I'd like to learn more about how social movements have started, evolved, collapsed or flourished over time. Can anyone recommend any books, summaries of books, or good research papers/searches to learn more about this?

New Answer
Ask Related Question
New Comment

3 Answers sorted by

If you want a fairly easy and interesting read, I recommend “How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don't” - by Leslie Crutchfield. It’s only focuses on US movements and selects some weird things as movements but overall is a useful read.

For a more academic book, I would recommend “How Social movements matter” by Marco Giugni, which is a collection of chapters from various academics and covers a lot.

For an accessible and pretty interesting read on the theories behind direct action/mass protest, I recommend “This is an Uprising” by Mark and Paul Engler.

For more detail on how civil resistance works, and social movements in the Global south generally, I would recommend “Why Civil Resistance works” or “Civil Resistance: What you need to know” by Erica Chenoweth

I’m on my phone so could link more later if you’re interested! Feel free to DM also.

I'll look into these – Thanks!

I've done a bit of research on the rise and fall of social movements—I did research for one of the authors below (Pineda) and wrote a thesis on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the southern US; another big project on Colombian human rights activist strategy in the 2000s—that forced me to get really familiar with this literature. There's definitely more versed people on the issue—I've never done doctoral studies on it, for instance—but here's some of my favorites with different flavors of subject matter and degrees of formality (they get denser as they go down):  

Disclaimer: This list is biased by my interests (often in transnational connections to US social movements) and my curriculum (I went to school in the US and we often lacked the global representation that we should have had. This should in no way be taken as an exhaustive list of "seminal" or "canonical" works, and I'd really love to see more examples from other geographies. 

Quick note for a hack: Don't have time for all these books? You can always read a few-pages-long review before you read the book to get the gist of the argument + one scholar's take on it and decide whether you wanna dive in. 

  • Blueprint for Revolution: How to use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World (Popovic & Miller). Usually my first rec because it's a very easy and fun read that covers a pretty diverse array of cases. The author was part of Optor in Serbia, and his focus is combatting authoritarians from a situation of powerlessness. Heavier on tactics than long-term life cycle. 
  • This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the 21st Century (Engler & Engler) is a standard for a reason. (And it's already ID'd by James in this thread.) Also a public-facing read. Later chapters go into the ecology of change and talk a bit about the challenges of transformation that inherently face successful orgs. 
  • Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (Tufekci) dives deep into the challenges that differentiate today's protests from prior, pre-internet and social media movements. (Today's movements can grow much quicker, require less buy-in to participate, and are often far more decentralized and less hierarchical. This will help you get literate real quick on the pros and cons of that.) 
  • Any essay/chapter by Karuna Mantena. (I like this Aeon essay "The Power of Nonviolence" and "Another Realism: The Politics of Ghandaian Nonviolence" for more detail.) Mantena is revitalizing the "strategic reading" of Ghandi, and she spends lots of time working through things like the Constructive Programme that are necessary to really understand the whole thrust of what worked and didn't. She also follows the Ghandaian inspiration to the US civil rights movement, though her work often ends with King. 
  • Rules for Radicals (Saul Alinksy)—The seminal work on US labor organizing. 
  • Erin Pineda's book (Seeing Like an Activist) or articles. Spends lots of time focusing on transnational connections. 
  • In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. The seminal book on SNCC's evolution—one of the most famous and tumultuous life cycles of a North American social movement. Worth reading. (I have a lot more on SNCC that gets more into the sauce, but start here and then ping me.) 
  • Archive Wars (Rosie Bsheer) is sorta an anti-pick here. It's about how the House of Saud constructed a public history that legitimized its rule and sort of inherently stomps out social movements. Learned a lot.
  • Locking Up Our Own (James Forman Jr.) is also an interesting counterpoint, about the law and order politics in Black communities in Washington DC in the late 1900s. 
  • Engines of Liberty (David Cole) has case studies including Freedom to Marry movement and (I think?) NRA? If the NRA chapter is something I'm misremembering, check it out in Firepower

Have to go for now but will add more later. I love talking about this stuff—would love to talk to anyone interested in speaking more on this issue! 

Thanks for such a long annotated list! I think I'm going to start with How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don't and then move into this list. Overloaded at the moment but I'll be in touch if a chat seems valuable!  

Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement is very interesting and good.