How Movements Happen

Social habits—the behaviors that occur, unthinkingly, across dozens or hundreds or thousands of people which are often hard to see as they emerge, but which contain a power that can change the world. Social habits are what fill streets with protesters who may not know one another, who might be marching for different reasons, but who are all moving in the same direction. Social habits are why some initiatives become world-changing movements, while others fail to ignite. And the reason why social habits have such influence is because at the root of many movements—be they large-scale revolutions or simple fluctuations in the churches people attend—is a three-part process that historians and sociologists say shows up again and again:

  1. A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances.
  2. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together.
  3. And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership

In general, sociologists say, most of us have friends who are like us. We might have a few close acquaintances who are richer, a few who are poorer, and a few of different races—but, on the whole, our deepest relationships tend to be with people who look like us, earn about the same amount of money, and come from similar backgrounds. But some people have friends who span the whole spectrum. A movement may start because of the influence of such a person. This is the first step.

The second step happens because of social peer pressure—an influence known as “the power of weak ties”—that made it difficult to avoid joining in.“Weak ties,” are the links that connect people who have acquaintances in common, who share membership in social networks, but aren’t directly connected by the strong ties of friendship themselves. Weak ties give us access to social networks where we don’t otherwise belong. Individuals with few weak ties will be deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends. This deprivation will not only insulate them from the latest ideas and fashions but may put them in a disadvantaged position in the labor market, where advancement can depend … on knowing about appropriate job openings at just the right time.Furthermore, such individuals may be difficult to organize or integrate into political movements of any kind.… While members of one or two cliques may be efficiently recruited, the problem is that, without weak ties, any momentum generated in this way does not spread beyond the clique. As a result, most of the population will be untouched.

The power of weak ties helps explain how a protest can expand from a group of friends into a broad social movement. Weak ties cause peer pressure. Peer pressure—and the social habits that encourage people to conform to group expectations—is difficult to describe, because it often differs in form and expression from person to person. These social habits aren’t so much one consistent pattern as dozens of individual habits that ultimately cause everyone to move in the same direction.The habits of peer pressure, however, have something in common. They often spread through weak ties. And they gain their authority through communal expectations. If you ignore the social obligations of your neighborhood, if you shrug off the expected patterns of your community, you risk losing your social standing. You endanger your access to many of the social benefits that come from joining the country club, the alumni association, or the church in the first place.Such peer pressure, on its own, isn’t enough to sustain a movement. But when the strong ties of friendship and the weak ties of peer pressure merge, they create incredible momentum. That’s when widespread social change can begin.

The third step happens when the leader of the movement shifts guidance from himself into the movement’s followers, by handing them new habits. You have give the people new habits, which if they follow, they would be following the movement itself. These habits will have to be taught by the leader or somebody the leader delegates to teach.For an idea to grow beyond a community, it must become self-propelling. And the surest way to achieve that is to give people new habits that help them figure out where to go on their own. Everyone’s identity then changes. Everyone starts to act differently. Everyone sees themselves as a part of a greater social enterprise and after some time, they believe they are. There is now a set of new behaviors that converted participants from followers into self-directing leaders. These are not habits as we conventionally think about them. The people start adopting new habits, a new way of living, that expands to other people and who adopt these same habits and become part of the movement.

Movements don’t emerge because everyone suddenly decides to face the same direction at once. They rely on social patterns that begin as the habits of friendship, grow through the habits of communities, and are sustained by new habits that change participants’ sense of self.