Key Lessons From Social Movement History
Jamie Harris
Researcher
June 30, 2021

Edited by Jacy Reese Anthis and Ali Ladak. Many thanks to Courtney Dillard for reviewing and providing feedback.

Abstract

In this post I summarize key strategic implications from our five completed social movement case studies and several additional case studies by other researchers, looking for correlations and convergent findings across the different movements and contexts. From this evidence, I argue that the farmed animal movement should take steps to avoid unintended consequences from incremental tactics; use a more diverse range of institutional tactics; use fewer individual diet change tactics, primarily as a complement to institutional tactics; explore opportunities to bypass public opinion; and focus less on issue salience. I also argue that the nascent movements to protect the interests of future sentient beings (e.g. artificial sentience) should focus first on building a credible, professional movement but subsequently invest in a broader range of social movement tactics when promising opportunities arise.

Introduction

Sentience Institute has now published five social movement case studies. This post provides a summary of the strategic implications from this work so far.

The main goal of these case studies is to glean strategic insights for social movements encouraging moral circle expansion (MCE), especially the farmed animal movement and the nascent movements to protect the interests of future sentient beings (e.g. artificial sentience). Other social movements, including the broader effective altruism movement, may also benefit.

We have argued:

Individual historical cases can therefore provide inspiration for potential tactics and perhaps build our intuition, but we should not place much weight on strategic knowledge gained from a single case, because causal relationships may not replicate in different contexts and may seem to work in contradictory ways. Note, however, that weak evidence can still be useful and should not be disregarded as it is often all we have available.

Even if we are not very confident about individual hypothesized causal relationships, we may be able to place significant weight on the strategic knowledge gleaned from history if we see that certain correlations reliably replicate across different movements and across different contexts.

In this post, I identify correlations and convergent findings across the different movements and contexts that SI has studied so far.

Methodology

The movements we have studied so far are:

We have a separate post discussing methodological considerations such as why we have chosen to focus on these particular case studies. Our research on this topic is incomplete, so I also draw on similar reports by other researchers associated with the effective altruism community:

To identify big-picture trends, I assigned scores to each movement[1] for a number of different variables:

I then estimated Spearman’s correlations between the variables and tested for statistical significance (p < 0.05), though there are many limitations to this sort of correlational historical evidence and to statistical tests with small sample sizes.[2]

Looking more closely at specific case studies, I identify a number of other findings that seem to hold true in multiple contexts, even though I did not find significant correlational evidence for them from across the full set of case studies.[3] The anti-abortion and anti-death penalty movements provide a number of strategic implications relating to the causes and effects of US Supreme Court rulings; these implications were analyzed in more depth in a separate report and so are not included here.

Full lists of strategic implications

The full results of the scoring and correlational analysis are recorded in a spreadsheet. The full list of repeat findings from the qualitative, comparative analysis are reported in a second spreadsheet, ordered by strength of evidence.

The writeup below provides discussion on the strategic implications most relevant to prevailing practices in the farmed animal movement and the movements for future sentient beings, following additional qualitative analysis and synthesis of the findings identified by the above two methods. This means that, while potentially important, some of the recommendations below have relatively weak supporting evidence.

Recommendations for the farmed animal movement

Take steps to reduce risks of unintended negative consequences from incremental tactics

Animal advocates often debate whether it is better to focus on welfare reforms or the abolition of animal farming without intermediary, incremental steps. Disagreement is partly due to differing ethical views (e.g. consequentialism versus deontology) and partly due to differing strategic views about whether welfare reforms lead to momentum or complacency for future progress. The case studies have implications for the latter component of the debate.

Similar concerns that incremental reforms may encourage complacency have been raised in other movements, such as worries that the US Supreme Court’s procedural reforms to the death penalty may have legitimated and encouraged the imposition of death sentences in lower courts by assuaging anxiety and the sense of responsibility for the decision. There is some weak evidence for these specific concerns,[4] though the case studies also provide evidence that incremental reforms do not prevent subsequent, more radical reforms.[5]

Some incremental social movement tactics seem to have had various other kinds of unintended negative consequences[6]:

Another risk is that incremental tactics distract advocates’ attention from more important political and systemic issues. The US prisoners’ rights movement won small palliative welfare reforms for prisoners while doing little to halt the increasing number of prisoners and more punitive treatment of criminals.[10] The Fair Trade movement has made very limited efforts to address the unfavorable tariffs and international trade regulations that are arguably the root cause of the problems it seeks to address.[11] Neglecting these trends may have been a major strategic mistake, though it’s not clear whether advocates could have affected them.

There are many good reasons to use incremental tactics,[12] and most advocates who do so would presumably agree that, all else equal, it’s preferable to choose incremental tactics that are unlikely to have unintended negative consequences. However, l worry that the farmed animal movement doesn’t pay enough attention specifically to reducing these risks. I recommend that advocates:

Use fewer individual diet change tactics, primarily as a complement to institutional tactics

The case studies have strategic implications for another foundational question in effective animal advocacy — whether the farmed animal movement should focus its messages and interventions on changing institutions and social norms rather than changing consumer diets.


T
he largest US farmed animal advocacy organizations spent 46% of their resources on influencing public opinion and individual dietary behavior in 2016, but the case studies suggest that marketing and efforts to raise public awareness have limited effects on behaviors:

In comparison, the largest US farmed animal advocacy organizations only spent 7% of their resources on influencing policy and the law in 2016,[17] but some of the findings from the case studies suggest positive outcomes from legislative tactics:[18]

The antislavery and anti-abortion movements provide evidence that legislative change can occur before the behaviors that will be regulated have changed.[19] This challenges the intuition shared by many animal advocates that the successes of individual and institutional tactics are interdependent.

However, I found that successful institutional change is positively correlated with change to individuals’ behavior. For example, the antislavery movement successfully encouraged both reduction of purchases of slave-made goods and legislation that abolished slavery, whereas only a small proportion of global trade is in certified Fair Trade goods and there have been few institutional changes specifically to encourage Fair Trade purchasing or values. So the success of these different types of tactics seems at least mutually complementary. There is evidence from the Fair Trade movement and other “ethical consumerism” movements that individuals who participate in consumer action are more likely to participate in other forms of activism.[20] Additionally, the boycotts of West Indian sugar seem to have built momentum for the legislative campaigns of the British antislavery movement.[21] 

The case studies also show that consumer action can be taken by individuals who would otherwise be unlikely to contribute to a social movement:

As we have argued before, convergent evidence suggests that the farmed animal movement should shift some of its resources from tactics focused on individual diet change towards legislative and other institutional tactics. Where advocates continue to engage in individual tactics, they should:

Diversify institutional tactics beyond corporate campaigns

There are many possible institutional tactics that the farmed animal movement can use. Among these, the farmed animal movement primarily focuses on influencing industry in various ways. The case studies suggest that pressure tactics can be effective at challenging companies.[25] There is evidence from beyond the case studies that corporate welfare campaigns can be highly cost-effective on short timeframes and that welfare reforms encourage momentum for further change.

However, I found among the case studies that successful social change was negatively correlated with the use of corporate campaigns and negotiations. For example, the antislavery and children’s rights movements — among the most successful — spent little on corporate campaigns, while the less successful anti-abortion and Fair Trade movements spent relatively more.[26]

Additionally, it seems likely that each type of institutional tactic has some low-hanging fruit. For example, the anti-abortion, anti-death penalty, and Fair Trade movements provide evidence that it is especially tractable to pressure companies to stop selling a particular product type if it makes up only a small proportion of their profit margins.[27] The anti-death penalty and antislavery movements first won legislative successes in areas where the targeted practices were not in regular use.[28] The US anti-death penalty and prisoners’ rights movements seem to have been weakened by their narrow focus (at times) on litigation while neglecting other strategies,[29] while the anti-abortion movement shows that advocates who successfully push through controversial legislation may need to defend that legislation in the courts.[30] Hence, investing small amounts of resources in a variety of institutional tactics may generate surprisingly high gains for animals.

Explore opportunities to bypass public opinion

My impression is that farmed animal advocates often believe that legislative change is intractable without favorable public opinion. The case studies provide some support for this belief, suggesting that public opinion can positively affect legislative policy-making.[31] However, the case studies also provide evidence that:[32]

Combined with the arguments above about the importance of legislative and other institutional tactics, this suggests that in some instances the movement should appeal to influencers and institutional decision-makers directly, without worrying about first securing favorable public opinion. However, this only seems wise in certain circumstances, since (i) it seems easier to introduce and implement unpopular laws if voters in the state do not have ready access to ballot initiatives or referenda, and (ii) politicians are incentivized to be more sensitive to public opinion on “morality issues” (e.g. a ban on factory farming) than on technical issues (e.g. food labelling regulations).[33]

Of course, favorable public opinion can be useful for other reasons.[34] I found that change in public opinion is positively correlated with change to individuals’ behavior. Besides, tactics that focus on education and attitudinal change might be important: I found that the use of such tactics is positively correlated with successful social change. For example, the successful antislavery, children’s rights, and European anti-death penalty movements spent a high proportion of their resources on such tactics, whereas the less successful US anti-abortion and US prisoners’ rights movements spent lower prorportions on them. However, there is less evidence on the optimal educational and attitudinal tactics and it seems intuitively plausible that the usefulness of these tactics could owe to their role in mobilising supporters, rather than successfully changing public opinion.

Focus less on increasing issue salience

We’ve argued before that the farmed animal movement should stop using publicity stunts and gimmicks such as sexualized images of women and cute, cartoonish animal costumes. Animal advocates sometimes justify the use of these tactics in terms of increasing public awareness and attention to farmed animal issues (i.e. increasing issue salience). While there may be some benefits to increasing issue salience, our case studies provide weak evidence that high issue salience can decrease the tractability of legislative change,[35] which is evidence against tactics that are aimed at increasing salience. This might be especially so if advocates are trying to push through unpopular policies.[36] High issue salience might also make it harder to encourage further attitude change.[37]

Many tactics not explicitly focused on salience can still affect it. For example, there is evidence that institutional tactics can increase the salience of an issue.[38]

Recommendations for the movements for future generations of sentient beings

The findings and strategic implications discussed above are also relevant to the movements for future generations of sentient beings. For example, legislative tactics seem promising, and it seems important to take care to avoid unintended negative consequences. Below, I highlight two other implications that seem important for these nascent movements.

Focus first on building a credible, professional movement

There has been discussion in the effective altruism community about whether EA and various associated movements should focus narrowly on specific professional groups or on the broader population.[39] Comparisons of tactics used at different times within particular movements suggest that social change is more likely to occur if credible professional groups and institutions advocate for change before broader participation and pressure is encouraged:

Given the technical nature of many of the issues that the movements for future generations of sentient beings seem likely to focus on (e.g. complex regulatory topics, research to address specific risk factors), decision-makers may not be very sensitive to public opinion anyway.[44] Of course, the cutoff point at which a movement should start opening the door to broad, public-facing campaigns will be unclear.

Use other promising tactics

Many successful tactics in the case studies do not yet seem to be an important part of some movements for future generations:[45]

As argued above, it may be premature to use public-facing tactics. Additionally, some of these tactics may never be viable, comparably to how there seem to have been no opportunities for consumer action in the anti-death penalty or prisoners’ rights movements.[46]


[1] For the anti-death penalty movement (ADPM) and antislavery movement, I scored the US and European movements separately because they provided distinct evidence.

[2] I generated scores for 43 different metrics and have not tested for significant correlations between all possible pairings. Additionally, I identified some correlations as significant but chose to exclude them if I believed them to be especially misleading, given known confounding factors or methodological difficulties. Given the high rate of Type II error, I only report significant correlations in the discussion below, rather than treating nonsignificant correlations as providing meaningful evidence that there is no relationship between two variables. This statistical analysis was only one input to help me clarify my thinking, rather than the main criterion for deciding the key lessons from social movement history. I used Spearman’s correlation rather than Pearson’s correlation because it depends on fewer assumptions such as continuous data and is less sensitive to outliers.

[3] Note that:

[4] See the strategic implication beginning “There is some evidence that procedural reforms…” in our ADPM case study.

[5] Citations for the claim that “Incremental reforms do not prevent subsequent, more radical reforms” are listed in the spreadsheet.

[6] The history of the US ADPM also provides some evidence to suggest that premature abolition may damage the chances of lasting success. For example, legislative abolition was introduced in some states in the early 20th century but then reversed and not subsequently re-introduced. So the risk of unintended consequences is probably not limited to incremental tactics. See the paragraph beginning “At least some advocates…”) in our ADPM case study. The 1972 Furman v. Georgia Supreme Court ruling also provoked a substantial backlash and was overturned (see the section beginning “1972-86: Backlash…” in our ADPM case study).

[7] See the strategic implication beginning “Social movements should avoid incremental…” in our ADPM case study.

[8] See the paragraph beginning “Litigation may have unintended…” in our prisoners’ rights case study.

[9] See the strategic implications beginning “Engaging directly with mainstream market institutions and dynamics may lead…” in our Fair Trade case study. See, by comparison, Farm Forward’s Report, “The Dirt on Humanewashing.”

[10] See the paragraph beginning “Incremental successes of improving…” in our prisoners’ rights case study.

[11] See the strategic implication beginning “It may be important to lobby…” in our Fair Trade case study.

[12] The case studies provide a number of supportive findings which are listed on the spreadsheet, such as that “Pressure tactics can be effective at challenging companies.” Consider also that corporate welfare campaigns seem highly cost-effective on short timeframes and that the weight of evidence seems to suggest that, in general, welfare campaigns tend to produce more momentum than complacency for further change.

[13] Compare the sections on "Moral suasion — an unqualified disaster" and "4. Abstention — an extraneous issue of comparatively small importance" in Włodzimierz Gogłoza’ US antislavery case study.

[14] See the paragraphs and strategic implications beginning “There is indirect evidence that proactive…”,   “Although assessing causation is difficult…”, and “Reactive behavioral support services…” in our anti-abortion case study.

[15] See the strategic implication beginning “Marketing efforts likely increase…” in our Fair Trade case study.

[16] See the section “Recycling” in Animal Charity Evaluators’ environmentalism case study.

[17] Additionally, only around 5% of roles in effective animal advocacy nonprofits seem to be specifically focused on “[g]overnment, policy, lobbying, or legal” tasks.

[18] Citations for each of these bullet points are listed in the spreadsheet, using the same wording as here.

[19] Citations for “Legislative change can occur before the behaviors that will be regulated have changed” are listed in the spreadsheet.

[20] See “Individuals who participate in consumer action…” in our Fair Trade case study. There is evidence that recycling encourages a moral licensing effect, which might lead us to expect the opposite effect (see “Broader effects” in Animal Charity Evaluators’ environmentalism case study). However, the research into this (at least, as included in the respective case studies discussed here) seems less directly focused on the effects of consumer action on engagement with other forms of activism than the evidence identified in our Fair Trade case study; the moral licensing effect may be primarily confined to various consumption decisions.

[21] See the paragraph beginning “Women could not participate…” and subsequent few paragraphs in our British antislavery case study.

[22] See the paragraph beginning “Women could not participate…” in our British antislavery case study.

[23] See “Immediate effects” in Animal Charity Evaluators’ environmentalism case study.

[24] See the strategic implication beginning “Providing consumer action opportunities…” in our Fair Trade case study.

[25] Citations for this claim are listed in the spreadsheet, using the same wording as here.

[26] As well as evidence against the view that corporate campaigns are likely to be the most cost-effective institutional tactics to focus additional resources on, this also provides weak evidence against SI’s view that institutional change is more effective, since corporate campaigns are one of the most common types of institutional tactics used by social movements.

[27] Citations for “Companies are more likely to succumb to pressure to stop selling a particular product type if it makes up only a small proportion of their profit margins” are listed in the spreadsheet, using the same wording as here.

[28] Citations for “Successes are more tractable in places where a practice is not in regular use” are listed in the spreadsheet.

[29] See the strategic implications beginning “Social movements should proactively ensure…” and “Social movements based heavily on a strategy…” in our ADPM and prisoners’ rights case studies, respectively.

[30] See the strategic implication beginning “Advocates who successfully…” in our anti-abortion case study.

[31] Citations for “Public opinion can positively affect legislative decision-making” are listed in the spreadsheet.

[32] Citations for each of these bullet points are listed in the spreadsheet, using the same wording as here.

[33] Citations for these two claims are listed in the spreadsheet, using the same wording as here except that the examples in parentheses are not included in the spreadsheet.

[34] See, for example, some of the points listed in the “Arguments for targeting the general population” section of “Summary of Evidence for Foundational Questions in Effective Animal Advocacy.”

[35] Citations for this claim are listed in the spreadsheet, using the same wording as here. The evidence for and against this from the broader literature on lobbying seems to be mixed. Similarly, in “Is the US Supreme Court a Driver of Social Change or Driven by it? A Literature Review” I asked: “IM: Does higher pre-decision issue salience increase the effects of public opinion on the Supreme Court’s decisions?” The evidence for and against this hypothesis was mixed.

[36] I did not identify evidence that directly supports this intuition. Consider, however, the evidence that “It is easier to introduce and implement unpopular laws if voters in the state do not have ready access to ballot initiatives or referenda” — it seems more likely that opponents would mobilize and organize a ballot initiative or referendum if the issue is widely discussed.

[37] See the paragraph beginning “A study in 1979 provided…” in our ADPM case study. See also the evidence for “EM3: Does higher pre-decision issue salience decrease the effects of a Supreme Court decision on public opinion?” in “Is the US Supreme Court a Driver of Social Change or Driven by it? A Literature Review.”

[38] Citations for this claim are listed in the spreadsheet, using the same wording as here.

[39] E.g. see these anonymous comments on the effective altruism community and SI’s discussion for the farmed animal movement. Explicitly longtermist movements seem to have had a narrower focus than the farmed animal movement, so far. A similar point was made here.

[40] See the strategic implication beginning “Social change may be more likely to occur…” in our ADPM case study.

[41] Discussed throughout our British antislavery case study, especially in the “1787: Formation of the Abolition Committee” section. The US antislavery movement seems to have had a broader focus from its early stages, such as with its moral suasion campaign; the movement’s aims were ultimately achieved, but this owed substantially to the changed political incentives caused by the Civil War (see the paragraph beginning On top of this, the Civil War… and subsequent few paragraphs in Mauricio Baker’s antislavery case study).

[42] See the paragraph beginning “The largest abolitionist organization…” and the section “Moral suasion — an unqualified disaster” in Włodzimierz Gogłoza’s case study of the US antislavery movement.

[43] See the strategic implication beginning “Social change may be more likely to occur…” in our anti-abortion case study.

[44] Citations for “Politicians are incentivized to be more sensitive to public opinion on ‘morality issues’ than on technical issues.” are listed in the spreadsheet.

[45] Citations for each of these bullet points are listed in the spreadsheet, using the same wording as here.

[46] By comparison, despite its lack of consumer action opportunities, the ADPM has managed to run some successful pressure campaigns against companies supplying drugs for use in capital punishment (see the paragraph beginning “A 2010 campaign by the UK group…” and the subsequent paragraph in our ADPM case study). The overall effects of this particular change are unclear, but the example still demonstrates that there may occasionally be tractable opportunities for usage of certain tactics in movements that do not usually seem well-suited to them.


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