Herbert W. Simons
Emeritus Professor of Communication, Temple University

Leading Social Movements: The "Requirements-Problems-Strategies" (RPS) Approach

The following is a framework for leading social movements or for analyzing their moves and speech as a rhetorical critic. Its basic assumptions are that: (1) Any movement must fulfill the same functional requirements as more institutionalized collectivities. These imperatives constitute rhetorical requirements for the leadership of a movement; (2) Conflicts among requirements create rhetorical problems, which, in turn, affect (3) decisions on rhetorical strategy. The primary test of a leader, and ultimately of the strategies she employs, is her capacity to fulfill the requirements of her movement by removing or reducing rhetorical problems.


The basic functional requirements of a social movement are an ability to mobilize human and material resources, to exert external influence, and to mount resistance to counter-pressures. These requirements are not unlike those facing leaders of institutionalized collectivities such as business or government. For example, the managers of General Motors must recruit, hire, train, motivate and deploy personnel, and they must likewise acquire and deploy material resources for the manufacture of its cars and trucks. Likewise, the leadership of social movements must recruit, motivate and deploy activists; and it needs also to acquire material resources (e.g., money). Just as General Motors must market its vehicles (exert external influence) and beat back its competition (mount resistance to counter-pressures), so must the leaders of social movements promote their movement's cause and deal with opposition from counter-movements (e.g., pro-life for pro-choice) and from other groups that may regard the movement as a threat.


Social movements are severely restricted from fulfilling these requirements by dint of their internal strategies and their positions in relation to the larger society. This is especially true of movements lacking any kind of legitimacy. By comparison to the heads of most formal organizations (e.g., General Motors), the leaders of these social movements can expect minimal internal control and maximal external resistance. Whereas business corporations may induce productivity through tangible rewards and punishments, social movements, as voluntary collectivities, must rely on ideological and social commitments. Existing outside the larger society's conceptions of justice and reality, moreover, movements often threaten and are threatened by the society's sanctions and taboos: its laws; its maxims; its customs governing manners, decorum and taste; its insignia of authority, etc. Shorn of the controls that characterize formal organizations, yet required to perform the same internal functions; harassed from without, yet required to gain outside support, the leader of a social movement must constantly balance inherently conflicting demands on her position and on the movement she represents.

Many of the foregoing problems pose dilemmas for leaders. Among the demands on any organization are that its leaders maintain a system of accurate communication up and down the line, that they operate an efficient organization, and that they act in a consistent and therefore predictable manner. But in a social movement, the need to speak truthfully must be balanced against the need to inspire members and to fend off attacks on the movement by outsiders. The need for organizational efficiency must be weighed against the demands of individual volunteers (few of whom can be coerced or paid) for personal gratification or for promotion of pet projects. And the need for ideological consistency must be balanced against the need for pragmatic adaptations.

Movements are as susceptible to fragmentation from within as they are to suppression from without. Within movement organizations, factional conflicts invariably develop over questions of value, strategy, tactics, or implementation. Purists and pragmatists clash over the merits of compromise. Academics and activists debate the necessity of long-range planning. Others enter the campaign with personal grievances or vested interests. Preexisting groups that are known to have divergent ideological positions are nevertheless invited to join or affiliate with the campaign because of the power they can wield.

These and other differences may be reflected at the leadership level as well. Rarely can one campaign leader handle all the leadership roles and tasks of the campaign. Hence the need for a variety of leadership types: theoreticians and propagandists to launch the campaign, political or bureaucratic types to carry it forward. There may also be cleavages between those vested with positions of authority in the campaign, those charismatic figures who have personal followings, those who have special competencies, and those who have private sources of funds or influence outside the campaign.


Because any strategy represents an attempt to meet incompatible requirements, none is ever fully satisfactory. Each, moreover, creates new rhetorical problems in the process of resolving old ones.


Rhetorical Perspectives on Social Movements

Types of Social Movements

Tactics of Social Movements

Social Protests and Mass Media

Leading Social Movements: The "Requirements-Problems-Strategies" (RPS) Approach

Moderates and Militants

The Fate of Social Movements

"Open" and "Closed-Minded" Movements

A Dilemma-Centered Analysis of Clinton's August 17th Apologia: Implications for Rhetorical Theory and Method

Judging A Policy Proposal By the Company It Keeps: The Gore-Perot NAFTA Debate

Rhetoric of Inquiry as an Intellectual Movement

Arguing About the Ethos of Past Actions: An Analysis of a Taped Conversation About a Taped Conversation

Burke, Marx, and Warrantable Outrage

Rhetorical Hermeneutics and the Project of Globalization

Media & Politics

The Rhetorical Construction of Institutional Fact: An Analysis of Social Problems Discourse

Temple Issues Forum: Innovations in Pedagogy

The Rhetoric of Philosophical Incommensurability

Rhetoric of the Classroom Teacher

Going Meta

The RPS Approach

Social Movements