Social Movement Ecology and Its Implications: Unpacking the Natural Metaphor

Benjamin Case

What are the consequences of applying an ecological framework to the understanding of social movement groups? Where does ecological thinking take analyses of collective struggle?


In the 1980’s, social ecologist Murray Bookchin observed that the word “ecology” was proliferating in popular culture: “Often it is used as a metaphor, an alluring catchword, that loses the potentially compelling internal logic of its premises,” thus neutralizing the radical thrust of the word.[2] In the past few years, the popular Momentum Training program, which coaches activists in approaches to movement-building, has been promoting a concept of social movement ecology (SME) to describe why a particular organization does not have to “do it all,” but rather how each approach to change fits into an “ecosystem” of movement groups.[3] Momentum’s content has reached thousands of activists in the US from a number of prominent organizations and networks, including Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, Cosecha, and IfNotNow. The SME metaphor is intuitively attractive – it is about collaboration, it nods to environmentalism, and it appeals to the general desire to see the things one does as natural. However, despite the concept having quickly spread beyond the reach of the training program from which it emerged, it has currently not been theorized beyond a superficial analogy. What are the consequences of applying an ecological framework to the understanding of social movement groups? Where does ecological thinking take analyses of collective struggle? A wealth of literature has conceptualized and critiqued “ecological” views of human organization, and the current appeal of the SME framework prompts this same level of theoretical rigor.

Other analytic frameworks capture much of what SME aims for from a variety of angles. Since the founding of the Comintern, revolutionary socialists have advocated a united front of radical and progressive groups acting autonomously but in concert against the forces of the right. Social movement scholars have conceived of social movement communities[4] and social movement families[5] to describe the ways that different activist cultures, organizations, and individuals interact and mobilize resources to their causes. Leninist and later anarchist dual power strategies outline the ways that different types of radical institutions can work together to create a revolutionary situation.[6] What theoretical leverage does the ecology metaphor add?

The social movement ecology concept is fraught, and in order to maintain its integrity as an organizing tool for social change, movement ecology must be attached to an explicitly radical ideology.

In this essay, I will explore the internal logic of the SME premise and unpack some of its implications in terms of three broad problems with the ecological metaphor, which I will call the “boundary problem,” the “agency problem,” and the “interactions problem.” I approach these issues as both a participant in and a student of social movements. This essay is intended as a contribution to the discussion around how we mobilize resources to make society more just from within unjust institutional structures. I will argue that the SME concept is fraught, and that in order to maintain its integrity as an organizing tool for social change, movement ecology must be attached to an explicitly radical ideology (or counter-ideology, if you prefer). Despite its problems, however, the ecological lens brings into focus a prefigurative vision for the way social movement groups interact with one another within a broader Movement.

Momentum’s Social Movement Ecology

The framework of social movement ecology as it is currently being popularized comes from the Momentum Training project, now a subset of the Ayni Institute. Founded in 2014, Momentum Trainings are designed to impart strategic tools to organizers and activists based on a combination of civil resistance theory, Paul and Mark Englers’ theories of movement building,[7] and the experience of activists from various social movements. The SME metaphor is meant to help organizers understand how their organization approaches social change, and how the different approaches other groups take are not necessarily wrong, but rather fulfill different roles. Activists are encouraged to see different approaches as working symbiotically to enhance the movement’s overall power. According to the Ayni Institute:

We use the metaphor of ecology to explain how many different organisms with sometimes competing interests can be in relationship with each other to maintain the health, diversity, and sustainability of the whole environment. We think we can create intentional and synergistic relationships between different approaches to social change to build a resilient movement ecology”[8]

This brief description tells us: 1) ecology is a metaphor; 2) organizations sometimes have competing interests; 3) it is a prescriptive model, advocating for a particular type of interaction; 4) the goal is synergistic relationships that create healthy environments.

According to Momentum’s SME, movement organizations can be divided into three broad “theories of change” – categories of organizations based on their approach to achieving their goals. First, dominant institutional change fights to overthrow or win reforms from the state, corporations, or other official institutions of power. This first type is further broken down into three sub-types: “structure” (e.g., union organizing), “mass protest” (e.g., the Occupy Movement), and “inside game” (e.g., the Sanders primary campaign). Second, alternative institutions attempt to prefigure organizing models based on radical principles (e.g., cooperative businesses, communes). Third, personal transformation attempts to change the world one person at a time (e.g., youth mentoring, yoga classes). In practice, however, these categories regularly meld or overlap – inside game campaigns are likely to be highly structured, mass protest movements are often consciously prefigurative, and personal transformation might only be considered part of a movement when it is attached to an alternative institution or is attempting to change dominant institutions.

Erik Olin Wright[9] offers a more elegant tripartite breakdown of approaches to social change. In his terms, ruptural transition constitutes attempts to smash the system from the outside, interstitial transition attempts to build prefigurative institutions within the cracks of the state, and symbiotic transition involves challenging power by reorienting state and market institutions toward radical goals. (Wright’s use of “symbiotic” is unrelated to Momentum’s; Wright is talking about a type of struggle where the relationship between movements and the state is symbiotic, while Momentum is talking about SME in terms of intra-movement relationships. Nevertheless, the common usage of ecological language is noteworthy.) However, whereas Wright advocates for his “symbiotic” transition, Momentum’s SME is not intended to be prescriptive in terms of which approach is best. Instead, it is prescriptive in terms of how the approaches relate to one another. According to Momentum’s SME, without intervention different types of groups typically interact with each other through non-constructive critique. Each theory of change has its pros and cons, but if each can see itself working “symbiotically” with the others, the collective pros balance out the cons and create a fertile environment for overall movement success. Invoking ecology as a metaphor is appealing, but it also raises some difficult questions, which, if left unaddressed, could lead in problematic directions.

The Boundary Problem: What Is The Movement?

For the most part, biological ecosystems do not require researchers to place organisms in them; researchers observe what is there and analyze it. If the ecological frame is going to be applied to social movements in isolation from all of the other social phenomena around them, then the choice of which groups and individuals get incorporated into the movement ecosystem makes all the difference in what that ecosystem looks like – and how a group should orient within it. This requires drawing boundaries around which types of groups and individuals we consider to be part of The Movement. Momentum’s SME is based on there being three broad approaches to social change (dominant institutional change, alternative institutions, and personal transformation), so in order to qualify as one of them, a group or individual must desire change, and take action to achieve it. But this does not tell us what kind of change or what type of action.

I will return to the question of action, but to the change question, SME excludes movements seeking change that would be considered undesirable. From afar, many right wing groups can appear to use similar tactics to the left. It might be worth considering what a movement ecology would look like if it was expanded to include all activists and organizations seeking change of any kind, but sticking with the way SME is applied, we will exclude the right. Once the right is excluded, boundary framing[10] around what is or is not part of the Movement becomes trickier. The Movement is often discussed implicitly using the Supreme Court’s famously problematic criteria for pornography – “you know it when you see it.” This casual approach risks prioritizing groups with recognizable forms and privileging style over content; it might not accurately capture the individuals and groups engaged in the most materially consequential movement work.

Determining which groups are part of the Movement requires an understanding (or assumption) that they generally want society to move in the same direction. Being too precise about the direction, and how far in that direction, are risky – a long list of left movements have fractured and collapsed into infighting over relatively minor details in their answers to these questions. At the same time, refusing to name the general direction leaves the door open to cooptation, “selling out,” or promoting oppressive politics.

I use the capitalized term “the Movement” the way it is often used in the parlance of left activists and organizers – in social movement studies terms, as a form of master frame[11] – to indicate the loosely-coupled assemblage of activist social forces generally working towards a collectively liberated society. For example, the Movement for Black Lives, which is composed of a variety of organizations and individual supporters engaged in numerous campaigns, is in one sense its own movement. It also joins workers’ movements, feminist and queer liberation movements, housing rights and eviction defense, and many others in something bigger – a movement of movements, or the Movement. The organizations and individuals who take part in the Movement are sometimes connected by formal affiliations, personal relationships, and informal networks, but more than that they are bound in some way by common values. These values must be collectively liberatory, meaning that they orient around redistribution of society’s resources and collective freedom from social or literal bondage. They might include solidarity with other groups, especially those that are oppressed or marginalized; mutual aid; respect for personal, community, and cultural autonomy; and the collective stewardship of our communities and the land we live on. Organizations, affinity groups, and individuals whose work is in line with these or similar values – for the left we might call this “radical ideology” – are part of the Movement. Without such an ideological orientation and vision there would be no soil from which to grow a conceptual SME.

The Agency Problem

Ecology takes an overarching view, judging health holistically based on the biodiversity and sustainability of an entire ecosystem. Sociologists Michael Hannan and John Freeman are credited with bringing this ecological framework to bear on human organizations. They begin with the question: “why are there so many kinds of organizations?”[12] In order to find an answer, they switch the unit of analysis from the organization to populations of organizations. They look to biological ecology for their analysis, with individual organizations being analogous to individual organisms, forms of organizations being analogous to species, and the market in which they all compete for resources representing the natural environment. In the population ecology view, if we want to understand why forms of organizations “live” or “die” or how they change, we do not look at the decisions of their members or leaders, we look at the constraining factors of their environment.[13] This approach has major limitations; it ignores the agency of individual members of organizations and the taxonomy of organizations is far more subjective than biological taxonomy is for living creatures.[14] If population ecology has a benefit, it is in prompting us to examine organizations from a population-wide view as opposed to organizational or individual views only, focusing on how external constraints limit organizational forms or push them to adapt.

Population ecology was developed to study for-profit businesses in a “natural” market environment. For a business, continuing to exist in the market requires access to capital, so the analogy of biological organisms requiring sustenance to survive fits fairly well. Businesses that can find capital live, while ones that cannot, die. For social movement groups, however, the ultimate goal is (presumably) not longevity but to change society. The difference between surviving and winning is significant; one continues to exist within the norm, the other exists in order to change the norm. Of course, movements need to survive in order to win, but social movement groups that achieve their goals, whether reformist or revolutionary, at least shift in form and purpose after victory. It would be backwards therefore to analogize the end of an organization to “death” without taking into account whether or not it was successful in accomplishing its goals. This poses a fundamental problem for viewing movements through an ecological lens. In the “natural world” there is no goal per se, there is only which species survive and which do not. In terms of social movements, a conceptual leap is required to connect a metaphor based in a harmonious status quo to a social formation aimed at altering the status quo. At very least, the environmental conditions for a SME need to be envisioned so that “survival” incorporates the goal of the movement.

For social movements, “survival” should not be based on fit within the current environment but on their ability to change the environment into something better. The missing variable is socio-political change in a particular direction. Once again, common ideology is required to gain leverage from the ecology metaphor.

This connects to a deeper problem in adapting the ecological metaphor to social movements: the bird’s eye view of populations is a descriptive model. Like biological ecology, population ecology assumes the “goal” of species is to survive and nothing more. It is about the evolution and adaptation of organizational forms, and does not account for how actors actively change their environment. The concept of “organisms” needing to “fit” the environment means little if that environment can be consciously changed by the very same organisms, especially if the ones who exert the biggest changes over the environment are the ones considered to “fit” the best. For social movements, “survival” should not be based on fit within the current environment but on their ability to change the environment into something better. The missing variable is socio-political change in a particular direction. Once again, common ideology is required to gain leverage from the ecology metaphor.

The Interaction Problem

The primary goal of SME is to help activists interact productively with those who approach social change differently. The ecology metaphor summons the image of lush forests full of thriving creatures, but in reality the natural world can be as harsh and merciless as it is harmonious. For population ecology, organizations interact primarily through competition for resources, a singular focus that follows a capitalist mindset. Social Darwinists have long seen evolution as pertaining to intra-human relationships, arguing for a “dog-eat-dog” mentality. This was always a distortion of Darwin, first because evolution has to do with long-term survival of species, not individuals within a species, and second because there are many examples of organic “solidarity” both within and between species. Pyotr Kropotkin famously argued for a “mutualist” view of the natural world, in which species (most of all, humans) often survived and evolved based on their ability to cooperate.[15] Still, even if the competition aspect of the ecology metaphor is downplayed, organisms and species still succeed or fail based on their ability to access the resources they require. So the questions become: “what resources sustain social movements?” and “how do organizations and individuals interact to get them?”

Whether or not we like it, in a capitalist economy social movement organizations require financial resources. The 2007 book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, edited by Incite!, lays out the abundance of ways in which capitalists (through foundations) and the state (through grants) use their financial influence to, among other things: “monitor and control social justice movements, manage and control dissent, re-direct activist energies into career-based modes of organizing, encourage movements to model themselves after capitalist structures,” in a process they call the non-profit industrial complex.[16] Some organizations choose to engage with these forces and attempt to evade, mitigate, or ignore the control mechanisms, while others attempt to fund their activities through donations or cooperative businesses. Still, donation money comes from supporters’ wages or other money-making schemes, and banks ultimately control the flow and value of financial capital, giving them systemic power over the market,[17] in which cooperative business must compete. Collaborative efforts for financial resources can only get so far within the current system before they run up against the competition of the market. Even if elements of the Movement were able to eliminate competition for financial resources between each other, they still exist in a broader market “ecosystem” characterized by competition for scarce resources.

Another answer to the sustenance question has been membership.[18] In this view, movements compete for members, and those that are able to maintain consistent or growing membership live, while others die. However, defining official membership in some forms of groups is challenging, and beyond that the membership answer still ignores movement goals. The amount of participation movements are able to mobilize has been linked to success,[19] but participation in actions is not necessarily the same as membership in an organization. So perhaps movements compete for mass participation. This resource is finite in the sense that there are only 24 hours in a day and people have limited time to devote to any activity. But once people are “activated” and join social movement networks, they often find more time for activism in general, not less; a person who joins a movement organization becomes more easily mobilized by other movements through networks and personal relationships.[20] And once we set appropriate boundaries around the movement of movements, any effective participation in one movement is likely beneficial to the Movement’s collective power. Furthermore, while an overabundance of organizations of the same type might compete for participation, a diversity of types of organizations might well support overall increased participation in the Movement, just as biodiversity leads to higher overall ecological stability.[21] So we can say that groups require members and/or participation in their actions in order both to survive and to win, and in some ways they compete to access this resource, while in other ways they cooperate to generate more of it.

We still have not addressed the most uncomfortable interaction problem – the food chain. Again, ecological health is judged holistically based on the biodiversity and sustainability of an entire ecosystem. Predator-prey and parasite-host relationships are integral parts of harmonious ecosystems. That the wolves killing the deer can be seen as serving a vital function in a flourishing ecosystem is hardly consolation for the individual deer being eaten. Ecology is concerned with the harmony of interacting species of organisms, not with the experience of any given organism in the ecosystem. Here the SME metaphor risks taking a dark turn. Viewing the Movement holistically could be deeply problematic if it resulted in individuals or groups validating predatory or parasitic behavior based on a claimed greater good for the Movement as a whole. Applying SME responsibly therefore at least requires addressing some difficult questions about how different elements of the Movement interact to create social change. Disagreements between the three approaches to social change that Momentum theorizes (i.e. dominant institutional change, alternative institutions, and personal transformation) are nowhere near the most contentious in the movement. Rather, the nastiest disputes are often between similar types of groups. Tactical approaches (disruptive versus conciliatory, violent versus nonviolent, etc.), key political positions, engagement with reforms versus repudiation of systemic fixes, identity claims and privilege, responses to interpersonal abuse and sexual violence, access to capital and resources – these are sites of the most passionate infighting.

The big question here is: how do we distinguish between groups that are damaging to the health of the entire social movement environment and those that are serving a vital function in the creation of an overall healthy movement ecology that happens to come at the cost of another organization? Glossing over this question in constructing an “ecological” picture of social movements would not merely render the metaphor meaningless, it could authorize dangerous dynamics.


Ideas are powerful, and should not be taken lightly. Siegfried Kracauer analogizes “the idea” to a rock thrown into a pool. How big the ripples are and how far they go are functions of the size of the stone, the position of the thrower, and the character of the throw – but it will definitely create ripples.[22] Whether or not movement ecology was intended to be taken to such lengths, if we leverage an idea – especially one as potent as ecology, and especially in such a prominent place as a descriptor for how we change the world together – we must commit to theoretically exploring its implications.

The ecology metaphor is loaded with problems, and should be applied with caution. Attempts to use SME should thoroughly consider which types of groups and people are part of the envisioned “ecology,” how each of them impacts that “environment,” and how they interact with one another to access resources. Above all, in order to use SME responsibly, practitioners must ground it in a vision of a common goal for the Movement, and an understanding of the liberatory values that connect activists and movements to the movement ecology.

The ecological view has a benefit though. It pushes us to see the movement of movements holistically, as dynamic and alive, and as part of a grand social transformation that is larger than any of our individual-personal or individual-group concerns. This too could be taken in problematic directions, but it could also lead to a meta-prefigurative view of the Movement. The term prefiguration was coined by Carl Boggs in a 1970 essay on the failures of vanguardism and reformism,[23] and is often described using the old Industrial Workers of the World adage, “building a new world in the shell of the old.” Prefigurative politics has been praised by some for both its experiential benefits and its strategic necessity,[24] and criticized by others for leading to insularity and apoliticism in groups that overemphasize their internal practices.[25] The prefiguration that SME points to is not the attempted “manifestation of a better future now”[26] within a particular group or scene. Rather, it is about how the creation and practice of types of interaction between different liberatory forces during the course of struggle is related to ways groups will relate to one another in a revolutionary society if the forces of liberation are broadly successful. Inter-group interactions between activists, organizations, and movements in the Movement – whether these interactions be characterized by mutuality and solidarity or competition and callousness – is in a sense prefiguring a revolutionary order. In other words, if ultimately successful in disordering oppressive institutions, the “ecology” of the movement of movements will prefigure the order in which society as a whole becomes reordered.

Social movement ecology can push us to recognize the ways that it is not only our political struggles against oppressive institutions or the ways we attempt to create radical spaces within our movement groups, but it is also the ways we interact with each other between groups within the Movement – and with the parts of society that are not yet part of the Movement – that create the living environment we are struggling to seed the world with.

Benjamin S. Case is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a long time political, community, and labor organizer, and is a member of Organization for a Free Society.

References and Footnotes

  1. I am indebted to Tarun Banerjee, Eleanor Finley, Pat Korte, Hallie Boas, Belinda Rodriguez, and an anonymous reviewer for their comments and edits.
  2. Murray Bookchin. 1982. The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Society. Palo Alto: Cheshire Books. p. 21.
  3. Ayni Institute website. ( Accessed March 29, 2017.
  4. Suzanne Staggenborg. 1998. “Social Movement Communities and Cycles of Protest.” Social Problems. 45:2. pp. 180-204.
  5. Donatella della Porta and Dieter Rucht. 1995. “Left-Libertarian Movements in Context.” In The Politics of Social Protest. eds. J. Craig Jenkins and Bert Klandermans. pp. 279-72. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  6. Brian Dominick. 2012. “An Introduction to Dual Power Strategy.” Left-Liberty. ( Accessed April 4, 2017.
  7. Mark Engler and Paul Engler. This Is an Uprising. New York: Nation Books.
  8. Quoted from the Ayni Institute’s website, accessed March 29, 2017.
  9. Erik O. Wright. 2010. Envisioning Real Utopias. London: Verso.
  10. Robert Benford and David Snow. 2000. Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment. Annual Review of Sociology. 26. pp. 611-639.
  11. Benford and Snow.
  12. Michael Hannan and John Freeman. 1977. “The Population Ecology of Organizations.” The American Journal of Sociology. 82:5. pp. 929-964.
  13. Pamela Papielarz and Zachary Neal. 2007. The Niche as a Theoretical Tool. Annual Review of Sociology. 33. pp. 65-84.
  14. Ruth Young. 1988. “Is Population Ecology a Useful Paradigm for the Study of Organizations?” American Journal of Sociology. 94:1. pp. 1-24.
  15. Pyotr Kropotkin. 1915. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. London: Heinemann.
  16. Andrea Smith. 2007. “Introduction.” in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. ed. Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. Cambridge: South End Press. pp. 1-18.
  17. Beth Mintz and Michael Schwartz. 1987. The Power Structure of American Business. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  18. Mintz and Schwartz.
  19. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan. 2011. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Nation Books.
  20. Bert Klandermans and Dirk Oegema. 1987. “Potentials, Networks, Motivations, and Barriers: Steps Towards Participation in Social Movements.” American Sociological Review. 52(4). pp. 519-531.
  21. David Tillman. 2000. “Causes, Consequences and Ethics of Biodiversity.” Nature. 405:May.
  22. Siegfried Kracauer. (1963) 1995. The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. trans. Thomas Levin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  23. Carl Boggs. 1977. “Marxism, Prefigurative Communism, and the Problem of Workers’ Control.” Radical America. 11(6). pp. 99-122.
  24. Marianne Maeckelbergh. 2011. “Doing is Believing: Prefiguration as a Strategic Practice in the Alterglobalization Movement.” Social Movement Studies. 10(1). pp. 1-20.
  25. Jonathan Smucker. 2014. “Can Prefigurative Politics Replace Political Strategy?” Berkeley Journal of Sociology. 58. ( Accessed August 3, 2017.
  26. Smucker.