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Society is a living organism: changing, evolving, adapting. The only thing stable about it is not being stable. Change in society can occur in multiple ways; the most common is through social movements and shifts. But what are they and why are they still so popular?
Definition of social movements and their necessity
A social movement is an organised attempt by a large group of people to make a change, usually related to the status quo. It can have many forms and according to sociologist David Aberle can be divided into 5 categories.
It is interesting to investigate why people have had, and still have, the need to be part of social movements. Most of them are a result of people’s frustration and discontent towards a situation; a potential new government policy or the lack of action towards a social issue they are passionate about, and which affects them. This stems from the feeling that their needs are not heard and respected, creating a shared discontent between citizens, which makes them want to act together. Another cause of social movements is the impact masses can have in comparison to individuals and smaller groups, due to the power a large number of people can hold.
Social media have added to these numbers, because they have a wider reach which makes it a lot easier to organise protests but also to raise awareness and participation. At the same time, the Internet has given social movements a digital form, through petitions, online groups, websites etc, making them more accessible, widespread and impactful.
Social movements throughout history and their relevance today
If we look at the course of history, social movements have shaped society. However, change does not equate resolution and so the cycle continues. The reasons for this are two sides of the same coin. As the years go by and society evolves, so do people’s needs and demands concerning socio-political, economic and cultural issues. That is to say, that even if a social movement has shifted things in the past, it does not mean it will have a long-term impact. People fight for modifications of past policies or for implementation of new ones to be up to date with the new state of affairs. As a result, a large number of social movements have already addressed issues that were never dealt with properly, if at all, and they keep rising to the surface urging people to act. Some of the most well-known and impactful movements are ones related to Women’s Rights, the LGBTQI+ community, the environmental crisis and anti-racism awareness.
Women’s Rights and the ‘Me Too’ Movement
More specifically, the women’s suffrage movement in America was the reason the 19th Amendment got ratified and women got the right to vote in 1920. Today, the contemporary women’s movement still strives for gender equality and women’s rights. Activist and sexual harrasment survivor – Tarana Burke – founded the ‘Me Too’ movement against sexual abuse in 2006. Its goal is to make survivors of sexual abuse feel empowered and provide them with resources; to create a world free from sexual violence where everyone is safe and respected. It went viral in 2017 when numerous women started openly making sexual assault allegations online with the hashtag #MeToo, having an international impact, through raising awareness and encouraging survivors to speak up about their experience and ask for help. This has resulted in the accountability of predators and more strict policies on issues of sexual abuse.
The Women’s March in Washington, D.C., 2017. © Heidi Besen/Shutterstock.com
Similarly, the LGBTQI+ fight for equality regarding people of all genders and sexual orientations with victories such as same-sex marriage legalisation in 32 countries accross the globe, a number that is bound to get bigger in the coming years. Another win is the 2020 decision of the US Supreme Court, declaring that the 1964 Civil Rights Act now protects gay, lesbian and transgender employees from discrimination in the workplace based on sex. Despite these being big steps towards equality, but they are not enough and society still has a long way to go for everyone to feel seen, supported and to have the same chances and rights.
Same-sex marriage rally in Sydney on September 10, 2017 // Saeed Khan / AFP
Moreover, environmental movements fight for sustainable consciousness, animal protection, nature preservation and law enforcement regarding the crisis earth is facing. The fight for the environment started more than 50 years ago, with the Federal Water Pollution Act in 1948. Since then, the crisis has become more severe due to industrialisation, resulting in societal and civil pressures to limit the destruction of the environment. After many protests, governments have established policies on carbon emission reduction, plastic bag and straw elimination, and protection of endangered species. Environmental consciousness has also become popular, urging people to incorporate zero-waste habits in their every-day life to reduce their ecological footprint.
Environmental protest in Leeds, 2019 // Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA
Anti-racist awareness movements and Black Lives Matter
Last but certainly not least, Black Lives Matter, Immigrant Rights organisations and so many others work hard on battling racism and xenophobic oppression; an issue addressed multiple times over the decades, but one which still plagues our society. In 2020, Black Lives Matter made a huge impact with the international spread of protests about George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. His murder resulted in multiple protests against racism and police brutality globally – in the US they were the largest racial justice protests since the Civil Rights Movement. The police officers involved were found guilty. Chokeholds and other neck restraints were banned or restricted by at least 17 state legislatures in the year after Floyd’s murder. This incident was a wake-up call for the whole world to realise that racism still exists and it needs to be properly dealt with.
March in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in Brooklyn on June 6, 2020, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
Impact on society and conclusion
Social movements have the power to hugely impact society. They unite people towards a common goal, they are mediums for citizens to advocate on matters they care about, and to shift the normative narrative. Without a doubt, they do not always have a peaceful nature, which can result in violent uprisings and riots, disturbing the status quo and often causing dangerous and high-risk situations. Still, they will always be an integral part of society and humanity as a whole, due to their historicity and contemporary popularity.
Society is always changing, no matter the success and real-world application of these developments, which creates a never-ending circle of new circumstances that demand our attention. Social movements will never stop happening, because problems keep emerging and people will not stop defending their needs and beliefs. In an ever-changing social landscape, this is the only thing we can be certain of.
Written by Despina Zacharopoulou
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