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.
Many cringe-worthy moments between White people and people of colour come from well-intentioned White folks, not from slur-spewing, Nazi-saluting bigots.
These are people who are your good friends, dating partners, supportive colleagues, or friendly strangers at parties. They’re likely progressive in their views, culturally aware, and well-read. They volunteer where needed, protest when things are dire, and they always recycle.
In short, these are people with good intentions. Yet, they often get it really wrong.
The phenomenon is so recognisable in popular culture, that there are millions of videos on YouTube dedicated to this genre (I’m referring to the “shit White people say” comedy series.)
So how do interactions between White folks and folks of colour become awkward? Social psychological research offers us some understanding.
4 reasons interracial interactions go awry and strategies that help:
1. Anxiety and avoidance
Friendly interactions between groups is known to reduce prejudice and build harmony between these groups.
However, interracial interactions can be a source of some mild forms of stress for both people involved.
For White people, interracial contact brings concerns about appearing prejudiced. They may use avoidance strategies such as over-monitoring themselves to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing. Often times, such interactions can be draining.
For people of colour, interracial contact brings concerns of experiencing prejudice and/or confirming racial stereotypes with their behaviours, especially stereotypes to do with their competence. This leads to a heightened awareness of one’s racial group identity (e.g., I am Keira the Aboriginal woman versus Keira the cute 20-something year old in this party) and over-monitoring of one’s mannerisms or behaviours in an attempt to ensure smooth interactions. This results in them feeling less authentic.
What helps? For White people, it can be useful to try to recognise and accept the awkwardness first – it will pass. And be motivated by the desire to foster equality, mutual understanding, and friendship, rather than trying to avoid appearing prejudiced.
2. Positive stereotyping
We are often guided by multicultural values that encourage not just acknowledgement of racial and ethnic differences, but also appreciation of these differences.
White people motivated by such values might think that they are being appreciative and complimentary to people of colour, when they make remarks such as “Gosh Asians are so good at Math” or “You Indian women are so exotic looking”.
Such positive stereotypes are sometimes considered non-prejudicial by Whites.
However, research shows us that these positive stereotypes are received by minorities with ambivalence at best, and with negativity at its worst: perceiving Whites in such interactions as unlikeable or even prejudiced.
Positive stereotypes negatively affect minorities’ self and community esteem if they feel judged by their group membership rather than individual merits and achievements. Also, they may not self-identify with such descriptors.
What helps? Acknowledging that positive stereotypes are capable of evoking negative responses, and is another form of subtle prejudice, can be a good starting point. Actively engaging in the idea that substantial individual differences exist within groups can be helpful too.
3. Denying others’ identity and putting them in the wrong category
In the spirit of multiculturalism, White people can inadvertently deny a person of colour an identity that they feel strongly about.
Take for instance an unfortunate situation where a White Australian at a party, in an attempt to establish a bond with someone with a turban and brown skin, asks them about a recent event in India, all while the turbaned individual actually identifies as Aussie (born and raised) and has never been to India.
Questions such as “How long have you lived in this country?” or “Where are you really from?” while motivated by genuine interest and curiosity, could imply that the person does not belong here. For example, asking a hijabi Muslim woman living in Australia where she is from can inadvertently communicate that they could not possibly be Australian and that, no matter what, they are considered foreign.
When minorities experience such identity denial, they sense the difference between how they describe themselves and how they are publicly identified. They report disliking their interaction partners, and engage in explicit identity assertion strategies as a way of coping with such interactions.
What helps? Acknowledging that people of colour possess multiple identities without one or the other being particularly apparent on the outside can be a helpful start. Taking the time to understand what they identify with (or how they describe themselves) would make for more accurate understanding and relating. Being curious about someone’s background (as opposed to assuming their identity and background) can be a great way to show appropriate interest in them. Questions can take the form of “hey were you born here in Australia? Where did your folks originally emigrate from?”.
4. Failing to acknowledge inequality and privilege
Another way interracial interactions go awry, is through the denial of inequality or racial privilege in society.
Take for instance a situation where a White colleague might lament the in-custody treatment of Dylan Voller (the Indigenous Australian teenager shown tortured whilst in juvenile custody in a documentary exposé), but disagree about the claim that the justice system is racist towards Aboriginal people.
Where issues of inequality are being discussed, being friendly but denying or expressing ambivalence about inequality and privilege can have negative outcomes for the interaction. People from socially disadvantaged groups are likely to perceive such discussions as less supportive or comforting when structural inequality and privilege is not also acknowledged.
However, people from advantaged groups may feel threatened when they’re reminded about their privilege. They even engage in self-protective strategies to cope with that threat—such as denying their group’s privileged position or distancing themselves from such a position.
So what helps? Understanding the concept of privilege—that individual advantage is different from group advantage—can help ease some of the guilt, discomfort, and defensiveness that acknowledging privilege can evoke. It is important to understand, that we can have and benefit from group-based privilege even if we never asked for it or actively took advantage of it. Explicitly acknowledging inequality and privilege when discussing issues of race or racism, rather than succumbing to the defensiveness, makes for more supportive interactions.
A comedy of cringes
All this cringe-worthy stuff that happens in interracial interactions has been parodied endlessly on YouTube. Because all this awkwardness can sometimes be insanely funny too.
A comedy piece sometimes brings the complexities of social life into sharp focus, in a non-threatening way. So, to end, let’s watch vlogger Jus Reign’s video on…what else? “Shit White people say to brown guys” of course! Click on the image below to watch the hilarious video.
Around the world, people are marching.
They’re marching to overthrow dictators. Some are defending religious viewpoints, or drawing attention to climate change. Others want less immigration, or better working conditions.
Does all this activity really achieve anything? One of the factors that affects movement success is the way that confrontational and moderate groups define themselves and relate to each other, within a broader movement.
When movements define “us” and “them” it affects who wants to join
A movement that garners support from policy makers and the public is in a better position to achieve success.
Movements can grow their supporter base if they pay careful attention to how they position themselves. Framing a movement as aligned with (or opposed to) the broader community’s values and interests has real consequences.
In the short term groups that grow the fastest are often more confrontational. That is to say, they may oppose traditional values or approaches.
We define confrontational groups here as aiming to eliminate a particular behaviour that still has strong support, or to defeat an enemy respected by many. We contrast this with moderate movements, aimed at winning over opponents through persuasion. In both cases, we are referring to non-violent groups aiming for system change – but they don’t always work well together.
A confrontational group grows quickly towards the extremes
Confrontational groups often appeal to people with strong pre-existing views.
A clearly identified problem. A policy strongly condemned. A clearly defined line of attack. These tactics are more likely to appeal to people with strong views. To them, the moderate group may seem waffly or uncommitted.
Clarity of focus often leads to swift success for confrontational groups, because committed activists’ time, energy, and moneys flow to the groups that best express their strong views and values. So they grow quickly.
A confrontational group draws attention to a cause. For many simple problems, this may be enough to achieve social change. But an impasse can be reached when the group needs to reach out to the centre or to opponents to create enough momentum for a breakthrough.
A confrontational group can’t easily compromise
The past strong attacks and views of the confrontational group may have made it unattractive to the unaligned or centre voters, and lead to alienation of their political opponents.
When mistrust and negative views take hold, it is extremely difficult to progress an agenda. Persuasive communication to win over swing voters or opponents may be viewed with scepticism. Genuine attempts to reach out may be seen as insincere or offensive.
Confrontational movements may also be reluctant to entertain the idea of trade-offs with their enemies, because they are defined by their strong, pure rejection of those enemies.
If a conciliatory leader does emerge in a confrontational movement, it may be hard for him or her to gain traction. A conciliatory leader of a confrontational movement sometimes can’t persuade their own group easily to compromise, and they can’t persuade the other group to deal with them either, because of the past history of conflict.
Moderate groups grow slowly toward the centre
With more genuine mutual respect, and less past baggage to carry, the moderates may be both more attractive to uncommitted or centrist members of the public. They are also more able to build trust with political opponents of the cause.
Successful moderates build trust with opponents in part by condemning, tempering, or reining in the savage attacks of more confrontational groups. They also highlight shared values between themselves and their political opponents. These steps create the impression among members of political opponents that moderates are people that can be dealt with.
At the same time, successful moderates have to maintain a clear agenda to make progress towards a stated cause – they have to achieve measurable, clear outcomes. Unless there is both clarity of purpose and progress towards the movement’s ends, moderates may be seen as giving away too much in attempting to obtain leverage.
Confrontational groups should attack the other extreme, not the centre
As moderates achieve frustratingly minute, incremental changes, it is common for moderate groups to attract derision and hostility from confrontational groups for the same cause.
This negativity misunderstands the potential for positive synergies between the two types of groups.
If the confrontational group attacks the moderates, the partisan divide between the sides widens. It is common for stalemates to persist.
Political opponents who are more hostile and polarised can surge to power, dragging the centre away from the movement’s desired change.
The confrontational movement should instead focus its criticism on the other extreme, targeting the most reactionary and hostile members of their political opponents.
By seeking to undermine the most hostile opponents and alienate them from the middle ground, the confrontational movement is well placed to increase the momentum for change.
- Winnifred R. Louis
* * *
This blog builds on some ideas from a chapter that I wrote with some students (Louis, Chapman, Chonu, and Achia, 2017), covering the key themes from a keynote that I gave in Cebu, at the Asian Association of Social Psychology.
Economic growth and environmental degradation: is it possible to have one without the other?
Numerous writers, such as Naomi Klein, have explored the relationship between environmental degradation and capitalism. They often conclude that any economic system requiring continual growth is simply incompatible with living within our environmental limits.
The price our environment is paying in our quest for perpetual economic growth is clear.
Indiscriminate forest clearing for agriculture production. The pollution of our shared climate for private gain. Bulldozing of wetlands for urban expansion. These all show how demands of continual economic growth steadily deplete and degrade the ecosystem services on which we depend.
So should we expect the environmental movement to advocate for a new system of ‘sustainable’ economics?
To answer this question, I studied 510 Australian environmental organisations in early 2017. I looked at a number of features of these groups, including whether they run campaigns on economic issues, or whether they incorporate economic issues in their advocacy. Groups ranged from large transnational foundations to small volunteer action groups, all working on a diverse range of environmental issues.
Results show that few environmental organisations advocate for any significant change in our current economic values.
For example, many organisations undertake grassroots campaigning to influence local policy decisions, such as by campaigning against specific local urban, coastal or resource extraction development. Yet very few organisations advocate for a steady state economy, or implement sustainable economic models such as establishing a not-for-profit social enterprise to support their advocacy activities.
Why might this be so? My work research is uncovering a range of possible reasons:
Despite these barriers, a new way forward has been developing over the last few years.
The dramatic growth of renewable energy cooperatives, community owned enterprises and campaigns such as the international divestment movement offer a beacon of hope.
Such examples of success all share two key features:
(1) They incorporate equitable and environmentally sustainable economic solutions into their campaigns, and
(2) They network and share skills and resources across organisations.
Another cause for hope is in the development of networks such as the New Economy Network Australia. Bringing together research findings from Institutes and Centres with on-the-ground case studies run by small volunteer local groups, these networks will allow the smashing of barriers to create effective economic and environmental change across local, regional, and national boundaries.
The evolution of our first use of currency over 40,000 years ago into the complex and fascinating intricacies of our modern economic system is one of humanity’s crowning achievements. However, this evolution has come at a steep price to our environment.
If you are someone who wants to change our economic values, use this information to join a group or build your own effective campaigns for change. Better yet, join a network and share your findings: be part of the community of change working for a socially, environmentally, and economically just future.
- Robyn Gulliver
“Allyship” has recently become a hot topic in the worlds of social justice agitation and movements for greater equality. Movements and campaigns like support for marriage equality and the Black Lives Matter movement, and men’s support for the Women’s March, have highlighted the role allies can play in social movements.
Who are allies?
Allies are people from privileged groups, working together with or on behalf of socially disadvantaged groups, to improve the status and conditions for the latter. Think of White people protesting side by side with Black Lives Matter protestors, men supporting women in demanding equal pay, and straight people joining marches for marriage equality in support of LGBTIQ groups.
Allyship is not a new phenomenon
Researchers have only started discussing allyship in recent years. Yet allies have been around for as long as social movements have. For instance, the suffrage movement in the United States was a movement that was supported by many influential men of the time. Similarly, White politicians were important allies of the African National Congress in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.
What influences people to act as allies?
Social research shows that people generally tend to favour their own groups and communities. We are rewarded for actions that favour our own groups—perhaps through acceptance, recognition for being a valuable group member, receiving favours when in need, etc. On the flip side, if we favour the interests of other groups or communities, we risk criticism, rejection, suspicion, and ostracism.
Given this context, how do advantaged group allies come to create and sustain support for disadvantaged groups outside of their own group? We identify 5 factors.
1. Normalising influences early in life
Allies tend to have had normalising influences while growing up, in the form of positive parental influence, contact with relatives or members of the community who probably belonged to these socially disadvantaged groups (like having a gay uncle, or a Black teacher), and exposure through popular culture and entertainment.
2. Feeling empathy for disadvantaged people
Allies report feeling empathy towards people they knew who may have identified as gay/lesbian/bisexual/trans, or been a racial minority, and saw them struggling with their identity. Studies show this can happen because of greater abilities for perspective-taking. This empathy also comes from the ability to relate the experiences of people from disadvantaged groups, to their own experiences of distress from being slighted, excluded or discriminated against in some way.
3. Feeling angry about unjust systems
Allies report feeling anger or a feeling of resistance towards people or systems found to be oppressing or bullying the people they know. Research suggests that when new experiences and information challenge their internalised worldview, allies start to experience resistance and rejection of those systems.
4. Having had opportunities to help
Allies tend to have had opportunities to reflect and help. Some have had the chance to directly help disadvantaged groups. Others encountered information that lead to self-reflection on topics of systemic oppression. Perhaps such opportunities for activism arose during high school or university life. Early experience tends to be an important primer to later engagement in allyship.
5. Supporting progressive values
Allies tend to have liberal or progressive values and a pluralistic orientation. They are lower on sexual prejudice, and religiosity. Allies typically have a broad orientation towards egalitarianism and fairness, even if they have not had contact with people different from themselves. This orientation is strengthened through exposure to diverse people, new information, and opportunities to help. With time, they are able to integrate or become comfortable with accepting multiple views of the world, and apply that to their understanding of complex concepts of privilege, oppression, and the existence of multiple social identities and realities.
Do you recognise any of these characteristics and themes in your own journey as an ally? Feel free to comment and tell us more. Understanding the nature of allyship is at the heart of my ongoing PhD research.
What makes a movement?
Is it hanging a banner on a coal stack? Flying a drone over a whaling ship? Chants and marches? Or minutes, agendas, and long, repetitive planning meetings?
Who makes a movement?
Are they the paid staff with funds and strategic plans? Your neighbour giving an hour a week in their after work time? The local team planting trees in their reserve on a Saturday afternoon? Or people sitting and sharing links and posts on social media?
Defining the environmental movement: who’s who, and what they do
Research about these questions has tended to focus on the operations of groups that shout the loudest. These groups are frequently those that are skilled at attracting media attention as part of their tactics, are the easiest to study, and have the systems in place to support external research. As a result Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, WWF and other large multinational groups feature predominantly in the environmental movement literature.
But is that image of a Greenpeace banner down a coal stack, or a 350.org rally with shouting, placard holding people really representative of what environmentalism in the field actually is? What about what everybody else is doing?
There is a lot more to the environmental movement than its biggest, most vocal players.
A closer look at what’s going on in the environmental movement in Australia quickly uncovers the overwhelming diversity of issues, approaches and actors that together create this movement.
Over 500 groups with websites across Australia are active in some form of environmental advocacy—spanning diverse issues including pesticide use, population growth, climate change, catchment management, feral dog management and species conservation. If we add in those only using social media and word of mouth to promote their cause, then in fact thousands of groups, made up of tens of thousands of members and supporters are active in some way in creating this movement.
What of campaigning, that classic approach to building a movement?
Over 700 active campaigns are being promoted via Australian based websites. These range from local issues against coal mines to complex national campaigns focusing on marine protection, clean energy and land clearing. They involve tree planting, placard waving, wildlife rescue and letter writing. It’s pretty clear that there’s a lot going on.
The vast majority of environmental groups in Australia have no paid staff, do not receive any substantial media attention, and do not use protest techniques or direct action to promote their cause.
While they may not ‘win’ all, or even many, of their causes, clearly there is something special about the environmental movement that has united such a diversity of voices in such a short span of time. I’d like to get a sense of the collective action tactics and strategies used by these campaigning groups and the failures and successes that they are experiencing in the course of their activities. My PhD research aims to look under the surface of the latest protest banner and begin to understand why, what and who actually makes the environmental movement the global phenomenon that it has become today.
- Robyn Gulliver
For most people, the word “radical” is synonymous with the use of violence in social action. This is, however, not always true.
Radical groups are defined by radical ideas rather than radical methods.
The word “radical” itself is an adjective that means going to the origin and fundamental, especially in regards to change from accepted or traditional forms. Nowhere in the various definitions of “radical” is violence mentioned.
Radical doesn’t only refer to the chosen form of action, but also to the driving idea or aspiration. Radical groups’ expect to change not only social norms or governmental policies, but also the very fundamentals of society. For instance, how best to fight social injustices? Such groups may focus on changing the constitution itself rather than individual government policies.
Who are the radicals? 5 types of radical group defined by motivation
Bertjan Doosje and his colleagues categorise radical groups into five different types based on their main concerns. These are:
The diversity of radical groups both in terms of their focus and in terms of their methods needs to be acknowledged so that we can avoid over-simplification in how we understand them and how we respond.
Radical religious groups in Indonesia seek to change the entire social structure
Indonesia is governed by common law. Nonetheless, polls suggest that the majority of Indonesians would support the implementation of Islamic law. In this context, many of the country’s radical groups are driven by religious motivation – without necessarily supporting violence, they seek to fundamentally alter the state.
In the course of my research, I recently talked with the regional spokesman of one Indonesian religious movement that aims to revive the Islamic State, a borderless state that governs all Muslims in the world and non-Muslims within their territory, and hearkens back to the Caliphate that included parts of Asia, Europe, and Africa during the second millennium. I asked if his movement endorsed the use of physical violence as part of their strategy. “Absolutely Not!”, he replied, “We are a peaceful movement and our orientation is educating Muslims on the vision of Caliphate.”
This group criticises specific governmental policies and social norms, but attributes the root cause of problems to the underlying structure of Indonesian society. In their view, for instance, harmful policies are merely symptoms of a wider problem: the “wrong” constitution and a fundamentally flawed system of managing the nation. So, for radical groups like this one, the solution is changing the structure of rules that influence the whole governmental and social system.
Thus, although such movements never use physical violence as the strategy, we can categorise them as radical due to their ideas and visions.
How do such movements promote change? And how do people respond to peaceful revolutionary or radical movements within their society? These are topics that I hope to pursue in my PhD research.
- Susilo Wibisono
When was the last time you changed your mind about something? What brought an important issue to your attention? Chances are it was something you saw, rather than something you read.
The right image can be a powerful way capture and engage people with an important issue.
For many of us, the haunting and graphic images of toddler Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore focused our attention on the Syrian refugee crisis.
Yet not all images are created equal. Some are better than others. Some may even hurt your cause.
For example, although they grab our attention, familiar and iconic images used in communications about climate change (i.e., smokestacks, polar bears) fail to make us feel like we can do anything about climate change.
So which images are best?
What properties of images increase the likelihood that the reader will engage with your overall message? My research on images used in communications about sustainable urban stormwater management found that images are more likely to engage when they:
1. Evoke an emotional connection
Images are highly emotive and emotions help shape attitudes. Given that images are the first thing people see on a webpage or news article, they can create a connection with your message before a single word has even been read.
Critically, different emotions can give rise to different motivations. For example, to approach or to avoid. For this reason it is important to select images that evoke emotions what psychologists call an ‘approach motivation’. That is, emotions that encourage the reader to pay attention to your message. Positive emotions, like happiness and pride, are known to have an approach motivation. Some negative emotions, like sadness and anger, can also motivate people to engage with your message. However, you should try to avoid images that elicit emotions with strong avoidance motivations, like disgust and fear. Such emotions may encourage the reader to simply switch off and not pay attention to your message.
2. Relevant to the topic
When presenters use images in presentations that are congruent with what they saying, people are more likely to remember the message. This is because images that are not immediately understood as relevant to the topic reduce the ease with which the viewer can process your message. That is, irrelevant images increase the mental effort needed to process the overall message and can become a distraction.
To avoid using irrelevant images, don’t make assumptions about what your target audience does and doesn’t understand about the issue you are communicating. For example, a cleaner ocean is a major goal of improved urban stormwater management initiatives, so images of ocean environments are often used in communications new stormwater initiatives. Unfortunately, our recent image study found that most people did not think that pictures of oceanic environments were relevant to the topic of stormwater management.
3. Personally relevant
If the viewer sees something in an image that is personally relevant to them, they are more likely to engage with the message content.
To increase the personal relevance of your message, choose images of locations that are highly familiar to your viewer (the more local, the better) or choose photographs of people that your target audience are more likely to identify with. For example, using images of melting ice caps to communicate about climate change suggests that the impacts are happening somewhere else to someone else. Conversely, images of extreme weather events (for example, in Australia, flooding is a major concern), highlight a more localised, and personally relevant, impact of climate change.
- Tracy Schultz
In the United States, politicians have been publicly accusing town hall protesters of being paid agitators. For some, the idea of ‘the usual suspects’ at social protests suggests wild-eyed do-gooders who are passionate about a range of causes. For others, an angry mob with no loyalty to any one cause.
Who are ‘the usual suspects’?: Identifying multi-cause protesters
To date, psychological research has largely not grappled with the question of multi-cause protesters. We know people support certain causes because of specific grievances or identities. For example, women exposed to sexism are more likely to be feminist. But it’s not well understood why people engage on multiple fronts of collective action.
Using survey responses from Australians protesting in 2003 anti-Iraq war rallies, we investigated the relationships between an individual’s activist network and their activism across time and causes.
5 reasons people engage in collective action for multiple causes
Our studies highlight five key factors that affect whether an individual would identify as an activist and take action for multiple causes.
When people succeed, or at least believe that success is possible, they feel “we can win, I can help, and we can do this together.” These beliefs transfer across to new causes they believe in.
2. Dispelling the activist myth
People can be critical of activists and some people may be fearful of getting involved in community action because of negative stereotypes. However, unfounded fears fade away after a first experience with community groups. People are ready to do more once they know what they’re signing up for.
3. New knowledge
When taking part in collective action, individuals are exposed to new social and political knowledge and become aware of privilege—something that used to be called “consciousness raising” in the old days. People in one group (e.g., against a local polluter) might teach you about a bigger picture (e.g., the environmental movement), and that will lead to more activism.
4. Growing trust
The mutual trust and respect that people build up as members of one group can transfer to the other groups and causes those activists support. It is therefore valuable for groups to be internally diverse because their message and the trust associated with it spreads farther into more communities and networks.
5. They were asked
Being directly invited by members of one group to become involved in other groups and causes is a factor increasing multi-cause activism. Being asked is one of the strongest predictors of collective action in any cause!
People won’t take action in new causes if their early experiences are negative
Of course, the flip side of the above are also true. Unrealistic expectations and perceived failure can be demoralising and lead to withdrawal. Scary or violent experiences, information that seems to conflict too much with one’s own political views, and hearing one’s own community or side of politics mocked and put down can be off-putting to new activists. Those factors can prevent people who are exposed to one group from taking on board the bigger networks of causes and actions.
In sum, early experiences in activism determine the degree to which a person identifies as an ‘activist’ and the way their social action spreads across multiple domains of collective action.
We continue to work on this question of spreading activism. I’m currently asking what leads people to disengage, up the ante, or radicalise after success or failure of collective action. Tulsi Achia is studying ally activism and Cassandra Chapman investigates how people choose which charities to support and how donors come to support multiple charitable causes. Finally, Nita Lauren asks how you can graduate people from doing easy forms of sustainable action or environmental activism to more difficult ones.
Stay tuned for our latest findings on how people work to change the world for the better.
- Winnifred Louis
Read the full article:
Louis, W. R., Amiot, C. E., Thomas, E. F. & Blackwood, L.M. (2016). The ‘Activist Identity’ and activism across domains: A multiple identities analysis. Journal of Social Issues, 72 (2), 242-263. doi: 10.1111/josi.12165
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