This blog post is the third summarising a special issue of PAC:JPP on the role of social movements in bringing about (or failing to bring about!) political and social transformation. I co-edited the special issue with Cristina Montiel, and it is available online to those with access (or by contacting the papers’ authors or via ResearchGate). Our intro summarising all articles is also online ‘open access’ here, along with the first two blog posts, dealing with tipping points or breakthroughs in conflict and the non-linear nature of social transformation and the wildly varying timescales. Some of these themes are also dealt with in a 2018 chapter by our group *.
The overall aim of the special issue was to explore how social movements engage in, respond to, or challenge violence, both in terms of direct or physical violence and structural violence, injustice, and inequality. As well as the six papers summarised previously, there were four fascinating additional pieces by Montiel, Christie, Bretherton, and van Zomeren. Together the authors take up important questions about who acts, what changes, and how social transformation is achieved and researched, which I review below.
Who can participate in the scholarship of transformation?
Montiel’s (2018) piece “Peace Psychologists and Social Transformation: A Global South Perspective,” identifies barriers to full participation in the scholarship of peace. These barriers often include a relative lack of resources, and exposure to military, police, and non-state violence and trauma. In publishing, scholars and universities in the Global South face a difficult political environment in which both their silence and their speech may affect their careers and even their lives. More routinely, selection bias by journals to privilege the theoretical and methodological choices and agendas of the Global North marginalises the research questions that are most pressing, or most unfamiliar to WEIRD readers (Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic; Heinrich et al., 2010). In the short term, Montiel calls for professional bodies to open schemes for developing academics from the Global South; and for peace psychologists to co-design projects and conduct analyses and writing with southern scholars to allow a wider range of voices and ownership of the project.
What is it that changes in social transformation?
Van Zomeren’s (2018) piece “In search of a bigger picture: A cultural-relational perspective on social transformation and violence”, takes up his selvations theory as a springboard for understanding social transformation. He conceives the self as akin to a subjective vibration within a web of relationships (a selvation), which would both influence and be influenced by changing societies. Drawing on his earlier work on culture and collective action (e.g., van Zomeren & Louis, 2017), he suggests that the central challenge of the social psychology of social transformation is keeping the micro, meso, and macro-level variables in the same frame, and allowing emergent relationships within theoretical models.
In the van Zomeren model, the decision-making self is embedded within relationships, with the regulation of those relationships a central goal of the actor. Thus relational norms for violence (or peace) become proximal predictors of change – which in turn rest on wider social norms and expectations of opponents’ actions (see also Blackwood & Louis, 2017). Violence may affirm or contradict the relationship models of the actors creating social change, which manifests as changing relationships with others: movement co-actors, targets, and the broader community. Christie and Bretherton, below, also echo the contention that it would be useful for scholars and practitioners to consider more deeply how social change involves changing relationships and the self.
Five Components of Social Transformation
Christie (2018) presents an analysis of effective social transformation movements, arguing that there are five components that campaigners and scholars must engage. A systemic approach is the foundation of social transformation, he proposes: transformation entails the creative construction and destruction of existing relationships and the development of more or less just and violent new ones.
Sustainability is a second component: both the outcomes of a movement and its processes will last longer over time or less so. Momentary failures (and successes) are common; it is also the case that in the face of countervailing forces and counter-mobilisation, to sustain a positive status quo may require constant renewal and refreshment of social movement support.
Third, a movement must also have the capacity to scale up, which often requires new skills, leadership, and institutional support – or more broadly, the ideological and organisational foundation to build new alliances and engage new topics and opportunities without compromising its values and direction.
The fourth component of socially transformative movements is the inclusive involvement of those who are more powerless and marginalised: without active outreach and proactive inclusion, many movements re-invent old hierarchies and affirm old power structures.
Finally, Christie closes with an interesting reflection on the metrics of social transformation, and the different conclusions that one might draw in mobilising to achieve greater lifespan, wealth, well-being, and/or cultural peace.
Social Transformation: A How-To For Activists
Bretherton (2018) elaborates the implications for practitioners and activists, with practical tips on how to deal with power and (de)humanization within social movements. Two central messages are that social movements need to articulate their positive vision as well as what they are opposed to, and that they need to understand and articulate the structural or cultural violence that legitimises particular incidents or relationships.
In articulating their positive vision, the group develops the foundation for resilience and change as their movement grows in power and support. As new opportunities open up, a positive vision helps steer the direction of the movement towards its ultimate goals. In addition, social movements’ clear communication of the structural conditions which underpin violence or inequality has two further functions. A system-level analysis allows actors to avoid fixating on symptoms of structural inequality that cannot be effectively targeted in isolation. Also, such an analysis allows people who are disadvantaged by structural inequality to make external attributions for the harm and disadvantage they undergo, rather than lacerating self-blame, that can paralyse progress and make it harder to form coalitions and alliances. Symbolic affirmations of connectedness and equality can play a powerful role in de-legitimising violence and hierarchy.
Finally, beyond these core messages, Bretherton closes with tips on the ‘action research’ cycle of designing campaigns. Drawing on the special issue articles as well as a long career, Bretherton clearly lays out a series of wise insights. The four steps of the action cycle are preliminary observation and analysis of the social context, planning for campaign action (including developing the leadership team, building coalitions, and choice of tactics), implementation (including responding to unplanned problems), and review (e.g., proactively creating a culture of celebration and reflexivity). Managing expectations for a cycle of organisation, success, counter-mobilisation, and a longer term, ongoing struggle is also important, as Bretherton concludes.
I really enjoy the richness of the special issue, and it is exciting to see new scholarship in this emerging field (e.g., the recent special section of BJSP). The topic is vital from an applied perspective, but it is also incredible generative theoretically – the gaps are clearly evident when the literature is reviewed, and the potential for interdisciplinary synergy is high. I look forward to many more papers and journal issues in this vein.
- Winnifred Louis
* Louis, W. R., Chonu, G. K., Achia, T., Chapman, C. M., Rhee, J. (in press). Building group norms and group identities into the study of transitions from democracy to dictatorship and back again. In B. Wagoner, I. Bresco, & V. Glaveanu (Eds.), The Road To Actualized Democracy. Accepted for publication 12 December 2016.
The Social Change Yearly Lab Photo (Front row - left to right: Gi Chonu, Winnifred Louis, Susilo Wibisono, & Ella Cotterell. Back row – left to right: Vlad Bjorskich (visitor), Carly Roberts, Frederik Wermser (visitor), Cassandra Chapman, Kiara Minto, & Robyn Gulliver. Missing: Robin Banks, Zahra Mirnajafi, Tulsi Achia.
I want to start by acknowledging our group’s successes:
For 2018, I have to salute a brilliant group of finishing students - Lucy Mercer-Mapstone, Wei-jie (Kathy) Lin, Tracy Schultz, and Cassandra Chapman, who all submitted their PhD theses (whoohoo!). Lucy’s thesis has already been passed (Will Rifkin was the lead advisor), and she was off to the University of Edinburgh on a postdoc from mid-year: well done Lucy! Everyone else is grinding on through the bureaucracy, but this has not stopped them re career launch. Kathy is back with her job as an academic in China (with fresh glory; Shuang Liu was the lead advisor). Tracy Schultz was snapped up by the Queensland Department of the Environment and is making change on the ground (Kelly Fielding was Tracy’s lead advisor). Cassandra Chapman (co-supervised by Barbara Masser) is taking up a postdoc on trust and charities in UQ’s Business school. It’s a pleasure to see everyone doing so well, and we look forward to keeping in touch!
As well as from our fearless PhD completers, we saw Ella Cottrell and Carly Roberts both finish honours with flying colours; well done both! Many other students smoothly passed their other milestones (Gi, Zahra, Kiara, Susilo, Robyn), with Hannibal and Robin are coming up soon for their confirmations, and we wish them well. There were also those taking well-deserved leave this year (Gi, with maternity leave, and Tulsi, who is away for health reasons). We welcome these transitions and pauses and look forward to new accomplishments in 2019.
In other news: As planned, I revelled all year long in my professorship. It is such a luxury and privilege to be a full professor, and I hope I can continue to use my powers for good in 2019 and beyond.
I also have been revelling since the news broke that we succeeded in getting a new Discovery grant for our team, funded for 2019-2021. I’ll be working with Pascal Molenberghs, Emma Thomas, Monique Crane, Catherine Amiot, and Jean Decety, and we will be looking at the transition to Voluntary Assisted Dying in Victoria and more broadly at norms and well-being for practitioners and the community regarding euthanasia or palliative killing. It is a big beast of a grant and I am very excited to launch into it with our group.
Possibly the highlight of the year was when I ran an extraordinarily successful conference in 2018 on Trajectories of Radicalisation and De-radicalisation, with many others – many thanks especially to Susilo Wibisono, Sam Popple, Tarli Young, Jo Brown, and Hannibal Thai. We are moving slowly but inexorably towards having the talks online for speakers, and also slowly and more tentatively towards other publishing projects – We will keep you posted.
I also want to pass on a special thank you to our volunteers and visitors for the social change lab in 2018, including Frederik Wermser, Claudia Zuniga, Taciano Milfont, and Kai Sassenberg. I particularly acknowledge the contributions this year of Vladimir Bojarskich (visiting from Groningen to conduct environmental research) to multiple projects and to my own work. Thank you, and congratulations everyone!
Other news of 2018 engagement and impact
As well as the normal dissemination through keynotes and journal articles (see our publications page), I had great fun this year with engagement. The superb conference on Trajectories of Radicalisation and De-radicalisation was a highlight, but I also want to note the November 2018 Zoos Victoria conference on social science and conservation at which I was lucky enough to give a keynote. My own talk was on avoiding stalemates and polarization, but I feel deeply thrilled about the new work coming through from conservation initiatives that I saw presented there – the scale, the rigorous evaluation, the behavioural measures, the impact! One intervention that we learned about at the conference was delivered to 40,000 school children in Victoria, with 8 focal targets (e.g., around reducing marine plastic pollution), and featured pre, post, and 6-month follow-ups that included counting plastics on beaches and in the bellies of shearwater birds – astonishing! But perhaps most impressive of all to me was the open disclosure of failures and willingness as a community of practice to learn from them. What a great research culture!
More broadly I am excited about how the new open science initiatives in 2018 are transforming scholarship, and pleased to report that our lab is now working towards consistency in pre-registration, online data sharing, transparency re analyses, and new commitment to open access. Those of you that follow me from way back know that I tried to create something similar in the 2000s but with little traction. The new wave of #openscience is clearly breaking through to change practices with more success. Paywalls by for-profit journals for tax-payer subsidised research are also ongoing and objectionable, and so it is great to see online repositories like Researchgate make connections to readers more feasible. But I also think that academic publishing is still clearly dominated by pressures for selective reporting and that significant results are much more likely to succeed in running the gauntlet through reviewers and editors. In that context, even more impressive is the leadership by practitioners and scholars who allow others to learn openly from trial and error. This will propel us forward as a field. Well done, Zoos Victoria!
Socialchangelab.net in 2018
Within the lab, Zahra Mirnajafi has been carrying the baton passed on by Cassandra Chapman, who started the blog and website last year – thank you to Zahra for all your great work with our in-house writers, our guest bloggers, and the site!
I continue to be surprised by the generosity of guest writers, and the take-up of our posts by the community. We are now seeing about 600 readers for each blog post within a week - last year it was 200 within a month! Part of the story has certainly been our lab’s activity on Twitter (and other social media) to promote research, and I hope you will follow @WlouisUQ and @socialchangelab if you are on Twitter yourself. In the meantime, we welcome each fresh bot, family member, academic, or community reader with enthusiasm, and hope to see the trend continue in 2019.
What the new year holds:
In 2019, for face to face networking, if all goes well, I’ll be at SASP in April in Sydney; the post-conference on contact in Newcastle in April/May; at SPSSI in June; at the APA conference in August; a peace conference in Bogota in July; and ICEP in September. Please email me if you’d like to meet up. I’ll also be travelling extensively from July 2019 to June 2020 due to a sabbatical – I plan visits to Europe (probably in September) and Canada/the US (probably in June and again in November-ish). I’ll be around Australia in Melbourne and Sydney as well as Adelaide for the new grant and for my last one, which is grinding on towards awesome publications – stay tuned. I hope people will contact me if interested in meetings and talks.
I also welcome one new student as an associate advisor in 2019 – Mukhamat Surya, who will be working with Adrian Cherney at UQ for a project on de-radicalisation and radicalisation. We also have Claudia Zuniga from the University of Chile as a visitor with us until June, woot!
Due to the sabbatical from July, I won’t be taking on new PhD students or honours students this year, but welcome expressions of interest for volunteer RAs and visitors.
And of course there are lots of other projects on the go throughout the lab with the bigger team – I can’t wait to see what 2019 brings for us all!
- Winnifred Louis
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.
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