Thoughts for Today

Learning from the abolitionists, the first social movement

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e8301 (Published 19 December 2012)
Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8301

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  1. Richard Smith, editor of the BMJ until 2004 and director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative
  1. richardswsmith{at}yahoo.co.uk

The British movement to abolish slavery has much to teach us about how to get the world to respond to seemingly intractable problems, argues Richard Smith

Social movements are fashionable in health. Frustrated by the inability of governments and other authorities to make change happen from the top, those wanting to change the world hope for social movements that will make change happen from the bottom. George Alleyne, the former director general of the Pan American Health Organisation, thinks that a social movement is needed to get the world to respond adequately to the pandemic of non-communicable disease. Those who want to improve quality in healthcare aspire to be a social movement. But can you create a social movement and can they change the world? We can learn much from what many have called the first social movement, the British movement to abolish slavery.

What is a social movement?

There is no universally agreed definition of a social movement, but here is a reasonable one from Wikipedia (itself a sort of social movement): “They are large informal groupings of individuals and/or organizations focused on specific political or social issues, in other words, on carrying out, resisting or undoing a social change.” Charles Tilley, an American professor of social science, defines a social movement as having three components: a campaign, a sustained, organised public effort making collective claims on target authorities; a repertoire of activities like public meetings, petitions, boycotts, statements to the media, and pamphleteering; and what he calls WUNC (worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment).1

The civil rights movement and the women’s movement are classic modern examples of social movements, and within healthcare the movements to both promote and restrict abortion rights and the global activities against tobacco might be seen as social movements.

Box 1: Lessons for social movements from the abolitionists

  • What …

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