knowledge is important to the success of recruiting and spreading the message of the movement. This concept of cultural knowledge means through the wider community, but not always global, events and meetings can be planned to draw attention to the group, thus drawing in more people to the cause (Edwards & Gillham, 2013; Jenkins, 1983). This momentum further establishes members in the movement to continue exposure of the movement, continuing to gain more members in support of change.

RMT also emphasises that the importance of a social movement is in the ability of its people to maintain solidarity, and also to leverage the abilities of its people (Jenkins, 1983; McCathy & Zald, 1977). This means a movement requires people to be able to develop and change towards its goal. Jenkins (1983) explains that the recruitment processes for movements center around solidarity and focus on notions or ideas that already exist in a community. This factor explains the recruitment process through building relationships that benefit the movements end goal (Edwards & Gillham, 2013). These relationships start from a large perspective such as gaining social capital through political figures or celebrities joining the movement to gain trust, coverage and financial support. This, in turn, influences the choices of the wider community to join the movement, appealing to internalised values and giving collective incentives to be a part of the social movement (Jenkins, 1983). It is shown that this type of influence has a strong impact on the recruitment of people, as the endorsements of people in positions of power and influence effect the image of the movement.

Reliability of RMT[edit]

RMT breaks down social movements into resource motivated movements and resource sustained movements, however, this theory does not consider that social movements with limited resources can still gain influence to change society (Jenkins, 1983). Edwards and Gillham (2013) have suggested that with the growing changes in social movements and new understanding of how they use resources, RMT could become more of a partial theory to explain social movements. This might mean in the future, stronger theories to explain participation and commitment to social movements will develop.


What it takes to motivate a person to join a social movement is hard to define in a single way because of the complex nature of the human mind. However, psychology and sociology provide a spectrum of approaches which are essential elements in creating a broader and more nuanced overview of the question, with reference to various important perspectives. Through learning about the different types of social movements and their constructs we can foster an understanding that the motivation to get involved with social change is dependent on the compatibility of the movement and the individual.

It can also be theorised that prosocial behaviour is a foundation to motivation in needing to fulfill the innate human feeling to help others or to boost the ego. Social identity theory argues that the motivation to join a social movement stems from the internal desire to develop a positive identity from peers and like-minded people, craving validation of the self though supportive actions. And lastly, resource motivation theory suggests that the motivation for joining a social movement is an external influence with movements requiring people to join the movement, so the movement pushes people in many ways to become a part of the process.

In conclusion, understanding the causes of motivation on any level is a topic that is continuously being studied and developed. Psychological and sociological studies for the future can be improved through more research and a continued effort to develop an understanding of how people get motivated, and how they are motivated to do certain things. At this time there is no individual theory that is universally accepted by the professional psychological or sociological communities as providing a whole and complete answer, so these questions must be approached with the acknowledgement of various perspectives.

See also[edit]


Ashforth, B. E., & Mael, F. (1989). Social identity theory and the organization. The Academy of Management Review, 14(1), 20-39. doi:10.5465/AMR.1989.4278999

Bartlett, M. Y., & DeSteno, D. (2006). Gratitude and prosocial behavior: Helping when it costs you. Psychological science, 17(4), 319-325.

Brief, A. P., & Motowidlo, S. J. (1986). Prosocial organizational behaviors. Academy of Management Review, 11(4), 710-725.

Brown, R. (2000). Social identity theory: Past achievements, current problems and future challenges. European Journal of Social Psychology, 30(6), 745-778.

Eisenberg, N., & Miller, P. A. (1987). The relation of empathy to prosocial and related behaviors. Psychological Bulletin, 101(1), 91.

Edwards, B., & Gillham, P. F. (2013). Resource mobilization theory.The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements.

Fultz, J. (1986). Social evaluation and the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(4), 761-769. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.50.4.761

Garrett, K. R. (2006). Protest in an information society: A review of literature on social movements and new ICTs. Information, Communication & Society9(02), 202-224.

Hogg, M. A., & Terry, D. J. (2000). Social identity and self-categorization processes in organizational contexts. Academy of Management Review, 25(1), 121-140

Hogg, M. A., Terry, D. J., & White, K. M. (1995). A tale of two theories: A critical comparison of identity theory with social identity theory. Social Psychology Quarterly, 255-269

Jenkins, J. C. (1983). Resource mobilization theory and the study of social movements. Annual Review of Sociology, 9(1), 527-553. doi:10.1146/

McCarthy, J. D., & Zald, M. N. (1977). Resource mobilization and social movements: A partial theory. American Journal of Sociology, 82(6), 1212-1241.

Nolan, J. M., Schultz, P. W., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). Normative social influence is underdetected. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(7), 913-923. doi:10.1177/0146167208316691

Passini, S., & Morselli, D. (2011). In the name of democracy: Disobedience and value‐oriented citizenship. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 21(3), 255-267. doi:10.1002/casp.1091

Snow, D. A., Zurcher, L. A., & Ekland-Olson, S. (1980). Social networks and social movements: A microstructural approach to differential recruitment. American Sociological Review, 45(5), 787-801.

Stets, J. E,, & Burke, P. J. (2000). "Social Psychology Quarterly, 63(3)" , 224-237.

Tajfel, H. (1982). Social psychology of intergroup relations. Annual Review of Psychology, 33, 1-39.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J, C. (n.d) The social identity of intergroup behaviour. Politics Psychology , 276-293

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