Why Don’t More People Join Social Justice Movements?

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

This week I interviewed sociologist and activist Dr Dan Brook for Sociology at Work (video below). I enjoyed chatting with Dan about his philosophy that sociology is inherently about social justice and social transformation. Any sociologist would agree with this – but how do we actually help achieve tangible social change? I’ve been thinking a lot about why some social justice movements are more successful than others. This has been on my mind for awhile, since I met with an old colleague a couple of months a go.

My colleague is a fellow sociologist and a political refugee who can never return to their birthplace due to persecution. After resettling in Australia, my colleague had been an academic for some time, but he felt limited in his capacity to achieve social change. He left academia and has been working as a researcher for law enforcement for the better part of a decade. This colleague is older than I am and he has a wistful view of social activism in the 1960s. He wondered,”Why don’t people care today like they did back then?” I explained that people back then were not inherently more radical – the fact is that social justice was at their door. It was on the news every night. Many people they knew personally were dying in wars overseas. The political economy was personally affecting their everyday lives. My colleague did not like to hear this; he wanted to think that people were simply “better people” back then. As he saw it, people simply cared more about the world before and they don’t care much today.

Today’s post shows that “caring” is only part of the picture when it comes to social justice activism. Resources such as money, time and technology have a significant impact on people’s ability to turn a grassroots social justice issue into social reform. Social context also matters. What is the political, social and economic climate in which activists work? I will also show that there are two general types of activists whose resources and networks help them yield higher returns on their efforts.

Mabo Celebrations in Melbourne 2010. Commemorates Indigenous activist Eddie Mabo, who fought and won an historic 10 year native title battle in the High Court of Australia. Photo by Leah Feldman via Flickr.
Mabo Celebrations in Melbourne 2010. Commemorates Indigenous activist Eddie Mabo, who fought and won an historic 10 year native title battle in the High Court of Australia. Photo by Leah Feldman via Flickr.

Sociology of Social Activism

Sociologists Pamela Oliver and Gerald Marwell argue that people will volunteer and act on social causes when they care about collective goals. This happens when they see personal benefits, especially if these are linked to personal identities. “Activists are at the core of most collective action. Sometimes they act alone, but often they seek to draw others into collective action…”

In Western societies, the 1960s are thought of as a golden age of social protest that lead to social revolution (although the 1920s were also key in white women’s liberation). In the Middle East, there have been other waves of social revolution, most notably in the 1970s and again the past couple of years.

At times of relative peace, people are less likely to join social movements. At times of social upheaval, such as when there is widespread conflict, lack of basic services, food and shelter, then more people will self-organise to call for social change.

Photo by socialistalternative via Flickr
Photo by socialistalternative via Flickr

Types of Activists: Volunteers and Professionals

Oliver and Marwell identify two types of activists: volunteers and professionals. Volunteers mostly work through personal networks, organising charity runs and social events to raise money. They tend to be easily motivated off a cause when they don’t see the support they imagined. Professionals are better organised: they will plan different campaigns, predicting certain gains from particular target audiences, and they have contingency plans in place in case they don’t meet their goals.

Resources will affect the success of social activism. This includes the money, time and technologies available to activists when organising events. Perhaps counter intuitively, Oliver and Marwell find that money has less constraints. It doesn’t matter where the money comes from, whether 20 people give equal amounts or one donor contributes a large sum. The money will be spent according to where it is needed most. Time, however, does have many constraints: it matters who is donating their time, as different activists and volunteers will have different skills and experiences that can make or break the success of a particular movement. Lobbying requires trust, and so activists who have full-time workers will build better relationships than groups that have a group of interchanging part-time volunteers.Leah Feldman

Red Nose Day is an international not for profit. This photo is from the UK by Elliott Brown via Flickr
Red Nose Day is an international not for profit. This photo is from the UK by Elliott Brown via Flickr

Professionals make better use of technologies to raise funds. They use a variety of methods, including large functions to attract lucrative donors; telemarketing; securing grants and contracts; direct mail; paid canvassing; making use of other types of technologies that make it easier for people to make donations easily and efficiently. White, middle-class activists tend to have the resources (money, time and technology) available to them in order to make this happen more effectively. Professionals will “ritualise” their efforts, by holding annual revenue-raising events as well as annual days of solidarity or of social protest. Oliver and Marwell find that the biggest change in social activism in recent decades has been the rise of professional organisations who manage social causes. The authors note that there have always been paid activists, the professional organisations today have invested more money into paying for professional services of experts to help their cause.

Volunteer organisations don’t have the same resources. They rely on small-scale sporting events (local fun runs), volunteer canvassing, raffles, bake sales, car washes, concerts, dinners and other small-scale social events. By virtue of their organisation, and lack of resources, volunteer events don’t demand much commitment from their activists or their supporters, which is why the return on their efforts are limited in comparison to professionals. Additionally, as activism relies on personal networks, relying on weak commitment makes it less likely that supporters will then recruit their friends, families and colleagues into the cause.

Conservation Volunteers Australia. Photo by Brisbane City Council via Flickr
Conservation Volunteers Australia. Photo by Brisbane City Council via Flickr

In comparison, professionals will invest resources in networking. Their resources and knowledge make it easier for people to join their events in a committed way, by organising buses to pick up local organisers and their supporters; maintaining regular communication with contributors; organising media officers to run publicity campaigns; giving official titles to their activists so that they’re readily recognised by supporters and donors (such as appointing local organisers for events); and organising regular education campaigns so that the public will have ongoing exposure to their social cause.

G20 Protests, Melbourne Nov 2006, Photo by Rusty Stewart via Flickr.
G20 Protests, Melbourne Nov 2006, Photo by Rusty Stewart via Flickr.

Oliver and Marwell’s review shows that professionals are better placed to raise funds and keep a cause in the forefront of the media and public’s minds. At the same time, professionals don’t have the same capacity to generate grassroots mobilisation, specifically because so much of professional activism relies on money transactions. Grassroots activists who are passionate about a cause are not motivated to join a cause for financial activities and therein lies the conundrum of social activism during times of relative peace. The volunteers have the passion but they lack the resources to inspire others into action. The professionals have the resources, but they are too reliant on monetary transactions so that the cause does not appeal to grassroots activists.

The Occupy Movement

Oliver and Marwell wrote their paper in 1992, two decades before the rise of the Occupy Movement. The Occupy movement itself has been characterised by a mix of volunteer and professional traits. It can be seen as a grassroots movement as many people around the world joined protests. Some of these lead to social change, with mixed results in the so-called Arab and Latin American Springs. But in Egypt, Brazil and other nations, there was widespread conflict and basic freedoms and resources were at stake. In Egypt there was a change of Government but citizens are still being repressed under new leadership (see my discussion of the Arab Spring). In the USA, Australia and in other Western nations, the Occupy movement gained widespread support, but it did not lead to social reform.

In both developing and developed nations, activists included grassroots supported who participated in marches and other protest activities. Some activists had specialist skills, including hackers such as the Anonymous movement that has maintained consciousness-raising as an ongoing goal of their campaign. In both cases, however, activists did not successfully co-opt the support of elite supporters. This is because the Occupy movements have been anti-authoritarian and anti-elite. The key concern was taking power away from the rich (“1%”). The Occupy movement has also been criticised for not having a clear vision for leadership change and social policy reform, which limited its capacity to become a social revolution in the West.

Occupy Sydney, Oct 2011. Photo by Kate Ausburn via Flickr.
Occupy Sydney, Oct 2011. Photo by Kate Ausburn via Flickr.

Since the professional activist model relies on revenue raising, and the Occupy movement was specifically anti-capitalist, it’s little wonder that the professional model has not been fully adopted. While the Occupy movement had grassroots support, the activist base did not gain the momentum needed to create wide-scale social reform.

Do we need a new model of social protest? How might sociology help to re-organise the model for effective social justice activism?

How an Applied Sociology of Activism Might Help Create Social Change

Here is my interview with Dr Dan Brook.  He says sociology prepares students for future work as activists, though he notes that social change happens slowly:

I believe not just in going for immediate and obtainable goals, but trying in a larger way to change our culture. I think that’s the special niche, perhaps, of sociologists. We realise how important culture is, and if we can make certain cultural changes – which are not easy, it takes a lot of people and it takes a lot of time – but when we make those cultural changes we find the social and political changes are much easier because we have a widespread support for it. It seems more natural then.

Over to You

Do you belong to an activist movement? Can you see other reasons why activist movements don’t always lead to widespread social change? How might sociology help advance social activism in tangible ways?

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