photo_camera Jo-Anne McArthur / #MakeFurHistory
Portrait of a fox in a cage at a fur farm in Canada
How is SI research different from existing social movement literature and relevant historical works?
Jamie Harris
Researcher
May 17, 2019

This blog post series explores methodological questions and challenges in the use of historical research by Sentience Institute, the effective altruism community, and the farmed animal movement. It is broader in scope, more theoretical, and more meta than most of Sentience Institute’s research, but I have tried to regularly bring the discussion back to concrete examples (e.g. WWI and the French Revolution) with concrete implications for advocates. The other posts are on “What can the farmed animal movement learn from history?” and How tractable is changing the course of history?[1]

Edited by Jacy Reese. Many thanks to Kelly Anthis, J. Mohorčich, Jacob Peacock, and Steven Rouk for reviewing and providing feedback.

Introduction

Summary

View Updates

Methodology used in this post

Aims

Format

Methodology

Content focus and evidence selection

Consideration of causation

Consideration of the effectiveness of interventions and tactics

Ideas for further research:

Introduction

Sentience Institute uses historical evidence in both social movement and technology adoption case studies. The main question that this post seeks to address is: “For the specific question of ‘which advocacy strategies were most effective?’, how much more useful is SI’s research than existing academic social movement literature (which includes work on a wide variety of social movement questions), per unit of resources spent on the research?” Within this, the aims, format, and methodology of the research of SI, historians, and sociologists are assessed.

Summary

SI research clearly differs from existing social movement literature in its aims. Format and methodology also strongly differ, mostly in ways that relate to the differing aims. Methodologically, SI has more in common with sociological than historical approaches. SI’s methodology also differs from that of existing practical guides for advocates like Rules for Radicals.

Table I. Comparison of various SI and non-SI social movement works based on the dimensions discussed in this article. The entries in the table are color-coded to give an indication of the extent of overlap between SI’s work and other social movement works: the dark blue represents significant overlap, the medium blue represents some overlap, and the light blue represents little to no overlap.

Item

Discipline

Aims

Format

Methodology - evidence selection

Methodology - consideration of causation

Methodology - consideration of the effectiveness of tactics

Sentience Institute’s British antislavery movement case study

Social science broadly

To provide insights for the farmed animal movement’s strategy

“A condensed chronological history” is separated from “strategic implications” for clarity. The comparability to the farmed animal movement is also discussed separately.

Mostly secondary sources from historians; some consideration of primary sources for key issues. Content chosen for its comparability to the farmed animal movement

Causation is considered at times in both the “condensed chronological history” and the “strategic implications” section, but the report does not attempt to tease out what was most important among the factors that appeared necessary and the strategies that appeared successful.

Explicitly analyzed throughout the “strategic implications” section

Sentience Institute’s GM foods technology adoption case study

Social science broadly

To gain “strategic lessons for people who are working on the adoption of new, potentially controversial technologies like clean and plant-based meat”

A summary of “Differing adoption in the United States and Europe” is separated from a “Summary of implications and findings” for clarity. The comparability to technologies relevant to the farmed animal movement, such as clean meat and plant-based meat, is also discussed separately.

A mixture of secondary sources from social scientists, and contemporary primary sources. Content is chosen for its comparability to new technologies relevant to the farmed animal movement

Some consideration of causation, where relevant, in both the historical summary of the “Different adoption in the United States and Europe” and in the “Summary of implications and findings,” but the report does not attempt to reach firm conclusions about the relative importance of different factors

Explicitly analyzed throughout the “Summary of implications and findings” section

Hal K. Rothman, The Greening of a Nation? Environmentalism in the United States Since 1945 (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998)

History

A description and explanation of the development of the significance of environmentalism in the US

Mostly narrative, some analysis weaved in

Mostly primary sources. Some reference to works of other scholars

Makes broad arguments about causation, but only provides indirect evidence

Not considered explicitly, although the consequences of individual events and actions are considered

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848 (London: Abacus, 1962)

History

To develop broad understanding of the world’s development up to the present day

Thematic chapter organization; narrative within this, some analysis weaved in

Mostly secondary sources and summaries of existing historiography

Some consideration of causation weaved into narrative

Not applicable — not studying social movements particularly

Norbert Elias, trans. by Edmund Jephcott, The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners and State Formation and Civilization (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994; first published 1939)

Historical comparative sociology

To explain the development of a “civilizing process” — a broad historical trend

Sections of analysis; evidence presented in tables for clear summaries and comparison

Mixture of primary and secondary

The whole book is an extended consideration of causation. It mainly advances certain arguments and ignores others, however.

Not applicable — not studying social movements particularly

Riley E. Dunlap and Angela G. Mertig (eds.) American Environmentalism: The U.S. Environmental Movement, 1970-1990 (Washington: Taylor and Francis, 1991; first published 1990)

Social science — mostly by sociologists, one activist leader

Understanding of the environmental movement in the US

Different chapters have different focuses — different themes or sub-sections of the movement

Sometimes unclearly referenced, but seems to be a mixture of primary and secondary

Very little. Mostly focused on trends, processes and features of the movement, rather than the causes of its success

Very little. The final chapter, by one activist leader, seems to have a more utilitarian focus, although even here, the account seems geared towards understanding the movement to date rather than improving effectiveness.

Andrew Jamison, Ron Eyerman, and Jacqueline Cramer, with Jeppe Læssøe, The Making of the New Environmental Consciousness: A Comparative Study of the Environmental Movements in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990)

Sociology

Understanding of the environmental movement in Europe and what has caused its development, to benefit both activists and a wider public

Comparison across multiple case studies; brief theoretical exploration at the start, chapters devoted to each case study, then comparison at the end

Mostly primary sources

Some consideration of causation, although the topics on which they draw “conclusions and comparisons” are their theories of “Environmental Knowledge Interests,” “Environmentalism in political context,” and “Environmentalism as a social movement.”

Some brief consideration within individual case studies, although not really considered in the comparisons across countries

Felix Kolb, Protest and Opportunities: The Political Outcomes of Social Movements (Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 2007)

Sociology

Develop social movement impact theory; summarize current understanding, refine the theory, and develop through case studies

Literature reviews across relevant questions; theoretical exploration; detailed case studies, utilizing the theory proposed

Thorough literature reviews; use of primary and secondary evidence in case studies

Thorough consideration of causation; Kolb’s main contributions to social impact theory are on the five “causal mechanisms” driving political impacts of social movements

Does a review of the social movement literature relating to this. Kolb doesn’t thoroughly evaluate tactics in the case studies, but Kolb suggests some tentative conclusions from them.

Alain Touraine, The Voice and the Eye: An Analysis of Social Movements, trans. by Alan Duff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981; first published 1978)

Sociology

Develop social movement theory

Entirely theoretical; chapters thematic

Almost none

Only indirectly

None

Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation (Cambridge, MA: Albert Einstein Institution, 1993)

Social science broadly

Support “the most effective ways in which dictatorships could be successfully disintegrated with the least possible cost in suffering and lives”

Thematic chapters on different strategic issues

Unclear. Historical examples are occasionally used, but mostly we are expected to trust Sharp’s expertise

The causes of political change are considered, but the evidence base for the suggestions is unclear.

Some tactics are suggested over others, but the evidence base for the suggestions is unclear.

Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Random House, 1971)

Social science broadly

Support “those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be” to “create mass organizations to seize power and give it to the people”

Thematic chapters on different strategic issues

Historical examples are cited in support of particular points. No rigorous comparative or quantitative methods used to recommend certain actions over others.

No detailed attempts to delve into the factors that have caused change, though the provided historical examples are sometimes sufficient to support significant updates in views

Chapters on “tactics” and “The genesis of Tactic Proxy."

Bill Moyer with JoAnn MacAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steve Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 2001)

Social science broadly (mostly drawing on existing social movement literature from sociologists and political scientists)

Outlines various theories of the processes, impact, and tactics of movements that may be useful to activists of subsequent social movements

Theoretical exposition in first 4 chapters, brief summary of social movement literature in chapter 5, 5 case studies, which are discussed in narrative form and analyzed from the perspective of “Eight Stages of Social Movements,” but given the narrative form of these case studies, there is no explicit analysis of the lessons for other social movements from each individual case study. A conclusion has brief comments on potential lessons, though the evidence for each is unclear.

Recent (mostly US) social movements are used as evidence, relying mostly on secondary evidence. Existing social movement theory is referred to.

Given the narrative form, causation is not discussed, but is merely asserted or summarized.

Tactics of movements are described in the case studies, but given the narrative form of these case studies, there is no explicit analysis of the lessons about tactics.

Corey Lee Wrenn, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

Sociology

Developing “abolitionist theory” by adding “to the literature on social movement processes within a scientifically grounded, sociological perspective on identity, collective behavior, and social change in the context of anti-speciesism”

Thematic chapters, including both theoretical and strategic issues

Uses theoretical works, but also previous social movement studies, to develop own theoretical contributions

Causes of social movement mobilization and impact considered from works in social movement literature, but Wrenn does not do thorough literature reviews on these topics

Chapter 3 is part of “a scientific analysis of social change tactics," but Wrenn uses primarily theoretical arguments to consider this, rather than empirical evidence.

Erin Evans, “Stumbling Blocks or Stepping Stones? The Problems and Promises of Policy Reform for the Animal Advocacy Movement” Sociological Perspectives 59, No. 4 (July 2015), 1-20

Sociology

To use the “movement for animal protection in laboratory research” as a case study to test whether “ policy concessions create stumbling blocks or stepping stones for activists to pursue further change”

The theoretical context is explained, followed by an explanation of the data collection methods, and then results are analyzed separately.

No clear reason for choosing this case study given. Perhaps determined by personal interest

Causes of impact considered through the results and the analysis, but other variables and counterfactuals not well-considered

The article is primarily aimed at understanding whether certain legislative asks help or hinder movements.

View Updates

Given the varying intuitions and existing views of people on the topic of historical tractability, we can’t present conclusions from this work that would apply to all readers, so this section instead specifically details how Jamie Harris (author) and Jacy Reese (editor) changed their views during the course of this project.

On both the main question, “For the specific question of ‘which advocacy strategies were most effective?’ how much more useful is SI’s research than existing academic social movement literature (which includes work on a wide variety of social movement questions), per unit of resources spent on the research?”, and the same question but on “teasing out historical causation,” the initial intuitions of SI staff varied greatly.

Through my analysis I have become slightly more optimistic that sociologists have provided some empirical insights into some questions about the causes of legislative change and the organizational factors that correlate with success, but due to the lack of works focusing on important issues of causation and impact in the wider literature on major social movements such as the environmental movement, my overall view didn’t change much.

Through my analysis I became less optimistic about the value of existing historical or sociological works for teasing out causation, and SI’s work seems comparatively more useful, even though SI has not prioritized deep research of the primary evidence in order to increase our confidence in hypotheses about causation in particular case studies. Although many historians have tried to consider causation, others have not done so explicitly, and historians’ views on these topics are not presented in a format that is accessible to or easily interpretable by the farmed animal movement. So I think SI is right to, when possible, aggregate and summarize relevant existing research rather than conduct extensive original research or merely point to existing research.

Jacy Reese, our Research Director, who edited this article, did not discernibly change his views on the two key questions we discussed beforehand: (1) For the specific question of “which advocacy strategies were most effective?” how much more useful is SI’s research than existing academic social movement literature? And (2) For teasing out historical causation, how much more useful is SI’s research than existing academic social movement literature? However, Jacy did change his views on historical tractability based on the previous post, “How tractable is it for thoughtful actors to change the course of history?” He says this was because that post had more empirical research results and more discussion of scholarly opinion where Jacy was uncertain about the extent of agreement. The reports affected J. Mohorcich, our research fellow, in a similar way.

See this spreadsheet for quantitative versions of these views, before and after this research project.

Methodology used in this post

This post does not use systematic methods. I started researching areas where I was aware that there could be overlap with SI, then followed up on references to explore other potential areas of overlap. This post refers to my current understanding of the relevant literature, from my limited reading of it; I am not highly confident in any of characterizations made here.[2] This imperfect understanding seems sufficient for SI’s purposes for this post and more systematic research would likely be too time-consuming to be worthwhile. The footnotes contain examples that support my characterizations, although I have usually seen more evidence to support them than I list in this post.

Aims

The main objectives of historians are to document and understand the past, sometimes with the goal of aiding a broad understanding of the present.[3] As noted in the section on Insights from historians in our blog post on “How tractable is changing the course of history? historians are often reluctant to draw connections between historical and modern events, and so their work tends to focus on the aggregation of factual information. When I have seen historians relate their work to current practical applications, this has usually been done briefly as part of a foreword or epilogue.[4]

Sociology often seems to be preoccupied with developing and refining theory,[5] with knowledge being seen as inherently, rather than instrumentally, valuable.[6] Comparative historical sociology is similarly focused on broad goals, such as understanding “the underlying patterns in the way human beings act, think and feel.”[7] Despite the clear relevance of their work for current social movements, most sociologists whose works I have read do not seem explicitly concerned with maximizing the utility of their research for present-day activists. The book American Environmentalism, mostly written by social scientists and academic analysts,[8] demonstrates this contrast between the aims and concerns of academics and activists regarding the study of social movements. Whereas most chapters contain subtitles like “Shared perspectives Among Grassroots Environmentalists” and “Trends in Radical Environmentalism," the seventh chapter “provides an overview by a key insider in the movement - the former president and current chairman of the Sierra Club.” The chairman’s perspective seems more utilitarian, with subtitles including “Strategies,” “Tactics,” and “Challenges Ahead.”[9] Other scholars declare that they intend their work to be valuable to activists, but the format and methodology of these works typically suggest that either offering practical applications for activists was not their main goal, or that those scholars have very different views to SI about how researchers can provide most value to activists.[10]

SI, in contrast, says, “our mission is to build on the body of evidence for how to most effectively expand humanity’s moral circle, and to encourage advocates to make use of that evidence.” SI engages with theory only insofar as it fulfils these goals, and the format and methodology of SI reports are heavily focused on strategic implications rather than the different focuses of academics.

The most similar aims to SI’s that I’ve found in the existing social movement literature have been with the books From Dictatorship to Democracy, Rules for Radicals, and Doing Democracy, which were written specifically to give practical guidance to advocates for radical social change and community organizers.[11] There are some similar books in the animal advocacy movement like The Animal Activist’s Handbook.[12] However, as discussed below, SI differs from these works in methodology.

The field of Critical Animal Studies (CAS) supports “theory-to-action” engagement with activism and tries to “examine, explain, be in solidarity with, and be part of radical and revolutionary actions, theories, groups and movements for total liberation.” In this sense, SI has some overlap in aims with CAS and with some other scholars who engage with animal issues. Again, however, SI seems to differ from these works in methodology.

Format

Since SI’s research is intended to be practically useful for animal advocates, strategic implications are summarized in the introduction of our reports, and the historical narrative is mostly separated from the analysis for ease of use.[13]

This is notably different from many studies by historians and sociologists. For example, many historians emphasize the importance of rich description and evocative narrative in good historical writing,[14] but this is generally unhelpful or even harmful to effectiveness-focused advocates reading a research report, who need the precise and concise documentation of relevant evidence. In general, since, as noted above, the aims of the research of historians and sociologists are different to those of SI, the formats of these publications vary to meet their differing goals.

Some guides for activists have overlaps with SI in terms of aims and methodology but a differing format. Doing Democracy by Bill Moyer explicitly aims to contribute “to the effectiveness of social activism,”[15] and considers five case studies of social movements.[16] These case studies are presented in narrative form, however, and there is no explicit analysis of the lessons for other social movements from each individual case study. The conclusion has brief comments on “Five Strategic Guidelines for Social Activism in the 21st Century,” but these guidelines are fairly trivial, and the evidence for each is not given.[17]

Methodology

Content focus and evidence selection

Although most historians try to bring up new information with primary sources,[18] some historians, focusing on broader areas, rely primarily on secondary literature.[19] Historical comparative sociology also tends to rely heavily on the works of previous historians.[20] Sociologists focusing on more recent topics can generate new evidence rather than just relying on existing sources,[21] though they tend to reference the work of other sociologists and political scientists.

Given SI’s focus on making our work relevant and accessible for effective animal advocacy researchers and advocates, a significant part of our work involves extracting the most relevant information from existing works, and making it more accessible to animal advocates. Making use of existing literature is a much quicker route to assessing the strategic implications of a historical moment than conducting original historical research, so SI’s historical research relies mostly on secondary sources from historians and social scientists, though it turns to primary sources when necessary to fill identifiable relevant gaps.[22] The evidence selection process is therefore quite similar to the work of some sociologists, but very different from that of most historians. Whereas for historians, a content focus might be selected based on a lack of detailed primary historical research, the opposite would be preferable for SI, as well as for many social scientists (especially historical comparative sociologists).[23]

In terms of content selection, my guess is that academics will often focus their research where they think it will most contribute to broad understanding (although they will be influenced by other factors, such as personal interest), while SI focuses historical research where it will be most useful for current advocates.

SI’s work is intended to more rigorously assess causation than some uses of historical evidence intended for current practical application,[24] and is more empirically grounded than some works of social movement theory.[25] It also differs from books in the animal advocacy movement like The Animal Activist’s Handbook that do not use historical social movement evidence. 

SI’s historical research currently focuses on social movements that are most comparable to the farmed animal movement[26] and on technology adoptions that present the most useful comparisons to clean meat (among other factors).[27] Hence, SI focuses our social movement case studies primarily on ally-based movements, which are more easily comparable to the farmed animal movement (see the section on “How likely is it that correlations will replicate across movements?” in “What can the farmed animal movement learn from history?” for more detail on why this matters).

Consideration of causation

In order to learn lessons about the farmed animal movement from previous social movements’ experiences, we need to understand what has caused success or failure, and how effective different tactics have been. All SI social movement research is therefore ultimately interested in assessing and explaining causation.

As noted in the section, How confident can we be in judgements about historical causation? in “What can the farmed animal movement learn from history? the majority of historians consider causation to some extent, and the extensive debates around the causes of the industrial revolution, World War I, and the French Revolution, for which entire books (both original monographs and summaries of the historiography) have been written, show that this has been done rigorously by historians in some contexts. Historians do not, however, always provide thorough evaluations of the evidence supporting their claims, often privileging narrative and intuitions over explicit weighing of hard evidence or aggregation of those intuitions. This includes historians of social movements, such as Hal K. Rothman, who argues that increased support for environmentalism was a “product of prosperity of the post-war moment.”[28] Rothman doesn’t provide direct support for this claim, instead emphasizing the importance of shorter-term events, such as the dispute around the Echo Park Dam as the “galvanizing event that made the modern environmental movement come of age.”[29] To support the main argument, Rothman only offers broad comments about American preferences and human desires,[30] and suggests a correlation between subsequent economic stagnation and the movement’s decline.[31] This lack of evaluation of causality suggests SI should be skeptical of the opinions of historians in our case studies, focusing more on aggregation of hard evidence and forming opinions based on that.

In some cases, where causation is considered by sociologists, it is not considered in much depth, including among sociologists who study social movements.[32] Often, causation discussions are about the causes of mobilization of social movements, rather than the causes of success or failure in achieving their goals.[33] The field of social movement impact theory, discussed in the above two sections, addresses this gap to some extent, however.

Some previous works providing practical guidance for activists, such as From Dictatorship to Democracy and Rules for Radicals have not considered historical examples and analogies in sufficient depth to make strong claims about causation.[34] 

Differing views about the purpose and possibilities of historical research and writing have led to differing views about the extent to which historians should consider the role of contingency (see the “Introduction” to “How tractable is changing the course of history?for discussion of what I mean by this term).[35] As shown by the debate around the causes of World War I, however, in practice historians have been compelled to account for the role of contingency in order to answer their research questions comprehensively. Social movement sociologists, in seeking to make comparisons and generalizations, tend to avoid focusing on contingency. Since SI is seeking lessons (and therefore generalizations) from history, we consider chance and contingency insofar as they affect strategic implications, such as how much weight to place on particular case studies. In general we are more interested in case studies where deliberate action had greater effects.

Historians have debated the extent to which they should consider counterfactuals when analyzing causation in history, and to what extent they should focus only on events that are generalizable. An explicit counterfactual analysis would involve analyzing how outcomes would have been different if there was even a slight variation in causes and conditions. Traditionally, historians have rejected the consideration of counterfactuals and limited themselves to explaining history as it happened. E. H. Carr argued that the “only proper way” for a historian to write about causation is to assume that what happened “was in fact bound to happen” and just to “explain what happened and why," and rejects a “parlour game with the might-have-beens of history” as not having “anything to do with history."[36] More recently, some historians have embraced the consideration of counterfactual history as academically valuable.[37] Although some works on counterfactuals have been criticized heavily for their methodologies or conclusions,[38] other historians, including some of the most critical, confirm the potential uses of rigorous counterfactual analyses.[39]

Some social scientists engaged in social movement studies have focused on the importance of individual factors in social change, but such works have been criticized for excluding other relevant factors from their analyses.[40] As noted in the section, “Explicit discussion of counterfactuals as a method to increase our confidence in judgements about historical causation” in “What can the farmed animal movement learn from history?” the quantitative models employed by sociologists are a promising method for teasing out causation. Such methods could also be applied to compare factual conditions to counterfactual conditions in order to develop a clearer understanding of causation, providing that there is sufficient evidence to generate plausible counterfactuals. Similarly to historians, however, many social scientists doubt the appropriateness and rigor of explicit counterfactual analyses.[41]

The importance of counterfactual considerations in assessing impact is well-appreciated within the effective altruism community.[42] For SI, it may occasionally be worth conducting counterfactual analyses that utilize the more rigorous methods recommended by Richard Ned Lebow[43] or Philip E. Tetlock and Aaron Belkin.[44] For instance, we should check that our speculation about counterfactuals has logistical, historical, theoretical, and statistical consistency. In SI’s report on the British antislavery movement, when discussing the causes of the successful passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, Kelly Anthis cites a counterfactual analysis conducted by an earlier historian that suggests the bill would have passed even without voter reform.[45] In other instances, however, counterfactuals were not considered by historians, so Anthis tried to reconstruct some potential counterfactuals using evidence from various sources, in order to understand the importance of various factors. One such example was her consideration of the importance of the Haitian revolution specifically, which seemed to cause a major dent in Britain’s slave economy, as opposed to the importance of slave revolts in general, which may have generally made the industry less stable and more expensive but which, in their regularity and failures, were easier to ignore as a normal and expected feature of the industry.[46]

At other times, a brief consideration of less plausible counterfactual situations may be valuable for explanatory purposes, as long as the levels of speculation and confidence in the conclusions are made clear.[47]

Consideration of the effectiveness of interventions and tactics

Social movement sociologists have noted that the impact of organizations varies within movements, such as Sarah A. Soule and Susan Olsak’s model suggesting that the presence of an American Association of University Women chapter in states affected the “rate of ratification” of the Equal Rights Amendment, but that the chapter strength of the National Organization for Women did not.[48] The reasons for such differences in effectiveness are more explicitly explored by some sociologists. For example, one book by William Gamson (one of the first systematic sociological reviews of social movement impact[49]) considers a sample of US organizations and notes whether or not various attributes of those organizations correlate with success in terms of “acceptance” or “new advantages." These are valuable insights into how an organization’s own decisions and structuring can affect its success; all else equal, correlations are evidence of a causal relationship and so trying to replicate those characteristics most strongly correlated with success might increase the chances of success for farmed animal advocacy organizations.[50] Gamson’s book sparked debate on the effect that various organizational variables have on success.[51] There has been particular debate on the role of violence.[52] Studies that directly examine movement tactics seem rare and inconclusive, however.[53] 

From a brief look at some of the works in Critical Animal Studies (CAS), I was unable to locate empirical findings discussed in the context of effectiveness or causation.[54] Consideration of causation and of the most effective tactics are not the primary goals of CAS, however.

Historians, in their consideration of causation and their emphasis on some causes over others, may occasionally consider the effectiveness of specific tactics. In many cases, they focus more on narrative that explains the specific chain of events or they analyze the longer-term causes of a change. Robert Gottlieb, for example, in considering Earth Day 1970, describes the organizational process of the day, the reaction from industry, and the “symbolism” of the event, but devotes little attention to metrics of impact like “the number of participants" or newspaper or activist references, and Gottlieb does not explicitly hypothesize what may have caused its success.[55]

Those involved in social movements have written strategic advice and reflected on the effectiveness of particular interventions, although my impression is that this is usually based on anecdotal experience in the field, rather than on analysis of a variety of evidence.[56]

Ideas for further research:

  1. Closer reads of social movement literature on specific movements, e.g. environmentalism, asking:
  1. Are they considering “causation”? How rigorously?
  2. Are they considering specific tactics and interventions?
  3. Are they attempting to make it readable for activists at all?
  1. A more systematic method of reviewing the social movement literature, especially from history and sociology, asking questions 1a, 1b, and 1c listed above.
  2. Interviewing or surveying experts in some of the fields considered here, such as to ascertain the extent to which they consider academics in their field to engage with causation.


[1] Of course, each of these three questions is large in scope, and one could devote entire books — or even careers — to answering the first two. This post is intended to provide useful insights from a variety of disciplines and examples. In some instances (most notably the historical case studies), I have therefore sometimes relied on summary works, literature reviews and meta analyses, only occasionally consulting the original individual articles and books. In other cases, where the work is only partially relevant (such as the philosophical contributions to discussion on causation), my coverage will only be based on a few examples. To avoid overcomplicating the main text, I have put most of the detail from these works in the footnotes.

[2] For example, when using terms such as “most” or “often,” I am referring to any proportion upwards of 60%. I do not specify estimates more precisely than this in order to avoid presenting a misleading sense of confidence that my estimates are accurate. I am more familiar with some of the academic fields considered in this post than I am with others and this affects my confidence in my claims here. For each claim relating to the works of historians, I am about 78% confident in my characterizations, on average. For the works of sociologists, I am about 70% confident in my characterizations, on average. For works of Critical Animal Studies, or primers for activists, I am about 62% confident in my characterizations, on average.

[3] As an example, E. H. Carr, What is History (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd, 1964; first published 1961), 68, argued that “the function of history is to promote a profounder understanding of both past and present through the interrelation between them.”

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848 (London: Abacus, 1962), 11, notes that the book’s “ideal reader is that theoretical construct, the intelligent and educated citizen, who is not merely curious about the past, but wishes to understand how and why the world has come to be what it is today and whither it is going.” For relevant discussion, much of Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (London: Granta, 2000; first published 1997), considers the varying aims of historical writing, notably the disagreements about whether history should be more or less scientific (15-102), or have more or less political relevance (191-223).

[4] For example, Stephen Van Evera “The Cult of the Offensive and the Origins of the First World War," International Security, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Summer, 1984), pp. 58-107, contains only 2 paragraphs of “conclusions and implications for current American policy," on 106, at the end of a 49 page article.

[5] As an example, see Marco Giugni, Doug McAdam and Charles Tilly (eds.) From Contention to Democracy (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), which is focused on social movement impact theory, but where the contributions seem mostly theoretical, with little empirical focus.

[6] Marco Giugni, Social Protest and Policy Change: Ecology, Antinuclear, and Peace Movements in Comparative Perspective, (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2004), 2, writing on the reasons to study the impacts of social movements, notes that “We still have little systematic understanding of the consequences of social movements. This in itself would give us enough reasons to pay careful attention to this aspect. But studying the consequences of social movements is important because people engage in collective action precisely — though not exclusively — with the aim of producing changes in the outside world, in particular political decisions and public policies.” On page 34, Giugni comments on the history of why the discipline developed that “much work on the impact of social movements and protest behaviour has been done during the seventies. The spark was provided by the wave of student and antiwar protest as well as the riots that occurred in American cities during the sixties… Subsequently, the interest in the effects of movements has some what waned. It has resurfaced recently, however. A collective volume (Giugni, McAdam, and Tilly, 1999), among other recently published works and ongoing studies, testifies to this renewed interest in the consequences of social movements, which stems less from the need to understand current practices in society, such as riot behavior in urban settings, than from the willingness to fill an important gap in the social movement literature.”

[7] Dennis Smith, “Historical Social Theory” in Austin Harrington (ed) Modern Social Theory: an Introduction, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 132-3. Smith adds that “historical social theorists... want to link these patterns to the overarching structures - such as the family, government, or the economy - that shape the way human beings enter into social relationships. They also want to see how the behaviour of people within those relationships affects those overarching structures.”

[8] Riley E. Dunlap and Angela G. Mertig (eds.) American Environmentalism: The U.S. Environmental Movement, 1970-1990 (Washington: Taylor and Francis, 1991; first published 1990), xi

[9] Michael McCloskey, “Twenty Years of Change in the Environmental Movement: An Insider’s View," in Riley E. Dunlap and Angela G. Mertig (eds.) American Environmentalism: The U.S. Environmental Movement, 1970-1990 (Washington: Taylor and Francis, 1991; first published 1990), 77-88.

[10] As an example of a sociologist trying to make their work useful for activists, see Alberto Arribas Lozano, “Knowledge co-production with social movement networks. Redefining grassroots politics, rethinking research," Social Movement Studies 17, issue 4 (March 2018), 451-63, who notes, on 11, that “most important, this research proved relevant and useful for the activists-collaborators, the members of the ODSs, by connecting with their own aims, interests, concerns and knowledge-practices.”

Nevertheless, the benefits seem limited to encouraging vague self-reflection. Lozano notes, 7, that “being concerned about the relevance of my work for the activists, I included one last question in every interview: ‘in your opinion, how could this research become useful for your project?’... many participants underlined the immediate value of the interview itself as a moment of calm reflection within the daily urgencies of political militancy. Some suggested that I give all the raw materials produced during the project back to the network… other activists argued that the interviews ought to be used to trigger a collective discussion within the network. They said that the different ODSs needed to come together in order to review and redefine their work at a time… when collective action was at a stalemate and social movements had been unable to articulate tangible responses.” This gives the impression that Lozano decided first on a research interest, then tried to give the work an additional pragmatic value.

Similarly, Andrew Jamison, Ron Eyerman, and Jacqueline Cramer, with Jeppe Læssøe, The Making of the New Environmental Consciousness: A Comparative Study of the Environmental Movements in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990), x, claim that “our intention here is to play the role of partisan intellectuals, providing an analysis that can be useful for the further development of the movement as well as interesting for a general public.” However, their main conclusions seem to be methodological and theoretical, rather than practical: 185 notes that “our argument has been that this development [of environmentalism] is best understood as an interaction between international and national processes, which can most effectively be brought to light in a comparative framework.” The topics on which they drawn “conclusions and comparisons," 185-99, are their theories of “Environmental Knowledge Interests,” “Environmentalism in political context,” and “Environmentalism as a social movement.”

As an example of a sociologist being willing to quickly give up on the more useful aspects of social movement impact theory, Donatella della Porta and Mario Diani, Social Movements: An Introduction (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 229-30, notes interest in the “the ‘winning’ strategy” and whether it can “be exported to other countries," but on 228-33, abandons any “attempt to identify winning strategies," due to the difficulties in “evaluation of the relative effectiveness of particular movement strategies.”

[11] Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation (Cambridge, MA: Albert Einstein Institution, 1993), 9, notes that Sharp thought “carefully about the most effective ways in which dictatorships could be successfully disintegrated with the least possible cost in suffering and lives.”

Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Random House, 1971), 3, notes that it is written “for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be… In this book we are concerned with how to create mass organizations to seize power and give it to the people.”

Bill Moyer with JoAnn MacAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steve Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 2001), 1, notes that “We hope this book contributes to the effectiveness of social activism.” On 4, Moyer notes that “The gaps in the theory of social movements leave much to be desired from an activist perspective” and that “MAP, which is both a theory of social movements and a guide of action, addresses many of these questions.”

[12] Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich, The Animal Activist’s Handbook: Maximizing Our Positive Impact in Today’s World (New York: Lantern Books: New York, 2009).

Several such works of practical advice for advocates are listed and reviewed at https://butcantheysuffer.wordpress.com/category/resource-review-posts/eaa-resource-review-posts/

[13] For example, see https://www.sentienceinstitute.org/british-antislavery; excluding the abstract, contents, items for further study, appendix, footnotes and bibliography, the report is 41,216 words. Of this, 25,327 words (61%) are focused on “a condensed chronological history of the British antislavery movement," “other contemporary british human rights movements and their intersections with antislavery," or “contemporary British animal use and advocacy and their intersections with antislavery." The rest (39%) is explicitly focused on analyzing “strategic implications” or factors which might affect this, such as similarities and differences between British antislavery and the farmed animal movement.

[14] See, for example:

 Arthur Marwick, The Nature of History (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989; first printed 1970), 242

John Tosh, Seán Land, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006; first published 1984), 148

[15] Bill Moyer with JoAnn MacAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steve Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 2001), 1

[16] Bill Moyer with JoAnn MacAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steve Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 2001), 116-185, chapters 6-10, lists 5 case studies, by various authors: the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Nuclear Energy Movement, the Gay and Lesbian Movement in the United States, the Breast Cancer Social Movement, and the Globalization Movement.

[17] Bill Moyer with JoAnn MacAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steve Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 2001), 191-8. For example, one guideline is: “Organize strategically for transformation from the modern era of economic growth and prosperity to a new era of ecology, justice, and sustainability.” The evidence is not summarized in the conclusion, although these guidelines are presumably based upon the authors’ understanding of the theory and evidence contained elsewhere in the book.

[18] John Tosh, Seán Land, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006; first published 1984), 199, for example, notes that “The true work of [historical] research, whether dissertation, article, or book, will set out to extend knowledge, not simply remain within the comfortable territory of a topic which has already been fully explored by other historians… A historical work is generally esteemed serious and scholarly to the extent that is properly based on the primary sources."

[19] As an example, Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848 (London: Abacus, 1962), 12, notes that “outside a fairly narrow zone [historians] must rely largely on the work of other historians. For the period 1789 to 1848 this secondary literature alone forms a mass of print so vast as to be beyond the knowledge of any individual… Much of this book is therefore second- or even third-hand, and it will inevitably contain errors, as well as the inevitable foreshortenings which the expert will regret, as the author does.”

John Tosh, Seán Land, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006; first published 1984), 199, concedes this point, noting that “It may happen that when a historian is concerned to increase knowledge on some large and general topic (such as, say, ‘The Nature of Revolutions’ or ‘The Causes of Industrial Progress’), perhaps by illuminating some new themes, or indicating new contrasts and comparisons, he or she will depend mainly on the secondary works of other authors.”

[20] T. Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (Cambridge, New York and Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1979), xiv, notes that “inevitably, broadly conceived comparative historical projects draw their evidence almost entirely from “secondary sources” - that is, from research monographs and syntheses already published in book or journal-article form by the relevant historical or culture-area specialists… The comparativist has neither the time nor (all of) the appropriate skills to do the primary research that necessarily constitutes, in large amounts, the foundation upon which comparative studies are built.”

Nevertheless, V. Bonnell, ‘The Uses of Theory, Concepts and Comparison in Historical Sociology’ in Comparative Studies in Society and History 22 (1980), 172, notes that “in recent years sociologists have begun to participate in a dual process, involving both a conventional historical investigation (uncovering, sorting, and evaluating raw historical data) and a general sociological analysis.”

[21] J. Goldthorpe, ‘Uses of history in sociology: reflections on some recent tendencies’ in British Journal of Sociology 42, no. 2 (1991), 213-4, notes that “Historians are concerned with finding their evidence from a stack of relics. In contrast – and this is the difference I want to stress – sociologists have open to them a possibility that is largely denied to historians. While sociologist can, and often do, draw on relics as evidence, in just the same way as historians, they can in addition, generate evidence… Evidence that is ‘invented’, rather than evidence that is discovered... constitutes the main empirical foundations of modern sociology.”

[22] See, for example, Kelly Anthis’s consultation of Cobbett, William. The Parliamentary History of England, various volumes. London: T.C. Hansard, 1806-1820, in https://www.sentienceinstitute.org/british-antislavery. Her knowledge of the farmed animal movement was critical to asking questions that may have been uninteresting to historians but useful for SI’s purposes. For example, this led to her use of parliamentary records.

[23] T. Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (Cambridge, New York and Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1979), xiv, notes that “a large existing literature may be a bane for the specialist who hopes to make a new contribution based upon previously undiscovered or underexploited primary evidence. But for the comparative sociologist this is the ideal situation.”

[24] Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Random House, 1971) uses historical examples to illustrate points. 37, notes for example that “Mahatma Gandhi and his use of passive resistance presents a striking example of the selection of means… Gandhi is viewed by the world as the epitome of the highest moral behavior with respect to means and ends.” Historical examples are given, at most, a few pages of examination, however.

[25] Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation (Cambridge, MA: Albert Einstein Institution, 1993), 9, notes that the book draws on “studies over many years of dictatorships, resistance movements, revolutions, political thought, government systems, and especially realistic nonviolent struggle.” However, the evidence is not presented, so that it is impossible for the reader to know how far they should prioritize attempting to implement these suggestions. As one example, 13-14, lists these conclusions, without explaining the evidence: “guerilla warfare rarely, if ever, benefits the oppressed population or ushers in a democracy… Guerrilla struggles often last a very long time. Civilian populations are often displaced by the ruling government, with immense human suffering and social dislocation. Even when successful, guerrilla struggles often have significant long-term negative structural consequences. Immediately, the attacked regime becomes more dictatorial as a result of its countermeasures.”

Cynthia Kaufman, Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2003), is intended to provide “some basic literacy in social theory,” to prevent people being “confused about what sorts of issues one should be working on, how this work will ever end up making a difference, and how the things one doesn’t like in the world are related to each other.” In this sense, it has very practical aims. The chapters of the book each explain and summarize various ideas and set them in their historical context, like “Capitalism and Class,” on 57-81. There is no systematic use of empirical evidence, however; the book is a summary of ideas, rather than a detailed consideration of their relevance and application to practical questions.

Corey Lee Wrenn, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) often uses social movement theory to draw potential lessons for animal advocacy. Paragraphs 9.30-31 note, for example, that “Capitalism is inherently exploitative… “voting with your dollar” is a strategy that is ultimately limited in its ability to dismantle the oppressive structure itself.” At times, Wrenn gets closer to using social movement impact theory to suggest more specific tactical suggestions, but here, single studies (whose arguments are controversial) are presented at face value, without exploration of the underlying evidence base. Paragraph 4.32 notes, for example that “social movements are channeled through non-profit institutions, effectively quelling them (McCarthy et al., 1991, p. 70). Not only is organizational efficacy stunted by this process, but also the public is made to believe that the social problems in question are being seen to, thus reducing public awareness and propensity for protest. The process of institutionalization is essentially a means of facilitating hierarchy and control, one that suppresses critical thought to the benefit of the state (Ward, 1996, p. 119).”

[26] In SI’s British antislavery case study, Kelly Anthis notes that “the fundamental comparison this report hinges on is that the individuals of both groups were/are sentient individuals who faced/face discrimination and were/are treated as chattel," and devotes extensive consideration to similarities and differences between the British antislavery movement and the modern anti-animal-farming movement.

[27] In SI’s case study on genetically modified foods, J. Mohorcich devotes extensive consideration to “analogies," “disanalogies” and aspects of “unclear relationship” to clean meat.

[28] Hal K. Rothman, The Greening of a Nation? Environmentalism in the United States Since 1945 (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998), Xi

[29] Hal K. Rothman, The Greening of a Nation? Environmentalism in the United States Since 1945 (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998), 34. Rothman adds that “This one dam among many became a cause celebré that captured the attention of the nation and revolutionized conservation in the United States. At Echo Park, conservation was reborn as environmentalism in a struggle that both served as a replay of the conservation controversies of the turn of the century and paradoxically created an entirely different focus for a new and socially and culturally more complex movement.” On pages 44-5, Rothman cites various anecdotal evidence to support the claim that “the battle to stop the dam in Dinosaur National Monument touched a national nerve, raising questions about the smug faith in progress that Americans had embraced," such as that “As the Eighty-third Congress adjourned in 1954, Speaker of the House Joseph W. Martin Jr. announced that the controversy about the dam killed the bill’s chances for passage”

[30] Hal K. Rothman, The Greening of a Nation? Environmentalism in the United States Since 1945 (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998), “As a nation we want convenience and abundance, but we want it without risk. Environmental protection was designed to mitigate that risk… When people perceive limits on their ability to succeed, particularly in material terms, they become more willing to accept greater risk to their health and society if that risk provides them with the money to purchase the amenities they crave. In effect, Americans have shown a tendency to be “green” when it is inexpensive - economically, socially and culturally - but a reluctance to collectively sacrifice convenience and even the smallest of material advantages to assure a “cleaner” future.”

[31] Hal K. Rothman, The Greening of a Nation? Environmentalism in the United States Since 1945 (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998), xii, notes that environmentalism “reached its peak with the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973… In an era of prosperity, it was easy to place the goals of environmentalism beside an expanding economy. As the economy slowed, these values overlapped. The result was first a fracturing of the bipartisan consensus and later the polarization of the dialogue about environmental issues.”

[32] For example, Russell J. Dalton, The Green Rainbow: Environmental Groups in Western Europe (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), xiii, the first paragraph in the preface notes that “Today it seems everyone is green, or at least claims to be” and poses the question “what has produced this greening of European politics?” This implies that this will be a focus of the book. But the author then notes that “this is, first a study to examine the development of the green movement in Western European democracies. In it I attempt to describe environmental interest groups as important new participants in the contemporary political process.” The use of the terms “examine” and “describe,” rather than aiming to “explain” environmentalism’s rise, is typical of the approach of sociologists whose works I have read. On pages 26-38, comparing the 1960s “new wave of environmental mobilization” to earlier movements such as the conservation movement, Dalton does consider “the factors that led to these mobilization waves,” but the summary is concise and does not explore evidence for the relative importance of these factors.

[33] Daniel Stockemer, “The Social Movement Scholarship: What We Know and What Is Still Unclear," in The Micro and Meso Levels of Activism: A Comparative Case Study of Attac France and Attac Germany (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 14-32, includes a summary of “relative deprivation theory," “the resource mobilization approach” and “the opportunity structure theorem” as “the three main structural theories in social movement scholarship," though none of these have much direct relevance to the impact of social movements.

These are also well-summarized at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_movement_theory

Riley E. Dunlap and Angela G. Mertig (eds.) American Environmentalism: The U.S. Environmental Movement, 1970-1990 (Washington: Taylor and Francis, 1991; first published 1990), xi, summarizes the interest of social scientists in environmentalism: “Social scientists have examined environmentalism from various theoretical perspectives. Some have portrayed it as one of a myriad of “new social movements” (concerned primarily with noneconomic goals) stimulated by the rise of post-materialist values in the affluent, post-World War II era, and others have emphasized the unique characteristics of environmental problems that engender widespread collective action to solve them or the success with which activists have mobilized a range of resources to stimulate such action.”

[34] See footnotes 24 and 25 above.

Bill Moyer with JoAnn MacAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steve Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 2001), 116-85, does consider 5 case studies in some depth, but given the narrative form, causation is asserted, rather than analyzed and discussed. 123, for example, notes that “The widely acknowledged trigger event of the 1960s Civil Rights movement occurred on February 1, 1960, when four black freshmen at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, N.C., violated the law by “spontaneously” sitting down at Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter… Typical of Stage Four take-off, students across the South repeated the sit-in tactic at their local eating establishments.”

[35] E. H. Carr, What is History (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd, 1964; first published 1961), 107, argues that accidental causes should not be considered by historians, since they “cannot be generalized” and “teach no lessons."

Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (London: Granta, 2000; first published 1997), 134, argues in contrast that “the politician or the social reformer” have nothing to gain from an examination of chance, but that the historian’s purpose is to “understand the past," and so should account for these factors.

[36] E. H. Carr, What is History (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd, 1964; first published 1961), 97

Niall Ferguson (ed.), Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 20, notes that “Something more than the defects of past attempts at counterfactual history has deterred such historians from spelling out the historical alternatives their books imply. A more profound suspicion of counterfactualism is at work - a suspicion which has the deepest of roots in the philosophy of history.” On pages 5-6, Ferguson summarizes some of these hostile views, such as from Benedetto Croce and Michael Oakeshott.

[37] Robert Cowley (ed.) What If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (London: Macmillan, 2000; first published 1999), xi-xiv, argues that “What ifs have a genuine value that goes beyond the “idle parlor game” (the historian E. H. Carr’s phrase). They can be a tool to enhance the understanding of history, to make it come alive. They can reveal, in startling detail, the essential stakes of a confrontation, as well as its potentially abiding consequences… what ifs can lead us to question long-held assumptions. What ifs can define true turning points. They can show that small accidents or split-second decisions are as likely to have major repercussions as large ones (the so-called “first-order” counterfactual)... they can eliminate what has been called “hindsight bias.”” 

[38] See footnote 45 in our post on What can the farmed animal movement learn from history?

[39] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 102, concludes that “the use of counterfactuals in history has got to be highly disciplined… Within these limits, though, counterfactual reasoning can help to establish chains of causation.”

Aviezer Tucker, “Historiographical Counterfactuals and Historical Contingency," History and Theory 32, no. 2 (May 1999) is critical of the methods, but 273, argues that “instead of speculation, the only way to examine the contingency of history is to study it empirically, and attempt with the help of theoretically based counterfactuals to find out how sensitive particular historical outcomes were to initial conditions.”

[40] Paul Burstein and April Linton, “The Impact of Political Parties, Interest Groups, and Social Movement Organizations on Public Policy: Some Recent Evidence and Theoretical Concerns," Social Forces 81, No. 2 (December, 2002), 388, note that “There is a vast number of studies seemingly interested in policy change, but in fact focusing only on how particular variables are related to policy… This is a strategy pursued even though everyone knows, at some level,that excluding some variables from an analysis makes it likely that estimates of the impact of the variables included will be inaccurate.”

Sarah A. Soule and Susan Olzak. "When do movements matter? The politics of contingency and the equal rights amendment," American Sociological Review 69, issue 4 (August, 2004), 474, note that analysis has usually been “monocausal," and on 493, note that “implicit throughout our article is a criticism of much past research on policy outcomes that has failed to consider both the movement and countermovement associated with a particular outcome (for notable exceptions, see McCammon et al. 2001, Andrews 2001, and Soule forthcoming).”

[41] Richard Ned Lebow, “What's so different about a counterfactual?," World Politics 52, issue 4 (July 2000), 550-1, speaking of international relations scholars, notes that “for most members of our profession counterfactual arguments appear to have no scientific standing. They are flights of fancy, fun over a beer or two in the faculty club, but not the stuff of serious research.”

[42] https://concepts.effectivealtruism.org/concepts/counterfactual-considerations/

[43] Richard Ned Lebow, “What's so different about a counterfactual?," World Politics 52, issue 4 (July 2000), 581-4, proposed “eight criteria for plausible-world counterfactuals”: “1. Clarity… 2. Legal consistency or cotenability… 3. Enabling counterfactuals should not undercut the antecedent… 4. Historical consistency… 5. Theoretical consistency… 6. Avoid the conjunction fallacy… 7. Recognize the interconnectedness of causes and outcomes… 8. Consider second-order counterfactuals.” Note that several of these were drawn from Tetlock and Belkin (see below).

[44] Philip E. Tetlock and Aaron Belkin, “Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical, Methodological, and Psychological Perspectives," in Philip E. Tetlock and Aaron Belkin, (eds.), Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical, Methodological, and Psychological Perspectives (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 18, lay out “Six Criteria for Judging Counterfactual Arguments”: ““1. Clarity... 2. Logistical consistency or cotenability… 3. Historical consistency (minimal-rewrite rule)... 4. Theoretical consistency… 5. Statistical consistency… 6. Projectability.”

[45] Citing Robert Fogel, Without Consent or Contract (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989), 230, she notes that “Fogel claims that while the voter reform seemed to put more supporters of emancipation in Parliament, and while capitalists and non-Anglicans were more supportive, these effects were so weak that the bill still would have passed. What seems critical was the aristocrats’ increased support, which is likely attributable to their desire to placate the public in order to deter them from opposing issues they prioritized more highly.”

[46] For example, in noting the strategic implication that the farmed animal movement should “Act when the most popular arguments supporting the institution are weak,” she explains that "The economic value of the trade was its key defense, and abolition finally succeeded in a period of decline in the volume of the trade and shortly after a major blow to the international industry. The Haitian Slaves liberated themselves from France 1804, severely reducing not only enemy France’s trade but the entire international trade as the colony had produced a third of the world’s sugar and had been the international trade’s largest market. At this time, the Commons became substantially more supportive of abolition than they had been the last time a motion for it was made in 1799 or any year prior, and they passed immediate abolition for the first time that year. After the Foreign Slave Trade Act passed two years later, possibly reducing half or so of the British trade, it took only a year for abolition to be passed “without a division” in the Commons and overwhelmingly in the Lords."

Note that, given time pressures and the diminishing returns of focusing on particular areas, if counterfactual impact has not been done rigorously analyzed by academics, it is unlikely that SI will be able to do this more comprehensively than in the above example.

[47] See, for example, footnote 77 in “How tractable is changing the course of history?” which explores an implausible counterfactual scenario with “hypothetical anti-war advocates... if somehow optimally placed in positions of influence,” trying to prevent the outbreak of World War I. I used this counterfactual in order to explain my understanding of how tractable it would have been to alter this historical trajectory.

[48] Sarah A. Soule and Susan Olzak. "When do movements matter? The politics of contingency and the equal rights amendment," American Sociological Review 69, issue 4 (August, 2004), 489, note that “with respect to the effect of movement organizational strength and the access-influence model, we find no significant effect of NOW chapter strength on the rate of ratification, but we do find that the presence of an AAUW chapter increased the rate of ratification. We also find that anti-ERA organizational strength decreased the rate of ratification, as the coefficient for this measure is negative and significant.”

[49] Suggested by Marco Giugni, Social Protest and Policy Change: Ecology, Antinuclear, and Peace Movements in Comparative Perspective, (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2004), 3-4 and by https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_movement_impact_theory

[50] For example, William Gamson, Strategy of Social Protest (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1990; first published 1975), 42-3, when asking “How successful are the groups that aim to displace one or more antagonist compared to the 70 percent that merely wanted to change its policies or organization in some way?," Gamson finds that “displacing groups” had 12% acceptance and 6% new advantages, while “non-displacing groups” had 62% acceptance and 68% new advantages.

[51] Marco Giugni, Social Protest and Policy Change: Ecology, Antinuclear, and Peace Movements in Comparative Perspective, (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2004), 21-3, summarizes of some of the criticism of Gamson’s work. “Gamson’s work has raised a number of criticisms, mostly regarding methodology… but also involving a series of reanalyses of his data, which the author appended to the book… As in the case of the role of disruptive tactics, most of these works have confirmed Gamson’s principal findings, at least in part… Thus Gamson’s central argument, stressing internal variables and resource mobilization as determinants of group success, found further support." Giugni notes that main criticism comes from Piven and Cloward and “Goldstone’s reanalysis (1980a) of Gamson’s data [which] has cast serious doubts over his findings and has pointed to a perspective on social movement outcomes that takes into account their broader political context."

[52] Marco Giugni, Social Protest and Policy Change: Ecology, Antinuclear, and Peace Movements in Comparative Perspective, (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2004), summarizes these debates on 3 and 23-5. Giugni notes that Gamson’s findings, that violence (among other forms of “constraint”) encourages success, “are backed up by some of the aforementioned reanalyses of his data, in particular those by Mirowsky and Ross (1981) and Steedly and Foley (1979). Yet there is no consensus on this point nor on the implications of this for movements.”

[53] Felix Kolb, Protest and Opportunities: The Political Outcomes of Social Movements (Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 2007), 49 asks: “Are certain tactics more effective than others in achieving political change? And if so, which are more effective and under which circumstances?” Kolb, after conducting a literature review, summarizes that “Unfortunately, the necessary empirical studies - systematically comparing the political impact of various tactics - are extremely rare. Almost all studies of the political outcomes of social movements focus on the impact of one tactic at a time or fail to discuss the individual contributions of different tactics to the overall political outcomes. This practice does not correspond to the reality of social movements, which normally use various tactics concurrently to achieve their goals. Although scholars have recently started to criticize this practice, research overcoming this weakness has not been published so far (cf. Hilson 2002; Wasby 2000). Some studies at least compare the political impact of two different kinds of tactics, but their aggregated findings remain largely inconclusive.” For example, Kolb summarizes the debate on “insider” or “outsider” tactics, but finds the implications of the studies are inconclusive. On pages 49-50, on the debate around the effectiveness of disruptive or violent tactics, Kolb notes that “The answers to this question are far from consensual. The empirical evidence suggests that disruptive as well as assimilative tactics have been politically effective in some cases, but have also been ineffective in others.”

[54] Anthony J. Nocella II, John Sorenson, Kim Socha, and Atsuko Matsuoka (eds.), Defining Critical Animal Studies: An Intersectional Social Justice Approach for Liberation (New York: Peter Lang, 2014), functions more as a statement of intent for CAS than as a tool for activists. One of the most useful sounding sections of the book, Sarat Colling, Sean Parson, and Alessandro Arrigoni, “Until All Are Free: Total Liberation through Revolutionary Decolonization, Groundless Solidarity, and a Relationship Framework,” 51-73, is dedicated (according to the introduction, xxxiii) “to analysis of Principle 7 [on championing “a politics of total liberation” for “human, nonhuman animal, and Earth”]. For instance, they claim that “no one is free while another is oppressed,” applying Steven Best’s work to various examples of subjugation but providing no substantiation of the claim or its implications, only making other ideological assertions such as that on 52 that “Because animal and human oppression are inseparable, liberation must entail not only abolishing capitalism but also dismantling the animal industrial complex.”

On the list of books recommended by CAS, the books do not have obviously practical titles, instead with titles like Animal Oppression and Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism, and Global Conflict. Some listed books with titles suggesting practical guidance, such as Helena Pedersen’s, Animals in Schools: Processes and Strategies in Human-Animal Education (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2009) don’t make concrete strategic suggestions. On 1 the author notes that “The intention with the present book is to describe what is actually taking place in classroom settings whenever human-animal relations are brought into focus… The primary purpose of the study is to explore how schools deal with animal-related issues by studying what messages and “stories” about animals and human-animal relations are expressed (explicitly or implicitly) in the school environment.” The only concrete suggestions for activists that I could find are condensed into the final 5 sentences of the book.

[55] Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993), 105-114. On page 113, Gottlieb does discuss its impact, but does not provide specific evidence within the claims made: “In the months following Earth Day, a new environmentalism did begin to take shape. It evolved in relation to the series of laws and regulatory initiatives establishing a massive pollution control apparatus at the federal level. At the same time, a number of groups, including existing conservationist organizations, developed along more professional lines, creating a mainstream environmental movement in the process. This movement became a powerful force in extending and shaping the environmental policy system that so dominated legislative and administrative agendas during the 1970s.” Given that 9 pages were devoted to Earth Day specifically, within 323 pages of text, this paragraph constitutes a shallow coverage of the tactical considerations most relevant to current activists.

[56] Michael McCloskey, “Twenty Years of Change in the Environmental Movement: An Insider’s View," in Riley E. Dunlap and Angela G. Mertig (eds.) American Environmentalism: The U.S. Environmental Movement, 1970-1990 (Washington: Taylor and Francis, 1991; first published 1990), 82-83, for example, considers “tactics” in the environmental movement. McCloskey makes statements like “By the end of the 1980s… EPA programs seemed to be all input and virtually no output," but does not provide any detail on either the resource inputs or any legislative outputs.

Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich, The Animal Activist’s Handbook: Maximizing Our Positive Impact in Today’s World (New York: Lantern Books: New York, 2009), although making a variety of very sound logical and theoretical arguments, rely largely on personal experience. They make frequent reference to the usefulness of leaflets, for example, whereas a recent meta-analysis and intervention report by Animal Charity Evaluators concludes that “trials don’t provide clear evidence that leafleting decreases recipients’ animal product consumption in the first few months after distribution. In fact, the results suggest leafleting is about as likely—or perhaps even more likely—to actually cause increases in animal product consumption during this time period. Other evidence also supports the conclusion that leafleting is probably less effective than some other promising farmed animal advocacy interventions.”


Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on our research and activities. We'll email you once a month at most!