Political Process Theory

An Overview of the Core Theory of Social Movements

Protestors associated with Occupy Wall Street call for political and economic reforms, evoking the components of political process theory.
Protestors associated with Occupy Wall Street march in New York City, Septmeber 26, 2011. JB Consulting Assoc. LLC/Getty Images

Also known as "political opportunity theory," political process theory offers an explanation of the conditions, mindset, and actions that make a social movement successful in achieving its goals. According to this theory, political opportunities for change must first be present before a movement can achieve its objectives. Following that, the movement ultimately attempts to make change through the existing political structure and processes.

Overview

Political process theory (PPT) is considered the core theory of social movements and how they mobilize (work to create change). It was developed by sociologists in the U.S. during the 1970s and 80s, in response to the Civil Rights, anti-war, and student movements of the 1960s. Sociologist Douglas McAdam, now a professor at Stanford University, is credited with first developing this theory via his study of the Black Civil Rights movement (see his book Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, published in 1982).

Prior to the development of this theory, social scientists viewed members of social movements as irrational and crazed, and framed them as deviants rather than political actors. Developed through careful research, political process theory disrupted that view, and exposed its troubling elitist, racist, and patriarchal roots. Resource mobilization theory similarly offers an alternative view to this classical one.

Since McAdam published his book outlining the theory, revisions to it have been made by him and other sociologists, so today it differs from McAdam's original articulation. As sociologist Neal Caren describes in his entry on the theory in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, political process theory outlines five key components that determine the success or failure of a social movement: political opportunities, mobilizing structures, framing processes, protest cycles, and contentious repertoires.

  1. Political opportunities are the most important aspect of PPT, because according to the theory, without them, success for a social movement is impossible. Political opportunities--or opportunities for intervention and change within the existing political system--exist when the system experiences vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities in the system can arise for a variety of reasons, but hinge on a crisis of legitimacy wherein the populace no longer supports the social and economic conditions fostered or maintained by the system. Opportunities might be driven by the broadening of political enfranchisement to those previously excluded (like women and people of color, historically speaking), divisions among leaders, increasing diversity within political bodies and the electorate, and a loosening of repressive structures that previously kept people from demanding change.
  2. Mobilizing structures refer to the already existing organizations (political or otherwise) that are present among the community that wants change. These organizations serve as mobilizing structures for a social movement by providing membership, leadership, and communication and social networks to the budding movement. Examples include churches, community and nonprofit organizations, and student groups and schools, to name a few.
  1. Framing processes are carried out by leaders of an organization in order to allow the group or movement to clearly and persuasively describe the existing problems, articulate why change is necessary, what changes are desired, and how one can go about achieving them. Framing processes foster the ideological buy-in among movement members, members of the political establishment, and the public at large that is necessary for a social movement to seize political opportunities and make change. McAdam and colleagues describe framing as "conscious strategic efforts by groups of people to fashion shared understandings of the world and of themselves that legitimate and motivate collective action" (see Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framing (1996)). 
  1. Protest cycles are another important aspect of social movement success according to PPT. A protest cycle is a prolonged period of time when opposition to the political system and acts of protest are in a heightened state. Within this theoretical perspective, protests are important expressions of the views and demands of the mobilizing structures connected to the movement, and are vehicles to express the ideological frames connected to the framing process. As such, protests serve to strengthen solidarity within the movement, to raise awareness among the general public about the issues targeted by the movement, and also serve to help recruit new members.
  2. The fifth and final aspect of PPT is contentious repertoires, which refers to the set of means through which the movement makes its claims. These typically include strikes, demonstrations (protests), and petitions.

According to PPT, when all of these elements are present, it is possible that a social movement will be able to make changes within the existing political system that will reflect the desired outcome.

Key Figures

There are many sociologists who study social movements, but key figures who helped create and refine PPT include Charles Tilly, Peter Eisinger, Sidney Tarrow, David Snow, David Meyer, and Douglas McAdam.

Recommended Reading

To learn more about PPT see the following resources:

  • From Mobilization to Revolution (1978), by Charles Tilly.
  • "Political Process Theory," Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, by Neal Caren (2007).
  • Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, (1982) by Douglas McAdam.
  • Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framing (1996), by Douglas McAdam and colleagues.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

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Crossman, Ashley. "Political Process Theory." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/political-process-theory-3026451. Crossman, Ashley. (2017, March 2). Political Process Theory. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/political-process-theory-3026451 Crossman, Ashley. "Political Process Theory." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/political-process-theory-3026451 (accessed November 18, 2017).