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
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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