Chapter 21: Collective Action and Social Movements
Collective action occurs when people act in unison to bring about or resist
social, political and economic change.
There are two type of collective action:
1. “Routine” collective action: Tends to be nonviolent and follow
established patterns of behavior in bureaucratic social structures. For
instance, when Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) lobbies for
tougher laws against driving under the influence of alcohol or when
workers form a union, they are engaging in routine collective action.
2. “Nonroutine” collective action: Tends to be shortlived and violent.
They may for example form mobs and engage in riots.
A.E. Fowler led the Vancouver Riot of 1907. Fowler was secretary of the
Asiatic Exclusion League, an organization of white trade unionists who were
trying to convince the American and Canadian governments to keep
Chinese, Japanese, Hindus and Sikhs out of North America.
The following are some facts about the riot:
• Occurred on September 7, 1907
• Members of the riot went into Vancouver’s Chinatown and threw
rocks on store windows and brutally beat and stabbed the Chinese.
• After the riot in Chinatown, the mob then moved on to the Japanese
Quarter a few blocks away to carry on the violence.
• The local news put the blame on foreign influence (mainly the US
since Fowler was American) for the riot, thereby arguing that the riot
did not result from local social conditions.
Pre1970 Sociological theories argued that three conditions must be met for
nonroutine collective actions, such as the 1907 Vancouver Riot, to emerge.
• A group of people must be marginally or poorly integrated into
• Their norms must be strained or disrupted.
• They must lose their capacity to act rationally by getting caught up in
the supposedly inherent madness of crowds. These three factors together make up what is known as the breakdown
theory of collective action which states that social movements emerge
when traditional norms and patterns of social organization are disrupted.
The following are expanded explanations for the three factors mentioned
1. The discontent of poorly integrated people: Breakdown theorists often
single out socially marginal, outside agitators as a principle cause of riots
and other forms of collective actions.
2. The Violation of norms: According to Breakdown theorists, Asian
Canadian cultural practices were violations of fundamental AngloCanadian
norms. The word Strain refers to breakdowns in traditional norms that
precede collective action. In addition, Absolute deprivation is a condition
of extreme poverty and Relative deprivation is an intolerable gap between
the social rewards people expect to receive and those they actually receive.
3. The inherent irrationality of crowd behavior. Gustave Le Bon, a French
interpreter of crowd behavior, argued that people in crowds are often able to
perform extraordinarily and sometimes outrageous acts. Sociologists called
Le Bon’s argument the Contagion theory of crowd behavior. Contagion is
the process by which extreme passions supposedly spread rapidly through a
crowd like a contagious disease.
After 1970, Sociologists have uncovered flaws in all three elements of
1. The discontent of poorly integrated people: The parade of 7000 to
9000 people who marched the city to hear Fowler’s hate speech was
organized locally by Vancouver trade unionists, exservice men and
clergymen. The idea that the riot was caused mostly by foreigners and
not so much by local Canadians is clearly not true.
2. The Violation of norms: Although Asian immigration upset many
AngloCanadians in Vancouver, the roots of the 1907 riot ran deeper
than the violation of their cultural norms. This hatred was due to the
spilt labor market. The Chinese were willing to work for lesser pay
than the white Canadians for the same jobs thus creating racist
attitudes in the locals. 3. The inherent irrationality of crowd behavior: The Vancouver branch of
the Asiatic Exclusion League had been formed than a month earlier
and held three meetings before September 7. The route for the parade
was carefully mapped out. In other words, sophisticated planning
went into organizing the day’s events.
Post 1970 Sociologists focused on the Solidarity Theory, which states that
social movements emerge when potential members can mobilize resources,
take advantage of new political opportunities and avoid high levels of social
control by authorities (government reactions to protest influence subsequent
Resource mobilization is the process by which groups engage in more
collective action as their power increases because of their growing size and
increasing organizational, material and other resources.
Discussions of strain, social