Social movements are any broad social alliances of people who are connected through their shared interest in blocking or affecting social change. Social movements do not have to be formally organized. Multiple alliances may work separately for common causes and still be considered a social movement.
A distinction is drawn between social movements and social movement organizations (SMOs). A social movement organization is a formally organized component of a social movement. But an SMO may only make up a part of a particular social movement. For instance, PETA(People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) advocates for vegan lifestyles along with its other aims. But PETA is not the only group to advocate for vegan diets and lifestyles; there are numerous other groups actively engaged toward this end (see vegan). Thus, the social movement may be a push toward veganism (an effort with numerous motivations) and PETA is an SMO working within the broader social movement.
Modern social movements became possible through the wider dissemination of literature and increased mobility of labor due to the industrialization of societies. Organised social structures like modern day armies, political societies, and popular movements required freedom of expression, education and relative economic independence.
Giddens has identified four areas in which social movements operate in modern societies:
- democratic movements that work for political rights
- labor movements that work for control of the workplace
- ecological movements that are concerned with the environment
- peace movements that work toward, well, peace
It is also interesting to note that social movements can spawn counter movements. For instance, the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s resulted in a number of counter movements that attempted to block the goals of the women's movement, many of which were reform movements within conservative religions.
A social movement organization (often capitalized in literature as Social Movement Organization or abbreviated as SMO) is a formally organized component of a social movement (SM). A SMO may only make up a part of a particular social movement; in other words, a specific social movement is usually composed of many social movement organizations - formal organizations that share movement's goals and attempt to implement them. Social movement organizations play coordinating roles in social movements, but do not actually employ or direct most of the participants.
For instance, the civil rights movement was a social movement composed of specific social movement organizations (likeSNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) or CORE (Congress of Racial Equality)). PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) advocates for vegan lifestyles along with its other aims. But PETA is not the only group to advocate for vegan diets and lifestyles; there are numerous other groups actively engaged toward this end. Thus, the social movement is the general push toward veganism (an effort with numerous motivations) and PETA is only a single SMO working within the broader social movement. The peace movement is composed of many groups that want peace - groups that classify as SMOs such as Peace Action (SANE/FREEZE), Fellowship of Reconciliation and others. Ku Klux Klan is yet another SMO - part of the white supremacist movement. al-Qaeda, acting as a coordinating body for a large number of loosely-connected anti-American organizations and individuals is another example of a social movement organization.
An organizational equivalent of a particular social movement - a collection of all SMOs focused on a given field - is known as a Social Movement Industry (SMI). Social Movement Industries are similar to social movements in scope but are seen as having more structure. Social movement industries can be combined into one one Social Movement Sector in the society.
The term SMO entered the literature through the work of Zald and Ash (1966).