Activism: Understanding and Classifying the Practices, Challenges, and Aims

Developing Activism Theory

Activism has received surprisingly little attention from scholars. When activists do read scholarship, they tend to pick out whatever is relevant to their own practical concerns, such as manuals on community organizing and strategies for nonviolent action.

Activists use accepted institutional practices, such as lobbying politicians or submitting petitions, but they are also willing to work outside of those structures by using extra-institutional tactics. Understanding how they operate can help us understand activism theory.

Classification

There are a number of ways to classify activism. One approach divides it into conventional and radical actions. The latter involve a more intense commitment to change and may be more effective. Conventional actions are more often about protecting the quality of life in a local community, such as campaigns against freeways or factories. This type is sometimes disparagingly called NIMBY activism.

Other activists are future-oriented and seek changes in society that will benefit all rather than particular groups. These changes might involve greater equality in the family, the treatment of non-human animals, or greater democracy in business and government.

Developing theory that is relevant to activists can be challenging. Activists are often busy with their own immediate concerns and do not always take the time to read academic papers.

Local and global

Activists can work on issues at the local level, such as fighting a proposed freeway or factory in their neighborhood. They can also address global problems, such as fighting climate change or preventing torture.

Sometimes activists are concerned with specific groups that are disadvantaged or discriminated against, such as women, minorities and the disabled. They may be pro-feminist, for example, or anti-racist. They may also be involved in broader movements such as human rights or animal rights.

Activists usually work in groups, which can be large or small. They can meet in person or communicate via phone, mail and public notices. Groups allow the sharing of resources and help to coordinate efforts. They can also provide a sense of belonging. They can also create social support for those engaged in difficult campaigns.

Inward and outward

Activists are concerned about society and its problems, but they also sometimes focus on themselves. For example, they may learn techniques to deter or confront sexual harassers and bullies. They can also use their activism to influence the decision-making process within their own organizations.

Often, activists are part of larger movements that support them through communication and resources. This includes a framework or perspective on the issues, which is developed through experience and ideas presented by leaders of the movement.

These movement networks can also help to further activist aims, by providing legitimacy for certain actions and promoting the ideas of those involved. For example, a group demonstrating against corporate corruption might promote the idea of a different way to run businesses by using activist tactics to challenge established practices.

Movements that fade away

It can be difficult for activists to develop theory that is useful to them. They can spend a lot of effort developing ideas and putting them out into the world – through articles or talks – without ever knowing whether anyone is listening.

Some activist movements fade away, or become absorbed into the formal political system. Other movements stay at the same level of activism for years, continuing to innovate and attract new members.

Some movements are oriented toward the future, seeking to change societies for the better. Others are oriented towards the past, protecting the interests of those in power. It is also possible for activists to work toward both of these aims, for example by campaigning for both human rights and environmental protection.

Leaders

In addition to identifying problems, activists also work to find positive solutions. This involves educating the public about these issues, and it often results in laws and policies being introduced. The field of activism is also expanding inwards, to personal and private spheres such as sexual harassment, bullying or domestic violence.

Activists need leaders to help them plan and implement strategies, and also to motivate their members. Leaders can act as figureheads, spokespeople and role models. They can also be strategists and theorists.

Developing theory for activists can be challenging. Often, activists only have limited opportunity to dip into academic writings on movements and may find that the ideas are not immediately relevant. However, some do manage to develop theories that are useful for their own efforts.

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