Social Movements and Voluntary Associations
As this textbook has demonstrated, sociologists focus on the significance of group
membership and its impact on the individual. While membership in some groups (race, gender,
class, to name a few) is involuntary, this chapter examines the sociological significance of
voluntary associations and social movements—groups, that for the most part, are comprised of
members who have willingly chosen membership in the group. These groups provide benefits to
both the individual members and to society as a whole.
The chapter also demonstrates that despite that fact that individuals are free to join and
leave voluntary associations, these groups contribute to social order. Group members are
regulated by group norms, and these norms are enforced in a variety of ways, such as guilt,
shame, gossip, rumour, and threatened rejection.
In cases when voluntary associations adopt larger, societal goals, they become social
movements. Sociological studies of the reasons why people join social movements vary
according to theoretical perspective. The breakdown approach, relative deprivation theory, and
systemic theory are associated with the functionalist perspective; accordingly, these theories
emphasize disintegration, discontent, and frustration and how these threaten societal equilibrium.
Critical theorists, on the other hand, note that social conflict is a natural feature of social
life; indeed, social conflict is often the engine of social change. Critical theorists argue that social
movements are organizations with rational goals and plans. These theorists also note the
importance of the availability of resources to social movements, as well as the movement’s
ability to propound its counter-ideology.
Finally, some social movement theories reflect the influence of the symbolic interactionist
approach. These approaches recognize the importance of members’ values and beliefs,
recognizing that people react not only to social situations, but to their interpretation and
evaluation of these situations.
In this chapter, you will
• learn how participation in voluntary associations is useful both to the individual and to
• consider the various theoretical perspectives on social forces that lead people to seek
change and form social movements; and,
• recognize how people make and preserve social order, despite differences, inequalities,
conflicts, and constant change. 2
counter-ideology: An ideology that supports alternative social values and challenges the
dominant ideology: An ideology that supports the status quo and the interests of the
ideology: A strategy, program, or point of view that justifies the goals and strategies of the
movement: for example, it may justify demands for gender equality.
social movements: Organized groups of people with an agenda or plan for social
change, to be achieved through agitation and political pressure.
voluntary association: A group formed by voluntary membership. Unlike other voluntary
associations, social movements usually have a political goal.
Carroll, W. K. (ed.) (1997). Organizing Dissent: Contemporary Social Movements in Theory
and Practice, 2nd ed. Toronto: Garamond.
This is a collection of leading articles and essays on social movements in North America. It
is useful in that it applies theory to real-life examples, and shows the value of theoretical
approaches when analyzing collective action.
della Porta, D., Andretta, M., Mosca, L., & Reiter, H. (2006). Globalization from Below:
Transnational Activists and Protest Networks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
This work analyzes the perspective on global social movements from below: that is, from the
points of view of activists, organizers, and demonstrators.
MacKay, C. (1969 ). Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
Wells, VT: Fraser Publishing Company.
This classic history of popular folly in collective action was published over 150 years ago.
Nevertheless, its insight into what happens when people merge into crowds remains relevant
in our society today. MacKay, a well-known figure in his time, covered many different
disciplines and topics. 3
Meyer, D. S., Jenness, V., & Ingram, H. (eds) (2005). Routing the Opposition: Social
Movements, Public Policy, and Democracy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Covering various topics, the authors discuss how the states and social movements intertwine
and meet on issues such as public policy, social institutions and the people who make them
up, and society as a whole.
Parsons, T. (1949). The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory with Special
Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers, 2nd ed. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
This is a classic sociological work and the first major book by this author. It draws on the
work of founding sociologists and develops a systematic theory of how and why people act
Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New
York: Simon & Schuster.
Putman argues that American civil society is breaking down, that people are less connected
to their families, communities, and societies. He uses ‘bowling alone’ as a metaphor for our
Scott, J. (ed.) (2007). Fifty Key Sociologists: The Formative Theorists. London: Routledge.
Scott, J. (ed.) (2007). Fifty Key Sociologists: The Contemporary Theorists. London: Routledge.
These two books, one of which covers classical sociologists and the other contemporary
ones, offer invaluable information about key sociologists over the last two centuries.
Smith, M. (1999). Lesbian and Gay Rights in Canada: Social Movements and Equality-Seeking,
1971–1995. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Smith’s work analyzes the trends in social movement activity by Canadian gays and lesbians
over the last few decades. The author highlights the importance of social policies, counter-
ideologies, organizational strategies, and other factors that influenced how these movements
Canada’s Rights Movement: A History
Global Solidarity Dialogue
Free the Children
Canadian Labour Congress/Congrès du travail du Canada (CLC/CTC)
Voice of Women (VOW)
Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives (CLGA)
Assembly of First Nations/Assemblée des Premières Nations (AFN/APN)
Multiple Choice Questions
1. A voluntary association becomes a social movement when its goals become
d) all of the above
2. Organized groups of people with agendas or plans for social change to be achieved through
agitation and political pressure are known as
a) revolutionary movements.
b) voluntary associations.
c) social movements.
d) lobby groups. 5
3. As stated in the text, one of the fundamental features of social life is
d) social support.
4. The most striking feature of cyberspace is its
b) technological sophistication.
5. In Stanley Milgram’s ‘small world’ study, he found that the target people received the letters,
with, on average, __________ subjects passing them on.
6. Ron Burt refers to individuals with very large and diverse networks who link some
individuals to others as
c) network stars
d) movers and shakers
7. Which of the following statements regarding Tamotsu Shibutani’s work on rumours is not
a) Rumours are always inaccurate and distorted.
b) Rumours provide a basis of sociability among people.
c) Rumour formation is a problem-solving strategy.
d) Rumours collaboratively gain accuracy and provide social order.
8. Which of the following is an example of a voluntary association? 6
a) charitable group
b) support group
d) all of the above
9. Which of the following statements is a feature of play, according to John Huizinga?
a) It is free.
b) It is a departure from ordinary or real life.
c) Every society has play.
d) all of the above
10. Which of the following statements about voluntary associations is not true?
a) They provide sociability.
b) They bring together a diverse group of people for a common cause.
c) They have a somewhat unpredictable effect on social tolerance.
d) none of the above
11. __________ is defined as control by society or social relations.
a) Political control
b) Social control
c) Formal control
d) Legal control
12. Which of the following is an example of a process involving informal social control?
a) rewarding wanted behaviour
b) withholding rewards for unwanted behaviour
c) both a and b
d) all of the above
13. According to Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Proces