Earlier this year, Jemina Mikkola published her Master’s Thesis in Sociology on the topic of “Effective altruism as a lifestyle movement”. For her research, she interviewed 8 persons who were or had been involved in effective altruism through the university/city group Effective Altruism Helsinki. The purpose of the study was to find out if EA is a lifestyle movement as defined by Haenfler, Johnson, Jones (2012). Mikkola concluded it is.
If you understand Finnish, you can read the whole thesis here. Since the contents of the thesis might be of interest to non-Finnish-speakers as well, I will summarize her key points in this post. To my understanding, the thesis received the grade “good”, so the research is not exceptionally well done, but should fill the expected function of a thesis. Reading these findings you should keep in mind that this work was done by a student, not by an experienced researcher.
To my knowledge this is the only time anyone has conducted sociology research on an EA group. Mikkola could not find previous research on EA groups specifically, making it her main motivation to choose EA as a thesis topic. Mikkola is not involved in EA, but followed the EA Helsinki Telegram chat for a while and participated in one online meetup for the purposes of her study.
According to Mikkola, EA is a lifestyle movement
The concept of a lifestyle movement was developed by Haenfler, Johnson, Jones (2012). Lifestyle movements are loosely organized or non-organized movements that aim for social change primarily by the means of individual lifestyle choices. They are different from “traditional” social movements that have an external focus, aim for collective (often political) action and have some degree of organization. They define lifestyle movements by the following characteristics:
- individual (as opposed to collective) action: participation occurs primarily at the individual level with the subjective understanding that others are taking similar action, collectively adding up to social change
- private and ongoing action: participation occurs in daily life (so its not public and not episodic)
- action is understood as an effort towards social change (so it is not for example exclusively done as self-help or religious exploration)
- personal identity is a site of social change: adherents engage in identity work, focusing particularly on cultivating a morally coherent, personally meaningful identity in the context of a collective identity
Mikkola found that EA satisfied this definition in the following way:
- Action is individual: the interviewees felt their impact comes from personal choices, such as donating and studying to later build an EA aligned career
- EA is present in daily life: study and work are methods of doing good, donating influences finances and participants use their free time to learn more about EA
- Action is done for social change: Mikkola noted that EA stands out from other lifestyle movements in the sense that in EA, actions are never taken just for the sake of participating in the movement, but they are always tied to the end goal of having an impact
- Identity work: Usually, members of a social movement can see their actions as a sign of moral virtue, and taking action helps them keep up with the idea of themselves as a good person. However, in Mikkola’s interviews nobody seemed to get this feeling out of EA. But many people described having experienced pressure to follow EA principles, and emphasized that they were “just ordinary people”, which Mikkola interpreted as a way of coping with the high standards of EA. According to her, EA can act as a way of avoiding the identity of an immoral person, rather than constructing an identity of an especially virtuous person.
Some other lifestyle movements Mikkola compares EA to are veganism, skepticism and urban farming. For me, these seem a lot less organized and less cooperative than EA, but it is true that in early 2021 when she conducted the interviews, EA Helsinki was almost non-organized, did not have many group level projects and did not do much international cooperation with other EAs.
Maybe Mikkola would have gotten different results if she had interviewed us now that EA Finland has received a grant to pay employees to do community building and we have done some collective outreach projects as a group. On the other hand, I guess most people at EA Finland would still feel their cooperative action with other EAs as the best individual action available to them, so maybe this would not undermine the individualistic action point.
Additional stuff I found interesting
- I learned the term “imagined collective” (for example be “all other vegans around the world”): a group of people who share the same values and are participating in the same lifestyle movement, even if they are not directly socially connected and don’t know each other
- for some interviewees, the global EA movement was such an imagined collective (and the local EA Helsinki group is just a regular collective, where you actually know other members)
- A related term is the “generalized other”, a prototypic member of the imagined collective
- usually, comparing oneself to the generalized other can be a source of pressure for lifestyle movement participants
- but for many interviewees, the generalized other actually included all living humans, non-human animals and/or past and present generations, and acted a source of motivation to do EA
- And a third term I learned was “discursive consciousness”, where actors aim to align their values and daily actions through intentional introspection and research
- Mikkola thought our discursive consciousness was quite high, and that this was increased by EA Helsinki activities, such as our career club where people try to help each other make more EA aligned career choices
- in some social movements, the described value alignment might be focused on creating an identity of a righteous person rather than actual social change. Mikkola noted that in EA this seems impossible to do due to EA’s emphasis on measurable results.
- As a support person of EA Finland, I paid attention to the fact that there were two different ways in which people seemed to feel EA pressure
- one was a general feeling of guilt or inability to be more productive or more cost-effective and the need to frame rest as an EA activity (“sometimes I need to choose between watching an informative lecture of just some junk from Netflix, and sometimes the answer is that I don’t have the energy to watch a lecture, so I’ll watch some junk from Netflix”)
- the other one was the inability to do certain things recommended in EA media. Especially 80 000 hours job recommendations seemed too demanding for several respondents (“I can’t get an hc job like the ones recommended on this page, why don’t they recommend some job I could get, sometimes I feel desperate and think I’m not going to have any impact whatsoever”)
- Mikkola made one interpretation I had never seen before, which is the claim that EA gives participants motivation and meaningfulness to do things they are socially expected to do anyway, such as work or study. Apparently our work and study choices did not seem very weird to her.
- Some interviewees also viewed EA as a way of following values that are generally shared but not coherently applied in Finland, such as truly treating every person as equal (and thus donating globally rather than locally)
- I think we also got some information on why some respondents are now less active in EA: two people felt we are not doing enough mass outreach and cited this as a reason for decreased participation.
- One person stated the first time they had attended an EA Helsinki meetup they “did not understand half of the words” and felt the need to go home and Google what all the words mean
- One person stated they reject longtermism as their personal EA approach due to not being “some kind of an anime main character that saves all of humanity”
- One person did not want to appear as a “crazy moralist that tells people over-consumption is murder of African children” even if they thought this was true
- One person stated they view all their actions through EA (with the exception of "almost having started to think of [their] relationship as something intrinsically valuable"), but for most people EA was not that all-encompassing. For example, a different person viewed their interest in research as intrinsically valuable, even if they felt it was not the most effective way to do good.
The interviews were quoted pseudonymously, but for many quotes, it is pretty easy to recognize who said what. I was also interviewed for the research, and I think most people who know me can recognize me. It is quite fun to read this now and notice how much has changed for us since 2021. I think many of us would now say something different than back then.
Even if some of the quotes are not something I would like to be printed in a large newspaper, I think the whole thesis paints quite a positive image of us. (Of course Mikkola probably aimed for neutrality.) I was especially glad we gave the impression of not doing EA because of wanting to seem virtuous, but in a results-oriented way. I also liked the thought of the “generalized other” being any sentient being in any point of history.