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Social Movement Digest #2 (+ some updates!)

Welcome to the second edition of the Social Movement Digest, where we round up all the most interesting stuff we’ve read in the last month related to social movements. If you find it interesting, please do share it with other people who you think might also find it interesting! We’re still a small non-profit, and we’re keen to get more people reading the stuff we put out.

In case you missed it, we recently released a report summarising the work we’ve done relating to protest outcomes called ‘Protest movements: how effective are they?’, which you can find here. We hope to release another report on the factors that make social movements more (or less) likely to be successful at some point in the near future. We’re also hiring for a new Researcher or Director of Research, so definitely consider applying if you’re interested in the chance to research social movements!

Our top recommendations of things to read

  • Brett Simpson, Robb Willer, and Matthew Feinberg published some fascinating research on the ‘radical flank effect’ (the claim that radical activists can have either a positive or negative impact on the prospects of more moderate activists for the same cause). They found that radical tactics (but not a radical agenda) can make a more moderate group look more reasonable by comparison, and lead to more people supporting the moderate group relative to if there were no radical activists. They found this to be true in both the animal rights movement, as well as the climate movement, which might be interesting for those working in those fields. One caveat is that they only found increased support for the moderate faction (e.g. someone akin to Friends of the Earth), and didn’t measure support for the overall movement (e.g. climate as a whole).

  • This article by Jeff Ordower about the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins in 1960 was really interesting. Four African-American students decided to occupy a Woolworth’s store in North Carolina demanding that they be served. The movement spread like wildfire, with sit-ins inspired by the Greensboro Four occurring all over the United States. He speculates that some of the most important reasons why this campaign achieved success were:

  1. The persistence of this action - returning week after week, rather than only organising a large one-off action.

  2. A strong movement infrastructure - With plenty of organising, outreach, training, community building and legal support.

  3. Creating a replicable tactic and demand - Such that people could become inspired and take part in the campaign, no matter where they lived in the country.

Social movement research we’ve been reading recently

  • We really enjoyed Erica Chenoweth’s The Future of Nonviolent Resistance which was published back in 2020. She notes that nonviolent campaigns in the 2010s have succeeded less often than in the past, and sketches out some reasons she thinks this may be the case. Potential causes include: recent protests often have fewer people, there seems to be more violence among the radical flanks of new campaigns, and regimes may be better at learning how to repress social movements.

  • A study by Eric Shuman, Siwar Hasan-Aslih, Martijn van Zomeren, and Eric Halperin indicates that Black Lives Matter protests that contained a mixture of violence and nonviolent methods may have led to an increase in support for the movement. We’re not generally convinced that violence is likely to increase support for protest movements, but this research indicates that it isn’t necessarily harmful to a cause. Specifically, they only found positive effects of mixed nonviolent and violent protests for conservatives in primarily liberal areas. The authors speculate this might be due to increased exposure to liberal views, or an increased likelihood for conservatives to make policy concessions to end disruption. See the chart below for what the effect looked like.

  • In a response to the widely talked about book by Andreas Malm, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, James Wilt responds with discussion about how pushing various strategies of environmental destruction might actually “Blow Up A Movement”. I think Wilt makes some great points in this piece, mainly about the risks of increased repression to a social movement due to more violent tactics. This is something that Malm doesn’t discuss much in his book, yet might be crucial to understanding whether more violent tactics are overall useful or harmful.

    • Andreas Malm published a response to this, which I don’t find particularly convincing, partly due to him citing climate science focusing on RCP8.5, a very unlikely climate scenario, and not providing a great answer to increased repression due to violent tactics.

  • A great Twitter Thread by Dr Aaron Thierry on how social movements can be utilised to create positive tipping points for climate change.

  • There’s no place for burnout in a burning world - An interesting read by Charlie Wood on common causes of burnout in the climate movement, and what we can do to address them.

Figure above is from Dr Aaron Thierry's thread on climate movements as positive tipping points, using the movement ecology framework designed by the Ayni Institute and applied by NEON.

Other social movement news

  • The Don’t Pay UK movement, which encourages people not to pay their energy bills, seems to be heating up! They now have nearly 120,000 Twitter followers, and more than 100,000 people have pledged not to pay their bills from October onwards. In early September, Liz Truss announced that household energy bills would be frozen as part of a £150bn support package - while we can’t infer that Don’t Pay UK necessarily led to this happening (or happening faster than it otherwise would have), it does seem like public opinion has turned firmly in support of support for struggling households.

  • Animal Rebellion made the news for stopping the supply of fresh milk, including at Arla Aylesbury, the largest dairy in the UK that supplies 10% of the country’s milk. We’re conducting some opinion polling to try and figure out how the public responds to these protests (like we did here with Just Stop Oil protests earlier in the year), so watch this space!

  • In the aftermath of the death of the Queen, there were several arrests of people who were peacefully protesting against the royal family, including one man in Edinburgh who was arrested for heckling Prince Andrew. The responses to this have been mixed, but civil liberties groups have been very critical of the police over their response to peaceful protesters, with the group Liberty pointing out that this is further evidence that new powers given to police to clamp down on protesters are a cause for serious concern. A lawyer named Paul Powlesland posted a clip that has been viewed 1.4 million times, in which a police officer asks for his details because he was holding a blank sign that he intended to write ‘not my king’ on.

  • Our research was briefly mentioned in this New York Times article on who is funding grassroots climate movement organisations - worth a read!

  • Laurence Cox wrote a really interesting and constructive criticism of Extinction Rebellion. Here’s an interesting extract:

“Often there is little or no awareness within such organisations that other people have also been working on these issues for a long time, perhaps even with more success, and that there are other organisations and approaches both in one’s home country and in the rest of the world. The downside is when the more experienced members allow or encourage the newcomers to believe that their way is the only way worth taking seriously, and not being honest with them about the crucial question: ‘how can we know what will actually work?’”

Upcoming events

  • The Ayni Institute is offering free workshops on movement ecology, movement seasons and more over the next 3 months! Ayni Institute are true thought leaders in the field of social movement theory, and have inspired a lot of our work, so we highly recommend attending. You can sign up here.

That’s all for this month, but please do share our newsletter if you found it interesting! Any feedback, feel free to email me at If you there's interesting things that you would like added to the next digest, also feel free to email me.

If someone forwarded you this email, you can sign up to our newsletter here.


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