What Is the Resource Mobilization Theory?

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Resource mobilization theory is used in the study of social movements and argues that the success of social movements depends on resources (time, money, skills, etc.) and the ability to use them. When the theory first appeared, it was a breakthrough in the study of social movements because it focused on variables that are sociological rather than psychological. No longer were social movements viewed as irrational, emotion-driven, and disorganized. For the first time, influences from outside social movements, such as support from various organizations or the government, were taken into account.

Key Takeaways: Resource Mobilization Theory

  • According to resource mobilization theory, a key issue for social movements involves obtaining access to resources.
  • The five categories of resources that organizations seek to obtain are material, human, social-organizational, cultural, and moral.
  • Sociologists have found that being able to effectively utilize resources is linked to a social organization's success.

The Theory

In the 1960s and 1970s, sociology researchers began to study how social movements depend on resources in order to bring about social change. While previous studies of social movements had looked at individual psychological factors that cause people to join social causes, resource mobilization theory took a wider perspective, looking at the broader societal factors that allow social movements to succeed.

In 1977, John McCarthy and Mayer Zald published a key paper outlining the ideas of resource mobilization theory. In their paper, McCarthy and Zald began by outlining terminology for their theory: social movement organizations (SMOs) are groups that advocate for social change, and a social movement industry (SMI) is a set of organizations which advocate for similar causes. (For example, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch would each be SMOs within the larger SMI of human rights organizations.) SMOs seek out adherents (people who support the goals of the movement) and constituents (people who are involved in actually supporting a social movement; for example, by volunteering or donating money). McCarthy and Zald also drew the distinction between people who stand to directly benefit from a cause (whether or not they actually support the cause themselves) and people who don't benefit from a cause personally but support it because they believe it is the right thing to do.

According to resource mobilization theorists, there are several ways that SMOs can acquire the resources they need: for example, social movements might produce resources themselves, aggregate the resources of their members, or seek out external sources (whether from small-scale donors or larger grants). According to resource mobilization theory, being able to effectively utilize resources is a determinant of the success of a social movement. Additionally, resource mobilization theorists look at how an organization's resources impact its activities (for example, SMOs that receive funding from an external donor could potentially have their choices of activities constrained by the donor's preferences).

Types of Resources

According to sociologists who study resource mobilization, the types of resources needed by social movements can be grouped into five categories:

  1. Material resources. These are the tangible resources (such as money, a location for the organization to meet, and physical supplies) necessary for an organization to run. Material resources can include anything from supplies for making protest signs to the office building where a large nonprofit is headquartered.
  2. Human resources. This refers to the labor needed (whether volunteer or paid) to conduct an organization's activities. Depending on the organization's goals, specific types of skills may be an especially valuable form of human resources. For example, an organization that seeks to increase access to healthcare may have an especially great need for medical professionals, while an organization focused on immigration law may seek out individuals with legal training to get involved in the cause.
  3. Social-organizational resources. These resources are ones that SMOs can use to build their social networks. For example, an organization might develop an email list of people who support their cause; this would be a social-organizational resource that the organization could use itself and share with other SMOs that share the same goals.
  4. Cultural resources. Cultural resources include knowledge necessary to conduct the organization's activities. For example, knowing how to lobby elected representatives, draft a policy paper, or organize a rally would all be examples of cultural resources. Cultural resources can also include media products (for example, a book or informational video about a topic related to the organization's work).
  5. Moral resources. Moral resources are those which help the organization to be seen as legitimate. For example, celebrity endorsements can serve as a type of moral resource: when celebrities speak out on behalf of a cause, people may be spurred to learn more about the organization, view the organization more positively, or even become adherents or constituents of the organization themselves.

Examples

Resource Mobilization to Help People Experiencing Homelessness

In a 1996 paper, Daniel Cress and David Snow conducted an in-depth study of 15 organizations aimed at promoting the rights of people experiencing homelessness. In particular, they examined how the resources available to each organization were linked to the organization's success. They found that access to resources was related to an organization's success, and that particular resources seemed to be especially important: having a physical office location, being able to obtain necessary information, and having effective leadership.

Media Coverage for Women's Rights

Researcher Bernadette Barker-Plummer investigated how resources allow organizations to gain media coverage of their work. Barker-Plummer looked at media coverage of the National Organization for Women (NOW) from 1966 until the 1980s and found that the number of members NOW had was correlated with the amount of media coverage NOW received in The New York Times. In other words, Barker-Plummer suggests, as NOW grew as an organization and developed more resources, it was also able to also gain media coverage for its activities.

Criticism of the Theory

While resource mobilization theory has been an influential framework for understanding political mobilization, some sociologists have suggested that other approaches are also necessary to fully understand social movements. According to Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, other factors besides organizational resources (such as the experience of relative deprivation) are important for understanding social movements. Additionally, they emphasize the importance of studying protests that occur outside of formal SMOs.

Sources and Additional Reading:

  • Barker-Plummer, Bernadette. "Producing Public Voice: Resource Mobilization and Media Access in the National Organization for Women." Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, vol. 79, No. 1, 2002, pp. 188-205. https://doi.org/10.1177/107769900207900113
  • Cress, Daniel M., and David A. Snow. "Mobilization at the Margins: Resources, Benefactors, and the Viability of Homeless Social Movement Organizations." American Sociological Review, vol. 61, no. 6 (1996): 1089-1109. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2096310?seq=1
  • Edwards, Bob. "Resource Mobilization Theory." The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by George Ritzer, Wiley, 2007, pp. 3959-3962. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/book/10.1002/9781405165518
  • Edwards, Bob and John D. McCarthy. "Resources and Social Movement Mobilization." The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, edited by David A. Snow, Sarah A. Soule, and Hanspeter Kriesi, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004, pp 116-152. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/book/10.1002/9780470999103
  • McCarthy, John D. and Mayer N. Zald. "Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory." American Journal of Sociology, vol. 82, no. 6 (1977), pp. 1212-1241. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2777934?seq=1
  • Piven, Frances Fox and Richard A. Cloward. "Collective Protest: A Critique of Resource Mobilization Theory." International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, vol. 4, no. 4 (1991), pp. 435-458. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20007011