AMA: "The Oxford Handbook of Social Movements"

by Evan_Gaensbauer1 min read18th Mar 202024 comments


Ask Me Anything

For those who don't know, AMA stands for 'Ask Me Anything'. So an AMA post is one where users/commenters are welcome to ask any questions they have about the topic. There have recently been more AMAs on the EA Forum. This one is going to be a bit different than other AMAs. I've got a copy of The Oxford Handbook of Social Movements, available for $150 USD from Oxford University Press (OUP). From the OUP website:

Oxford Handbooks offer authoritative and up-to-date surveys of original research in a particular subject area. Specially commissioned essays from leading figures in the discipline give critical examinations of the progress and direction of debates, as well as a foundation for future research.

The handbook I've got is that for social movements. Effective altruism (EA) is a social movement. EA is different than most other social movements. Yet The Oxford Handbook of Social Movements is 800 pages and 53 chapters. It's as comprehensive a source on the topic of social movements as one will find, so it should have some answer to any question anyone has about social movements as they relate to effective altruism. Even the e-book on Google Books was $39.95. So if I just answer whatever questions everyone has, nobody else needs to buy a copy of the handbook. While perhaps one could download a copy of the handbook, that can be inconvenient to lots of people for different reasons. So it's easier to do an AMA here. The EA community getting value out of the copy of the handbook I bought would also help me justify to myself the $150 I spent on the hard copy of this handbook.

There are many academics, students or researchers in effective altruism who have access to what information they would want to know about social movements. Yet this information is often accessible only through a private license a university acquires from an academic publisher. Through this AMA, we can establish a permanent, transparent and public record of scholarly-backed answers to questions about social movements most relevant to effective altruism. I also personally know much about the history, philosophy and theories of effective altruism, and those of related movements, such as environmentalism, transhumanism, or animal welfare/rights/liberation. So I can take sociology jargon new to most of the EA community and apply it to a context EA understands and cares about.

This is going to be a 'rolling' AMA, in that I'm going to answer questions as I have the time over the course of several days, as opposed to all at once. During that time, everyone can continue asking questions in that period of time. I'm assuming after a period of time the AMA will wind down, at which point I will collate the most upvoted questions, answers and other comments, and publish them as another article on the EA Forum.


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Maybe change the title to "AMA: "The Oxford Handbook of Social Movements"" so it fits better on the front page of the EA Forum?

What are the top 10 social movements nearest in think-space to EA, and did they succeed?

What level of demandingness is appropriate for a social movement? I'm wondering how demanding EA should be.

This isn't from the OHSM, but two resources to learn more about this topic are the Wikipedia article on 'satisficing', a commonly suggested strategy for adapting utilitarianism in response to the demandingness criticism, and this section of the 'consequentialism' article on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy focused on the demandingness criticism.

Hi Michael, I was searching for demandingness discussion on the forum here and found your comment.

Are you are aware of any discussion on this before or since your comment?

One recent article is: which claims "EAs must endorse the view that well off people have at least fairly demanding unconditional obligations" to donate money to effective charities.

It's not my prior view at all. I think the most good will be done by people partaking in activities that are not particularly demanding at all (e.g., AGI Alignment research, plant-based meat research, well-being research, etc) rather than giving a substantial portion of income or making other demanding sacrifices. In order for the EA community to incentivize or show approval of such activity, people willing to do that research should be welcomed into the EA community whether or not they take a giving pledge or partake in any other more demanding activities. 

But...those are just my private half-baked thoughts to date. I'd be interested in a conversation on this topic.

Another book in this area is Handbook of Social Movements Across Disciplines. Unfortunately, I'm most of the way through and it's a bit underwhelming.

Why have you found it underwhelming?

I just feel like it's hard to come away with much of long-term value. I sort of nod along as I read thinking, "That's plausible," and that's about it. (To be concrete: I make Anki cards for most nonfiction I read and I've only made around 1o or 12 across 200 pages which is way fewer than normal for me.) I think I generally want my non-fiction to have at least one of:

  1. Solid empirical findings (i.e. widely and repeatedly attested within the field)
  2. Falsifiable models with some explanatory depth (i.e. not just mindless curve fitting or a listing of all possible causal factors)
  3. Insightful conceptual analysis (e.g. mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive taxonomies)

Regarding 1, several empirical studies are mentioned but they don't seem to add up to a coherent or even non-contradictory whole.

There's basically none of 2.

The book is probably closest to achieving number 3, but still not great. I would have liked, for example, if they talked about why the classic agenda of "collective action frames", "mobilizing structures", and "political opportunities" is a better organizational scheme than the alternatives.

The book also focuses more on apportioning credit and on the history of the thinking in the field than I'd prefer.

All that said, I understand different readers are looking for different things.

What are the main benefits and drawbacks of being tied to other social movements, political ideologies or even political parties? How should we think about tradeoffs here?

These questions seem too general to provide a satisfying answer. I'd have to quote a few whole chapters to give a complete answer. An answer applicable to effective altruism depends on making assumptions about what the community's goals are. I think it's safe to make some assumptions here for the sake of argument. To start off, it's safe to say effective altruism is in practice a reformist as opposed to revolutionary movement. Beyond that, it'd be helpful to specify what kind of goals you have in mind, and what means of achieving them are either preferred and/or believed to be most effective.

I guess we can use the cause areas as goals:

1. Ending extreme poverty globally, by improving trade and foreign aid

2. Ending factory farming, by gaining popular support for legal and corporate reforms.

3. Avoiding extinction, from AI, pandemics or nuclear weapons

4. Addressing climate change, through carbon taxes or cap-and-trade, and clean tech

5. Improving the welfare of wild animals


I'm aware of a practical framework that social movements along other kinds of organizations can use. There are different versions of this framework, for example, in start-up culture. I'm going to use the version I'm familiar with from social movements. I haven't taken the time yet to look up in the OHSM if this is a framework widely and effectively employed by social movements overall.

A mission is what a movement seeks to ultimately accomplish. It's usually the very thing that inspires the creation of a movement. It's so vast it often goes unstated. For example, the global climate change movement has a mission of 'stopping the catastrophic impact of climate change'. Yet that's so obvious it's not like at meetings environmentalists need to establish the fact they've gathered is to stop climate change. It's common knowledge.

The mission of effective altruism is, more or less, "to do the most good". Cause areas exist in other movements similarly broad to effective altruism, but they're not the same thing as a mission. The cause area someone focuses on will be due to their perception of how to do the most good, or their evaluation of how they can personally do the most good. So each cause area in EA represents a different interpretation of how to do the most good, as opposed to being a mission or goal in and of itself.

Goals are the factors a movement believes are the milestones to be completed to complete a mission. The movement believes each goal by itself is a necessary factor in completing the mission, and that the full set of goals combined fulfills the sufficient condition to complete the mission. So for the examples you gave, the set up would be as follows:

Cause: Global poverty alleviation

Mission: End extreme global poverty.

Goals: Improve trade and foreign aid.

Cause: Factory Farming

Mission: End factory farming.

Goals: Gain popular support for legal and corporate reforms.

Cause: Existential risk reduction

Mission: Avoid extinction.

Goals: MItigate extinction risk from AI, pandemics, and nuclear weapons.

Cause: Climate Change

Mission: Address climate change.

Goals: Pursue cap-and-trade, carbon taxes and clean tech

Cause: Wild Animal Welfare

Mission: Improve the welfare of wild animals.

Goals: Do research to figure out how to do that.

Having laid it out like this, it’s easier to see (1), why a “cause” isn’t a “mission” or “goal”; and, (2), how this framework can be crucial for clarifying what a movement is about at the highest level of abstraction. For example, while the mission of the cause of ‘global poverty alleviation’ is ‘eliminate extreme global poverty’, the goals of systemic international policy reform don’t match up to what EA primarily focuses on to alleviate global poverty, which is a lot of fundraising, philanthropy, research and field activity, focused on global health, not public policy. Your framing assumes ‘existential risk reduction’ refers to ‘extinction risk’, but ‘existential risk’ has been defined as long-term outcomes that permanently and irreversibly alter the trajectory of life, humanity, intelligence and civilization on Earth or in the universe. That includes extinction risks but can also include risks of astronomical suffering. If nitpicking the difference between missions and goals seems like needless semantics, remember that because EA as a community doesn’t have a clear and common framework for defining these things, we’ve been debating and discussing them for years.

Below goals are strategy and tactics. The strategy is the framework a movement employs for how to achieve the goals. Tactics are the set of concrete, action-oriented steps the movement takes to implement the strategy. The mission is to the goals as the strategy is to the tactics. There is more to get into about strategy and tactics, but this is too abstract a discussion to get into that. For figuring out what an effective social movement is, and how it becomes effective, it’s enough to start thinking in terms of mission and goals.

I've identified the chapters in OHSM that, if there is an answer to these questions to be found in the book, they will be in there. They are 5 chapters, totaling roughly 100 pages in number. Half the chapters focus on ties to other social movements, and half the chapters focus on political parties/ideologies. I can and will read them, but to give a complete answer to your questions, I'd have to read most of at least a couple of chapters. That will take time. Maybe I can provide specific answers to more pointed questions. If you've read this comment, pick one goal from one cause area, and decide if you think the achievement of that goal depends more on EA's relationship to either another social movement, or a political ideology. At that level of specificity, I expect I can achieve something like giving one or two academic citations that should answer that question. Again, I will answer the question at the highest level, but at that point I'm writing a mini-book review on the EA Forum that will take a couple of weeks for me to complete.

I think some goals like ending factory farming and addressing climate change almost certainly depend on the animal protection movement and climate/environmentalist movement, respectively, outside EA. Would be interesting to know if they depend on other movements/ideologies. To pick one, ending factory farming.

Is there an example of a movement which doesn't give its members things to do, yet succeeds? / What do these movements do with people?

What are some of the key challenges other movements have faced when building a truly global, cross cultural movement? How have they responded?

What are the longest lasting social movements, and do they have any shared characteristics? Similarly. what is the half-time of a social movement, or the average duration of one?

What are the main factors in the success or failure of a movement?

How much popular but inactive support? How many activists?

Same as with my response to your other questions in your other comment, it's easier to operationalize 'success', 'failure', and 'support' with missions, goals and objectives in mind. The other questions I believe I can find answers for more easily, but these ones aren't answerable without specified goals.

What kinds of goals do they cover?

How should we think about possible tradeoffs between a clear and narrow focus vs a broader message? Should we tie specific narrow demands (e.g. animal welfare reforms) to a broader message (veganism/animal rights/antispecieism)?

Whatever happened to the Technology Assessment movement?

... In the early 70s, there was an academic Technology Assessment movement. They wanted to do detailed analysis of incoming technologies, and figure out how technological development could be planned, developed in a better order, and at a better rate. This is relevant not only to EAs who care about tech risks, but also to anyone who cares about tech and its impacts in general... (source)

From this list of project ideas

What creates effective social movements?
Kerry Vaughan
"Social movements like effective altruism have the potential to unlock the abilities of large numbers of people by making it easier for them to coordinate and by providing social infrastructure to support altruistic activities. Yet, our understanding of what makes social movements effective or how to improve them is poor. Of particular interest is research into what makes social movements collapse and how to prevent the collapse of valuable movements. Conducting solid research and figuring out how to use its findings could be a multiplier of the EA movements as a whole."