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Summary

We’re very excited to release some new research that Social Change Lab has been working on for a while. We teamed up with Apollo Academic Surveys to create an expert survey of academics who study social movements and protest. We surveyed 120 academics across Political Science, Sociology and other relevant disciplines, and picked many academics because we thought they had made significant contributions to the understanding of social movements and protest. We hope this survey provides some strategic insight that is useful for EAs working on a range of important issues. 

You can see the full results on the Apollo Academics Surveys website, but we wanted to share a few findings we found really interesting. We’ll also be releasing our own report (with greater analysis, interpretation and limitations) soon. However, in this short post we’ll cover some of the expert views on the following topics:

  • Which are the most important strategic and organisational factors that lead to social movements succeeding
  • The most common reasons social movements fail to achieve their goals
  • The effectiveness of disruptive protest based on what kind of issue you’re working on (e.g. high public support vs low public support)
  • The effectiveness of disruptive protest within animal advocacy
     

Some things we think are interesting from the full results but we excluded for brevity:

  • The extent to which a social movement’s success is related to factors within their control (e.g. tactics and strategy) vs factors outside their control (e.g. wider political context)
  • To what degree polarisation is inevitable or necessarily a bad outcome
  • What intermediate goals are important to focus on if you care about ultimately passing government policy. 

Additionally, you can click “See Additional Participant responses” to read what experts wrote to give additional context to their quantitative responses.
 

Results

Important factors for social movement success

Out of the factors we asked about, experts thought the most important tactical and strategic factor for a social movement’s success is “the strategic use of nonviolent disruptive tactics”. Overall, 69% of experts said this factor was either “very important” or “quite important”.

Figure 1: Answers to Question 3 from the survey: “How important do you think the following tactical and strategic factors are in contributing to a social movement’s success?
 

We were really struck by the contradiction between what the public (78% of people think that disruptive protests hinder the cause) and the media say about disruptive protests and what academics said. The experts who study social movements not only believe that strategic disruption can be an effective tactic, but that it is the most important tactical factor for a social movement's success (of the factors we asked about). This, and other relevant evidence, suggests we shouldn’t necessarily take people’s first reactions as the best indicator of effective protest. We include many more results on disruptive protest further down.

Experts were also asked which factors of a social movement’s governance are the most important in driving success. The factor they rated most highly was 'the ability to mobilise and scale quickly in response to external events’. The factor they rated least important, possibly a surprise to activists themselves, was 'decentralised decision-making' 

Figure 2: Answers to Question 4 from the survey: “How important do you think the following governance and organisational factors are in contributing to a social movement’s success?”

Common reasons social movements fail

The most commonly cited reason for social movements to fail was internal conflict and movement infighting, closely followed by movements lacking clear political objectives. The third most cited reason was participants/activists being insufficiently engaged in the long-term.

Figure 3: Answers to Question 5 from the survey: “Social movements sometimes fail to achieve significant wins, whether on policy, public opinion or other desired outcomes. This is often due to external factors but some factors lie more within a movement’s control. How important are the following internal factors in threatening social movement success?”

 

Disruptive protest

In one question from the survey, 69% of experts thought that disruptive tactics could be effective at progressing the cause for issues like climate change that have high public awareness and high public support. This is in stark contrast with polling by YouGov which finds that 78% of the UK public thinks that disruptive protests hinder the cause. Of course, this isn’t to say that the surveyed experts think all disruptive protests are effective (as we’ll see further down), merely that they can be in the right circumstances and with the right tactics.

We also asked how this would change based on how much support and salience an issue has. EAs might be interested to see the response to this question for animal advocacy, an issue we think (roughly) has reasonably low awareness and public support. Experts were much more split on this, with 48% saying that in this case, disruptive protest was at least somewhat effective and 42% saying it was at least somewhat ineffective.

We don’t think these answers can inform comparative claims about effectiveness e.g. that funding grassroots activism can be more effective than policy advocacy. However, we think the responses give some pushback to the commonly-believed myth that disruptive protest is often (or always) counterproductive.

Figure 4: Answer to Question 7 from the survey: “Please indicate how effective disruptive protest might be in the following contexts. By 'effective', we mean bringing about overall positive outcomes. In the case of the climate movement, this would look like a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, either through direct effects on policy, or indirect effects on policy or individual behaviour via increased public awareness and support for the issue.


For the issues of climate change and animal advocacy, we asked the experts to specifically state how they thought disruptive protests would affect the various outcomes that social movements might be interested in. In the above answers, experts were asked to give forecasts on overall effectiveness, which will also include some judgements about the relative merits of the specific outcomes below (e.g. how important is greater salience and a larger movement vs some negative consequences on public opinion or media coverage). 

Figure 5: Answer to Question 12 from the survey: “We are now going to ask your views about nonviolent, disruptive climate actions. By disruptive we mean actions which, though non-violent, might cause inconvenience to the public or to others (such as a roadblock that disrupts traffic). What overall effect do you think disruptive protests are likely to have on the following outcomes, in relation to the goals of the activists?”
 

Figure 6: Answer to Question 17 from the survey: “We are now going to ask your views about nonviolent, disruptive animal advocacy protests. By disruptive we mean actions which, though non-violent, might cause inconvenience to the public or to others (such as a roadblock that disrupts traffic). What overall effect do you think disruptive protests are likely to have on the following outcomes, in relation to the goals of the activists?” Note, we only had 40 respondents for this question.

 

Interestingly, experts also thought that disruptive protests could lead to overall negative consequences for social movements, as seen below by 45% agreement with “disruptive climate protests cause a backfire effect”. 

Figure 7: Answer to Question 14 from the survey: “We are now going to ask your views on some potential negative consequences which can arise from climate protests. By a ‘backfire effect’ we mean an overall negative consequence such as a reduction in public support or lower chance of policy implementation. By ‘polarisation’ we mean an increase in highly contrasting opinions on a cause.”
 

We think this hints at a contradiction in experts’ judgement, but can likely be explained by their views that some disruptive tactics can be extremely effective in raising the salience of an issue or winning people over whilst some other tactics might simply be damaging for the cause with little benefits to offer. Expecting this, we asked what experts believe are effective targets for disruptive protests. The consensus was that protests that directly target institutions creating harm (e.g. governments, the fossil fuel industry, etc.) were more likely to lead to positive outcomes.

Figure 8: Answer to Question 10 from the survey: “Given your knowledge of the climate movement, we would like your views on the overall effectiveness of different climate protest tactics. By overall effectiveness, we mean a wide range of possible outcomes, including increased media coverage, shifting public opinion, policy change, movement building etc. Assuming all are non-violent and are similar in other respects (e.g. same number of participants), how effective do you think the following tactics are likely to be?”
 

Animal advocacy-specific findings

To note, this was an optional section at the end of our survey (as we thought this topic was outside the expertise of many academics). So this section had 40 respondents, rather than the 120 who answered the rest of the survey. That said, we did find some potentially interesting results. Using exactly the same questions as for the climate movement, here we saw a much larger number of experts thinking that disruptive protests could cause a backfire effect, and a similar number stating that polarisation on animal advocacy is unavoidable (45%).

Figure 9: Answers to Question 19 from the survey: “We are now going to ask your views on some potential negative consequences which can arise from animal advocacy protests. By a ‘backfire effect’ we mean an overall negative consequence e.g. a reduction in public support or lower chance of policy implementation. By ‘polarisation’ we mean an increase in highly contrasting opinions on a cause.”
 

Summing up

There are plenty more questions in the full results on Apollo’s website so we highly recommend checking them out in full! We’ll also be releasing our own report, with greater analysis and interpretation, on this data soon.  Here are some samples of other stuff we asked about which you can see in the results:

  • The outcomes of non-disruptive protests
  • The extent to which a social movement’s success is related to factors within their control (e.g. tactics and strategy) vs factors outside their control (e.g. wider political context)
  • How important it is for protest tactics to seem to “make sense” and the trade-offs between targeting bad actors - eg fossil fuel companies directly vs targeting those such as art galleries who are more indirectly involved'
  • To what degree polarisation is inevitable or necessarily a bad outcome
     

Also, there were two open-response questions we did not include in this post:

  1. What did experts think has been the most successful social movement in the past 20 years
  2. What is the main piece of advice experts would give to activist groups. 

 

If you find this work interesting and want to support us, please donate! We’re a small team with many more exciting ideas than we have the capacity to work on them, and a significant funding gap for our future work. You can also follow our work via our newsletter here.

Comments3
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:38 PM

Thank you, upvoted!

How were the experts sampled?

Sorry Johannes, I can't believe I never replied to this! Better late than never I hope. 

In terms of how we selected these academics, we created a list of about 100 academics whom we had read their papers and thought they were high quality or they were the editors of top journals in the field (in Sociology and Political Science). We asked them to fill out the survey (just over 50% of this list replied) and we also asked them to send it to 2-3 other academics who they thought would be well-placed to do the survey too. 

Thanks so much! I know the problem of late answers :)