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For the last three months, I’ve been working part time on ‘the history of social movements’. This is a very broad topic and I have only looked in detail at a handful of things, but I do now have a better idea of what the space of potentially useful questions looks like. I’m not yet sure what further work I am going to do in this space, but I’m taking the opportunity of finishing my three month contract to write up the questions that I think are most worth tackling, in the hopes that others might do useful work on them.

High-level motivations

Before I get into research questions, here are the main reasons I think that the history of social movements is interesting in the first place:

  • The world has some really big problems.
  • EA is a movement which has pretty big ambitions to help solve them.
  • Looking at previous movements and how things have gone for them might help EA to:
    • Do good. Why have other movements succeeded/failed? Let’s do more/less of those things.
    • Monitor risks of harm. EA is seeking power and influence. Some groups trying to do this have had very negative impacts. It seems important to take this risk seriously and take steps to avoid it.
    • Notice blind spots. Having a sense of your own place in history and idea space seems important for staying grounded and humble, and for noticing where you might be missing things or mistaken.
    • Understand the world. Movements like social justice or environmentalism are also just important parts of how the social world currently functions. Understanding movements better will help us model the world better.

I see a few different possible audiences for this sort of research:

  • Decision-makers in the EA community: writing pieces that directly inform decision-makers (funders, community builders, org leads) about things they might want to do/not do.

    • Tactics: e.g. a write-up of most effective PR strategies.
    • Strategy: e.g. a write-up of the most common ways that movements trying to do good have caused harm.
  • Other people researching related questions: writing and resources that helps other people to make progress on related questions.

    • E.g. a list of movements that are similar to EA with links to further reading.[1]
  • The EA community more broadly: writing pieces that seek to improve the EA community directly by informing people, changing their minds about things, promoting certain actions…

    • E.g. a piece arguing that group epistemics would be better if we did xyz.
  • External stakeholders: writing pieces that situate EA within wider historical trends and processes, to increase credibility or build bridges with specific groups.

    • E.g. a series of culturally diverse biographies of people who in different ways have been trying to do the most good.

Caveats and clarifications

The main caveat to give is that the below is not intended to be comprehensive. It’s just a collection of the ideas that I found most promising. Some other caveats and clarifications:

  • History: I mean history as in the past, rather than history as in the academic discipline. I think there’s useful work in academic history, but also in sociology, political science, religious studies and other fields.
  • Social movements: I really mean ‘groups that are relevant comparisons to EA for a given question’. Often these are social movements, but also often other things: religious movements, intellectual movements, ideologies, academic fields…. I think the right reference class depends on the particular question.
  • Modern not ancient: with a few exceptions, I’m mostly not optimistic about the relevance of history before the modern period. A lot has changed in recent centuries, and I don’t think the future will be much like the pre-modern world.
  • Themes not case studies: I’ve organised my questions by theme rather than by social movement. A detailed list of questions arranged by social movement could also be useful.
  • Qualitative bias: I don’t personally have quant or technical skills, so the below is biassed towards qualitative questions. I think there’s probably important quantitative work in this space that is missing from this post.
  • Sources: some of these questions I got directly from other people, but I haven’t attributed them in this list.
  • High level: many of the questions listed are huge and would need lots of work to get to concrete, answerable questions.

Research ideas on the history of social movements

Strategy: overall directions we want/don’t want, and how to get there

  • Monitoring risks of harm
    • Which modern philosophical/intellectual movements have been most influential on the world at large? What are the worst things that have been done in their name?
      • Overlapping sub-project: take the ~20th century items in Holden Karnofsky’s history summary spreadsheet, then do a crude first pass attribution of movements/ideas which contributed to those things happening, and how important the contribution was.[2]

        • Or alternatively, pick one important thing from that spreadsheet and do an in-depth analysis of the causal factors at work.
    • What causes politicisation of issues and movements? Are there examples of actors strategically and effectively avoiding politicisation?
      • Possible case studies: comparing environmentalism, feminism in different countries
    • How does value drift work at the movement level? Are there ways to ensure that as ideas spread and movements age, the core parts are preserved faithfully? Are there ways to avoid particularly harmful distortions of ideas?
      • Possible case studies: Marxism, Zionism
    • How does updating work at the movement level? How do movements successfully change as the context and evidence changes, while staying faithful to their underlying values?
    • When movements have deliberately sought credentials/power/resources for themselves, how has this gone? How well have they stayed mission focused, rather than getting sucked into a quest for power? Are there any successful movements that didn’t seek power as an instrumental goal?
  • Learning from past attempts
    • Are there action-relevant learnings for the EA movement in the social movement impact theory literature?[3]

    • Looking at movements which make some ethical claim to doing impartial good, how much good have they actually done, and why wasn’t it more?

      • Possible case studies: utilitarianism, the ethical movement, humanism, Unitarian Universalism.
      • Sub-question: Why wasn’t utilitarianism a big shaping force of the nineteenth/twentieth century?
    • Are there any communities that focused more on "good reasoning" or some other process, rather than some particular set of goals/models? How did/didn't they successfully retain a focus on the reasoning process rather than some specific output of it?

      • Possible case studies: Brights, the sceptical movement, the Circle of Reason, General semantics, the Rationalist Association, the Indian Rationalist Association, the Rationalist International…
    • Which communities/idea sets had the biggest impact on the world in the shortest period of time?

    • Which movements have called for something quite abstract/philosophical/technical? Did they succeed, and why/not?

      • Possible case studies: Attac, Economy for the Common Good, utilitarianism…
    • Which contemporary movements are similar to EA, on what dimensions? How do we not/want to be like them?

      • Possible case studies:
        • Overlapping movements: rationality, the people on this map, transhumanists…
        • Further afield movements: the Zeitgeist Movement, LaRouche, degrowth…

Culture: how to create and maintain good culture, and avoid bad culture

  • Epistemics
    • How have epistemic cultures and norms changed in influential social movements throughout their lifetime?
    • What variables seem causally related to epistemic culture and norms within social movements and what levers exist that can directly and indirectly affect these variables?
    • Are there good examples of groups avoiding hype/over updating? How did they do it?
    • What increases/decreases groupthink?
  • Other
    • How does movement size affect culture?
    • What approaches are there to the boundary between personal and professional in different movements? What are the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches?
    • Are there examples of movements which gained access to many more resources in a short period of time? Did they transition culturally to an abundance mindset, and how?
    • How and why do groups close?

Tactics: how to do particular things well

NB this section could include basically any question of the form ‘we might do project X. What can we learn from past examples of that sort of project, about whether it’s good to do or how to do it well?’ Where X might be publishing a book, bringing a legal case, becoming a public intellectual…

Some questions that stand out to me:

  • Outreach
    • How much should we pursue mass outreach, and with what messaging? How do we avoid misinterpretation, loss of nuance, and mission drift in the process?
    • Have any movements focused so hard on university outreach, and how did that go?
      • Possible case studies: maybe political parties
  • Reputation
    • Which movements have maintained good reputations/brands for decades? Which for centuries? Which factors seem to have helped them do that?
    • What are good examples of movements which have gone stale, and then struggled to recruit brilliant people?
  • Sub-communities
    • Are there examples of movements which started off with quite distinct sub-communities? What happened?
    • Are there examples of movements which broke apart in a planned, positive way that furthered the goals of all or most of the parts? How did that happen?

Further resources

There are some great lists of movements of relevance to EA:

  • This bibliography of EA writings about fields and movements of interest to EA, by Pablo Stafforini.
  • This spreadsheet of possible case studies which Luke Muehlhauser created when writing his piece on early field growth.

For more general reading, see Michael Airds’s collection of EA analyses of how social social movements rise, fall, can be influential, etc. My favourites among these are ACE’s post on environmentalism, and Luke’s piece on early field growth.

People who are working on related questions:

  • Guive Assadi at Cambridge is working on the origins of communist totalitarianism, and the Fabian Society.
  • Clara Collier is working on the atomic scientist movement.
  • Sam Glover and James Ozden are working on how effective protest is as a social movement strategy. See their website, and here.
  • These people are starting a research project on what makes social movements successful.

Thanks to Guive Assadi, Adam Bales, Damon Binder, Clara Collier, Max Dalton, Max Daniel, Matthew van der Merwe, James Ozden, Caleb Parikh, Nicole Ross and TJ for variously giving me feedback, ideas and mentorship as I thought about these topics.


  1. NB this sort of already exists - see further resources. ↩︎

  2. Obviously this would be super sketchy, as causation is really complicated. But I think it might still be an interesting back of the envelope project to look at. ↩︎

  3. I have a very messy and incomplete reading list, if anyone wants to do this. Also I think this is more of a due diligence project than a ‘probably really important insights’ project, and so might be more worthwhile for someone who plans to continue working in this space, for whom knowledge of the literature has other benefits. ↩︎

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:50 AM

Thanks for sharing Rose, this looks like an important and (hopefully) fruitful list. Would love to see more historians taking a shot at some of these questions.

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