What Matters

The Determinants of a Social Movement’s Success and Failure

By ISP Admin | April 5, 2021

What Matters No. 9 

(This article is a translation of the Burmese language version that ISP-Myanmar posted on its Facebook page on March 17, 2021.) 

 Key findings in brief 

In considering the success and failure of a social movement, several scholars suggest not to view it as a binary concept involving a decisive victory or a complete failure. William Gamson (1990), a social scientist focusing on mass media and social movements, argues that the success or failure of a social movement can be categorized along two dimensions: acceptance and new advantagesAcceptance reflects whether the incumbent rulers accept the challengers, while new advantages refers to whether the challengers achieve their goals. In essence, a social movement produces a new force or challenger, and this challenger legitimately represents the interests of the social movement. Acceptance refers to whether or not the incumbent authorities recognize the challenger or not. The other dimension is whether a new political context or the conditions demanded by the social movement emerge. In other words, are there changes in political conditions, or “new advantages” as termed by Gamson, that are favorable to the social movement. A two-dimensional matrix classifies four possible scenarios or outcomes of social movements (See Figure 1). 

As illustrated in Figure 1, the first quadrant shows the success of a social movement, the fourth quadrant indicates the failure of a social movement. In contrast, the second and third quadrants illustrate the emergence of a new political force. In the second quadrant, the new political force is co-opted by the existing systems. Whereas, the third quadrant depicts how the authorities shape the emerging new political settings into ones that favor their interests and deny recognition or acceptance of a new political force. Gamson’s study has some limitations: first, if the emerging political forces are revolutionary, aiming to destroy the system and replace it with a new one, then recognition by the incumbent regime and its associated system is not important. In this case, the emergent forces do not necessarily require acceptance by the ruling authorities. Similarly, it is challenging to conceptualize what we mean by an achievement for the social movement in terms of gaining new advantageous political conditions (ranging from policy reform to regime change). 

A study by Tom Rochon and Daniel Mazmanian (1993) offers a third factor for examining the success and failure of a social movement. In addition to the Gamson’s concepts of “acceptance” and “advantages”, Rochon and Mazmanian suggest looking at changes in norms and values of the society reflective of an oppositional social movement.  

 Why does it matter?  

It is important to study the determinants of success and failure of a social movement. Social movements often lead to changes not only in the politics, state institutions, the legal system, economics, and social values but also the lives of individuals. These outcomes may have short, medium, and long-term consequences. Moreover, they can be direct or indirect. Thus, instead of perceiving the outcomes of social movements through a binary of a decisive victory or a complete failure, studying the outcomes of social movements in a broader sense can be beneficial to not just strategists and policymakers but also activists directly involved in the movements.  

 Is it relevant to Myanmar? 

This study is relevant to the case of Myanmar. The aforementioned four possible outcomes of a social movement can be compared with earlier social movements in Myanmar. For example, the 8888 pro-democracy movement created new political forces that include the National League for Democracy (NLD) and many others. Because an earlier coup regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) (1988-1997), could not totally reject the demand for a multi-party democratic political system, the junta held a general election in 1990. Moreover, the military authorities had to recognize the NLD as a new political group because the mass movement helped the party win an election landslide in 1990 and attain legitimacy. While the democracy supporters (the challengers) who took part in the 8888 movement could not claim a decisive victory because the junta refused to accept the election outcome, the military regime and the dictatorial political system had to accept the emerging political forces as new political groups and institutions. In fact, because the mass movement created the enabling preconditions that led to the new political setting, it can claim partial success. This result of the 8888 movement is analogous to the scenario in the first quadrant of the matrix.  

After the Saffron Revolution, when a movement led by Buddhist monks challenged the military in 2007, virtually no new political forces emerged. Nor did the ruling military regime accept any new groupings as political forces. (The emergence of the so-called “Third Force” that surfaced before the Myanmar military’s democratic liberalization process is another case that needs further detailed discussions.) However, after the Saffron Revolution, the military faced mounting international pressure including from China, to reform. In 2010, the Myanmar military hastily finalized its long-overdue constitution drafting process and began a tentative democratic liberalization process. These outcomes of the Saffron Revolution fit with the scenario described in the second quadrant of Table 1.  

It remains too early for researchers to conduct a thorough analysis of the successes and failures of the anti-coup movement. However, because of the current anti-coup movement, the norms and values of Myanmar society are evolving. As the anti-coup movement gains momentum, protesters in majority-Bamar-populated areas and social media influencers have shown a better grasp of the dire social and political conditions in the civil war-affected ethnic states, issues related to ethnic and religious minority groups, as well as greater empathy for people in these areas. Moreover, the anti-coup movement has also helped segments of society better understand their obligations to value and protect democracy, human rights, and human dignity; recognize, respect, and value the younger generation; reject traditional patron-client relations; and become more committed to justice, in particular, transitional justice. Furthermore, the anti-junta movement’s raising of business-related issues has also educated people about the importance of decency and integrity by mobilizing social punishment campaigns and commodity boycotts targeting unethical businesses including those with ties to the SAC. In addition, on the international relations front, the anti-junta movement also apprised the people how to differentiate between friends who help in a time of need and those who do not. The current anti-coup movement has brought about changes in the norms and values of a traditionally conservative Myanmar society. If society can maintain momentum for continued transformation, then people can benefit from efforts by the anti-junta movement to change Myanmar’s political situation. Moreover, this revolution in norms and values in society could lead to changes in the country’s political culture. Research by social scientists studying democratization suggests that changes in societal norms and values can serve as checks and balances on new political leaders that in turn eventually contribute to the institutional and systemic changes for the better.  

∎ Further Readings 

Gamson, William A. 1990. The Strategy of Social Protest. (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing). 

Rochon, Thomas R. and Daniel Mazmanian. 1993. “Social Movements and the Policy Process.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. 528:75–87. 

Tarrow, Sidney G. 2011. Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics, 3rd edition. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)  

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