The Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements


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Download Eight Stages of Social Movement Success(pdf) at bottom of page


By Bill Moyer

Social movements are not spontaneous events. According to Bill Moyer, successful social movements follow eight stages. His schema helps us not only to plan social movements, it helps to overcome a sense of failure and powerlessness that we often feel — the sense that we are always losing.

We don’t criticize a sophomore in college because she hasn’t graduated from college; similarly, social movements are not unsuccessful just because they haven’t met their objectives yet. Movements build toward their goals over time, building on a series of phases. Moyer’s concept is important because it combats one of the key weapons of the status quo, which seeks to continually make its opponents feel powerless. The Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements is a practical strategy and action planning model describing eight stages that successful movements progress through over many years. For each stage, it gives the roles of the movement, powerholders, and the public, and movement goals appropriate to that stage.

The following eight stages are grouped into five broad phases of hidden problem, increasing tensions, take-off, waging the movement, and success.

Hidden Problem

Stage 1: Normal Times

  • A critical social problem exists that violates widely held values.
  • The general public is unaware of this problem.
  • Only a few people are concerned.

Movement uses official channels, demonstrations are small and rare.
Powerholders: chief goal is to keep issue off social and political agenda.
Public is unaware of the problem and supports powerholders. Only 10-15% of public support change.

Movement goals of Stage 1:

  • Build organizations, vision, and strategy.
  • Document problems and powerholders’ roles. Become informed.

Increasing Tensions

Stage 2: Efforts to Change the Problem Demonstrate the Failure of Official Remedies

  • A variety of small and scattered opposition groups do research, educate others.
  • New wave of grassroots opposition begins.
  • Official mechanisms are used to address the problem: hearings, the courts, the legislature; if these work, the problem is resolved. But often, the official approaches don’t work. This shows how entrenched the problem is and demonstrates the failure of institutions to solve it.

Movement uses official system to prove it violates widely held values.
Powerholders: chief goal is to keep issue off social and political agenda and maintain
routine bureaucratic functioning to stifle opposition.
Public still unaware of issue and supports status quo. 15-20% of the public support change.

Movement goals of Stage 2:

  • Prove and document the failure of official institutions and powerholders to uphold public trust and values.
  • Begin legal cases to establish legal and moral basis for opposition.
  • Build opposition organizations, leadership, expertise.

Stage 3: Ripening Conditions

  • Recognition by the public of the problem and its victims slowly grows.
  • Pre-existing institutions and networks (churches, peace and justice organizations) lend their support.
  • Tensions build. Rising grassroots discontent with conditions, institutions, powerholders, and “professional opposition organizations” (e.g., large lobbying groups).
  • Upsetting events occur, including ones which “personify” the problem.
  • Perceived or real worsening conditions.

Movement: grassroots groups grow in number and size. Small nonviolent actions begin. Parts of progressive community won over, pre-existing networks join new cause.
Powerholders still favor existing policies and control official decision-making channels.
Public still unaware of problems and supports powerholders. 20-30% oppose official policies.

Movement goals of Stage 3:

  • Educate/win over progressive community.
  • Prepare grassroots for new movement.
  • More local nonviolent actions.


Stage 4: Take-Off

  • A catalytic (“trigger”) event occurs that starkly and clearly conveys the problem to the public (e.g., the killing of Matthew Shepard in 2000; 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident).
  • Building on the groundwork of the first three stages, dramatic nonviolent actions and campaigns are launched.
  • These activities show how this problem violates widely held values.
  • The problem is finally put on "society’s agenda."
  • A new social movement rapidly takes off.

Movement enacts or responds to trigger event, holds large rallies and demonstrations and many nonviolent actions. A new “movement organization” is created, characterized by informal organizational style, energy, and hope for fast change. “Professional opposition organizations” sometimes oppose “rebel” activities.
Powerholders areshocked by new opposition and publicity, fail to keep issue off social agenda, reassert official line, and attempt to discredit opposition.
Public becomes highly aware of problem. 40-60% oppose official policies.

Movement goals of Stage 4:

  • Put issue on social agenda. Create a new grassroots movement.
  • Alert, educate and win public opinion.
  • Legitimize movement by emphasizing and upholding widely held societal values.

Waging the Movement

Stage 5: Movement Identity Crisis — A Sense of Failure and Powerlessness

  • Those who joined the movement when it was growing in Stage 4 expect rapid success. When this doesn’t happen there is often hopelessness and burn-out.
  • It seems that this is the end of the movement; in fact, it is now that the real work begins.

Movement: numbers down at demonstrations, less media coverage, long-range goals not met. Unrealistic hopes of quick success are unmet. Many activists despair, burn out, and drop out. “Negative rebel” and “naive citizen” activities gain prominence in movement.
Powerholders and media claim that movement has failed, discredit movement by highlighting and encouraging “negative rebel” activities, sometimes through agents provocateurs.
Public alienated by negative rebels. Risk of movement becoming a subcultural sect that is isolated and ineffective.

Movement goals of Stage 5:

  • Recognize movement progress and success. Counter “negative rebel” tendencies.
  • Recognize that movement is nearing Stage Six and pursue goals appropriate to that stage.

Stage 6: Winning Majority Public Opinion

  • The movement deepens and broadens.
  • The movement finds ways to involve citizens and institutions from a broad perspective to address this problem.
  • Growing public opposition puts the problem on the political agenda; the political price that some powerholders have to pay to maintain their policies grows to become an untenable liability.
  • The consensus of the powerholders on this issue fractures, leading to proposals from the powerholders for change (often these proposals are for cosmetic change).
  • The majority of the public is now more concerned about the problem and less concerned about the movement’s proposed change.
  • Often there is a new catalytic event (re-enacting Stage 4).

Movement transforms from protest in crisis to long-term struggle with powerholders to win public majority to oppose official policies and consider positive alternatives. Movement broadens analysis, forms coalitions. Many new groups involved in large-scale education and involvement. Official channels used with some success. Nonviolent actions at key times and places. Many sub-goals and movements develop. Movement promotes alternatives, including paradigm shift.
Powerholders try to discredit and disrupt movement and create public fear of alternatives. Promote bogus reforms and create crises to scare public. Powerholders begin to split.
Public: 60-75% of the public oppose official policies, but many fear alternatives. However, support for alternatives is increasing. Backlash can occur and counter-movements may form.

Movement goals:

  • Keep issue on social agenda.
  • Win over and involve majority of the public.
  • Activists become committed to the long haul.


Stage 7: Success: Accomplishing Alternatives

  • Majority now opposes current policies and no longer fears the alternative.
  • Many powerholders split off and change positions.
  • Powerholders try to make minimal reforms, while the movement demands real social change.
  • The movement finally achieves one or more of its demands.
  • The struggle shifts from opposing official policies to choosing alternatives.
  • More costly for powerholders to continue old policies than to adopt new ones. More “re-trigger” events occur.

Movement counters powerholders’ bogus alternatives. Broad-based opposition demands change. Nonviolent action, where appropriate.
Powerholders: Some powerholders change and central, inflexible powerholders become increasingly isolated. Central powerholders try last gambits, then have to change policies, have the policies defeated by vote, or lose office.
Public majority demands for change are bigger than its fears of the alternatives. Majority no longer believe powerholders’ justifications of old policies and critiques of alternatives.

Movement goals:

  • Recognize movement’s success and celebrate, follow up on the demands won, raise larger issues, focus on other demands that are in various stages, and propose better alternatives and a true paradigm shift.
  • Create ongoing empowered activists and organizations to achieve other goals.

Stage 8: Continuing the Struggle

  • Our struggle to achieve a more humane and democratic society continues indefinitely. This means defending the gains won as well as pursuing new ones.
  • Building on this success, we return to Stage 1 and struggle for the next change.
  • Key:The long-term impact of the movement surpasses the achievement of its specific demands.

Movement takes on “reform” role to protect and extend successes. The movement attempts to minimize losses due to backlash, and circles back to the sub-goals and issues that emerged in earlier stages. The long-term focus is to achieve a paradigm shift.
Powerholders adapt to new policies and conditions, claim the movement’s successes as their own, and try to roll back movement successes by not carrying out agreements or continuing old policies in secret.
Public adopts new consensus and status quo. New public beliefs and expectations are carried over to future situations.

Movement goals:

  • Retain and extend successes.
  • Continue the struggle by promoting other issues and a paradigm shift.
  • Recognize and celebrate success. Build ongoing grassroots organizations and power bases.


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The soulless corporate exploiters and militarists, each poised to become our future oppressors, somehow always succeed in staying on the gravy train no matter which cards fate deals them. It seems like it would make sense to stop voting for, stop paying for and stop supporting any system or group that could turn out to be our future executioners.”

-- Gary Kohls

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems, maintaining my convictions that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But, they asked, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn”t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their question hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against violence on the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today - our own government.”

-- Martin Luther King, Jr. NYC April 4, 1967

One is called to live nonviolently, even if the change one works for seems impossible. It may or may not be possible to turn the US around through nonviolent revolution. But one thing favors such an attempt: the total inability of violence to change anything for the better”

-- Daniel Berrigan

Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty nor security”

-- Benjamin Franklin

If any preacher tells you that personal salvation can be achieved without first paying attention to social justice, you may know by this sign alone that you are listening to a false prophet.”

-- Sydney Harris

Do not return evil for evil. Avenge not yourselves, but rather give way to wrath; for it is written, vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord. Therefore if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink: for in so doing you shall heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

-- Romans 12:17-21

Conceit, arrogance and egotism are the essentials of patriotism… Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all others.”

-- Emma Goldman

He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice…Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance - how violently I hate all this; how despicable and ignoble war is…I would rather be torn to shreds than be part of so base an action. It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.”

-- Albert Einstein

Military power is as corrupting to the man who possesses it as it is pitiless to its victims. Violence is just as devastating to the soul of the perpetrator as it is to the body and souls of those who are victims of it.”

-- American Friends Service Committee

He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice…Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance - how violently I hate all this; how despicable and ignoble war is…I would rather be torn to shreds than be part of so base an action. It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.”

-- Albert Einstein

A country which has dangled the sword of nuclear holocaust over the world for half a century and claims that someone else invented terrorism is a country out of touch with reality.”

-- John K. Stoner, 2001

In nonviolence, the masses have a weapon that enables a child, a woman, or even a decrepit old man to resist the mightiest government successfully. If your spirit is strong, mere lack of physical strength ceases to be a handicap.”

-- Gandhi

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

There must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”

-- Frederick Douglas 1857

Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world, in armaments, is not spending its money alone. It is spending the sweat of laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the clouds of threatening war it is humanity, hanging from a cross of iron.”

-- Dwight C. Eisenhower

If you see injustice and say nothing, you have taken the side of the oppressor.”

-- Desmund Tutu

Put up the your sword into its place: for all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword.”

-- Jesus

It may well be that the greatest tragedy of this period of social change is not the glaring noisiness of the so-called bad people, but the silence of the so-called good people.”

-- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”

-- John F. Kennedy

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.”

-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

One cannot level one”s moral lance at every evil in the universe. There are just too many of them. But you can do something, and the difference between doing something and doing nothing is everything.”

-- Daniel Berrigan

Spending hundreds of billions of dollars on Star Wars will take money away from education, programs for women and children, and health care. There is a direct link between promoting weapons for space and the destabilization of our communities. People must connect these struggles.”

-- Bruce Gagnon

We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we do about peace, more about killing than we do about living.”

-- WWII General Omar Bradley

Christians no longer take up the sword against nation, not do we learn war any more, having become children of peace, for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.”

-- Origen

The first duty of love is to listen.”

-- Paul Tillich

A journey of A thousand miles must begin with A single step.

-- Lao Tzu

These form the basis of peace work. You can get something from a book. That something may be so important as to lead you to the recognition of the real thing.”

-- Idries Shah

Nonviolence, when it becomes active, travels with extraordinary velocity, and then it becomes a miracle.”

-- Gandhi

The world will change because of your smile… to sit, to smile, to look at things and really see them”

-- Thich Nhat Hanh

Love is the most durable power in the world. Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

One is called to live nonviolently, even if the change one works for seems impossible. It may or may not be possible to turn the US around through nonviolent revolution. But one thing favors such an attempt: the total inability of violence to change anything for the better.”

-- Daniel Berrigan

Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to befoul the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.”

-- Theodore Roosevelt, on April 19, 1906

No one has a right to sit down and feel helpless, there”s too much to do.”

-- Dorothy Day

Love turns upon a commitment to a certain kind of seeing, a certain kind of sharing.

-- R.C. Solomon.

Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder…. the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish their corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace… They are continually talking about their patriotic duty. It is not their duty but your patriotic duty that they are concerned about. There is a decided difference. Their patriotic duty never takes them to the firing line or chucks them into the trenches.”

-- Eugene V. Debs

Nonviolence is the inherent quality of women. For ages men have trained in violence. In order for them to become nonviolent they have to cultivate the qualities of women. Ever since I have taken to nonviolence, I have become more and more of a woman.”

-- Gandhi