At least since the Sixties, social movement scholars have been fascinated by the question why do social movements arise? Case studies (e.g., McAdam 1982) have typically focused on the timing of movement emergence - i.e., why did this movement arise at this time? Others have taken a much broader view and asked why did "the Social Movement" (a particular form of contentious politics) emerge when it did instead of some other form (Tilly 1978, Tarrow 1998)?
An important difference between the two approaches is their definition of social movements. The former usually defines movements something like this:
A social movement is a set of opinions and beliefs in a population which represents preferences for changing some elements of the social structure and/or reward distribution of a society (McCarthy & Zald 1977: 1217-18).
This "set of opinions" could conceivably take any form at all, from violent riots to poetry readings to op-eds in the newspapers. What is important is not the means of changing social structures but the ideas. Contrast that to the following:
[A social movement] consists of a sustained challenge to power holders in the name of a population living under the juridiction of those power holders by means of repeated public displays of that population's worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. (Tilly, in Giugni et al. 1999)
Here the emphasis shifts from the set of beliefs and opinions to the "public displays" of WUNC (worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment), i.e., the form of contentious politics. Tilly and others examine the emergence of this form from a macro-level of analysis - e.g., the social movement arose as a form of claims-making when state power shifted from king to parliament, work shifted from patron-client to wage labor arrangements, restrictions on association, public assembly, and speech gave way to "sustained challenges to power holders," and so on. The social movement repertoire - which includes demonstrations, petitions, special purpose associations, press releases, and marches - was more congruent with the political and economic structures of the 19th century than were attacks on houses, forced illuminations, rough music, grain seizures, and the like. The importance of this approach has been to challenge the assumption implicit in much case study research that launching social movements was the only option for agrieved populations when it arose, but what is left out is the great variation among organizations in their adherence to the social movement model.
Why do some organizations sometimes employ social movement forms or tactics when other tactics (e.g., lobbying, running political campaigns, guerrilla warfare, etc.) are also available? This is the organizational analog to the question posed above. By framing it in this way I think I may be able to tap some unanswered questions in the organizations literature that might benefit from this ongoing theoretical discussion of social movements. How do cross-institutional ties affect organizational behavior? Can organizations jump from one organizational field to another? What are the sources of legitimacy for social movement organizations? Under what conditions can/do organizations resist institutional pressures of conformity? Now that I've spent some time trying to convince you that this is an interesting question, what do you think? Is it? Is it worthy of sustained attention in the form of, say, a dissertation?