Breakdown Theory and Resource Mobilization Theory Applied

Rabib Hasan

Reaction Paper #2

Community Power Section 01

Dr. Martin

This reaction paper will focus on the motivation and source of political protests by looking at two prevalent sociological theories: breakdown and resource mobilization.  In order to analyze these two theories, I am going to specifically analyze the protests that came out of the UMW protests. By looking at the source unrest in the student body and the actions of the school’s administration, we can see how these instances of momentum played out in the political atmosphere of the campus.

Breakdown theory explains protests and riots in a way that contrasts disorganization at the top with organization at the bottom, the top being the governing body and the bottom being those who live underneath the governing body and are directly affected by their laws and orders, or lack of. When the current structure fails to reciprocate the needs of its constituents, then the bottom uses alternative means of political action to get what they want. From the point of view that this theory presents, social movements are only effective if they are organically created through this process.  

Resource mobilization theory describes protests as more intentional, emphasizing the actions of movement members acquiring resources as well as mobilizing people towards goals the set political goals. This theory doesn’t take into account timing and circumstances that allow openings for direct action to occur, but just focuses on the structural side of the movement and how much capacity it has.

For this reason, I don’t think that one theory is enough to describe the situation on campus; a mix of both is needed. There were strong elements of a “breakdown” situation on campus that year. Multiple other issues were surfacing on campus. Students who were bringing up concerns about rape culture in the community to the administration were met with responses they deemed inadequate. There was outrage over a “mexican” themed party off campus which consisted of racist costumes and slurs, and again, students felt that the administration was not addressing the issue. All of these issues came together to create collective anger amongst students, and students practiced various forms of political engagement, such as marches against rape culture or writing op-eds against existing racist social institutions.

The sit-in was organized in a fashion that represents resource mobilization theory. Students used their campus friendships and connections to recruit other students. They also used their time to do social media blasts and get articles across in traditional media. The time that is accessible to students was a huge resource and factor in getting the message out, and the social capital was necessary to get that initial energy and momentum into the action.

As days started to accumulate for the sit-in, the rest of the community began to question the Rector’s lack of response. Sharing frustration, or just becoming more curious, the number of participants soared to almost 150 community members. DivestUMW created a situation which incited a breakdown atmosphere. They showed the unresponsiveness of the situation by symbolically occupying the space on the premise that if the school represented the students and faculty than it would negotiate a deal for divestment and pass the sub-committee.  With and social capital time as a resource, the movement in that time could have been seen through a resource mobilization theory. But they were using their resources in order to put a lense on the aspects of the school’s government system that were in “breakdown” which further agitated the situation.

This agitation lead to the assembly of 150 students outside of the Board of Visitors following came with little organizing effort. A facebook event page was made and there was little effort for recruitment. This stage of the movement was almost completely organic, which is inline with the breakdown theory definition. But this came from being intentional with strategy and resources in order to create that situation.

To conclude, resource mobilization and breakdown go hand in hand because they capture different aspects of a movement. Campaigns and movements consist of structures as well as random and unpredictable momentum. Breakdown theory can be used to assess the timing of political unrest, while resource mobilization can be used to assess the structures and intentional efforts of forwarding the movement.


Useem, Bert. “Breakdown Theories of Collective Action.” (1998).


Estes, Lindley. “After arrests, Divest UMW group vows to demonstrate.” ( April 17, 2015)
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