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Political Opportunity

Political opportunity theory suggests that changes in the political opportunity structure are a major factor in determining which social movements are viable and successful.  These changes could include, for example, a transition in government leaders that makes a political structure more vulnerable to the effects of protest or the rise of a legislature that is sympathetic to a movement’s cause.

Research on political opportunity theory finds mixed support and suggests a variety of mechanisms for how the theory may operate in practice.  For instance, Morris (1981) found that the Civil Rights sit-in movement was able to respond quickly to changing political conditions due to pre-existing organizational networks, facilitating the movement’s success.  Kurzman’s work (1996) on the Iranian Revolution found that perceived political opportunity may be as important as actual political opportunity for movement success.  McCammon (2001), similar to Kurzman, found that political opportunity can be created, as the suffragist organizations were able to do through the use of different framing strategies.  McAdam, McCarthy and Zald (1996) take a nuanced view of political opportunity theory, suggesting that it probably accounts for when and what type of movements emerge, but other factors, such as framing, will determine a movement’s ideology. Compared to other social movement theories, such as resource mobilization, political opportunity theory tends to focus on the role of an organization’s environment and members’ agency in success, rather than the internal organizational features and structural forces that can shape outcomes.

In the study of religious organizations, political opportunity may be useful in understanding which religious groups and movements may emerge from a particular political environment and which environments are most conducive to these organizations’ success.


Kurzman, Charles. 1996. “Structural Opportunity and Perceived Opportunity in Social-Movement Theory: The Iranian Revolution of 1979.” American Sociological Review 61(1): 153-170.

McAdam, Doug, John D. McCarthy and Mayer N. Zald. 1996. Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures and Cultural Framings. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

McCammon, Holly J. 2001. “Stirring up Suffrage Sentiment: The Formation of the State Woman Suffrage Organizations, 1866-1914” Social Forces 80: 449-480.

Morris, Aldon D. 1981. “Black Southern Student Sit-In Movement: An Analysis of Internal Organization.” American Sociological Review 46:744-767.

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