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Lessons in change from social movements
We can be more ambitious in the way we approach behaviour change, thinking in transformational ways, rather than simply in concrete transactional terms
This week we are looking at some lessons from social change movements and seek to identify the implications for behaviour change programmes. At first sight the toppling of an authoritarian regime such as the overthrow of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic or the passing of legislation for same sex marriage may not seem to be relevant to the variety of behaviour change challenges that brands and public bodies typically have. But what might appear to be an organic spontaneous uprising or an inevitable change of sentiment, in fact hides the huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes by activists that make the change happen. Understanding what this work involves offers valuable insights for all of us seeking to make change happen.
Indeed, as commentators in the field of social movements have pointed out, (and whose work we draw on), the reality is that widespread change is a highly strategic activity that requires a considerable amount of planning by committed activists. We consider there are useful lessons from an understanding of this that can inform behaviour change work.
Transactional versus transformational change
Widespread, ‘transformational’ social change involving uprisings and protests can result in sweeping change that once seemed radical and unacceptable. These often involve a transformation in the way that people think about an issue. This is in contrast to what is called ‘transactional change’ where the aim is for concrete, near-term changes to behaviour, often incremental in nature.
Arguably much of commercial and policy behaviour change work uses approaches which might be described as transactional, focused on immediate and tangible outcomes. While these may offer concrete results, the gains can, however, be modest, at least in the short-term. A transformational approach, by contrast, does not seek to target specific behaviours but instead attempts to alter the ‘climate of public debate’ to make much more far-reaching changes possible. If there is popular backing for an issue then this translates into active, vocal support which can then lead to much more fundamental changes. This approach can be seen to have been used for same sex marriage, treatment for people with HIV, black rights and the toppling of authoritarian regimes such as Slobodan Milosevic in Slovenia.
Drawing on work by Erica Chenoweth, Seamus Power, and Mark & Paul Engler, we set out below a number of key points from an analysis of these transformation movements that we think are relevant to wider change challenges.
Mental availability: Symbols are key, helping to keep a movement front of peoples’ minds. One example of this is from the Egyptian graffiti images were created in Cairo, depicting an event in which a veiled female protestor was beaten and stripped, revealing her blue bra. Graffiti artists represented the event in different ways, over time resulting in a simplified image of a blue bra which was then widely used to symbolize solidarity to the values of the revolution and resistance to oppression.
Humour: Otpor, the Serbian resistance organisation protesting against the Milosevic regime, deployed its members to carry out hundreds of small, often humorous actions as an act of protest. For example, in one small Serbian town, activists held a birthday celebration for Milosevic, offering the president gifts such as handcuffs and a one-way ticket to the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague. This had the effect of conveying a sense that change was possible, but also generating attention, drawing people into the conversations about the possibility of change.
Trigger events: The global justice movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s had a huge challenge moving public opinion around injustices in the global economy. Activists identified high profile trade summits could create an opening. Major news organizations already sent reporters to cover these events, and the presence of world leaders created a hook for discussion. Meetings of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank all served as flashpoints of highly publicized dissent that garnered widespread public attention, promoting the cause of the activist movements. So finding points that crystallise the issues and garner attention are often key to motivating the wider public to engage.
Distributed empowerment: Successful change often involves a distributed membership base, with people empowered to act independently. The Birmingham Campaign of 1963, led by Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference involved non-violent tactics of sit-ins, boycotts and marches to bring national attention of the efforts of local black leaders to desegregate public facilities in Birmingham, Alabama. The movement was subsequently able to use this as a blueprint for their own local activities resulting in an explosion of premeditated disruption and nonviolent escalation across the South of the the United States. Thus, equipping people with ways in which they can make change happen on their own terms, in their own localities, while feeling part of a bigger movement seems important.
Appeal to broaden audience: Transformation change is often driven by an appeal that is as much cultural as political. TV shows, films, and music concerts are an effective way to connect with people. Consider the successful Netflix series ‘Don’t look up’ as a case in point not least given the huge investment of time we spend engaged in entertainment. But it is also important to go beyond a narrow predominantly youth base and find cultural events that appeal to a broader base of society. People sometimes need to be brought into the conversation through entertainment and other cultural activities – the lesson here is to find what people enjoy, and then explore how to integrate behaviour change programmes into these activities.
Consider the key pillars in society: Decisions about when and how we act are mediated through our various social and professional roles. Understanding what the different institutional and societal pillars are that are obstructing the desired outcomes mean that it is possible to think about strategies for engaging with people who may otherwise be resisting change (and influencing others to do so too).
Active supporters: One of the key researchers on social movements, Erica Chenoweth, found that the number of supporters who were actively engaged in successful movements often only needed to be quite a small percentage of the total population. She suggested that no campaign failed once they had achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population.
Of course, this is not an insignificant number in absolute terms and needs to be people who were moved to actually take a stand. Although the goal of transformational movements is to get the support of the majority in society, the number of people who take ownership is critical. The guidance here is to think through strategies to energise and activate this relatively small percentage of the population, finding ways for them to actively promote the desired outcomes.
With these points in mind, we can think about challenging ourselves about the implied model of change that we might be operating with programmes for public and private sector bodies.
Models of change
In traditional models of social change there is a notion that if people are to make change happen then they need to steadfastly go about encouraging people to enact the behaviour, the focus being on the ‘transactional’ gains that they can encourage individuals to themselves make.
This process alone can end in disappointment – it can be hard to encourage people to maintain these sorts of behaviours when all around are not doing so. There are inevitably a wide range of disincentives to make the change happen.
By contrast, a transformational approach does not centre on incremental gains but instead attempts to alter the climate of public debate to make much more far-reaching changes possible. Author and activist Michael Signer notes that “it’s hard to thank any single individual for altering history; more often, the ship …alters course only because tides are vastly shifting underneath.” A campaign that is thinking in transformational terms attempts to ‘move these deeper waters’.
Of course there will be transactional considerations but the focus is certainly on creating possibilities that might previously have been unable to imagine. As Mark and Paul Engler point out, this is what transformed Milosevic from an entrenched powerbroker into a disgraced and ousted autocrat, and what turned gay marriage from an unpopular fringe issue into a civil-rights crusade whose time had come.
Perhaps a key learning for brands and governments that are often attempting to facilitate purposeful change is to think about a programme in transformational, and not simply transactional, terms. Transformational campaigns necessarily place a greater focus on the symbolic and while there is no need to abandon a push for concrete gains, other measures of success come to the fore: movement in opinion polls, growing numbers of active participants, the ability to see change in grassroots channels, and the responsiveness of what might have been hard to win over segments of the population as they start to offer support to their mobilizations.
There are of course very significant differences between the activities of social movements and behaviour change programmes by private and public bodies. Nevertheless, behaviour change programmes often have significant social objectives at their heart and as such we think useful lessons can be drawn, challenging us to rethink some assumptions of what success might look like from these programmes.