This post is part of a series of posts I am working on to propose a sociological model of Effective Altruism that could help understand and address coordination challenges.

Summary

Effective altruism is a social movement, defined as "a group of agents trying to achieve a set of shared goals through collective action". Further:

  • Effective altruism is not a purely intellectual movement. (More)
  • Mass movements are part of the social movement reference class. (More)

Introduction

I have noticed sometimes a lack of clarity in movement building strategy discussions. These discussions can span a variety of topics such as coordination, personal experiences with EA, EA as a philosophy and the different "domains" of EA. There is often a lack of clarity around what the correct reference class of EA should be used, which can lead to miscommunication.

The purpose of this post is to clarify the reference class I use to think about the EA movement when developing models of movement building, in particular when considering constraints within the EA movement such as coordination. I hope this clarification helps create a common language for future work in this space and can be used as a reference document.

Definition of social movements

I define a social movement as:

A group of actors trying to achieve a set of shared goals through collective action.[1]

where

  • An actor may be an individual or an organization associated with the movement in some capacity. Actors can take on many different roles within a movement, depending on the function they serve. Common roles in a social movement are leaders, who typically coordinate the movement, and members, who typically act on the leaders’ actions.
  • Shared goals are the common outcomes all actors within the movement wish for the movement to achieve. These are very broad, overarching, goals, which are then broken down into more specific actions. Most actions can be justified by demonstrating how they achieve the broader shared goals (even if some actors may not pursue those actions themselves).
  • Collective action is defined as an act that can only be accomplished by two or more actors coordinating with each other. This could include tasks that require several actors performing the same task, like voting, protesting, or lobbying. It could also include actions that require multiple actors performing differentiated tasks based on their skills, interests, social position, and more.

Clarifications

Effective altruism is not just an intellectual movement

EA might also be observed to share many features with intellectual or philosophical movements like Structuralism or Stoicism. The key difference is that EA by definition requires action in order to achieve its goals, and there is an explicit distinction between EA as an intellectual movement and EA as a social movement. See, for example, Will Macaskill’s tentative definition which explicitly separates the intellectual task of figuring out the most effective things to do, and actually doing them.[2] His definition is broadly accepted by the community, and used in CEA’s Introduction to Effective Altruism and amongst local community building efforts. Thus, although parts of the effective altruism movement could be compared to intellectual movements, the movement as a whole should not be. In other words, effective altruism is not just a question.

Mass movements are part of the social movement reference class

Social movements are an umbrella category and mass movements are a very common type of social movement. As per the definition of a social movement, actors associated with a mass movement like feminism often have a set of shared goals goals they want to achieve (e.g. women’s rights), and which require particular collective action to be achieved (e.g. mass protests, petitions, political advocacy groups, direct work organisations). Mass movements have been of interest to many popular causes within EA already such as animal advocacy and climate change.

It seems valuable to consider mass movements as a relevant reference class to EA because they can often comprise of many different smaller movements within them, which may be of value to EA. For example, groups focused on supporting and advocating for survivors of sexual assault may have benefited (increased donations, destigmatization, policy change) as a result of cultural change influenced by the #MeToo movement. Studying smaller groups within mass movements could be very valuable for EA as a whole.

Thanks to Arjun Khandelwal, Neha Georgie, and Nathan Lee Heath for feedback.


  1. This definition comes from my work over the course of my BA thesis. This is not necessarily representative of the whole field of social movement theory, but probably comes close to the consensus in the resource mobilisation literature. I did not attempt to do an in-depth dive into the movement definitions, instead choosing a simple definition which highlights what I see as the key differentiating features of a social movement. ↩︎

  2. MacAskills’ definition of effective altruism is “(i) the use of evidence and careful reasoning to work out how to maximize the good with a given unit of resources, tentatively understanding ‘the good’ in impartial welfarist terms, and (ii) the use of the findings from (i) to try to improve the world.” Note that global priorities research does count as “direct work”, however, the movement has always been focused on making most of this research actionable to the community. This action-orientation is what separates EA from a purely intellectual movement. ↩︎

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