social movements

John Chung-En Liu and Andrew Szasz. 2019. “Now Is the Time to Add More Sociology of Climate Change to Our Introduction to Sociology Courses.” Teaching Sociology.

Picture of Earth drowning in a sea of flames via CCO Public Domain.

Young people around the world want to talk about climate change. Intro to Sociology classes could capitalize on students’ interest by demonstrating how sociological thinking is useful for understanding it. For instance, one unit could focus on the factors that make social movements–like the Youth Climate movement–effective. Another could illustrate how inequalities in housing and access to resources mean that climate change will disproportionately impact less advantaged. Still others could show how our socialization shapes how we think about the importance of protecting the environment, or how social institutions can impact climate change and its effects.



This semester, I’m co-teaching a human rights internship course.  Beyond providing some practical skills for students who are interested in working in the human rights field, the course aims to connect human rights theory to students’ experiences in their internships.  Needless to say, the Kony 2012 campaign was a perfect topic to discuss recently.  However, since Invisible Children’s Cover the Night event is coming up on April 20th, there is still plenty of time to discuss the campaign in class, and TSP has provided an additional tool (an episode of Office Hours discussed below) to aid in this discussion.

As many (if not all!) of you know, Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video quickly received over 100 million views.  Over night, it seemed like many people who had never heard of Joseph Kony were calling for justice.  However, the video sparked debate in scholarly communities, communities of human rights activists, and even among the broader public.

During the week the video went viral, my students were reading James Dawes’ book, That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity, which explores motivations behind human rights work as well as the relationship between story telling and human rights.  Specifically, the book’s emphasis on how human rights abuses are framed through stories made the book a perfect base for a discussion about the Kony 2012 campaign.

As a class, we started talking about the book with the basic question of what storytelling has to do with human rights.  After we established that we all learn about human rights abuses around the world through stories and representations on the news, in newspapers, and through various social movements and advocacy groups, we moved on to the Kony 2012 campaign.  Most students had seen the video, but I asked a student to give a brief review in case someone hadn’t seen it.  Then, we discussed the following questions:

1)   What is the purpose of the video?

2 ) In your opinion, was Invisible Children successful in fulfilling this purpose?

3)   Why did the video go viral?  (What properties of the video/tactics of the campaign influenced its popularity?)

4)   What are most common critiques of the video?

5)   What are the difficulties in representing human rights abuses?


TSP member Shannon Golden also recently interviewed Amy Finnegan, who has studied the relationship between Invisible Children and local Ugandan activists.  Amy and Shannon talk about the Kony 2012 campaign and Amy’s research in an episode of Office Hours located here.  This episode would be a great addition to the discussion or could be assigned as homework.  We know that many of you have also discussed this campaign in your classes and would love to hear about it!

Evil Chase?

The first of many roundtables on TSP explores how social scientists study social movements.  It would be a great complement to a discussion on social movements or a discussion of research methodology.  And, to give you more ideas on teaching social movements, Professor Ron Aminzade was kind enough to provide us with a syllabus he has used in the past.  The syllabus is from 2004, so adding this roundtable and some other new literature would be a good step.  Download it here!

This blog post, written by Lyndi Hewitt, originally appeared on the Mobilizing Ideas blog and appears here with the author and institute’s permission. We liked it so much we just had to share! 


For those of us prescient enough (wink) to plan a social movements course for this semester, it’s been quite a ride.  I’ve been teaching a first year seminar on global justice movements and, like many other instructors, altered my carefully planned syllabus in response to the unexpected wave of activism that emerged before our very eyes.

As the students in the course simultaneously processed core social movements scholarship and news coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests, I was particularly struck by the fact that many students had very specific and often inaccurate ideas about who the protesters were (and what it cost them to be there) even after extensive, theoretically informed class discussion and news analysis.  So I decided to invite the students to join me for a visit to Zuccotti Park.  Newly equipped with social movements concepts, along with requisite iPhones and video cameras, the students and I ventured into the park on a chilly Saturday evening in early November.  We observed a general assembly, discussed the various issues and frames represented among the signs, and interviewed protesters about their views.  Despite the fact that most of the students were initially skeptical of Occupy Wall Street, they exhibited both intellectual curiosity and great respect for the protesters.  One especially enthusiastic student prepared a short video documenting the protesters’ responses to his questions (which I share with his permission):

The two gentlemen featured prominently, both veterans, had a significant impact on the students. Their remarks around 5:50 encapsulate the disruption of students’ pre-existing assumptions: “I’m tremendously excited by what I see here. These people are extremely sophisticated people. They’re very intelligent people. They’re not bums. Don’t believe the media that we have nothing better to do, okay. We would like to be productive members of society. We were at one time and we would like to be again. We have a lot to contribute.”

Although we’d been discussing the Occupy Wall Street protests and applying social movement theories in the classroom for weeks, the experience of being in the park, seeing the encampment alongside the police, and talking with protesters proved to be a far richer learning opportunity for students. It blew the students’ minds that OWS protesters could be older, hard working, and patriotic; moreover, hearing movement grievances articulated face-to-face catalyzed a depth of understanding that wasn’t achievable simply through reading and watching video clips about those same grievances. Interestingly, our debriefing after the field trip revealed that over half the students had changed their opinions of the protesters as well as the legitimacy of the movement as a whole (all, it turned out, from an unfavorable to a more favorable opinion).

Seeing the OWS protesters through the eyes of my students reminded me how powerful a teacher experience is, and that more time spent in the midst of the action would be valuable for most of us.

This active learning activity was written by Amy Alsup, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota.  Amy wrote the activity to accompany “Community Organizing and Social Change” by Randy Stoecker (Contexts, Winter 2009).


You are a community organizer working to address some major social problems in your community.  Read the scenario below and answer the questions with your group members.  For Question #3, use the supplies given to you to create posters with slogans.


You live in a large urban neighborhood in Minneapolis that is strongly stratified by class.  The houses on the Southern side of your neighborhood are quite dilapidated, crime is rampant, vital businesses and jobs are scarce, and the neighborhood is in need of revitalization.   Most people in this section of the neighborhood make a median income below the poverty line.  The Northern side of the neighborhood is more affluent.  There are numerous businesses within walking distance, crime has generally remained minimal, and there is a Neighborhood Watch program in place.

Recently, the local news media has exposed an upsurge in crime in the entire neighborhood.  A housing crisis is occurring, drug use in the community is extensive and progressively visible, and the school district is in shambles after dropout rates have surged and teacher retention has dwindled.   Community members on both the Northern and Southern ends of the neighborhood have increasingly expressed concern about the state of their community.  There is a neighborhood organization in place; but all regular members are upper-middle class, and most neighborhood projects and initiatives focus on beautifying the Northern section of town.

Community members from the Southern part of town have recently expressed anger and frustration about their lack of status in community operations.  Local government representatives are deliberating on whether or not to install a community policing program in the community or to explore other options.  The housing crisis is becoming a wide-scale dilemma, now affecting the middle class and not simply impoverished community members.  All families are concerned about the poor resources in their schools and the lack of quality educators.  The existing neighborhood group now realizes that they have a crucial role in rallying ALL community members to address the various problems facing the community, and they must come up with some solutions before the upcoming community meeting.

Worksheet: Community Organizing & Social Change

(1) List the social problems in the order in which you will address them. (There are 10 spaces, but if you identify more or less than this, feel free to add or subtract spaces).

1. _____________________________________________

2. _____________________________________________

3. _____________________________________________

4. ____________________________________________

5. ____________________________________________

6. ____________________________________________

7. ____________________________________________

8. ____________________________________________

9. ____________________________________________

10. ___________________________________________

(2) Why did you decide to address social problems in this particular order?  Explain your rationale for choosing the first social problem.  Why does is this problem top priority?  Why is the last concern you listed a lower priority?


(3)  Use the poster board and markers to create slogans to generate support for your cause.  List the slogans you use in the space below.




(4)  Why did you choose these slogans?  Do they appeal to emotions, humor, or moral shocks?


(5)  What strategies and tactics will you use to spread your message?  Will your tactics center on protest, direct action, education, garnering media attention, etc.— or a combination of these activities? Did your group choose strategies and tactics within or outside of societal norms and institutionalized means?  Were tactics legal or illegal?


(6) List your affiliates and opponents.  With which organizations, community groups, social movements, and politicians will you align?  Which groups will you oppose?  Name movement resources (ie: networks, affiliated organizations, money sources, and advocates) from which you will draw.


Instructor/Facilitator Directions: (Detach before handing out to students)

Directions: Have students divide into groups of 5 people.  Give the groups one worksheet per group and assign the group member roles as follows: one recorder, two reporters, one time-keeper, and one creative director.  The creative director will be responsible for making posters with slogans with the poster board and markers provided to each group.  Each group will act as community organizers who desire to address the dire conditions of the neighborhood. At the beginning of the class period, you may choose to assign each group different strategies and tactics to help provoke debate or allow group members to choose their own.

Have group members read the vignette and answer the questions on the worksheet.  Allow group members 15-20 minutes of class time to organize a plan of action.

Then, in a simulation of a community meeting, act as a facilitator.  Allow members of each group to take turns presenting social issues of primary concern, networks, resources, slogans and plans of action. Then, initiate a debate on these issues.  Let each group present the social issues of primary importance and their strategies and tactics to address these issues first.  Then, ask each group to defend their positions.  Have students share slogans and explain who they consider to be allies and who they consider to be opponents.  The debate and discussion will end when each group has shared their approach.

This exercise is designed to be used with “Community Organizing and Social Change” by Randy Stoecker in  Contexts Winter 2009. The activity is meant to stimulate a conversation among students about power and get them engaged with the topic.

Guidlines  for the Instructor:

  1. Before class, make four signs labeled, “agree,” “strongly agree,” “disagree,” and “strongly disagree.”  Hang one sign in each corner of the classroom.
  2. Tell students that you will be reading a series of statements about power.  After each statement, they should go stand under the sign that most closely reflects their own reaction to the statement.
  3. Read the first statement (listed below).  After students have assembled in groups under the signs, ask each group to discuss why they picked that particular position and to choose a spokesperson to explain their position to the class.
  4. Give the students about 3 minutes (depending on the class size) to discuss their position and choose a spokesperson.  Then have the four spokespeople explain their group’s positions.
  5. Now ask everyone to leave their group and go to the center of the room.  Then ask students to again go stand under the sign that most closely reflects their own reaction to the statement.  (This gives students the opportunity to change their positions, if they choose to do so.)  Ask whether, after hearing the various arguments, any students changed their position.  Then ask a few volunteers to explain why they decided to change their positions.
  6. Repeat this exercise for the following statements.  You can manage the length of the exercise based on how many statements you discuss.

Statements about Power:

  • Power corrupts.
  • You can’t get anything done without power.
  • Power comes from position or money.
  • Organizations that want to change things in their community should seek power.

Here’s a case study that accompanys Randy Stoecker’s “Community Organizing and Social Change” in Contexts, Winter 2009.  It could be used before or after reading the article.  Click here for the pdf.

Laura Delgado faces a dilemma.  As a community organizer for a progressive advocacy group called the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI) in San Diego, California, Laura has spent the last two years leading a campaign to win a living wage ordinance for the city of San Diego.   It has been a tough fight, but Laura believes that victory may be within sight.  A pivotal city council meeting is taking place next week.  Hundreds of living wage activists will pack the city council’s chambers, and community leaders, clergy members, and students will speak to encourage council members to vote for the ordinance.  

Laura is convinced that a low-wage worker who would benefit from a living wage must speak as well; living wage advocates need to put a human face on the issue in order to win.  Luckily, in the past few months, Laura has gotten to know Sarah Brown, an attendant for a city public restroom downtown.  Sarah has a compelling story, and Laura knows that she would do a great job speaking in front of the city council.  But for Sarah to take such a public position may entail some risk; Sarah’s employer could be upset, or even fire Sarah, if he finds out that she is lobbying for a living wage ordinance.  Should Laura encourage Sarah to speak?  

Sarah Brown is an attendant at a street-level public restroom just around the corner from the city council building.  Sarah – a grandmother with a shy smile and a gracious manner – spends almost forty hours a week there, cleaning toilets, mopping floors, restocking toilet paper, and buzzing people in and out from a tiny stall squeezed in between the men’s and women’s rooms.  Because she doesn’t make enough from her full time job to support her family, she works an additional 25 hours a week at a McDonald’s.  Both jobs pay minimum wage and provide no benefits.  Even with two jobs, it is a constant struggle for Sarah to make ends meet.  “Each month,” Sarah told Laura, “I worry that I will not be able to pay my rent or feed my grandson.  Sometimes he cries because there is not enough to eat.”

 Laura knows that, in order for CPI to win a living wage ordinance and improve the lives of thousands of city workers, including Sarah, a worker who would benefit from a living wage must speak at the city council meeting.  Half-measures, like video-taping a worker but obscuring her identity, just won’t do.  But for a worker to speak in public will entail some risk.  Laura knows that in union organizing campaigns, one out of four worker activists is fired, illegally, because they are trying to form a union.  The stakes are equally high in this case.  What should Laura do?


  1. Should Laura ask Sarah to speak at the city council meeting?  Whether you answer yes or no, how do you arrive at your conclusion?
  2. Imagine that Laura asks Sarah to speak.  Sarah responds that she wants to do so because she believes in the importance of a living wage.  But she tells Laura that she is afraid of losing her job if her employer finds out that she spoke at the meeting.  What should Laura tell her?
  3. Imagine that Laura also needs to recruit a pastor from an affluent congregation in the suburbs to speak at the meeting.  The pastor wants to do so, but is concerned that his conservative congregation will be upset about his activism; perhaps he could even lose his job.  How would your answers to questions 1 and 2 change, if at all, in this case? 
  4. Imagine that the worker Sarah needs to ask to speak happens to be undocumented.  In this case, the worker could potentially not only lose his or her job, but also be deported.  How would your answers to questions 1 and 2 change, if at all, in this case?


negative textureAs always, we at Teaching the Social World advocate the use of technology and multimedia materials to spice up any course, and including films during class time is a great way to keep students engaged in the material.

On her website, University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist Pamela Oliver posts a list of great films and clips to show for sociology instructors teaching about social movements. [Note: Oliver replicates this collection of films from a social movements listserv, unnamed on the page.]

  • There is a BBC documentary on the Tienanmen movement which illustrates very well many collective action problems and is substantively gripping and emotional. Its title is “The Gates of the Heavenly Place” and should be available from
  • There are a number of videos about the anti-corporate globalization movement. Most of them have been made by the movement themselves, and thus have a fair amount of boosterism. One of the better ones is “This is What Democracy Looks Like” about the protests in Seattle. Its available from Big Noise Productions Another one is Breaking the Bank – about the protests against the World Bank/IMF in Washington
  • There’s an interesting documentary on Stonewall and the gay/lesbian rights movement that is available through PBS. There is also “Making Sense of the Sixties” that is useful in tracking various movements. I’ve also used the series “Chicano!: History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement” and the series “Eyes on the Prize I” and “Eyes on the Prize II” (civil rights movement) because they are both useful in showing the rifts, grassroots involvement, and government involvement/infiltration in their respective movements.
  • Beyond the many good suggestions already offered for videos to teach about social movements, another rich video series is “A Force More Powerful: Nonviolent Action in the 20th Century.” This new PBS series is six 30 minute stand-alone sessions describing and analyzing six different campaigns: Nashville student sit-ins of 60s with Jim Lawson; Indian independence with Gandhi; South African transition to democracy; Philippines people power revolution in mid-80s; Solidarity in Poland in the 80s; and a sixth that escapes me at the moment. All are excellent, and just the right length for classroom use, followed by discussion. There is also a companion book by Peter Ackerman, with same title.
  • A great film that I always use in teaching social movements is: “Freedom On My Mind” which documents Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. What really makes the film great is the juxtoposition of clips from 64 and interviews with participants 30 years later, including Bob Moses, Heather Booth, and grassroots Black leaders from Mississippi.
  • Another excellent film is “The War At Home” about the movement against the Vietnam War on the Madison campus of the U. of Wisconsin. I also recommend With God On Our Side, an excellent multi-part documentary series made for PBS about the rise of the Christian Right. The documentary series is a supplement to William Martin’s book of the same name. It would be a useful contrast with Eyes on the Prize to show how religion influences social movement activists in very different ways.
  • In my class on the Civil Rights Movement, in addition to segments from the extraordinary “Eyes on the Prize” series and “Freedom on My Mind” already mentioned, I also show as background “A. Philip Randolph: For Jobs and Freedom,” which connects the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the person of E.D. Nixon, Randolph’s connection to the March on Washington movement, and much more. The segment on the Child Development Group of Mississippi from the 5-part “America’s War on Poverty” series is a useful follow-up to what happened in 1965 after the Freedom Summer of 1964.
  • For my class on Gender and Social Movements I show the excellent two-hour “One Woman, One Vote” program on the Woman Suffrage Movement. I also show between the “One Woman, One Vote” segments program 5, “Outrage,” from the British “Shoulder to Shoulder” series, on the Pankhurst family, to add some excitement and a bit of international perspective.
  • “Before Stonewall” is excellent on the origins of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movements; the sequel “After Stonewall” is good but more difuse and scattered (I don’t show it). I do use “The Times of Harvey Milk” as a wonderful introduction to the politics of the GLBT movement, as well as an essential part of local (northern California) history — it shocks and grips our 20-year-old students who weren’t born when Milk and Mayor Moscone were assassinated, and Senator Dianne Feinstein’s career was relaunched.
  • On women in the labor movement, there is a very moving segment on the “revolt of the 6000,” the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and its consequences in part 4 of the “New York” series. And finally there is the old standby, “Union Maids,” on women in labor and the left in the 1930s and 40s, now available in video to replace your university’s tattlered celluloid film.
  • I’ve also taught a class on the Conservation and Environmental Movement, which has been less systematically documented in videos than the movements above. “Battle for the Wilderness” is good on the early conflict between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, between preservationism and utilitarianism in conservation. “For Earth’s Sake: The Life and Times of David Brower,” is a little too much a personal tribute, but it introduces this remarkable leader and his involvement with the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and Earth Island Institute. On the 30-year struggle against strip-mining in eastern Kentucky, I’d recommend “To Save the Land and People, ” a video from Appalshop in Whitesburg, KY. I also use “Butterfly” on Julia Butterfly Hill, which is problematic but involves young students and is a jumping off point for a good discussion.
  • On the student movement of the 1960s, I’ve found “Berkeley in the Sixties” to be most useful; good cuts from past to present, the activists are reflective and often self-critical, and it gives a good feel for the importance of the civil rights movement boosting student protest, the Vietnam War, the rise of Black Power, and the beginnings of the women’s movement. Better in several of these respects than the recent film on SDS (IMHO). Of course again we gain student interest from the local history aspect of Berkeley.
  • Women Make Movies in NYC has some excellent films on the women’s movements in the US, the Beijing Conference, and one on cultural feminism focusing on punk music artists.
  • “Ballot Measure 9” — on activism surrounding the Oregon anti-gay ballot measures. And the PBS documentary, “Mean Things Happening” (part of the Great Depression series), about labor organizing in the 1930s.

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