the unease caused by more general, more pervasive, more enduring trends in American society,” said Imig.
Ultimately, the power of movements lies in their ability to mobilize the public from complacency to action. Preventing childhood obesity fits with the historical concern for child well-being, Imig noted. However, that concern has seldom generated lasting policy changes. Even when policy makers have data indicating the need to change policies, they may be reluctant to act. Issues, however salient, must be understood in a particular way, Imig observed.
The good news for the childhood obesity movement is that the public sees it as an issue, said Imig, as revealed by a number of poll results. In a poll reported in the Los Angeles Times (DiCamillo and Field, 2011), California voters cited unhealthy eating habits as the single greatest health risk to children. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Napier, 2006) has reported that 92 percent of all Americans consider childhood obesity a serious national issue. And according to a recent Pew Charitable Trusts study (Pew Research Center, 2011), 57 percent of Americans believe the government should play a significant role in reducing obesity.
Even with this level of concern, issues must be framed in a way that highlights injustice, agency, and identity to generate social movements, said Imig. Injustice means perceiving a problem as wrong; agency means conditions can be altered through collective action; and identity is something that people can rally around collectively.
Several other factors contribute to the emergence of social movements, Imig continued. Such movements are more likely to take shape during moments of political uncertainty. They also are much more likely to emerge when they are supported by influential allies and can build key alliances, which lend prestige and legitimacy. Elites can legitimize, support, or preempt citizen activism. With the nuclear freeze movement, for example, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and a letter signed by Nobel Prize winners first brought the issue to national consciousness. Also, members of particular professions, including pediatricians, social workers, nurses, and teachers, have long been critical allies in social movements focused on children.
Finally, opposition and repression can be critical in the emergence of social movements. Successful movements often define themselves in opposition to their antagonists. Mother Jones, for example, made sure to launch all of her speeches by declaiming against millionaire manufacturers in New York and Philadelphia who built their mansions on the “broken backs and quivering hearts” of children, which Imig said made for an effective campaign.