by Kenneth T. Andrews, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: The Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Its Legacy.”
Do protests and social movements matter? Do they really bring about change?
Answering this question is tricky. It’s not obvious, for example, how much the recent shift to the right in American politics reflects the efforts of the Tea Party movement and how much it reflects deeper developments such as increasing racial hostility and negative reactions to globalization. Sometimes a movement matters far less than the social, economic and political forces that give rise to the movement itself.
When social scientists do uncover evidence of a movement’s influence, we have tended to focus on three main pathways by which movements gain power: cultural, disruptive and organizational. On its own, each pathway turns out to be limited in its effect. But movements that have managed to combine all three, such as the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s, have had lasting impact.