Thursday, July 23, 2020

Analyzing Social Movements Through Critical Thinking and Shareable Media

By Dr. Murad Abel, Dr. Jorge A. Cardenas, Dr. Avisha Sadeghinejad at Forbes School of Business and Technology at Ashford University

Social movements spread quickly via social media and play a crucial role in society that pushes democratic institutions to change and adjust through the influential mediums of online free speech. The boundaries of a social movement can be elusive as they become amebic, changing, adjusting, and incorporating new ideologies through the sharing and adjusting of information. Social media has made promoting ideas and concepts easier, and at lightning speed as ideas, images, videos, and other forms of emotionally laden content explode over the Internet!

Higher education teaches us about higher-order critical thinking to move beyond passively accepting ideas and into operating agreement and engagement. We are not passive participants in national consciousness but are becoming increasingly important actors that influence others through new world perceptions.

Development of Social Movements

Let us first discuss the difference between a social movement and a political entity. Political entities (e.g., political party, interest group) are relatively stable groups that provide a conduit to national institutions and leadership. We can rest on a semi accurate definition of social movements as, an organized yet informal social entity that engages in extra institutional conflict to achieve some important goal. Such goals can be anything from a specific governmental policy or towards a broader cultural change (Christiansen, 2009). How do such social movements form and create an audience for their message?

One of the original scholars of social movements was the American sociologist Dr. Herbert Blumer. He identified four stages of social movements’ life cycle: social ferment, popular excitement, formalization, and institutionalization (as in Della Porta & Diani, 2006, p.150). Movements pass through stages and then beyond their initial purposes into decline. Since Blumer's original work, other scholars have renamed the four stages and now more commonly refer to them as
  • Emergence: Characterized by individualized, but widespread feelings of discontent. Movements in this stage lack a clearly defined strategy for achieving goals and little organization.
  • Coalescence: The second stage of a social movement's life cycle characterized by assembling social movement constituents. This stage is marked by demonstrations and formulation of strategy.
  • Bureaucratization: The phase in which policy is carried out by formal organizations and trained staff.
  •  Decline: This stage usually marks the end of mass mobilization. The decline can occur in five ways: repression, co-optation, success, failure, and establishment within the mainstream (does not necessarily mean failure of the social movement).
The beauty of movements is that they wiggle their way into the consciousness of society and begin to grow and develop to a point where they formalize their ideas and implement change. If they serve their purpose, no longer have one, or no longer relevant, they decline. The ideas learned, never truly leave our national awareness but become incorporated into our culture and the way we view the world.

You may want to see a few examples, which by no means is exhaustive, of social movements that have captured people's attention and will leave some mark on our cultural viewpoints:
  • Black Lives Matter ( Founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal related to the killing of Treyvon Martin and catalyzed with the killing of George Floyd. The movement hopes to bring attention to violence inflicted on Black communities.
  • Women’s March ( The movement seeks to harness the power of diverse women and their communities to create transformative change in civil rights, disability rights, immigrant rights, and environmental justice.
  • Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy ( Founded in 2001 this nonprofit organizations’ mission is to transform the quality of life in India’s cities and towns by working with citizens to catalyze active citizenship in neighborhoods and with governments to institute reforms to city governance. One of the organization's major initiatives is I Paid a Bribe (, which seeks to fight corruption through crowdsourcing and the collective reporting of information in India. This level of transparency can help reduce the scope for corruption in obtaining services from the government.
  • South Indian National Congress, African National Congress, and Pan-African Congress: Apartheid was a South African legislative system and government policies put into place in 1948 that segregated its White and Black citizens. These three organizations and social movements were credited with the eventual demise of Apartheid. Their success culminated in the democratic election of Nelson Mandela, the first Black president of South Africa and a global advocate for human rights.
 Expanding Social Movements

Social structures have a nature of their own. Researchers found a few patterns that form a useful model that creates a better understanding. The Social Ecology Framework (SEF) provides social marketers with a structured method of analyzing social movements (Collins, et al., 2010). According to this framework, four underlining components include Micro-, Meso, Exo and Macro-systems that can be used to promote ideas or behavioral changes into the public arena (see Figure 1).  In this case, Micro-systems mean influence on individual thinking, Meso-systems on one’s close surroundings, Exo-systems on one’s immediate community, and Macro-systems on a wider national audience.

At the Micro-system level, most individuals have access to a variety of social media tools. Social marketing professionals can use various forms of media and social networking platforms to advance the message of social movements. Individuals that are the consumers of that media can then promulgate that message throughout their personal social networks.

At the Meso-system level, social marketers of social movements can design strategies to target formal community groups such as local schools, sports clubs, youth centers, etc. By creating targeted marketing materials that align with the goals of such community groups, social movements can more easily leverage those established networks.

Moving into the Exo-system level, which represents a wider social system, similar marketing strategies can be implemented through traditional and digital media. When successful, state and local legislature can codify the concerns of social movements through the passing of laws, regulations and ordinances.

The role of social marketing at the Macro-system level is to influence national consciousness and institutions, for example, challenging institutional racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, or any other “ism” of nationally embedded beliefs. Learning to think critically promoted by social marketing strategies at this level can be reinforced by federal acts, legislation, executive orders and laws.

Shareable media has changed the capacity to grow and develop social movements quickly through a click, snap, and share technology. Within a matter of hours, emotionally-laden content like videos can spread regionally, nationally, and even internationally, raising awareness of issues and sparking demands for change. People make judgments and then become active or passive promoters of concepts through media in a way that impacts how we think and live as an interconnected organism of people.

Active or Passive Promoter of Media?

Sharing social media is an activity of marketing that shows support or non-support for movements by creating a context in social media content. Those who think critically are active promoters, while those who blindly share information are passive promoters. Active promoters use critical thinking to reach a personal agreement and acceptance of ideas that lead to being “influencers” in their social networks. Sometimes these influencers gain national attention and can shift the direction of a movement into a leadership role to develop something practical for national policy.

As a member of the Micro-system, before clicking the share button, take a minute to engage cognitively and critically with the information. Move beyond gut-wrenching emotion to evaluate the content from multiple perspectives so that you have a greater awareness of the material you are sharing. Critical thinking often leads to better decisions and, ultimately, a better society as goal-directed behavior influences national outcomes. Consider a few steps to enhance your critical thinking abilities:
  • Evaluate the Content: Understand the nature of the content and what the essential message is.
  • Review Alternative Perspectives: Review alternative perspectives and what people outside of your network believe (i.e. bi-partisanship, devil’s advocate and role reversal)
  • Think of Environmental Context: Environmental scanning will shed light on the importance of a movement in terms of its timing and need in society.
  • Check-In With Yourself: Critically evaluating your beliefs will help create greater awareness of your personal stake in the outcome of the information.
  • Own the Message: Once you have decided on the meaning of the message, alternative perspectives, environmental factors, and personal belief systems, you “own” the message and can share it with others from a personal perspective of empowerment.
The social structure and social influence models discussed help us understand the importance and responsibilities of critically thinking when sharing information online. Given the prevalence and popularity of social media across a wide swath of the nation, such as in low-income and rural areas, social marketers can more effectively tap into those segments and start to promote, engage, and encourage critical thinking with voice and resolution. Promoters that understand and act with thought and foresight can help their societies adjust and change through responsible messages that provide solutions to long lingering problems. Better grasping the types of social movements, how they formulate, and how the messages resonate to a widening group of people is important in creating meaningful change that improves all Americans' lives. Change and action must be followed with practical solutions to ensure the message has a long-lasting impact.

Author Profiles:

Dr. Murad Abel is a Lead Faculty and Associate Professor in Public Relations at the Forbes School of Business and Technology.

Dr. Jorge A. Cardenas is a Department Chair and Professor. He leads the Department of Professional Studies at the Forbes School of Business and Technology and is the Vice Chair of the Board of Directors at the International Accreditation Council for Business Education (IACBE).

Dr. Avisha Sadeghinejad is a Lead Faculty and Associate Professor in Marketing at the Forbes School of Business and Technology.


Christiansen, J. (2009). Four stages of social movements. EBSCO Research Starters.

Collins, K., Tapp, A., & Pressley, A. (2010). Social marketing and social influences: Using social ecology as a theoretical framework. Journal of Marketing Management, 25 (13-14), 1181-1200.

Della Porta, D., & Diani, M. (2006). Social movements: An introduction (2nd ed.). Blackwell Publishing.