7 Jul 2023
A new expert survey of academics who study social movement and protest finds broad academic support for disruptive protest tactics.
Social Change Lab, a nonprofit that conducts research into social movements and protest, and Apollo Academic Surveys have surveyed 120 experts in Sociology, Political Science and other relevant domains. Experts were selected on the basis of their having published respected academic papers on social movements and/or protest, and having contributed significantly to academic knowledge in this area.
In one question from the survey, 69% of experts thought that disruptive tactics were effective at progressing the cause for issues like climate change that have high public awareness and high public support. This is in stark contrast with polling by YouGov which finds that 78% of the UK public thinks that disruptive protest hinders the cause.
Figure 1: Answer to the Question 7 from the survey: “Please indicate how effective disruptive protest might be in the following contexts. By 'effective', we mean bringing about overall positive outcomes. In the case of the climate movement, this would look like a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, either through direct effects on policy, or indirect effects on policy or individual behaviour via increased public awareness and support for the issue.
Out of the factors asked about, experts also thought the most important tactical and strategic factor for a social movement’s success is “the strategic use of nonviolent disruptive tactics”. They ranked it as more important than focusing on gaining media coverage or having achievable demands. Overall, 69% of experts said “the strategic use of nonviolent disruptive tactics” was either “very important” or “quite important”.
Figure 2: Answers to Question 3 from the survey: “How important do you think the following tactical and strategic factors are in contributing to a social movement’s success?
James Özden, Director of Social Change Lab, who organised this survey, said “We were really struck by the contradiction between what the public and media say about disruptive protests and what academics said. The experts who study social movements not only believe that strategic disruption can be an effective tactic, but out of all of the factors we asked about, that it is the most important tactical factor for a social movement's success. This points out how our intuitions can be flawed when it comes to understanding social change, and how we shouldn’t take people’s first reactions as the indicator of an effective protest.”
Professor Bart Cammaerts, Professor of Politics and Communication at the London School of Economics and a survey participant, said “Whether we like it or not, the history of social change is also a history of political contestation and disruption. Disruption of everyday life is often the best way to receive media attention, generate visibility for a cause and above all to push political and economic elites to compromise and accept change, if only to protect their own interests.”
Louisa Parks, Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Trento and a survey participant, said “If we are talking about the long-term effects to disruptive climate justice protests, broader cultural changes could be provoked despite short-term backfire effects. The example of soup-throwing or the recent protests by Last Generation in a number of European countries are all sophisticated comments on what we as a society protect and value, and what we don't. But it might take time to get through the outrage.’
Other key findings from the research include:
Experts were also asked which factors of a social movement’s governance and organisation are the most important in driving success: 81% thought that the ability to “mobilise and scale quickly in response to external events” was ‘quite’ or ‘very’ important. Experts thought having decentralised decision-making was the least important factor, with only 25% saying it is ‘quite’ or ‘very’ important.
90% of experts thought that non-violent climate protests targeting the government are at least somewhat effective overall.
Appendix / Notes to editors
For further information or comments, contact James:
Social Change Lab is a research non-profit focused on understanding the impact of social movements and protest on social change.
This research was done in conjunction with Ruud Wouters, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Tilburg University, and Apollo Academic Surveys, whose mission is to aggregate the views of academic experts, making them freely available to everyone.
The full results of the survey can be seen here: https://www.apollosurveys.org/social-change-and-protests/