The social psychology of collective action to achieve social change (e.g., social protests, demonstrations, petitions, strikes) has long focused on members of disadvantaged groups in Western democratic societies. This has led to knowledge about “core motivations” for collective action (Van Zomeren, 2013): Individuals’ identification with the disadvantaged group or social movement, their anger towards those responsible for their collective disadvantage, and their belief in the efficacy of the group or movement to change things for the better. Such knowledge is important for effectively targeting the right motivations when mobilizing individuals for collective action. However, if we want our scientific insights to be useful in practice, we also need to be accurate in communicating them. We may therefore want to be careful with broad, sweeping claims, as there is a huge elephant in the room called “culture”.
Does what we know about collective action apply to non-western contexts?
This elephant matters because social psychology is embedded in Western philosophy and thought that underpin Western democratic societies. What we learn through science about collective action is therefore very much dependent on the culture we study it in. This dovetails with Henrich et al. (2005, 2010)’s forceful criticism on the broader field of psychology for zooming in on those in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (i.e., WEIRD) contexts. Many textbook findings in psychology are geared towards WEIRD individuals and contexts, but may have little applicability beyond. This would not be problematic if most people in the world are WEIRD --- but the fact is that WEIRD people are only a small minority of the world population, and thus may be best seen as an exception, rather than as a rule. Therefore, what we know about collective action may similarly be restricted to WEIRD individuals and contexts.
This is precisely why Winnifred Louis and I guest-edited a 2017 special issue of Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, which asked: How well do the things that we think we know about collective action apply to individuals and contexts outside of Westernized territories? We argued that culture is not just geography --- it is also psychology. Indeed, culture is about how individuals psychologically connect to the people and groups around them in their social world. Culture, at the end of the day, is therefore about what we share in terms of how we understand the world around us, and what we want to change about it together, for example through collective action.
We need cultural diversity in our study of collective action
The special issue exceeded our expectations in terms of the cultural diversity in where studies of collective action were conducted. For instance - Italy, Canada, Russia, Turkey, New Zealand, Germany, Croatia, Hungary, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine. Furthermore, the different studies focused on very different collective action groups and contexts, such as sexism across different cultures, and ethnic discrimination in New Zealand. This shows that the study of collective action is global, and highlights at least two key consequences for how we think about collective action. First, more culturally diverse samples require us to also diversify our theories about collective action, for instance by taking advantage of the insights from cultural psychology. And second, we should be open to being challenged by our findings, and to change our current explanations of collective action. Indeed, such reflection may yield the important insight that what we know already may be too “Western”.
In conclusion, the new and exciting direction in the social psychology of collective action is culture. Importantly, discovering the importance of culture for how people change the world together will require scholars to change their minds, or at least their theories. I invite anyone interested in contributing to this to join this challenge.
- Guest post by Professor Martijn van Zomeren, University of Gronigen
This blog post is the second in a series 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.
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. In my first post I looked at four papers from that issue; in this piece I look at 2 more. The key theme that I want to draw out from the two papers here is how social transformation occurs along multiple dimensions that can progress and regress rapidly, and in complex ways.
Movement failure can follow success (and vice-versa)
One important analysis was provided by Uluğ and Acar (2018), who are both peace psychologists, in an article titled, “What happens after the protests? Understanding protest outcomes through multi-level social change.” Acar – as most readers may not know – is a social psychologist in Turkey who was recently charged and convicted for signing a pro-peace petition (along with 100s of other academics who have also suffered penalties including jail time, job losses). Her important reflection on her shocking experience is online here, and there is some detail about the evolving context and opportunities for people to support the academics involved.
In the article in the special issue, Uluğ and Acar are examining the impact of a series of protests around Gezi Park in Istanbul, Turkey. The protests started in opposition to urban development of the park, although many other issues (such as opposition to corruption and militarism) soon became included. For the paper, a series of expert interviews were conducted analysing the impact of the protests for individuals, groups and society in the short and longer term. An aspect of the piece that I would like to highlight in particular is that after the Gezi Park protests, the consensus was that first, there had been a number of gains in the short term; but second, these were then rolled back as the authorities fought back over time, particularly with the rising authoritarianism in Turkey after the coup attempt of 2016. The piece by Uluğ and Acar highlights how success in creating more freedom can be temporary and fragile (and more hopefully, also that failure can be momentary).
The pace of social change over years or decades invites interdisciplinary, historical analysis – but also, in my mind, this dynamic invites additional research and theorizing (a challenge our group has begun to address in an in-press paper *). The process whereby social movements’ successes create counter-mobilization, and sometimes state repression, which in turn may create new movements, or lead to tactical changes, is strangely understudied within social psych – and of course, we might also consider how this is occurring at the same time as actors struggle to create or undermine institutions and cultures that support structural peace.
Historical change over decades: A case study of Madagascar
A second piece within the special issue which engaged the theme of cycles of peace and conflict was Razakamaharavo’s (2018) “Processes of Conflict De-escalation in Madagascar (1947– 1996)”. Razakamaharavo explicitly takes a historical perspective to reflect on periods of greater turbulence or stability by working on episodes of conflict with various intensities between the colonial period and 2016. The paper considers in depth (including with a welcome review of the relevant literature) the factors that lead some regions or groups to remain trapped indefinitely in stalemates or ‘intractable conflict’, or to break free. The paper’s analysis of the Madagascar context then specifically documents swings and roundabouts of conflict escalation and de-escalation, and thoughtfully considers their causes.
What is fascinating in this piece (and in that by Uluğ and Acar) is how the levels of analysis appear to change not just in tandem, but independently or even in contradiction. Institutional changes may be occurring that erode or promote peace, at the same time as changes in structural relations between groups, ideological and policy changes, changes of personnel and by leaders of tactics, as well as changing narratives and experiences of trauma and healing, are working in the same, orthogonal, or opposite dimensions. The complexity of this for modelling, theorising and analysis is immense!
As with the first blog post, there is much more that could be said about each of these papers. I hope there is time for more engagement another time, but meanwhile I am excited, through this post, to begin to share the messages more widely.
- 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.
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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