Are you passionate about a social cause such as environmental protection or civil rights? Are you looking for a way to have a positive impact on the world? Do you wonder what kinds of collective action have real, beneficial, and substantial impacts?
Dissertation Research on Social Activism: What Works?I’ve just returned from the Global Well-being Forum where I learned many fascinating things. Of all of them, the one that I can’t wait to pass on is Scott Sherman‘s research on social activism, as described in his dissertation, Strategies for Success in the Environmental Justice Movement.
Scott analyzed 60 case studies of activism against incinerators, toxic wastes, polluting industries, and other locally unwanted land uses (LULUs) occurring in neighborhoods already suffering disproportionately high rates of exposure to environmental hazards. In particular he analyzed the differences between cases where they failed and others where they succeeded. How? When? Why? Where? He explored 117 different variables, including some about the context (Was it a Democratic or Republican administration?), the nature of the opposing force (Was it a large company, a small company, a local government, state government, federal government?), how the group framed the mission, and what actions they took.
To be considered successful, an action had to meet at least one of the following criteria: It met its immediate goal, such as preventing local dumping of toxic wastes, or at least caused major concessions. It had unexpected positive outcomes, such as the Love Canal work resulting in changes to law. People involved continued with additional social activism.
Factors NOT Associated with Success
Here are some things that were not associated with success:
- Going through the courts probably because of the high cost of legal action.
- Using science, because the opposing side countered with their own hired experts.
- Using the political process.
So what DID work??
Sherman names it Transformative Action and describes it as the intersection of nonviolent social action with positive psychology. Nonviolent social action we know about from Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.. Positive psychology, in this case, means turning the focus away from opposing the negative towards finding a positive win-win answer. This intersection involves 3 types of action:
- Speaking the truth to power in ways that people can hear. Consider the wisdom from Elijah Muhammad cited in the Autobiography of Malcolm X (Haley, p. 209): “Don’t condemn if you see a person has a dirty glass of water… just show them the clean glass of water that you have. When they inspect it, you won’t have to say that yours is better.”
- Reframing a win-lose position as a win-win position in a way that expresses good will toward the opposition. He called this Social Aikido. I’m looking forward to reading his dissertation or other sources for examples of the ways that successful groups did this.
- Creating a vision of a better future that includes the needs of both sides.
Overcoming Learned Helplessness
For years I’ve been in a state of learned helplessness about social activism. Learned helplessness occurs when people have learned to believe that they have no control over a situation so whatever they do is futile. That makes them stay passive in the face of unpleasant or harmful situations, even when they actually do have the power to cause change. While I’ve heard Margaret Mead’s words, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” I’ve never really found them particularly empowering.
Scott Sherman’s talk inspired me. First, I was struck by the wisdom of studying what works in a disciplined, empirical way. It honestly never occurred to me that this could be done. Second, the answers make sense to me, based as they are on the positive psychology concepts that i have studied for more than 2 years. Third, I can now imagine successful social activism — I am emerging from the helplessness I learned from my own experience with social activism in earlier years.
Scott Sherman lives by what he learned. He and a partner have established the Transformative Action Institute and teach the principles of transformative action. For more information, see their publication, How David Conquers Goliath: The Power of the People to Overcome the World’s Largest Corporations and Governments.
Haley, Alex (1964). The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. New York: Ballantine Books
Peterson, C., Maier, S. & Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control. New York: Freeman.
Sherman, S. (2003). Strategies for success in the environmental justice movement. University of Michigan dissertation. AAT 3106161.
Social Forum Paris courtesy of Darij & Ana