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Mass-movement Stages


Explanations > Groups > Mass-movement Stages


When mass movements are formed, they often go through a number of stages. These stages were described by Donovan and Bowers (1971):


People who believe in a cause petition the sources of power (government, industry, etc.) to meet demands that are, rather annoyingly, just a bit too far for the holders of power to concede. This gives the petitioner reason to continue the game, getting angry at the powerful and finding a personal power through their own helplessness.


Fired up by the non-cooperation of those in power, the agitators now seek allies and like-minded individual (or, perhaps, those who are easily led). They hand out leaflets, they hold rallies, they feed stories to the press and generally propagate the idea that those in power are unreasonable and dangerous.


With the success of promulgation, the group solidifies into a coherent organization that revolves around its leader. Social grouping starts to appear and a hierarchy is created to provide a system of control. The leader will, of course, seek to maintain the group and stamp his or her identity onto the group.


One way the leader maintains control is to retain focus on the enemy, who is increasingly cast as bad and evil, which naturally leads to the conclusion that the members of the movement are good and righteous. Key 'flag' issues are identified and receive intense focus. Individuals in the opposition are singled out and vilified as embodying all that is bad about them.

Non-violent resistance

Initially, resistance is likely to be non-violent and passive, with actions such as 'work to rule', strikes, sit-ins, blocking access and cold-shouldering the opposition. A common subversive goal is to goad the opposition into violence or at least to force them to call the police. The group will then manipulate the media to make themselves appear harmless and helpless whilst the opposition is spiteful and immoral.


This may then lead to public confrontation, where confrontation may be aggressive, at least in language. Threats may be made. Property may be damaged. It is less and less possible to converse and even mediators may be rejected.

'Gandhi vs. guerilla'

The non-violent elements within the movement may now go to the opposition and plead with them to concede, lest those who are more violent give in to their basic drives and take even more radical and dangerous action. In effect, this is a variant on the hurt and rescue theme.


Finally, when the opposition refuse to concede, the movement will take to the streets, publicly breaking the law and using violence with anyone who stands in their way. They act as a mob, and people who would normally be peaceful get drawn into the violence and commit acts of which they may later bitterly regret. Yet whilst the leaders of the group can sustain the maelstrom, primitive drives are whipped into the fore and revolution has its day.

So what?

If you are drawn into such groups, spot the patterns happening and either seek to avoid being sucked in, get out while you can or try to steer the group into some level of sanity.

Note that if the real goal of the leaders of the movement is power, then any concession by the other side will be immediately followed by further escalation of demands. Their underlying goal is not to find peaceful resolution but is provoke opposition and thus gain power and recognition as the leader of an army. Thus a useful test for those who oppose the movement is to do some test concession. If the group is seeking peace, then they might reasonably be expected to 

See also

Bowers, J. and Donovan, O. (1971). The Rhetoric of Agitation and Control, Reading, MA: Addison Wesley

Cults, Hurt and Rescue principle

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