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  • Writer's pictureJames Ozden

Social Movement Digest #3

Welcome to the third edition of our newsletter Social Movement Digest, where we delve into interesting news relating to protests and social movements, as well as trying to offer a few insights as to why social movements succeed or fail. This is a slightly different take on our usual newsletter, as I (Sam) am leaving Social Change Lab at the end of the week, and so thought I would offer some thoughts on social movements generally and what I’ve learnt at Social Change Lab. Before that, we just released a report that summarises the findings of our public opinion polling of Animal Rebellion, over the duration of a disruptive campaign focused on the dairy industry. I highly recommend checking that out!

Additionally, if you’re interested, I also interviewed James (the director of Social Change Lab) on my Substack a few weeks ago, which might be worth checking out! Without further ado, here are three things about social movements that I find interesting:

  1. It’s very, very tricky to figure out if (or when) social movements are effective.

Trying to figure out whether a specific social movement has made a difference is really hard! The basic reason for this is that we can’t go back in time and see what would have happened if the social movement hadn’t existed. Think of a social movement organisation that you think is particularly likely to have made a big difference to the world - maybe it’s Extinction Rebellion, maybe it’s a specific LGBT activist group, maybe it’s Black Lives Matter, choose whichever one you want. How might we try and figure out whether the group made a difference to public opinion or government policies? One way might be to check whether polling indicates that public opinion changed at the same time that the movement became prominent.

Below is a chart showing levels of concern about the environment, and how concerns increased dramatically when Extinction Rebellion carried out protests in London in 2019.

This might lead us to the conclusion that Extinction Rebellion caused concerns about the environment to increase. But there are also other possibilities: could something else have happened that led to increasing concern about the environment? One thing worth bearing in mind is that Greta Thunberg’s activism started gaining a lot of traction at around the same time as Extinction Rebellion’s protests, so it’s really difficult to know that the effect was coming from XR specifically rather than activism more generally. There are also other concerns: could it be the case that respondents to the survey now feel that they will be judged unless they say that the environment is something they feel strongly about? Could it be that this is a temporary spike, and that after a while the concern falls back down to where it was before? Or maybe the protests really do increase the amount of concern about climate change, but also annoy some people, and those people then start to dislike policies designed to mitigate climate change.

So, while we can say that this evidence makes us slightly more likely to believe that climate protests are likely to be effective, it’s really tough to come to definitive conclusions about whether they work, or when they’re likely to be effective. In general, there are lots of difficulties in trying to establish causality when it comes to whether protests are really making a difference. That’s without even getting into the problem of thinking about longer-term cultural change that can come about because of social movements. For instance, figuring out something like how much later gay marriage would have been legalised in the US without the work of LGBT activists would be extremely difficult.

2. What works for some social movements doesn’t work for others.

There’s a problem that comes up a lot when you’re delving into social science literature. You’ll read one paper about the effect of X on Y, and it will claim that X has an effect on Y. Then you’ll read another paper that finds absolutely no effect of X on Y! Then another one will say that there is an association between X and Y, but no evidence of a causal effect. Then another will say that X has an effect on Y in one situation, but not in another situation. And on it goes!

The protest literature is no exception here. Let’s just take the thorny issue of whether violent protests are more or less likely to succeed. Here’s a few papers that examine this:

  • Wasow (2020) finds that non-violent protests were successful at increasing the Democratic vote share during the Civil Rights Movement, whereas violent protests backfired and ended up increasing the Republican vote share.

  • Shuman et al. (2022) find that during the Black Lives Matter protests, conservatives living in liberal areas that experienced both violent and nonviolent protests were more likely to say that they supported BLM’s policy goals than those living in areas where only nonviolent protests occurred.

  • Enos, Kaufman and Sands (2019) find that the violent riots that took place in 1992 in Los Angeles in response to the beating of Rodney King resulted in changes in voting behaviour in referendums that took place in 1992, finding that areas that experienced violent protests were more likely to support increasing funding for public schools (often considered a policy that would benefit African-Americans especially).

  • Wouters and Walgrave (2017) find that Belgian legislators respond negatively to protesters that are violent: they’re less likely to adopt the position that protesters want them to if the protesters are violent as opposed to if the protesters are peaceful.

Seemingly, violent protests backfired during the Civil Rights movement, but the Rodney King riots may have made people more likely to support African Americans. During the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, it seems like protests that mixed violence and nonviolent were more effective in changing the minds of conservatives living in liberal areas, but this wasn’t true when thinking about the impact on other people. In Belgium, legislators react negatively to violent protests. Some of this is no doubt due to the fact that, as mentioned, it’s hard to figure out what impact protests have. But it also seems to be the case that different tactics work in different circumstances.

3. Lots of people don’t really understand much about protests.

When I discuss working at Social Change Lab with people, many of them say things about protests that I think reflect a lack of understanding about how they might impact the world. And who can blame them? I’ve already mentioned that social scientists struggle with causal inference when it comes to protests, so it makes sense that ordinary people might also struggle.

But one thing comes up over and over again that I think I should discuss: many people think that the fact that protesters are unpopular means that the protests can’t achieve their aims. Many people will point to the fact that Extinction Rebellion activists often poll badly - one YouGov poll shows that only 19% of people say they approve of XR. It’s true that this isn’t very impressive (and XR would probably be more effective if more people liked them!), but it definitely doesn’t mean that these activists can’t make a difference.

One of the ways in which activists can make a difference despite being unpopular is by increasing the salience (the amount of attention being paid to an issue) of whatever it is they’re protesting about. Most people are basically with XR on thinking that climate change is a big deal (for instance, 70% of people think that concerns about climate change have not been exaggerated), so even if they don’t personally approve of XR, it might still be beneficial to increase the salience of climate change and get more people focused on it as an issue. And the chart posted above, even with concerns about causal inference, suggests that they may have been successful in getting people to be more concerned about climate change.

That’s all from me - I’ve loved working at Social Change Lab, and I’m excited to keep following their research! We’ve just finished applications for a new researcher so I’m sure someone amazing will be joining soon!


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