We were asked a question about how do we know what strategies for social change are effective and after thinking long and hard about it, the first coherent thought we put together was, “This is such a big, hard question.” There are so many ways to dissect this issue (by strategies, by institutional type, by types of change). The person asking the question was mostly interested in larger, societal change, and not necessarily changes within college campuses or particular institutions so we decided to use this space to think through some of our ideas within that broader framework and offer suggestions for reading and resources about strategies for change.
At the broadest level, when we look at historical social movements, the strategies that seem necessary to make possible change are naming the status quo, interrupting it in visible, audible, material ways, and, to some extent, suggesting possible pathways forward. A lot of times, it’s easy to stop at the naming stage, because we expect that as soon as we name the problem, everyone will get on board with us and brainstorm solutions. But, of course, the status quo is the status quo for a reason: it works, mostly, and for most people. The naming strategy could work for those who benefit from the status quo but are empathetic to those from whom it doesn’t. But that strategy won’t work for those who cannot see or do not care to see the inequities. This is where interrupting the status quo matters because these interruptions make life difficult for those inhabiting and benefitting from the status quo. To be really effective, the interruption has to fit the particular ill being addressed; for example, segregation and policing of public space demands an interruption and eruption onto spaces not thought of as public. Finally, the common critique that is made of social justice movements is that they do not get to that third part–the suggestions of possible ways forward that will lead to substantial changes in the status quo. But, of course, movements often DO have action plans–but they might not be articulated or framed or visible in ways that are legible to those who benefit from the status quo (for example, this critique is leveled at the nascent Black Lives Matter movement, even though there are many concrete policy recommendations made by the group).
With shifts in technology (from broadsides to newspaper to radio to the internet and social media), different ways of gathering support and communicating actions and goals are available. But we’d argue that these changes in technology haven’t shifted the strategies meaningfully. Naming of the ways in which the status quo harms people in our communities still needs to happen publicly. If naming doesn’t receive an institutional response, there still needs to be interruption. Interruption gains strength by numbers. And having suggestions for change allows for the possible imagining of better, more equitable futures.
One great resource to get a sense of the diversity of types of interruptive actions is the Global Nonviolent Action Database at Swarthmore College (shoutout to Anita’s alma mater!) . You can search the database by protest strategy here and in the various cases, you can find out more about how successful the particular method was. It can be a great resource to learn more about the great range of strategies used around the world to try and effect change. As this database shows, there is no ONE strategy that makes sense for all possible types of changes we are trying to effect in society (well, other than the fact all of these are nonviolent forms of protest.)
Neither of us is a scholar of social movements. But we’ve both participated in them and care deeply about ongoing movements…and from that perspective, we’d caution any of us to not attempt (always) to use the idea of “effectiveness” as the only or most important measure of the value and outcome of specific strategies. Sometimes there is a clear line between action and result, but most of the time, there is not. Rather, actions have ripple effects, and those waves often end up shifting values, hopes, and determinations in any number of unpredictable ways, making for circuitous routes back to the centers of power.
We have a few readings/case studies that we hope will also be useful:
Our colleague Dev Gupta (political science) recently published this great overview of the study of social movements.
Contemporary youth activism: Advancing social justice in the United States (2016). Edited by Jerusha Conner and Sonia M. Rosen.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2016). From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.