Social Movements and Social Transformation: Understanding the Challenges and Breakthroughs
What is the role of social movements in bringing about, or failing to bring about, political and social change? Cristina Montiel and I recently edited a special issue of Peace and Conflict: The Journal of Peace Psychology, inviting answers to this question. In addition, we aimed to explore how social movements engage in, respond to, or challenge violence, injustice, and inequality.
This blog post begins to summarise the special issue, which is available online to those with access (or by contacting the papers’ authors or via ResearchGate). There were ten articles in total, and each one a gem, if I may say so. I thought I would explore the papers in two or three blog posts, of which this is the first. The introduction to the special issue also summarises all these articles to begin our understanding of the challenges and breakthroughs of social change.
How can we break through conflict?
In the first paper, Ben-David and Rufel-Lifschitz talked through three approaches that created social change in Israel. They used three case studies of environmental, LGBT, and religious organisations. (It should perhaps be noted that none worked directly on the conflict with Palestinians; as I write this post in May 2018, Israel has been racked again by bloody protests in which troops have shot dozens of protestors. It feels like we are far from positive change, and growing further away. But all the more reason, perhaps, to explore some of the recommendations that have created a sense of progress for other social movements in Israel.) Ben-David and Rufel-Lifschitz articulate the following recommendations to break through conflict: rejecting simple binaries and adopting a complex view of identities; committing to a moral compass (resisting retaliation in the face of state or opponent violence); and using small and symbolic acts, carefully timed, to build trust and attract reciprocation. The paper generates a sense of hope and inspiration, which can be rare emotions!
Leaving violence behind – Challenges for violent groups
Ferguson, McDaid and McCauley, reviewed five challenges violent groups face in order to leave violence behind. Their paper described how loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland accomplished these tasks. The challenges were: changing the cultural glorification and subjective inevitability of violence; making the decision as a group to cease physical attacks; resisting pressure from group members and others to restart violence as the peace unfolds and in the transition; developing an activist culture for political non-violence; and learning to trust progress with former enemies. One of many interesting points made by the authors was that it was essential to retain formerly violent group members as key members during the transition to peace. Formerly violent group members bring legitimacy to the change because of their moral authority as former warriors. This is needed to defeat the calls to restart violence from younger members and outsiders. Ferguson and colleagues argued that attempting to disengage disillusioned members prematurely from violent extremist groups could slow the pace of change and undermine the sustainability of the transition.
Violence by and against the police: Case studies from South Africa and Portugal
Also dealing directly with violent actors were two papers examining police violence towards protesters, through analysis of incidents in Portugal (Soares, Barbosa, Matos, and Mendes, 2018) and South Africa (Kiguwa and Ally, 2018). These were rich and fascinating analyses involving the views of police, community members, and protestors. One of the points that struck me the most was the symmetry between arguments that legitimise police violence towards protestors and delegitimise protestors’ violence towards the police in these two different contexts. For example, protestors’ behaviour was seen as a trigger or provocation for police ‘defense’ of the police and the community, but neither direct nor structural violence by the state was seen as a legitimate trigger for protestors’ aggression. This kind of asymmetry seems relevant in many contexts.
There is much more that could be said about each of these papers, and perhaps there will be an occasion to engage more deeply on another day – but it gives me great pleasure through this post to begin to share the messages more widely. I hope that interested readers will explore these papers and the other great work of these authors.
- Winnifred Louis
Is Effective Altruism Effective?
Effective Altruism is a global movement to promote efficient philanthropy.
Propelled by Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save and William MacAskill’s 80,000 hours, the movement argues that individuals have a moral obligation to give as much as they can. Effective altruists urge donors to use science and evaluation to determine which action is morally best—defined as helping the largest number of people possible.
Effective altruism is increasingly popular with scientists, philosophers, and donors around the globe. Yet the movement has been criticised by many activists and aid workers.
Is effective altruism just?
The desire to maximise good may lead some effective altruists to overlook those with the greatest need. The extremely poor, disabled people, and those who are disadvantaged in multiple ways are comparatively costly to help because their problems tend to be complex.
Further, some effective altruists may endorse actions that benefit many but carry a heavy cost for a few. For example, they may perceive sweat shops to be morally defensible because they provide cheap and abundant goods to many around the world, even though they are harmful to workers.
Some critics consider effective altruism to be unjust when it overlooks severe need and endorses projects that benefit many at the expense of a few.
Is the measurement of effectiveness appropriate?
Effective altruists seek an evidence-base for the impact of their giving. They generally favour data that is quantifiable and measureable in the short term.
This sounds great, but actually presents some challenges.
Effective altruists put special stock in randomised, controlled trials, a famously robust method of scientific investigation. These trials, however, are costly. Many charities cannot afford to run them. This has lead effective altruists to disproportionately endorse medical interventions, where funding for such trials has been forthcoming.
These trials work best on small, containable solutions. Mosquito nets, for example, can be randomly allocated to some individuals, and infection rates are easy to measure. However, many of the world’s greatest problems—like education, food production, water quality, and human rights—cannot be solved with a simple product.
Important solutions may be overlooked by effective altruists because they are harder to evaluate with preferred quantifiable methods.
Does effective altruism help people in the long-term?
Critics claim that effective altruists focus disproportionately on tangible solutions but fail to consider the wider socio-political landscape that creates and perpetuates human suffering.
First, focusing on personal charity as the solution to systemic inequality may lead some effective altruists to overlook their privilege and the benefits they receive from the political and economic systems that oppress the global poor.
Campaigning and sustained advocacy are required to change many of the systems that oppress people. Effective altruism, with its focus on doing the most good, is cause-neutral. This means that effective altruists may be less likely to sustain focus on a given issue long enough for real change to occur.
Focusing on technical approaches and cost-benefit analyses, effective altruists may prefer to send dependency-oriented help (a total solution to a problem) rather than autonomy-oriented help (the tools and skills people need to help themselves). Rather than lifting people out of poverty and hardship, dependency-oriented help may actually perpetuate a reliance on aid in the long-term.
When beneficiaries take charge, they develop self-esteem and a sense of control over their lives. Communities that develop their own solutions also care more about maintaining change over time. Unfortunately, it is much more expensive and time-consuming to up-skill local community members to drive solutions forward than to provide outside experts who are already trained.
Taken together, these concerns suggest effective altruists may be less likely to recognise the systemic sources of suffering. They may also be less willing to offer aid that brings about sustainable change.
So, is effective altruism effective?
The effective altruism movement has been inspiring to many and has motivated a groundswell of generosity that is wonderful to see. Yet, some claim that effective altruism is unjust, methodologically flawed, and fails to address systemic sources of poverty and oppression.
As a comparatively young movement, effective altruism is still finding its feet. Once the movement considers and responds to such suggestions for improvement, its momentum could make a huge positive impact in the world. Three ways effective altruism could change for the better are: considering the degree of need; broadening the sources of evidence; and seeking to build capacity within beneficiary groups to respond to future crises.
What are the causes and conditions of global inequality? How can I best help? What can I do with my resources and privilege to create a better world?
As concerned humans—whether we be effective altruists, traditional philanthropists, activists, or volunteers—the more we ask ourselves these questions, the better the world will become.
- Cassandra Chapman
The content of this blog post is based on the following article:
Gabriel, I. (2017). Effective Altruism and its Critics. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 34(4), 457-473. DOI: 10.1111/japp.12176
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.