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Research in Human Ecology

A Value-Belief-Norm Theory of Support for Social
Movements: The Case of Environmentalism
Paul C. Stern
National Research Council
2101 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 02418
USA

Thomas Dietz, Troy Abel, Gregory A. Guagnano and Linda Kalof1 Department of Sociology & Anthropology
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030
USA

Abstract
We present a theory of the basis of support for a social
movement. Three types of support (citizenship actions, policy support and acceptance, and personal-sphere behaviors that accord with movement principles) are empirically distinct from each other and from committed activism. Drawing on theoretical work on values and norm-activation processes, we propose a value-belief-norm (VBN) theory of movement

support. Individuals who accept a movement’s basic values, believe that valued objects are threatened, and believe that their actions can help restore those values experience an
obligation (personal norm) for pro-movement action that creates a predisposition to provide support; the particular type of support that results is dependent on the individual’s capabilities and constraints. Data from a national survey of 420 respondents suggest that the VBN theory, when compared

with other prevalent theories, offers the best available
account of support for the environmental movement.
Keywords: values, beliefs, norms, environmentalism,
social movements
Public support is one of the most important resources
social movements mobilize in their efforts to overcome cultural inertia and the interests of powerful actors. Indeed, as the debate about the “new social movements” has emphasized, changes in attitudes and behavior on the part of the public can be a central goal of a movement. But while a number of social movement scholars have acknowledged the importance of public support, there has been little theory

developed to explain public support, and less empirical
research. In this paper, we offer a theory of public support

Human Ecology Review, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1999
© Society for Human Ecology

for the environmental movement that is congruent with both
research on environmentalism and with the theoretical
approaches being used in the social movements literature.
We identify three dimensions of support and examine the
determinants of each using data from a survey of the U.S.
public. Our analysis suggests that support for the environmental movement can be explained by a social psychological theory that is congruent with existing social movement theory, while other contending theories of environmentalism have less explanatory power.

Movement Activism and Movement Support
Social movements depend upon highly committed and
engaged activists, but support by others is also important.
Supporters are potential recruits, as several researchers have noted (e.g., Hunt et al. 1994; Klandermans and Oegema
1987). Public support also provides movement organizations
with a resource that can be mobilized in political struggle. Friedman and McAdam (1992, 168) note that “in many cases
it will suffice that those with power merely believe that there is a large constituency for a given course of action.” Indeed our previous work shows that general public support may be
one of the most important resources for the environmental
movement, and one that is critical in struggles to define social problems (Dietz et al. 1989). For some movements, public
support in the form of widespread change in individual
behavior among non-activists is also necessary to achieve
movement goals (Johnston et al. 1994).
One goal of this article is to link the extensive literature on the social psychology of environmentalism with scholarship on social movements. Because rather different language has emerged in the two fields, it is helpful to begin by clari-

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Stern, Dietz, Abel, Guagnano, and Kalof

fying the terms we use in referring to the environmental
movement....
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