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Social Movement Digest #4

Welcome to the Social Movement Digest, where we round up all the most interesting stuff we’ve read in the last month (or so) 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.

First - we have some exciting Social Change Lab-related news to share. We’ve just onboarded two new members of staff, Cathy & Markus. Both will be working on research, whilst I (James) will have some more time to scope out other exciting projects, such as packaging our research into training for grassroots organisations. Check out Cathy & Markus’ impressive backgrounds on our website here.

We’re also close to releasing some public opinion polling about the radical flank effect that we did for Just Stop Oil, as well as our 6-month report on success factors. Keep your eyes peeled for those as there’ll be some interesting findings inside!

Top Recommendations

  • Colin Davis, professor of cognitive psychology at Bristol University, published an interesting article on the impact of radical tactics. He claims that radical tactics, such as the soup throwing by Just Stop Oil, actually do very little in harming support for a cause. Based on recent experiments (highly recommend watching this video!) he’s conducted, he’s found no evidence that radical tactics decrease support for the cause. Instead, the public have a more negative view of the protestors taking action, which is often accepted by activists as a likely outcome. He also claims that radical protests by Insulate Britain generated media discussion about insulation, which may have influenced UK government priorities around insulation.

  • Louis et al. (2022) did some great experimental work where they presented online participants with examples of protest movements failing or succeeding to achieve their aims, looking across issues such as immigration, abortion, climate, marriage equality and more. They find that those who read articles about their issues failing to achieve wins were more likely to support radical tactics. If the issue was seen to fail using conventional tactics, this generally spurred innovation in tactics, whilst a failure of radical tactics led to a decrease in innovative tactics being employed. Even more interestingly, they found that those who witnessed failures were less likely to identify with the movement, although some did feel more energised to take action. I think there are some useful learnings from here about the importance of achieving wins to keep up momentum, stay identified with a movement and reduce risks of dropping out of activism. I couldn’t find an open-access link to the article sadly so see a helpful write-up here.

Social movement research we’ve been reading recently

  • Butcher and Pinckney (2022) find that in Muslim countries, an increase in protest size negatively impacts the chance of concession from the government, a somewhat findings which goes against most other literature. Moving from the median number of protesters (1270) to the 90th percentile number of protesters decreases the chance of government concessions by 17 percentage points, on average. It is worth noting that this finding may not be generalisable to a Western context, but remains an interesting result. The proposed mechanism is that governments anticipate that Fridays will have more people at protests, and thus the increased number of people is of no surprise to the government - governments seem to be more responsive to unanticipated protests. We’re not necessarily convinced by this paper, as confounding might be an issue with their design, but thought it was interesting nonetheless. See more discussion of this paper in our literature review here.

  • Somewhat unsurprisingly, a new paper finds that the public is not particularly supportive of repressive policing of protest, which sadly seems to be a growing concern in certain countries. Metcalfe & Pickett (2022) find that most people (65%) support using the least repressive policing methods of establishing protest borders. On the other hand, 17% of people supported shutting down the protest entirely, which is somewhat worrying. Interestingly, they also manipulate various conditions (see below) to see how the public’s support for repression changes with changes in the issue, protest tactics used, protest size, and more.

Other social movement news

  • On a related note to repression, there has been several recent cases of imprisonment or repression of protestors:

  • There seems to be a notable wave of protests across the globe, with:

    • Particularly prominent protests in China, leading to a rare concession by the Government regarding their zero-Covid strategy.

    • Protests in Mongolia where protestors attempted to storm the national palace, amongst a corruption scandal whereby national legislators may have colluded with the coal industry to steal billions of dollars.

    • Iranian protestors have escalated their tactics, with a nationwide strike over three days, seeking to topple the Islamic Republic.

  • A few months ago, I did a podcast with the Social Change Agency that was recently published! It covers various topics, such as challenges amongst volunteer retention in social movements, why some movements succeed, and the impact of disruptive tactics.

  • The Guardian published a useful summary of the research around disruptive tactics and the Radical Flank Effect (including our work!).

  • Paul Engler, author of the global-movement-inspiring book This is An Uprising, published an article on why our movements need to start singing again.

That’s all for this month, but please do share our newsletter if you found it interesting! If someone forwarded you this email, you can sign up to our newsletter here.



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


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