This article is from the blog buildingarevolutionarymovement.

Featured image: Members of Walk of the People, a 7,000-mile peace walk from California to Russia, reach New York City in 1984. Photo by Kevin James Shay.

This post describes different types of social movements. These are broad classifications and generally social movements are made up from a combination of types. Their type can change at different points in the social movements lifecycle.

Reform movements seek to change some parts of society without completely transforming it. They normally exist in democratic societies where criticism of existing institutions is acceptable. Examples include environmental protection campaigns and introducing a minimum wage.

Revolutionary movements seek to completely change every aspect of the existing social system and replace it with a greatly different one. These include Communist movements and the 1960s counterculture movement.

Redemptive movements are trying to find meaning and aim to create inner change or spiritual growth in people. Examples include Alcoholics Anonymous and the New Age movement.

Alternative movements are focused on self-improvement and changes to individual beliefs and behaviour. Examples include the local food movement and alternative health movement.

Resistance movements seek to block a planned change or undo a change already made to society. Examples include the Ku Klux Klan and pro-life movements.

Migratory movements are large numbers of people that leave a country and settle in another place. They are a migratory social movement when they have a shared focus of discontent, purpose, or goal to move to a new location. Examples of migratory social movements include the Zionist movement, Jews moved to Israel and the movement of people from East Germany to West Germany.

Utopian movements aim to create an ideal or perfect society which is in people’s imaginations but not in reality. It is based on the idea that people are basically good, cooperative and altruistic. Examples include the nineteenth-century Utopian socialist movements of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier. Also the Sarvodaya movement. [1]

Political movements are collective attempts by groups of individuals to change government policy or society. This can include: “to extend the criteria for inclusion within decision making; to reveal and fight against bias that privileges certain interests over others within the political system; to gain access to and influence within existing decision-making processes; to open up new channels for the expression of previously excluded demands.” [2]

Cultural movements are movements of ideas and performances rather than interests and politics. They do not have a clear political focus; are not a reaction to collective interests, injustices or demands made by movements on the streets; they are more focused on artefacts and performances of mobilisations such as music, dress and shared experiences rather than marches, demonstrations and protests; these movements have great influences through public opinion and attitudes than through legislation or policy change. Examples include Romanticism and the Hippie movement. [3]

Antagonistic movements challenge society and its politics in fundamental ways. It questions the allocation of resources between social groups and classes, and the ideological and organisation basis of production, distribution and exchange of key social and economic goods. Examples include radical environmentalists critique of economic growth that is incompatible with environmental protection and anti-capitalist movements use of direct action for ideological reasons against liberal democracy instead of instrumental changes to influence policy. [4]

Claimant movements aims to change the distribution of resources, roles and rewards within society and organisations. Examples include the mobilisation of low waged workers, disabled campaigns for equal access to public buildings and transport, and campaigns to reduce the age of consent for homosexual sexual relations. [5]

Countermovements or countercultures attempt to create forms of expression and association which are opposed to mainstream cultural norms of society. Examples include the youth movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the North American Beat Generation. [6]

Defensive social movements attempt to defend established traditions, customs, practices, and forms of social interactions from changes due to modernisation. There are also known as Resistance movements. Examples include the German anti-nuclear movement, Ku Klux Klan and pro-life movements. [7]

Global social movements (Transnationalism) operate at the international level, coordinating activities and resources that is focused on a shared goal for social and political change. Globalisation has resulted in improved communications, international mobility and cultural exchange and global governance institutions and corporations. Examples include the anti-globalisation movement, global justice movement and fossil fuel divest movement. [8]

Offensive social movements have radical transformational agency and emancipatory potential. They are in contrast to resistance social movements, described above. An example is the feminist movement. [9]

Poor peoples’ movements are movements that focus on the interests of poor people that are separate from work and labour issues. These include segregation, housing, education provision, fuel poverty and broader community provisions in developed nations with no or limited welfare state services. Examples include the Poor People’s Campaign in the US in 1968 and 2018. Also the Poor People’s Alliance in South Africa from 2006-9. [10]

Urban social movements are grassroots movements that aim for system change in the urban environment or general political and economic situation. They attempt to gain control of urban processes such as housing provision, service provision, resisting unwanted development, participation and influence over planning decisions, tenants’ control over public housing. They are different from preservation societies and community associations. [11]


  1. and
  2., Social Movements: The Key Concepts, Graeme Chesters and Ian Welsh, 2010, p135
    Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age, Alberto Melucci, 2008 CH12
  3. What is a Social Movement (What is Sociology), Hank Johnston, 2014, page 80-82
  4. Social Movements: The Key Concepts, page 29
  5. Social Movements: The Key Concepts, page 44
  6. Social Movements: The Key Concepts, page 53
  7. Social Movements: The Key Concepts, page 60
  8. Social Movements: The Key Concepts, page 88
  9. Social Movements: The Key Concepts, page 125-6
  10. Social Movements: The Key Concepts, page 138-9
  11. Social Movements: The Key Concepts, page 161-2