Social movements are broad alliances of people who are connected through their shared interest in social change. Social movements can advocate for a particular social change, but they can also organize to oppose a social change that is being advocated by another entity. These movements do not have to be formally organized to be considered social movements. Different alliances can work separately for common causes and still be considered a social movement.
Sociologists draw distinctions between social movements and social movement organizations (SMOs). A social movement organization is a formally organized component of a social movement. Therefore, it may represent only one 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. However, PETA is not the only group that advocates for vegan diets and lifestyles; there are numerous other groups actively engaged toward this end. Thus, promoting veganism would be considered the social movement, while PETA would be considered a particular SMO (social movement organization) working within the broader social movement.
Modern social movements became possible through the wide dissemination of literature and the increased mobility of labor, both of which have been caused by the industrialization of societies. Anthony Giddens, a renowned sociologist, 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 peace
It is 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. In large part, these oppositional groups formed because the women's movement advocated for reform in conservative religions.