4 The Five Stages of Social Movements

June 25th, 2010
As a social justice issue progresses through each stage, its influence and resistance to setbacks increase proportionately.

As a social justice issue progresses through each stage, its influence and resistance to setbacks increase proportionately.

As a social movement practitioner I study the academic literature on social movements. Sociologists define social movements as “collective, organized, sustained, and noninstitutional challenge to authorities, powerholders, or cultural beliefs and practices.” (Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper (eds.), The Social Movement Reader(Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), p.3.) From the perspective of practice and theory I conclude there are five basic stages that social movements, including the animal rights movement, must pass through from obscurity to victory.

The five stages of social movements are:

  1. Public education, when people are enlightened about the issue and embrace it into their lives
  2. Public policy development, when political parties, businesses, schools, professional associations, and other entities that constitute society adopt sympathetic positions on the issue
  3. Legislation, when laws are passed on the issue
  4. Litigation, when laws are implemented and enforced on the issue
  5. Public acceptance, when the issue is embraced by the majority of society

I acknowledge, before I go further, simplistic schematics of this kind are problematic; however, I offer this as a tool to help assess what’s been accomplished and what’s left to be done.

Most issues start in stage one and expand to the others but not always in a clear sequential order. As it progresses through each stage, an issue’s influence and resistance to setbacks increases proportionately. Further, the role of animal advocates must also expand from the Caring Sleuth, formed by the personal transformative moment, to also include the role of public policy maker in order to make animal rights a mainstream political issue.

Hunting in Britain, for example, existed in stage one, public education, for decades with occasional success in stage two, public policy (e.g., opposition from county councils). After many attempts at legislation in Parliament (stage three) as private members bills, the passage of the government (non-opposition) backing of the Hunting Act 2004 triggered the next stage, stage four, litigation. Pro-bloodsports enthusiasts failed in their attempts to sue the government in the House of Lords and for civil liberties in the European Court of Human Rights. The abolition of bloodsports has enjoyed public support (stage five) for many years; however, a law is only a law as long as the legislation is on the statute books—an important point to remember should the Conservatives form the next government. The passage of the Hunting Act legitimized the public policy position that hunting is a cruel and ineffective wildlife management tool deserving of prohibition. It also empowered hunt opponents to become public policy makers and hunt proponents to become the protestors.

The present Labour Government has achieved a great deal for animal rights since its election in 1997. These accomplishments – and others – were achieved because the issues were moved along by the movement through the five stages. More can be accomplished if the movement does more to expand the animal rights frame from personal lifestyle choice to mainstream politics. In the words of Lord Houghton, “Go to Parliament.” The Hunting Act became law because of a multi-decade effort to put animals into politics at general elections since 1976. This included securing manifesto commitments from the political parties. Consequently, hunting became a political issue. Contrast this with other animal issues that are not presently framed as legitimate public policy. For example, the breeding of so-called pedigree cats and dogs and its impact on overpopulation. There’s also a lack of action by the government to promote a vegan diet and lifestyle as beneficial for human health and well-being as well as the environment and challenging global warming. Regrettably, some animal issues have become politicized hostile to animal interests. For example, animal research is viewed as “my baby vs. a rat in a laboratory cage.” Instead, it should be: Is animal testing an effective public policy to determine product safety?

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