Social Movement Case Studies Methodology
Jamie Harris
Researcher
June 30, 2021

Edited by Jacy Reese Anthis and Ali Ladak.

We have documented how social movements focused on moral circle expansion, such as the farmed animal movement, can glean strategic insights from studying the history of past social movements. Our research in this area is quite different from existing social movement literature and relevant historical works. This post explains some of the methodological decisions that we have made and our reasoning for them. It also explores some of the caveats that should be borne in mind when reading the case studies and applying their lessons to advocacy.

In general, we hope this blog post is a one-stop reference for the qualifications we previously inserted into each individual case study write-up.[1]

Case study selection

Social movements[2] vary in comparability to the movements most relevant to SI’s mission: those encouraging MCE, especially the farmed animal movement and the nascent movements to protect the interests of future sentient beings, e.g. artificial sentience. It is important to select case studies with the highest possible comparability, to increase the likelihood that identified causal relationships and patterns will also apply in the context of SI’s priority movements. Movements with low comparability may generate false positives — we might identify correlations and repeat patterns that are misleading because they will not apply in the context of SI’s priority movements. There are many features that might affect comparability; see Table 1 for some of the most important.

Table 1: Features of social movements that affect comparability to moral circle expansion movements

Feature

Example similar to SI’s priority movements

Example less similar to SI’s priority movements

Does the movement have a clear group of intended beneficiaries?

Modern US African American civil rights

Anti-globalization

Is the movement led primarily by its intended beneficiaries or their allies?[3]

Anti-abortion

Modern US African American civil rights

Is the movement focused on control of a particular geographic area?

Gay rights movement

Irish nationalism

How recent were the events being studied?

Anti-death penalty

British antislavery

How powerful and well-resourced is the movement?

Fair Trade

Feminism

Where is the movement located (e.g. Global North, Global South, or both)?

Climate movement

Landless Workers' Movement

How similar are the intended beneficiaries to the audience and targets of the movement?

Wildlife preservation

Feminism

How frequent and integrated into daily life are the behaviors and practices that harm the intended beneficiaries?

Fair Trade

Anti-death penalty

Is the movement seeking to implement an unprecedented change, defend the status quo, or return to some former equilibrium?

Children’s rights

Anti-abortion

This list is not exhaustive. In each case study, we list features that affect comparability. There are additional practical factors that affect case study selection, such as the availability of evidence. Case study selection thus involves a subjective weighting of many factors. Our current priority list of social movements for study is[4]:

Focus on secondary sources[5]

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 gaps.[6]

Overarching goals, caveats, and foci of the reports

Focus on strategy, not moral assessment

Our case studies focus on movements with a wide variety of aims that we do not always endorse. We make no attempt to morally evaluate the goals of the studied movements. The reports are exclusively about the strategy of social movements, and while we will discuss goals insofar as they are relevant to strategic discussion, we deliberately avoid any moral assessment. We hope readers will keep an open mind and attempt to examine the strategy of the studied movements with an objective lens, even if they disagree with the goals of those movements.

Our focus on strategy is highlighted in the “strategic implications” sections of our case studies.[7]

Gathering evidence for many questions

We approach our case studies with hypotheses in mind, such as the claims listed on our “Summary of Evidence for Foundational Questions in Effective Animal Advocacy” page. For example, we might pay particularly close attention to the effects of incremental institutional tactics, to test our hypothesis that animal welfare reforms lead to more momentum than complacency for future progress. We also use our case studies to test tentative hypotheses on a variety of more specific or less important strategic questions, informed by our previous research.[8] Given the large number of questions of interest addressed by the case studies, we do not formally expound our hypotheses.

More broadly, one benefit of case studies is that they enable identification of topics of potential importance that we had not previously considered. Hence, our reports are also undertaken as exploratory research.[9]

Focus on causation when feasible[10]

The decisions we need to make in modern social movements are causal: If we have to choose between one strategy and another, which is more likely to succeed? All SI social movement research is therefore ultimately interested in assessing causation. This is particularly important for the “strategic implications” sections of our case studies.

Where there are several factors plausibly causing a specific outcome, our reports so far do not usually attempt to rigorously evaluate the individual effects of these different factors. This is partly because investigating the relevant evidence would be time-consuming (e.g. seeking out primary sources that might contain relevant information) and partly because such a task is usually impossible to achieve with much confidence (e.g. due to the impossibility of running experiments to explore counterfactuals). In other words, we have focused on establishing the likely presence of causal factors, rather than their exact contribution to the overall causal chain of events.

Identifying implications for many movements

Our analysis often highlights the farmed animal movement as an illustrative example of the strategic implications for a variety of movements. Our research to date has focused on farmed animals, so this is the area where we have most expertise and the largest audience. Nevertheless, our comparisons to the farmed animal movement tend to be brief for several reasons:

When we draw comparison to the farmed animal movement, our descriptions tend to be weighted towards the Western and particularly the US movement, where we have most familiarity and where the most resources are spent,[12] so readers from other regions may see different similarities and differences between the studied movements and their own region and movement. They should adjust the applicability of the reports’ conclusions to their own region’s advocacy accordingly. For brevity, we assume that the reader has some knowledge of modern animal farming and animal advocacy.

Goals and caveats of specific sections of the reports

Strategic implications

Each report discusses a number of strategic claims supported by the included evidence. There are many challenges in integrating evidence from historical social movements into modern advocacy decision-making,[13] and one’s view of the strength of the listed claims should depend on all available evidence, not just the evidence provided by the case study itself.

Hence, just because a strategic implication is listed in a particular case study does not necessarily mean that the strategic implication holds after all the available evidence is considered. The inclusion of strategic implications that we may currently disagree with is consistent with the principles of open science; it could be misleading to publish only those conclusions that support our prior beliefs and to omit others, and it would be inefficient to evaluate all available evidence (e.g. from all case studies) for every claim in each individual case study.

Condensed chronological history

Each case study includes a condensed chronological history. Unless it seems especially important for understanding the context and chain of events, we tend to avoid discussing causation in the condensed chronological history section. This follows the common scientific practice of separating empirical results and raw “facts”[14] from discussion and analysis, but is notably different from many studies by historians and sociologists, where causal relationships are sometimes implied within the narrative of events without explicit evaluation. Presenting this chronology separately from our analysis allows readers discretion to focus on findings relevant to their purposes, such as information with strategic implications for their own region.[15] Additionally, providing this detail allows for greater scrutiny of our analysis, by clearly listing the evidence that supports each claim.

Importantly, the condensed history is not intended to imply causal relationships between listed events, unless stated explicitly. For example, if a sentence referring to a change in the legal context is followed by a sentence about changes in individual behavior, the two should not be assumed to be connected.

The report is not intended to present a comprehensive narrative; it condenses the history into events and processes that have strategic implications for modern social movements. There are slight deviations from chronological order used for clarity, e.g. to group together evidence relating to similar topics within a short period of time.

The extent of success

If a tactic, campaign, or movement was successful, then advocates should usually be more likely to use those strategies, and less likely to use them if they failed. Where judgments of causation regarding specific tactic or campaign outcomes are uncertain, a case study can still be informative: if a particular social movement successfully achieves its goals, then this provides weak evidence that its particular characteristics (such as the tactics used and prioritized) led to success. If it fails to achieve its goals, then this provides weak evidence that its particular characteristics led to failure. The noting of such correlations between certain characteristics and success or failure will become more useful as we analyze a greater number of historical social movements and note whether any correlations reliably replicate across different movements and across different contexts.[16]

Changes in behavior, legislation, and legal precedent are most directly related to improvements for the intended beneficiaries of a social movement.[17] From a longer-term perspective of moral circle expansion, it is also important to consider whether a movement has been able to secure less concrete forms of success, such as changes to values, culture, and identity. In this sense, measures of public opinion and qualitative information about the acceptance of a movement and its goals by its audience or institutional decision makers are also informative.

Movement features

As noted in the section “Case study selection,” the more similar the context and content of two movements, the more we should expect what worked for one movement to work for another. The “Features” sections of our reports enable the reader to assess for themselves how similar the studied movement is to the movement(s) that they are most interested in. In our first case study, these movement features were expressed as similarities or differences to the farmed animal movement, though, as noted above, we now focus only on brief comparison to the farmed animal movement.


[1] At times, this post uses text from previous SI reports and blog posts; such comments are not cited directly. Thanks especially to Kelly Anthis, Kelly McNamara, and Jacy Reese Anthis for their contributions. Fuller lists of acknowledgements are included at the top of the British antislavery and US anti-abortion case studies, as well as the blog posts on “How is SI research different from existing social movement literature and relevant historical works?” and “What can the farmed animal movement learn from history?

[2] See, for example, Wikipedia’s (incomplete) list.

[3] Academics sometimes refer to “allies” in this sense as “conscience constituents.” Many movements encouraging MCE are led by their intended beneficiaries, although those that seem the most neglected, relative to the scale of the problem that they seek to address (a key factor for assessing the promise of work on a particular focus area), are not.

We think that this feature is very important, even though advocates seeking to learn from history do not always consider this feature. For example, in 2019, Roger Hallam, co-founder of the direct action environmentalist group Extinction Rebellion, claimed that, “[t]he historical record shows that successful civil resistance ‘episodes’ last between three to six months.” After three years of on and off protest with high participation rates, Extinction Rebellion has arguably achieved only one of its three goals. One potential explanation of the failure of the protests to meet the expectations of the cited “historical record” is that the group (who are part of an ally-based movement, environmentalism) have based their strategy on the precedent from movements led by their intended beneficiaries. Jay Griffiths’ chapter in the Extinction Rebellion Handbook (2019) cites the suffragettes and the civil rights movement as precedent for the success of “non-violent civil disobedience” which leads to arrest. Roger Hallam’s chapter similarly notes that nonviolent “disruption” was “used successfully by the civil rights movement in America and the Indian independence movement.”

[4] Some movements that other advocates have used as sources of strategic knowledge have been omitted from this list, such as the US civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, and the Indian independence movement. This is primarily because we believe that the features listed in Table 1 (especially the first few rows) have important effects on the comparability of these movements to the MCE movements that we focus on. Case studies of these social movements may still provide some strategic value but seem lower priority than those in the list.

[5] This feature of our case studies was discussed and compared to existing social movement literature and relevant historical works in a previous blog post.

[6] See, for example, Kelly Anthis’s consultation of William Cobbett, The Parliamentary History of England, various volumes. (London: T.C. Hansard, 1806-1820), in our antislavery case study. 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, so she had to read directly from parliamentary records.

[7] This feature of our case studies was compared to existing social movement literature and relevant historical works in a previous post.

[8] For example, our anti-abortion case study suggested that “Close alignment with the leadership of a well-established, well-organized group that has some shared values may be an effective way to access substantial resources, even if those outside the leadership of that group do not share the relevant values.” In our subsequent case study on the US anti-death penalty movement, we paid close attention to engagement of this movement with religious groups, to see if a similar dynamic was at play. On the contrary, this latter case study found evidence that, “Formal alignment with the leadership of religious groups may not translate into substantial support from those leaders or from community members.”

[9] Although academics still debate the advantages and disadvantages of case study research, some recognize that a single case study can be useful for several purposes. For example, Ebbinghaus (2006) notes that, “[t]he case study purpose can thus be manifold: a particular case can confirm, disprove, alter or generate a theory.” Ebbinghaus adds that “when we shift from deductive proposition testing to induction… we face the small-N problem. Indeed, there are always too many potential, nontrivial independent variables that could be considered.” However, “the comparative method [which SI uses where possible] in combination with the appropriate selection of cases [see the section on “Case study selection” above] can provide a means to test propositions deduced from a given theory or may help to eliminate some competing hypotheses.”

[10] This feature of our case studies was compared to existing social movement literature and relevant historical works in a previous post.

[11] We have come to prioritize this factor increasingly, hence the stronger focus on the farmed animal movement in our first case study than in subsequent reports.

[12] Lewis Bollard estimates that $90 million out of the roughly $165 million spent internationally on farm animal advocacy are spent in the US.

[13] For or a more detailed discussion of the pros and cons of different sources of evidence, see the section “Social movements vs. EAA randomized controlled trials (RCTs) vs. intuition/speculation/anecdotes vs. external findings” of “Summary of Evidence for Foundational Questions in Effective Animal Advocacy.”

[14] We recognize that complete objectivity is impossible in historical analysis; see footnote 58 in “What can the farmed animal movement learn from history?

[15] Of course, SI has to curate the evidence to avoid making the reports excessively long.

[16] See “What can the farmed animal movement learn from history?” for further discussion. See “Key Lessons From Social Movement History” for our initial analysis of such correlations.

[17] In some instances, the link between such changes and positive effects for the intended beneficiaries is clear. For example, a ban on capital punishment clearly prevents prisoners from being executed, assuming that the ban is respected and enforced. In other instances, the link is less clear and warrants some exploration in itself, such as whether purchases of Fair Trade certified goods actually provide much support to impoverished producers in the Global South.


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