Steven M. Buechler

Steven Beuchler’s latest book is Social Movements in Advanced Capitalism, Oxford University Press, NY, 2000.

Resource mobilization theory became the dominant paradigm for studying social movements in the 1970s because it was better able to account for the 1960s cycle of protest than previous theories of collective behavior. After almost two decades of theoretical development, the resource mobilization framework is now under increasing challenge. Drawing on research on women's movements in the United States, this article identifies ten issues which collectively pose a major theoretical challenge to the dominance of resource mobilization theory and which may initiate a paradigm shift to a new framework for the study of social movements.

Resource mobilization (RM) theory is now the dominant theoretical framework for analyzing social movements and collective action within the discipline of sociology. This ascendancy may be traced from early programmatic statements (McCarthy and Zald 1973, 1977; Oberschall 1973) through subsequent critiques and reformulations (Ferree and Miller 1985; Fireman and Gamson 1979; Jenkins 1983; Klandermans 1984; Marx and Wood 1975; Perrow 1979; Piven and Cloward 1977; Snow et al 1986) to a number of empirical studies which have sought to test and modify the theory (Cable et al 1988; Gamson et al 1982; McAdam 1982; Morris 1984; Rochford 1985; Walsh 1978, 1981; Walsh and Warland 1983; Zurcher and Snow 1981).

In this essay, I describe some problematic issues that have emerged from this fruitful period of work and that collectively pose a significant challenge to the theoretical dominance of the RM framework. Most of these issues can be exemplified by my own research into women's movements in the United States (Buechler 1986, 1990). My argument is that while there is no clearly defined contender for theoretical dominance, we are nonetheless entering a period of sustained debate and theoretical turmoil which may well lead to such an alternative. I begin with brief overviews of the RM framework and my research on women's movements. I then identify a number of emerging trends in social movement theory which collectively imply the need for a new theoretical paradigm. I conclude with a brief evaluation of whether the RM framework will be able to respond effectively to these theoretical challenges.


RM theory emerged in the 1970s as a distinctively new approach to the study of social movements. According to this perspective, social movements are an extension of politics by other means, and can be analyzed in terms of conflicts of interest just like other forms of political struggle. Movements are also seen as structured and patterned, so that they can be analyzed in terms of organizational dynamics just like other forms of institutionalized action (Oberschall 1973; McCarthy and Zald 1973, 1977; Tilly 1978). In sharp contrast to the earlier collective behavior tradition (Turner and Killian 1957; Smelser 1962), RM theory views social movements as normal, rational, institutionally rooted, political challenges by aggrieved groups. The border between conventional politics and social movements thus becomes blurred, but does not disappear altogether. Whereas established, special-interest groups have routine, low-cost access to powerful decision-makers, social movements must pay higher costs to gain a comparable degree of influence within the polity. RM theory thereby redefined the study of collective action from an example of deviance and social disorganization to a case study in political and organizational sociology (Buechler 1990).

RM theory also takes a distinct position on questions of recruitment, motivation and participation. Based on a rational actor model, individuals are viewed as weighing the relative costs and benefits of movement participation and opting for participation when the potential benefits outweigh the anticipated costs (McCarthy and Zald 1977). When movement goals take the form of public goods which cannot be denied to non-participants, the free-rider dilemma is created because it is individually rational for each actor to let others win the goal and then share the benefits without the costs. In response to the free-rider dilemma, organizations may offer selective incentives for active participants which can be withheld from nonparticipants (Olson 1965). This logic has been criticized as economistic by those who argue that collective, moral, purposive or solidary incentives often motivate people to join movements even if they could theoretically "ride free" on the efforts of others (Fireman and Gamson 1979). The role of different incentives remains a subject of debate, but the debate assumes rational actors on the individual level just as it assumes the normality of movements on the collective level (Buechler 1990).

Theoretical development never occurs in a socio-political vacuum. The emergence and increasing prominence of RM in the 1970s and 1980s was a response to the cycle of protest that was initiated in the United States by the civil rights movement and that spread to numerous other groups and issues during the 1960s and early 1970s. Many sociologists felt an affinity with the goals of these movements, and some were active participants in them. When they sought theoretical explanations of these movements, however, they found that existing theories were of limited utility and often contained both inaccurate and unflattering depictions of protest movements and their participants. Turner and Killian's (1957) formulation of the collective behavior tradition was oriented to short-term, spontaneous actions and was not well-suited to studying ongoing, organized, political forms of protest. Kornhauser's (1959) analysis of a mass society in which only the most marginal, socially isolated people would become involved in collective behavior seemed to fly in the face of mobilization patterns in 1960s movements. Smelser's (1962) assumptions that collective behavior involved a short-circuiting of institutional channels by irrational actors under the sway-of generalized beliefs were an especially inappropriate way to analyze much (though not all) of the protest behavior of the 1960s. And Gurr's (1970) synthesis of relative deprivation approaches ultimately rested on psychological models of frustration-aggression which also distorted more than they revealed about many forms of activism. Against this theoretical backdrop, the RM framework offered an appealing alternative for many sociologists.

It is doubtful that RM theory would have emerged simply in response to the theoretical weaknesses of prior approaches. Such weaknesses were not fully apparent until a wave of protest movements appeared which dramatized the lack of fit between theoretical assumptions and forms of protest. The emergence of RM theory occurred at a particular, socio-historical moment when it became evident that the theoretical premises of prior approaches to collective behavior could no longer provide adequate analytical leverage or interpretive understanding of contemporary social movement activity. RM theory was well received almost from the beginning because it provided a set of assumptions and hypotheses which had a better fit with, and a readier application to emergent forms of social movement activity. Assumptions about the normality of protest challenged older theories and resonated with the socio-political climate. Assumptions about the rationality of activists rejected earlier premises about protesters and provided a more congenial view of their motives. RM theory therefore offered a satisfying resolution of the increasing tensions between prior theories and emerging movements.

Within the study of collective action, the appearance of the RM framework thereby constituted something of a paradigm shift which resolved a mounting crisis in this sociological sub-field (Kuhn 1962). Since the rise and consolidation of this new paradigm in the mid-to-late 1970s, a great deal of sociological work on social movements has taken the form of "normal science" which operates within the assumptions of RM theory and examines the relative weight of various factors in the course of social activism. During this period, there has been considerable progress in clarifying questions about recruitment, mobilization, strategy, tactics, and the like. However, after a decade-and-a-half of more or less cumulative progress and theoretical development, the RM framework appears to be coming under increasing challenge in the form of new issues and questions which cannot readily be resolved within this framework. It is likely that these issues will precipitate another theoretical crisis in the study of social movements, and it is possible that a period of theoretical contestation will usher in a new paradigm for the study of social movement activism.[1] This essay does not attempt to predict these events. Rather, my goal is to identify some of the emerging issues which challenge and transgress the limits of RM theory, and which will shape the contours of theoretical debate in the foreseeable future.


These theoretical and metatheoretical issues are best illustrated by specific social movements. Women's movements provide an analytically interesting and empirically rich context for identifying and evaluating problematic issues for RM theory (Cott 1987; Rupp and Taylor 1987; Staggenborg 1988, 1989; Taylor 1989a, 1989b). My own research has taken a comparative and historical approach to women's mobilization across two centuries. In the first phase of this work, I undertook extensive archival research into the woman suffrage movement in Illinois. This involved a detailed inspection of thousands of documents in the form of letters, diaries, novels, organizational records, movement publications, newspaper accounts and the like. These efforts were complemented by selective primary research into the national suffrage movement and extensive reading of secondary sources (Buechler 1986). In the second phase of this work, I again undertook detailed archival research into the organizational records of the National Organization for Women and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, complemented by extensive reading of the rapidly growing literature on the contemporary women's movement. These two phases of research culminated in a comparative analysis of women's movements in the United States (Buechler 1990). This article builds on this research, as well as the work of others, to identify emerging new directions in social movement theory.

Women's political mobilization began in the 1840s as a broadly oriented women's rights movement pursuing a radical agenda which went well beyond the right to vote and posed a major challenge to the sexual division of labor. Immediately after the Civil War, the movement experienced internal strife and inter-organizational conflict which weakened its momentum and undermined its radical orientation. During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, the movement was in a period of relative dormancy and was eclipsed by the temperance movement. The latter's ideology of protecting the home and saving the family appealed to many women, and led to a more moderate ideological posture in the woman suffrage movement. After the turn of the century, a new generation of leaders brought strategic and tactical sophistication to the woman suffrage movement and aligned it with progressive politics. Efforts were made to expand the base of the movement, leading to significant growth in the membership of woman suffrage organizations after 1910. The movement also diversified ideologically, constructing a wide range of arguments for the vote. By 1915, the movement consisted of a sophisticated leadership, a diverse base, and a cross-class, multi-constituency alliance. As a result, the movement was able to take advantage of new political opportunities during and after World War I, and it thereby succeeded in winning the right to vote for women (Buechler 1986; DuBois 1978; Flexner 1975; O'Neill 1969).

The "second wave" of women's activism began in the 1960s. A women's rights sector emerged out of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and culminated in the formation of the National Organization for Women in 1966. A women's liberation sector appeared somewhat later, emerging out of the myriad dissatisfactions of women with sexist treatment in other social movements of the time. From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, the contemporary women's movement was a genuinely mass movement, due in large part to the women's liberation sector and its emphasis on small, decentralized groups and consciousness-raising activities. After passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972 and the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973, factionalism began to undercut this mass mobilization and the first countermovements appeared. By the late 1970s, the balance was tipping and by the early 1980s, feminism was on the defensive in the face of a rising conservative tide and ongoing countermobilization. Despite these obstacles, the contemporary women's movement has survived, and it continues to wage strong battles for reproductive rights among other issues. Although the mass movement phase ended some time ago, the persistence of formal movement organizations and informal social movement communities testifies to the persistence of a women's movement into the last decade of the twentieth century. (Buechler 1990; Freeman 1975; Ferree and Hess 1985).

The documentary record of women's activism across two centuries provides good examples of particular mobilizations in specific socio-historical contexts. As such, this record can help illustrate some of the emerging issues in social movement theory.


There are at least ten issues which pose some degree of challenge to the RM framework for studying social movements. While none of these issues are individually insurmountable, they collectively constitute a fundamental challenge to the RM framework. These issues may be loosely grouped into several categories. Some involve empirical generalizations on which there is conflicting evidence. Others involve aspects of collective action which appear increasingly important but are typically ignored by the RM framework. Still others involve core assumptions of the theory itself. By identifying and briefly describing these issues, we can understand the challenge confronting RM theory and identify emerging trends in social movement theory. The first three issues identified below are the subject of very extensive analysis elsewhere (Buechler 1990) and will be quickly summarized here; the latter seven issues reflect developments in the field generally, although most of these can also be illustrated by reference to women's movements.

Rethinking Grievances

From its origins, at least one strand of RM theory has consistently downplayed the role of grievances in the emergence of collective action (Buechler 1990; McCarthy and Zald 1973, 1977). This stance is typically defended by reference to many groups who have longstanding grievances but never are able to mount any collective challenge to the social arrangements which produce those grievances. RM proponents thus claim that grievances may be a necessary but are not a sufficient factor in explaining social movements; they proceed to argue that control over actual and potential resources is a more important determinant of the emergence as well as the likely success of collective action. In its most extreme form, the argument is that grievances can be assumed as a constant, background factor with no explanatory relevance, while changes in access to resources of many sorts will be the critical, variable factor which explains the periodic appearance of collective action. While other strands of the RM framework are somewhat more attentive to the issue of grievances (Tilly 1978), none would rank them on a par with resources in accounting for collective action and social protest.

Women's movements have typically emerged from "parent movements" like abolitionism, the civil rights movement, or the new left. As a result, women's movements have sometimes been presented as cases in which women derived both resources and grievances from their participation in parent movements and subsequently mobilized as women. However, a closer look suggests that the woman suffrage movement of the 19th century and the women's rights sector of the contemporary women's movement were both led by women with pre-existing feminist grievances. When these longstanding grievances were combined with newfound resources from parent movements, women's movements emerged. These cases are thus consistent with the logic of the RM framework. However, the women's liberation sector of the contemporary women's movement did appear to formulate its grievances largely in the context of women's participation in parent movements which treated them unequally. Hence, the movement which has most radically challenged patriarchal power developed its grievances through interactive dynamics in parent movements which subsequently prompted the independent mobilization of women. This suggests that in some cases, grievances can be at least as important as access to resources in explaining the emergence of social movements (Buechler 1990).

These specific differences are best explained in generational terms. Members of the women's liberation movement tended to be younger women with relatively less exposure to systematic gender discrimination until their activist careers in other movements (Buechler 1990). The more general lesson is that grievances cannot be assumed to be a constant background factor in the study of social movements. Put differently, the social construction of grievances may be the critical step which allows members of socially dispersed groups to begin to mobilize for action. One of the core assumptions of the RM framework may thus lead its practitioners to gloss over what may be a fundamentally important part of the mobilization process.

Recognizing Ideology

Just as the RM framework has downplayed grievances, it has also marginalized ideology (Buechler 1990). This is a logical consequence of the emphasis placed on resources and opportunity in accounting for movement origins and persistence (Tilly 1978). This marginalization typically occurs by equating ideology with the expression of grievances, and then dismissing both as constant background factors with little explanatory relevance (McCarthy and Zald 1977). However, the expression of grievances does not exhaust the functions of ideology. In the broadest sense, ideology encompasses the ideas, beliefs, values, symbols and meanings that motivate individual participation and give coherence to collective action. Ideological beliefs typically provide a critical diagnosis of the larger society, an idealized sketch of a positive alternative, and some suggestion as to how the problematic present may be replaced with a preferable future (Buechler 1990; see Wilson 1973 for a similar view). Ideology often performs multiple functions, including transforming vague dissatisfactions into a politicized agenda, providing a sense of collective identity, and defining certain goods as potential movement resources. It may be that for some constituencies, these processes may be taken-for-granted and do not require analysis. But it is also clear that for many others, the multiple roles of ideology are critical prerequisites for effective movement mobilization.

Women's movements provide a good test case of the importance of ideology. Indeed, the major accomplishment of feminist ideology is to create the very conditions which the RM framework takes-for-granted in the study of movement mobilization. It is through the development and diffusion of feminist ideology that grievances become politicized ("the personal is political"), that women develop a collective identity rooted in gender, and that they re-interpret their social environment as consisting of potential movement resources. Over the history of women's movements in the United States, a variety of different ideological belief systems have contributed to these outcomes. The early suffrage movement was rooted in a radical ideology of women's fights which challenged many of the roots of patriarchal power. During its middle period, this radically egalitarian women's fights agenda was partially displaced by a social-feminist ideology which emphasized women's essential, underlying differences from men. In the final period, a plethora of ideological beliefs managed to successfully coexist in a manner which facilitated mass mobilization and the eventual success of the suffrage movement (Buechler 1986). The contemporary women's movement picked up with the same theme of ideological diversity with which the woman suffrage movement ended. Contemporary feminist ideologies range from liberal to radical to socialist to cultural to lesbian and beyond; the only fair generalization is that there has never been a significant movement sector which does not have a distinct and well-developed ideological position (Buechler 1990; Taylor and Whittier, unpublished).

Even in the supposedly pragmatic political culture of the United States, it is clear that women's movements have always operated with more-or-less explicit, ideological world-views to foster mobilization, formulate goals and debate strategy. The more general lesson is that for at least some constituencies, ideological work is a critical component of movement mobilization. It is often vital in politicizing discontent, fostering collective identity, and defining movement resources (Buechler 1990). Hence, the tendency of the RM framework to marginalize ideological issues may deflect critical attention from one of the most vital processes of movement formation.

Deconstructing Organization

RM theory has underscored the centrality of organization to the mobilization of movements in at least two major ways. First, all versions of the theory have identified preexisting forms of organization as critical in facilitating mobilization. This claim is richly confirmed by women's movements, all of which have built on preexisting networks. Second, some versions of RM theory have equated organization with formal, bureaucratic, centralized structures, as in McCarthy and Zald's distinctions between social movements (SMs), social movement organizations (SMOs), social movement industries (SMIs), and the social movement sector (SMS) (1977). Since they define SMs as "preference structures" in a population, the only actors in their conceptual scheme are SMOs, defined as complex or formal organizations whose goals match the preferences of a movement. There is an organizational bias in this implication that only formally organized bodies can act effectively. Once again, there are other strands of RM theory which are somewhat more receptive to the role of informal organizational structures, but the dominant tendency within the theory favors formal organization.

This organizational bias is particularly evident in the case of women's movements. To understand these movements, we need the concept of a social movement community (SMC) to designate informally organized networks of movement activists (Buechler 1990; see Gerlach and Hine [1970] for a related formulation). We need such a concept because in the history of women's movements, SMCs have probably played a larger role than SMOs in mobilizing women and pursuing movement goals. In the first stage of the woman suffrage movement, there were no formal organizations which expressed women's emerging agenda, although there were many informal social networks and links among women's rights activists. In the middle stage, there were multiple SMOs which constituted a broader SMC of activist women which kept the suffrage issue alive. In the final stage, it was a combination of SMOs and SMCs which created the critical momentum needed to finally win the right to vote. At no stage can this history be understood without the notion of informal organization. In the contemporary women's movement, the women's liberation sector is perhaps the best example of an SMC because this sector consciously and explicitly repudiated formal organization on ideological grounds, and strove to discover and implement more egalitarian forms of organization. The women's rights sector offers more typical examples of SMOs (like the National Organization for Women) but even here, the periods of most successful activism by such organizations have been in conjunction with informally organized SMCs (Buechler 1990).

The history of women's movements in the United States suggests that SMCs have been critical in every major period of feminist mobilization, while SMOs have sometimes been non-existent or marginal in these events (Buechler 1990). The more general lesson is that formal organization cannot be assumed to be the predominant or even the most common form for mobilizing collective action. Giving equal theoretical weight to SMCs can open up a series of important hypotheses about the conditions under which groups organize in one or another form and the relation between a group's ideological commitments and organizational form. Once again, one of the core assumptions of RM theory about formal organization can blind investigators to the theoretical value and strategic importance of different organizational forms.

Distinguishing Levels of Analysis

Sociological research within the RM framework has tended to operate on the meso-level of analysis to the relative exclusion of both marco-level and micro-level explorations of collective action.[2] This is a logical extension of RM's emphasis on the role of organization and the mobilization of resources as central to understanding such action. Given a historical context of sociological theories which traditionally approached collective behavior as a micro-level phenomenon to be explained in social-psychological terms or as the manifestation of macro-level social disorganization and breakdown, the establishment of the meso-level of analysis was an important step forward. By re-orienting the study of collective action to this level, the connecting links between macro-structures and micro-processes were highlighted. However, there is a tendency within the RM framework to focus so exclusively on the meso-level of organizational analysis that "larger" questions of social structure and historical change and "smaller" issues of individual motivation and social interaction receive scant attention. The result is an image of movement organizations as reified social actors detached from larger structural constraints and historical contexts as they engage in collective action. Having developed such analytical strengths at the meso-level, it is now time for social movement theory to move both "up" and "down" by more thoroughly theorizing and studying the macro-level and micro-level determinants of collective action (for a related assessment, see McAdam, McCarthy and Zald, 1988).

The study of women's movements illustrates the need for these theoretical moves. The RM framework is quite helpful in understanding the inter-organizational dynamics of this (and other) movements, but it is less helpful in explaining their socio-historical determinants or the variable ability of such movements to recruit a committed membership. In analyzing the origins of women's movements in both the 19th and 20th centuries, I found it necessary to distinguish between "background conditions" and "proximate causes" (Buechler 1990). RM theory was applicable to the latter by orienting me to the role of parent movements, changing opportunity structures, newfound access to resources and the like. But RM theory provides no particular guidance on the macro-structural determinants of such activism even though they were essential to understanding the origins and subsequent history of feminist activism. Such factors included capitalist industrialization, state consolidation, demographic changes, alterations in family structure, labor force participation and educational attainment. Without these background conditions, the meso-level mobilization dynamics emphasized by RM theory would never have occurred. Although it was not a major focus of my research, RM theory was also unhelpful on questions of individual recruitment and commitment on the micro-level. Women's movements have had few of the resources required to overcome the free-rider problem by offering selective incentives, and yet they have experienced periods of intense recruitment and high commitment which the RM framework is ill-equipped to explain.

Understanding the relation between micro- and macro-levels of society is one of the most vexing problems in sociological theory today, but theorists of varying persuasions are nonetheless offering some intriguing ways to approach such questions. Social movement theory seems like a particularly fruitful area for pursuing such work because movements are fascinating microcosms of social construction which require individual participation while also being embedded in larger, socio-historical contexts. Precisely because of RM's strengths in understanding the meso-level, social movement theory is well-positioned to begin attending to multiple levels of analysis by either elaborating or transcending the RM framework. Such development would not only help us understand social movements more clearly; it could also make significant contributions to more general sociological theory. In the next two sections, I identify some work that is already being done or that might be done to promote such theoretical development.

Interpreting the Micro-level

Some of the most recent work within the RM framework has begun to move in the direction of closer scrutiny of micro-level processes in social movement activism. Indeed, RM appears more amenable to a synthesis of meso- and micro-levels than a comparable synthesis of meso- and macro-levels. In any case, the growing attention to the micro-level of analysis within the RM framework may contribute to the resolution of a paradox which has been at the center of RM theory from the beginning. The initial formulations of RM theory in the mid-1970s seemed to offer a succinct rebuttal to earlier theoretical approaches which tacitly assumed that participation in social movements indicated some degree of individual irrationality. The rebuttal was to posit the rational actor as a way of understanding movement participation based on a cost-benefit calculus. The new problem was the free-rider and the potential solution was selective incentives (Olson 1965). The lingering problem to the potential solution was that many movements have been able to recruit devoted followers without selective incentives while some others have not been able to gamer much support even with such incentives. The lingering problem casts doubt on the rational actor model at the heart of RM's understanding of individual participation.

These issues have been episodically identified and debated almost from the origin of the RM framework by those who have suggested that factors like solidarity, group interests, loyalty, responsibility or urgency may be more fundamental in motivating individual participation than any utilitarian calculation of costs and benefits (Fireman and Gamson 1979). Other critics have argued that explaining movement participation on utilitarian grounds quickly becomes tautological if interpreted broadly or demonstrably false if interpreted narrowly. Such criticisms have led to calls for a recognition of the role of ideology as an intervening variable, for some attention to the effect of social organization on cognitive processes, and for a richer social psychological theory to complement RM's emphasis on resources and organization (Ferree and Miller 1985). Subsequent research within the RM framework has provided a clearer empirical understanding of micro-level processes in social movements. These efforts include work on framing activity and vocabularies of motive (Snow and Benford 1988; Benford, 1993); work on the creation of a willingness to participate and on consensus mobilization (Klandermans 1984, 1988); work on the interactive role of spontaneity and direct democracy in movements (Rosenthal and Schwartz 1989); and work on understanding contexts of micro-mobilization as settings for collective attribution and frame alignment (McAdam, McCarthy and Zald 1988).

Of all the issues identified in this paper, the interpretation of the micro-level has received the most attention and appears most amenable to a modified RM framework. This also reflects a cycle of attention in social movement theory. RM displaced a strong presumption about the irrationality of movement activists by positing the model of the rational actor and exorcising the premise of irrationality. This premise also helped reorient social movement theory to the meso-level of organizational analysis. Having established the general premise that social movement activism could be a reasonable thing for people to do, the specifically utilitarian image of the rational actor came under increasing scrutiny which in turn led to the identification of a number of important, micro-level, social-psychological processes of movement mobilization. Despite this work, the rational actor model has not been displaced by this new attention to the micro-level. As we will see in a moment, this model is also under attack on metatheoretical grounds.

Theorizing the Macro-level

While there has been a sustained effort to move from the meso-level to the micro-level within the RM framework, there has been much less attention paid to the macro-level. Research in the organizational tradition of McCarthy and Zald may give fleeting attention to the macro-level to explain movement origins through changes in the availability of resources, but the subsequent analysis typically ignores this level. Research in the political tradition of Tilly may be somewhat more attentive to how macro-level change alters political opportunity structures for collective action, but once again the subsequent analysis tends to focus on the meso-level. Despite this difference in degree, both versions of RM theory take an eclectic and somewhat ad hoc approach to structural issues, and neither offers any systematic theory of how macro-level organization might affect movements (and vice versa) beyond resource availability or opportunity structures. Since these processes can really only be theoretically understood over significant periods of historical time, this insensitivity to the macro-level also means a distinctly a-historical approach to the study of social movements. While it may always be necessary to bracket some aspects of social reality so as to scrutinize others, the consistent tendency of the RM framework to ignore macro-structural and historical contexts has undermined its ability to understand the dynamics of collective action.

There has been no major effort to resolve this problem and theorize the macro-meso link in the way that some have begun to theorize the meso-micro link. In fact, it has become something of a cliche to accept this state of affairs by claiming that the RM framework can explain the "how" of movement mobilization while we must turn to other theoretical frameworks (typically new social movement theory) to understand the "why" of structural determination (Klandermans 1986). At this stage, it is less important which specific approach is taken to the macro-level than that the importance of taking some such approach be recognized. Three possibilities may be briefly mentioned here. First, Habermas's analysis of modem society as consisting of a technocratic system world of economic and political imperatives and a sociocultural lifeworld which is being colonized by systemic imperatives offers a highly general theory of the macro-structure which nonetheless has clear implications for social movement activism. For Habermas, such activism is most likely to occur along the"seams" between system and lifeworld and to congeal around the roles of employee, consumer, client and citizen (1984/1987). Second, and at a less abstract level, recent work in political economy has attempted to delineate the contours of an emerging post-industrial society in the U. S. and Europe and to assess the prospects for social movement activism in these newly emerging social forms (Block, 1987, 1990; Touraine 1981). Finally, recent work on multiculturalism and social diversity has suggested the utility of a conception of society as consisting of multiple structures of domination which are both the cause and the target of a good deal of contemporary social movement activism (Buechler 1990, Collins 1990).

The inattentiveness of scholars within the RM framework to the macro-level is particularly curious because contemporary social theory offers several promising approaches to the macro-level in general and to resolving the problems of the micro-macro gap in particular (Ritzer, 1992; Collins, 1988; Giddens 1984). The relative ease with which the RM framework has moved "down" to the micro-level needs to be complemented by moving "up" to the macro-level in some coherent theoretical fashion. Failure to do so will reinforce RM's implicit image of social movement activism as involving reified, free-floating organizations detached from larger socio-historical contexts as they pursue their collective goals.

Transcending the Rational Actor

When the model of the rational actor is problematized within the RM framework, it typically appears as a problem of motivation and recruitment exemplified by the free-rider dilemma. However, there is a more basic metatheoretical issue that is implicit in RM's entire approach to movement mobilization. The rational actor model of this theory reflects its heritage in exchange theory. Such models have always been criticized from a sociological perspective (Durkheim 1895; Parsons 1937; Zeitlin 1973), but new criticisms have recently been made by feminist standpoint theorists such as Nancy Hartsock (1985). According to these critics, rational choice theories presume a world "populated by fictive independent, isolated individuals" (Hartsock 1985, p. 67) who have conflicting interests and yet voluntarily enter into profit-seeking exchanges on a presumably equal footing with each other. From this perspective, the ontological assumptions of exchange theory may reflect masculine experience but they fail to capture the more nuanced, relational, communal, nurturant and empathic world which is more typical of female experience. This perspective suggests that under the best of conditions, the ontological assumptions of RM theory fundamentally limit its utility for understanding the activism of any constituency whose orientation to the world departs from the "fictive" one implicitly assumed by rational choice theory (Ferree 1992).

This ontological limit becomes readily evident when trying to understand some sectors of women's activism. The issue is most apparent in the contrast between the two sectors of the contemporary women's movement. The women's rights sector with its liberal feminist ideology and its focus on the public sphere presumes a world which resonates with many of the assumptions of rational choice theory. But the women's liberation sector with its radical feminist ideology presumes a fundamentally different world. Indeed, radical feminism has appealed to precisely those qualities (connection, empathy, intuition, concrete experience, interdependence) that most sharply divide male and female experience and that are most at odds with the assumptions of exchange theory. This ontological gulf between RM theory and radical feminism means that the theory cannot provide any definitive interpretation of this movement because the actors, goals and actions which the theory presumes do not correspond to the actual actors, goals and actions of this sector. Thus, what appears as either inexplicable or as a failure from the perspective of RM theory must rather be seen as the inability of this theory to grasp a movement which has explicitly repudiated rational choice principles as the foundation for social activism (Buechler 1990).

As we noted earlier, the rational actor model played an important historical function in reorienting social movement theory away from a view of collective behavior as fundamentally irrational. However, by relying on an individualist and utilitarian conception of rational choice, RM theory created a set of analytical puzzles in the form of the free-rider problem which diverted attention from the larger, metatheoretical implications of this model. Upon closer scrutiny, these implications seem increasingly at odds with both sociological and feminist conceptions of the social actor. More recently, this conception has been challenged from another direction by interest in the problem of collective identity. Analyzing Collective Identity

For RM theory, effective collective action requires gaining access to sufficient resources and motivating rational actors to become involved. Presuming that resources are sufficient and that the free-rider problem can be resolved, the RM framework implicitly assumes that the "preference structures" of individual actors will simply be aggregated until some critical mass is reached and a group constituency is created. With such premises, RM remains remarkably uninterested in who engages in collective action and how they view themselves and their allies in struggle. These questions are central in much work being done under the rubric of "new social movements" where such questions are approached through the concept of collective identity (Cohen 1985; Eder 1985; Melucci 1985, 1988, 1989). This work recognizes that people who participate in collective action do so only when such action resonates with both an individual and a collective identity that makes such action meaningful. For many mobilizations, the most central process is the social construction of a collective identity that is symbolically meaningful to participants and that logically precedes any meaningful calculation of the costs and benefits of joining in collective action. In contrast to the RM framework, such collective identities cannot be taken-for-granted nor viewed unproblematically; they are better seen as essential outcomes of the mobilization process and crucial prerequisites to movement success.

Women provide one example of a potential movement constituency whose members are not automatically predisposed to identify themselves as women with politicized grievances which can be redressed through collective action. This is one reason why even though gender dominance is virtually universal, collective resistance (at least in the form of mass movements) is relatively rare. One critical intervening process which must occur to get from oppression to resistance is the social construction of a collective identity which unites a significant segment of the movement's potential constituency. This process of socially constructing a collective identity based on gender is made all the more complicated because women are structurally dispersed throughout all other social groups, because they often live in close proximity with their "oppressers," and because their most salient collective identities may be based not on gender but on race, class, and the like. Given these realities, the collective identity of "women" is never firmly established. It rather must be continually constructed and reinforced as one vital aspect of mobilization in women's movements. It is also evident that such identities can never really be treated in isolation from other identities. Thus, those women who are most able to see themselves simply as "women" tend to be women from dominant racial and class groups (Cott 1987), while women from subordinate racial and class groups explicitly meld such identities with their gender identity (Buechler 1990). For all these reasons, a pre-existing constituency of women cannot be taken-for-granted, but rather must be painstakingly constructed and maintained if women's movements are to be successful (for a somewhat parallel argument in the case of racial formation, see Omi and Winant 1986).

The theoretical importance of the social construction of collective identity is that it is logically prior to other social processes which the RM framework regards as central to collective action. Melucci argues that costs and benefits can only be calculated meaningfully after a sense of collective identity is established (1989). I have argued elsewhere that the identification of potential movement resources can only occur once members of a group consciously see themselves as a collectivity with politicized grievances (Buechler 1990). Hence, the RM framework may inadvertently take-for-granted some of the most central processes of collective action in order to focus on the role of resources and organization. Recent work on collective identity suggests that this focus needs readjustment. Acknowledging Movement Diversity

If the social construction of collective identity is an ongoing, never-completed task in social movements, this is because movements are often composed of diverse and heterogeneous individuals and sub-groups (Gerlach and Hine 1970). For all the reasons just discussed, this issue is also one that does not receive explicit attention within the RM framework although it may be one of the critical determinants of movement mobilization and outcomes. Intramovement diversity can be a potential asset or a liability, although it is perhaps most often viewed as a liability which will lead to factionalism and thereby reduce a movement's chances for success (Gamson 1975). However, diversity can also be beneficial by expanding a movement's potential constituency and resource base as well as by broadening the arguments which can be made for movement objectives. Until such diversity is recognized as an important variable, however, these processes will likely go undetected (for a recent analysis of gender diversity in one movement, see McAdam 1992). In theoretical terms, the obstacle is a set of background assumptions that view social movements as unitary empirical objects with an underlying essence acting as a character or a personage on a historical stage (Melucci 1988). This movement-as-actor formulation can introduce an unwarranted teleological element if the movement is viewed as having an historical mission to perform, and it often introduces a reductionist element which obscures movement diversity. At the extreme, these problems may warrant replacing the concept of a social movement with alternative conceptions of collective action which carry less metatheoretical and metaphysical baggage (Melluci 1989).

The issue of movement diversity makes it difficult to utilize the RM framework to understand women's movements. Such diversity is evident on at least two levels, and in both cases it has been a central element in the course of women's movements across two centuries. One level of diversity concerns ideology, and the fact that women's movements typically are an ideologically contested terrain in which competing world-views can always be found. A second level of diversity concerns identity, and the fact that women never mobilize strictly on the basis of gender but always on multiple and diverse bases of class, race, and other identities. The importance of recognizing and analyzing such diversity may be suggested by two counter-intuitive examples in which it proved to be a movement asset. In the latter years of the woman suffrage campaign, leaders deliberately developed pro-suffrage arguments for women in almost every conceivable social situation. One could find pamphlets articulating why rural women, working women, wealthy women, home-making women, and virtually every other sub-group of women required the ballot to protect some specific interest. This tactic helped to neutralize anti-suffrage sentiment and it contributed to the eventual suffrage victory (Buechler 1986). In the contemporary movement, much-publicized divisions around race and class have promoted an explosion of ideological and theoretical work on the nature of feminism which has helped to sustain the momentum of the contemporary movement in inhospitable times (Buechler 1990). In both these examples, diversity proved a movement asset rather than a liability.

While Melucci's suggestion about rejecting the very concept of a social movement may be too extreme, there is growing evidence that cross-currents of diversity and unity are central to the origin, development and transformation of collective mobilization. To the extent that the concept of social movement implies unity and homogeneity over diversity and heterogeneity, and to the extent that the RM framework relies on such a concept of social movements, the RM framework may once again be missing a vital element in the social construction of collective action.

Bringing Culture Back In

In the broadest theoretical terms, the RM framework might be characterized as emphasizing instrumental action oriented to political and economic subsystems utilizing generalized media of money and power while ignoring the cultural and symbolic lifeworld which necessarily underpins such strategic action and is increasingly a central focus of much movement activism (Habermas 1984/1987). Put more succintly, RM's concern with resources and organization leads it to ignore the role of culture in collective action. If we take culture to refer to symbolic systems of meaning construction, then it can serve as a master concept for many of the more specific issues already discussed in this essay. The formulation of grievances and the articulation of ideology are inseparable from cultural processes of framing, meaning and signification which are prior to any utilitarian calculation of costs and benefits. The use of informal, egalitarian forms of organization is best understood not as the result of a strategic calculus but as the expression of some of the core values of a given movement constituency. The construction of collective identity and the inability of such an identity to completely overcome movement diversity cannot be understood without reference to cultural processes of identity formation and group solidarity. The rational actor is "fictive" precisely because this concept detaches social beings from their cultural contexts of values, norms, meanings and significations. Hence, the call to bring culture back in to the study of collective action is one way of summarizing much of what is missing in the conventional RM framework.

Once again, two examples from the history of women's movements will have to suffice to suggest the importance of culture in the study of collective action. In the woman suffrage movement, the period from 1870 to about 1900 has always appeared as a kind of "black hole" in the history of this movement because there were few strategic advances of any sort. However, a closer look suggests that this was an important period in which a movement culture was created that was critical in the eventual success of the movement. One form that this cultural work took involved writing a detailed history of the movement's efforts to date --a history that eventually filled six large volumes entitled History of Woman Suffrage (1969). By dedicating themselves to the creation of a cultural record of their activities in an otherwise inhospitable climate, movement leaders created a cultural resource which helped recruit subsequent generations of activists who were able to be more successful in achieving their goals (Buechler 1986) (for a similar argument concerning the period from 1920 to 1960, see Rupp and Taylor 1987). In the contemporary women's movement, the creation of "women's culture" has become an explicit goal of some movement sectors. The rationale for this goal is to create a community of support and validation which can sustain alternative identities and visions for people seeking to resist dominant forms of sexism and heterosexism (Taylor and Rupp, unpublished). Such action makes little sense from the strategic calculus of the RM framework, but is eminently reasonable from a standpoint which recognizes the importance of cultural processes in collective action (Taylor and Whittier, unpublished).

The concept of culture conveniently summarizes numerous lacunas in the RM framework. While it is tempting to group these concerns under a generic heading like "expressive" to contrast with the "instrumental" approach of RM theory, such a formulation perpetuates an unfortunate dichotomy. The supposedly instrumental concerns of movement actors in the RM framework are always and inescapably embedded in a larger cultural framework of "expressive" elements concerning meaning, symbols and signification. Until the cultural foundation of such strategic action is adequately theorized, the RM framework will offer us a very partial view of collective action at best.


The issues identified above pose different challenges to the RM framework. Some are primarily empirical in nature, and could be resolved by further research to adjudicate between competing claims about observable processes in social movements. This may prove to be true for factors like grievances, ideology and organization. Other challenges to the RM framework are more conceptual in nature because they involve its theoretical "silences." In these cases, the theory ignores important movement processes because they do not fit its conceptual schemata. Most of the issues identified in this essay fall into this category. Collective identity, movement diversity, and cultural construction are processes about which the RM framework is silent because its central concepts direct attention elsewhere. These conceptual silences cannot be resolved by collecting more data because conceptual presuppositions define what count as significant data in the first place. Such cases of theoretical contestation cannot be resolved in empirical arenas. Finally, some of the issues identified here pose a fundamental challenge to the core assumptions of the RM framework; the best example is the beleaguered career of the rational actor. This assumption makes not just a conceptual but an ontological claim about a social world of isolated, independent monads who freely enter into contractual arrangements based on self-interest. To the extent that collective action involves other foundations, RM may obscure more than it reveals about that action.

These challenges do not stand alone, but rather form an interconnected web of empirical, conceptual and ontological issues which collectively imply that the RM framework is entering a period of crisis and that we may be in the early stages of a paradigm shift. There is not a clearly formulated contender for theoretical dominance at this moment, although some important work has been done by primarily European theorists studying "new social movements." If this is to become a competing paradigm, advocates will have to move beyond the preliminary work which is currently available toward a clearer specification of the core assumptions which could define a cohesive alternative to the RM framework. Of those working within this tradition, Alberto Melucci has probably moved further in this direction than anyone else (1989).

The emergence of any theoretical alternative to the RM framework will also be influenced by the current socio-historical context. Early approaches to the study of collective behavior with their distinctive premises about the irrationality of such episodes were, in part, elaborated against the backdrop of fascism. This historical moment was eclipsed by another in the 1960s, when a major paradigm shift toward the RM framework occurred which ushered in a different set of core assumptions about the nature, and in particular the rationality, of collective action. In the ensuing years we have seen the diffusion of social movement strategies, tactics and ideologies across the entire political spectrum, eclipsing the historical moment of the 1960s cycle of protest. If collective behavior was the theoretical response to the socio-political climate of the 1930s, and if the RM framework was the theoretical response to the socio-political climate of the 1960s, it remains to interpret the socio-political climate of the 1990s and to reformulate social movement theory in ways which will enlighten us about this new historical moment.


1. My use of the Kuhnian framework of paradigms, normal science and scientific crisis is not entirely appropriate here because even proponents of RM have never claimed to be offering a fully articulated, scientific theory. Nonetheless, the RM framework does propose a sufficiently coherent set of core assumptions and propositions that it can be at least loosely described as a scientific paradigm which may be entering a period of crisis.

2. This claim is more true for the economic-organizational version of RM represented by McCarthy and Zald than it is for the more political version of RM represented by Tilly. However, Tilly has never embraced the term "social movement," and those who study social movements within sociology rely more heavily on the McCarthy and Zald version of RM theory than on Tilly's version. For at least one partial exception and synthesis, see McAdam (1982).


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By Steven M. Buechler, Mankato State University

Steven M. Buechler is associate professor of sociology at Mankato State University. He has done extensive research on women's movements in the nineteenth and twentieth century in the United States. He is currently researching the political economy of social movements in advanced capitalist societies

Direct all correspondence to: Steven M. Buechler, Mankato State University, department of Sociology and Corrections, POB 8400, Mankato, MN 56002-8400.

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