Generating Simple and Useful Theory for Activism

Theory of Change and Activism

Many activists find it difficult to generate theory that is both simple and useful. Activists need ideas that help them communicate, cooperate and connect with each other.

Activists may use accepted institutional practices to influence policymakers, but they are also willing to disrupt those spaces. For example, speaking for their allotted three minutes at a city council meeting would not be activism, but protesting in front of the building would be.

Theory of change

In the context of activism, Theory of Change (ToC) has become widely used as a framework to guide everything from government and private grantor funding decisions to program evaluation during and after implementation. This has been largely due to the strong emphasis on accountability that ToC emphasizes, a concern that many activists share.

While a theory of change is not necessarily necessary or even helpful in every activist context, it can be an important tool for planning and thinking strategically. It helps you articulate what you are trying to achieve, how you will do it, and why you think your approach is likely to succeed.

Developing theory that is useful to activists sounds like a tall order, and it may not be possible for most people to do. However, it is certainly worth trying. It may be that all you need to do is take the skills you already have – developing ideas and sharing them – and apply them to activism-relevant topics.

The backfire model

While much of the activism theory literature has focused on the efficacy of violence versus nonviolence, little attention has been paid to why violent actions sometimes backfire. The backfire model explains why and when such actions reduce support for protesters.

The basic idea is that when a group is perceived as unjust, it may take steps to reduce outrage over its damaging impacts. These tactics include lying, minimising, blaming and framing. They also involve avoiding or discrediting official channels and resisting intimidation.

When these strategies fail, they can backfire by generating greater outrage and increasing opposition. The example of the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1991 is a classic case. Other examples include the repression of a social movement that generates outrage; and the impact of transformative events that do not have direct links to a specific movement. These effects can also be affected by receptivity, which is defined as the baseline sensitivity to injustice and meaning systems that define people’s responses to an injustice.

The bottom-up perspective

There are many different theories of change that could be useful to activists. Nevertheless, it may be difficult to extract those ideas from the vast outpouring of academic prose that has been produced about social movements. This is because most researchers view them from the outside and aim to explain them rather than make them better.

However, it is possible for ordinary people to develop activism-relevant theory. It’s a matter of applying their own skills in developing concepts to the context of their activism. For example, using the idea of framing – that sets of ideas shape perceptions of an issue – can help activists understand why some campaigns fail and others succeed.

Moreover, a bottom-up approach to activism focuses on what people do to create a new world. Activists think about things like how many people they can attract to their rallies and vigils, whether they will be successful at disrupting business as usual and what impact they will have.

The top-down perspective

While some activists may prefer to think of activism as a bottom-up process, it is often necessary for them to take leadership and exert control. This is true for movements that want to reach a large audience and build links with other groups. Taking control can also be useful for establishing trust and respect within the movement.

Activists must think carefully about the impact of their actions and how they will be received by their audiences. They must consider things like how many people they can attract, whether police will turn up, and the potential for backfire. They must also think about their longer term goals, and how they can best achieve them.

This makes it hard for them to develop their own theory of change. Moreover, academics tend to write in a way that is difficult for activists to understand. Foucault is a good example – his work has been influential, but it’s hard to see how it can be put to practical use by activists.

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