Social movement theory and the environmental movement: Change and continuity from the 1970's to the 1990's

Jill Stephens Fleisher, Purdue University


Objectives are: to study changes in the environmental movement, and to apply these findings to an assessment of two social movement theories--resource mobilization, and new social movements. Literature on the environmental movement suggests that citizen activism has shifted from national policy to local levels with an increase in minority participation and a change in women's roles. Comparative data to analyze such shifts is lacking. This study examines change by a 1996 replication (N = 200) of a 1977 state-wide survey (N = 183) of environmental activists in Indiana. Variables include: (1) importance of environmental issues; (2) demographic characteristics of participants including income, education, race/ethnicity, and gender; (3) degree and level of participation (local, state, or national); (4) reasons for participation; (5) organizational characteristics; (6) experiences in participation; and (7) reflections on changes in the movement. Interviews were conducted with the most active movement participants and questionnaires were mailed to less active participants.^ Findings revealed that most participants still work on preservation and pollution, though both issues have declined slightly. More participants now work on waste, and health and safety issues while "community" emerged as a new issue. More women and minorities participated in the 90's, though working class participation remained steady. There was a substantial rise of local grassroots groups, though many respondents still belonged to a national SMO. There were more paid staff working for environmental organizations in 1996 than in 1977. Participation techniques did not change much, though there was some decline in normative political techniques and an increase in non-routine techniques. Analyses of activist careers suggested that there is much common ground between RM and NSM with a significant amount of fluidity between the two types of participation. Activists may start with a NSM group that evolves into a RM type group. Other activists join a RM group, but discover that NSM groups are more effective locally. Overall, RM is still well-suited for explaining much of the environmental movement, though new and important changes are consistent with the predictions of NSM. Suggestions are made for a synthesized social movement theory that incorporates elements of RM and NSM. ^




Major Professor: Harry R. Potter, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Sociology, Theory and Methods|Environmental Sciences

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