On Moyer’s Eight Stages of Social Movements, Pt. 1

Bill Moyer’s MAP (Movement Action Plan) model for organising social movements gives social activists a conceptual framework for analysing past and contemporary social movements. One aspect of this model is “The Eight Stages of Social Movements”.

Moyer’s model is useful primarily because it categorises the eight stages, allowing activists to understand the progress they are making even as they are not experiencing victory. It is helpful to consider what would be strategic for a given context, and what the next stage for the movement is.

A crucial point that Moyer makes is that social change takes time. As activists, ‘success’ need not mean ‘victory’- it can simply mean moving from Stage 3 to Stage 4. Each of these graduations brings us closer to Stage 7, “Victory”, but this may not be obvious at the time. Moyer says that criticising activists for failing to achieve victory in too short a time frame is like criticising a second-year uni student for not yet having graduated. Even if the student is getting terrific grades, their graduation will still take more time. Similarly, a social movement can be highly successful without achieving immediate victory.

In Part 1 of this discussion I intend to examine the first five of Moyer’s Eight Stages (It is simply too long otherwise!). Hopefully I’ll do this in a particularly engaging and useful way because, hell, they’ve been examined a couple of times before! I’ll also draw comparisons with contemporary social movements – these comparisons will be impressive in their canniness. I promise.

Stage One: Normal Times

Having dinner with my brother and two politically-aware friends, we discussed how change happens. One of these friends was wondering aloud what spawns movements. Before everybody knew about marriage equality, she queried, who knew about marriage equality? Who got that ball rolling? Who sowed the seeds?

In normal times, society’s values and myths are being defied and violated by some aspect of the status quo. But society, by and large, doesn’t know about the issue. Times are normal.

Yet opposition exists. Their viewpoint is not mainstream and may even be wildly divergent. It certainly isn’t widely-known and isn’t attracting media coverage. Moyer gives the example of women in 1848 demanding women’s rights, and being perceived as eccentric or crazy.

‘Graduation’ from this stage isn’t the result of public acceptance or external success. It’s simply a case of becoming informed, building social infrastructure (no matter how small), and continually identifying and documenting the problem.

Stage 1, Normal Times: As far as society is concerned, the institution of marriage is just fine the way it is.

Stage Two: Prove the Failure of Official Institutions

HRL, a new coal plant, was planned for Victoria. August 2010 – an application went to Victoria’s EPA for approval. Nearly 4000 submissions were received, the vast proportion opposing the project. 20 May 2011 – the Victorian EPA approves HRL’s works application. [1]

In Stage Two, protest groups try to effect change through existing political and governmental infrastructure. The goal, Moyer posits, “is not to win the cases now, but to prove that the powerholders and the institutional bureaucracy are actually preventing the democratic system from working.” The issue is not yet on the public agenda.

Stage 2, Prove the Failure of Official Institutions: In 1988, Professor James Hansen testified before the US Congress regarding the dangers of climate change. Oddly, they didn’t act.

Stage Two is an important phase. One of the movement’s overarching objectives is to highlight that powerholder actions are inconsistent with widely-held values. Each failure at achieving change during Stage Two actually strengthens the case that the powerholders are anti-democratic and opposed to the community interest. In addition, the movement can point to its genuine and unsuccessful efforts in Stage Two to legitimise its eventual use of extra-parliamentary tactics and strategies

Movement from Stage Two to Stage Three begins as movement actors realise that the official institutions are bloody hopeless. The activists become aware that being right isn’t enough – they must also build power and use more diverse tactics.

Stage Three: Ripening Conditions

’Repower Port Augusta’ campaigners are planning a 14-day walk from Port Augusta to Adelaide in support of a proposal to replace the town’s ageing dirty coal plants with baseload solar thermal. In the months leading up to the walk, key pieces fall into place: the company owning the coal plants indicates support, the community votes in favour, the council passes a motion in favour, and the states’ energy minister begins exploring the options.

More broadly, the Federal Government has recently put a price on pollution which has the effect of both reducing the coal plants’ profitability and signalling a national shift to clean energy generation. Globally, investment in renewable energy is burgeoning. Gas, the alternative to solar thermal, is drawing national opposition due to environmental issues with its extraction and combustion for energy.

In Stage Three, the stars begin to align. Historical forces, sometimes purely by chance, begin to advantage the movement and increase the strength of its arguments. These forces, “are usually long-term, broad terms and events that worsen the problem, upset sub-populations, raise expectations, personify the problem,and promote the means for new activism.” Movement tipping points are drawing closer.

In this stage, Moyer notes, “new, small, autonomous local groups” begin to form. People are simply pissed off! They don’t need pushing. Activists begin forming links and sharing strategy and vision. Moyer adds that it is “critical” that pre-existing networks provide support, resources, organisers and strategists.

Stage Three is significant because it acknowledges that circumstance has a lot to play when it comes to movement success. International events, global trends, opportunities in domestic politics, create an ever-changing background to the movement’s activity that, at times, creates the perfect storm for success. Throughout this stage activists are getting more frustrated and more  willing to take action, and this is part of a progression which, let us not forget, also includes the broader community and a range of chance factors.

A movement graduates from Stage Three as it “takes off”.

Stage 3, Ripening Conditions: Historical events such as the Global Financial Crisis create a political environment in which a movement can grow in strength.

Stage Four: Take Off

Before 30 May 2011, how many people knew about issues with live export, let alone cared? But A Bloody Business on the ABC’s Four Corners changed everything. Suddenly everybody cared. The issue was thrust in to the spotlight. Overnight it got everybody talking. Political action was demanded on what had previously been a non-issue. Two days after the broadcast, live export was suspended.

In Stage Four, a “previously unrecognised social problem becomes a social issue that everyone is talking about.” This change is sudden; the movement seems to come out of nowhere.

Stage Four begins, Moyer argues, with a “trigger event”. This event highlights to the public that the powerholders’ policy or behaviour are a deliberate violation of widely-held values, provoking moral outrage. The event can be an accident, like Chernobyl, or a planned occurence, such as the publication of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

The trigger event leads to non-violent actions being repeated across the country. This includes but is not limited to civil disobedience; Moyer implicitly includes a whole range of protest and resistance tactics here. Because of the prominence of protest and resistance tactics, this stage is often identified with the rebel. And, because of the salience of this stage amongst the other stages, the movement is often identified with the rebel.

Why do movements take-off? Moyer gives four reasons.

  • “The right conditions were created in the earlier three stages”
  • Trigger events and action campaigns cause public outrage
  • Many latent citizen activists are inspired to action
  • “The repeatability of the nonviolent actions gives the grassroots activists an effective means by which to be actively engaged on an issue” (Emphasis added)

This fourth point jumped out at me. For movements to take-off, nonviolent actions must be repeatable. Viewed this way, civil disobedience at a coal station is not an effective non-violent action for movement take-off. There aren’t enough coal stations! They aren’t close enough! The barrier is too high. Alternatively, the non-violent action could be legal rallies and marches, boycotts, or sit-ins, making it possible for a greater variety (both geographic and otherwise) of people to participate.

Stage 4, Take Off: Horrifying images from Abu Ghraib prison revealed to the US citizenry and the world atrocities being committed by the US army. It was clear that widely-held values were being violated.

Moyer also identifies a number of goals for Stage Four. (In fact, he does this for every stage, but these ones particularly struck me.) Amongst these, he argues that goals should be “to create a new nationwide grassroots-based social movement” and to “create public dissonance”. Both these goals are very much worth keeping in mind. Too many movement actors will try to succeed without investing in establishing a grassroots movement. The most successful movements will use Stage Four to build upon pre-existing grassroots infrastructure, link groups, and stimulate the inception of new community groups. In addition, public dissonance is achieved by maintaining a constant jarring juxtaposition of widely-held values and powerholders’ policy. It’s not enough just to say “this is happening”: activists must continue to emphasise how the policy/behaviour contradicts values and demands redress. Here, too, it is emphasised that a goal is not to change the minds, politics, or behaviour, of the powerholders. This isn’t an expectation and expecting such is likely to lead to bad times.

After six months to two years, the social movement kicks up a gear out of Stage Four. Here’s where it gets interesting: different actors in the movement move to either Stage Five or Stage Six. Movement to Stage Six is achieved when rebels recognise the limitations of their role and look at other approaches. Alongside this, newly-awakened citizen activists become change agents, practising local organising and education. All is well in the world. However, some rebels or naive activists will fall in to despair when they do not achieve success after take-off. Bad times. Which leads us to:

Stage Five: Perception of Failure

At a recent AYCC event, one attendee asked a question of Bob Brown, who had just spoken. It was about the Gunns Pulp Mill. It was weird, she observed, how all the attention it had drawn had gone away, but the issue hadn’t. Many people were still concerned, but the media and the public didn’t seem to care any more. She was worried.

Not everybody heads in to Stage Five territory. But those who do primarily do so because of unrealistic expectations from Stage Four: they expected short-term success and weren’t ready for the long-haul. These individuals are frustrated by the lack of “real” victories. They see powerholders and the media describing the movement as a failure, as unsuccessful, as unpopular. Fewer people are at public actions. Activists are particularly prone to this as they have the intensity of their own experience – they are probably the most informed about the seriousness of the issue and the intractability of the powerholders.

Moyer does a good job both of characterising this Stage and explaining why it isn’t helpful. He points out that often activists abandon initial goals for more difficult, systemic goals. Thus, while these far-off victories may not have been achieved, the movement may have in fact made significant progress, and even achieved its initial objectives. Further, Moyer reminds us that powerholders are almost always the last to change in response to a social movement. The objective is to win over the public and, by Stage Four, this has begun to happen in a serious way. The lack of action at the top is thus insignificant.

Moyer is almost blase about people being in Stage Five. He feels that people will (in my words) grow up or burn out. That is, people will either realise they are being sort of douchey, and move to Stage Six and play a more effective role, or they will get fed up and leave the moment. Thus these naive activists and rebels join us at that most glorious of stages: Stage Six.

To be continued…

This post was getting ridiculous! I’ve bifurcated it so it can be read in two digestible doses. Stay tuned for Part 2, covering Stages Six, Seven, and Eight!


  1. Rallies had their chants | Scit Necessitas - October 10, 2013

    […] can use Bill Moyer’s ‘Movement Action Plan’, as discussed in Doing Democracy, to help us understand this. The climate movement is in Stage 6, “Majority Public […]

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