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When I'm freezing my hands giving out fliers, I have to wonder: Am I actually making an impact? Are there specific forms of activism which are more effective than others? Does it just preach to the choir? We know that people almost never change their behavior, so my gut feeling is that activism is largely useless, but a google scholar search didn't turn up much.

EDIT: To make this more specific, I will rephrase: "If I hand someone a flier, what is the likelihood they will change their behavior based on me having given them that flier?" A hypothetical experiment: you're in a cafeteria and you give half the people a pamphlet saying that meat is bad. What fraction of each group (pamphlet and non-pamphlet) order veggie burgers?

I found this blog post which lands on the more skeptical side of things. Evidence like that contained in that post (e.g. "environmental sentiment has no relationship with how frequently people recycle") is the kind of thing I'm looking for.

  • How's this on-topic again? – user5341 Mar 26 '11 at 19:03
  • Given that activism can mean a lot of things I thing the question is to vague. – Christian Mar 27 '11 at 15:58
  • @DVK: From the FAQ: "Skeptics is... for researching evidence about claims you hear or read." We certainly hear that protesting etc. is effective, and I want to know if that's true. – Xodarap Mar 27 '11 at 17:34
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    Maybe we could try to confirm or debunk a specific claim that a particular campaign was or wasn't effective? "Activism" in general, even the animal rights movement, is almost impossibly broad. (You could try posing the question: "How many people have become vegetarian or vegan because of the animal rights movement?" but even that I'm guessing would be difficult to find 'hard data points' for...) – Joseph Weissman Mar 27 '11 at 17:50
  • @Joe: I tried to make it more specific as well as giving the type of answer I'd like to see. Hopefully this helps - let me know if you have more ideas. – Xodarap Mar 27 '11 at 20:21
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Yes.

The precise effects of a campaign will undoubtedly depend upon the nature of the activist movement and the specific operations by which it challenges society to reform. But consider the recent popular uprisings across the world (notably in many cases organized in part via social networks.) A mass mobilization or revolution only seems impossible until it has arrived at your doorstep.

Quite possibly many if not most people are going to drop your email or flier in the trash, perhaps after a brief glance. So it is important for activists not to be discouraged or personally wounded by the indifference of society at large or the man in the street. After all, it is not your fault, and is in a way why activists' movements exist in the first place.

If we were not so indifferent to repression, violence, poverty, and so on, then there would be no need for activism, or any work related to shattering indifference and "selfism," whether that is in the form of sexism, racism, capitalism or 'wealthism', or anthropocentrism in the context of animal rights.

In general I think throwing blood at people is probably not the best way to recruit compatriots to your cause. Even though the percentage of people drawn in by a flier or email may be low, spread around enough of them and suddenly a bunch of interested people will be joining in whatever you are planning.

Here is a paper which appears to take up the question of social activism from the standpoint of outcomes. This paper suggests that audience involvement is critical to responding positively to an advertising campaign.

  • Thanks Joe, I think we are all drawn on by the few people we reach. But without hard data about the number of people affected, it's hard for me to know if it would be better for me to work and then donate the money etc. – Xodarap Mar 25 '11 at 23:42
  • @Xodarap, I'll concede this answer is probably somewhat hand-waving as there's no data points. There is certainly a wealth of research into activism techniques, but you are asking for "hard data" in response to a subjective, even existential question: should I exhaust my own life to try to change the world? There's no data point I can imagine that would be remotely persuasive here -- again, my estimation is that a very small percentage of people will "mobilize" in response to any particular campaign -- hence the tone of the answer. – Joseph Weissman Mar 26 '11 at 18:41
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    This answer is not properly referenced. Please add citations to support your claims! :-) – Sklivvz Mar 27 '11 at 21:27
  • Provided links to some scholarly articles roughly connected; let me know if this is insufficient. – Joseph Weissman Mar 27 '11 at 23:07
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    I followed a series of references based off that gender one, and ended up with something by Gamson. See my answer if you're interested. Thanks! – Xodarap Mar 29 '11 at 1:37
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I found this overview of a work by Gamson, in which he found that 49% of a random sample of organizations largely achieved their goals, 13% partially achieved them, and 38% didn't achieve any. He found that the major factor was whether the organization wanted to "displace" people they agreed with or just get them to change their minds. (Displacement ones did much worse.)

So ironically enough, I wasn't able to find answers to my specific question about pamphleteering, but the broad question of "does activism work?" appears to be answered.

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    That paper is over 30 years old, and while it is possible the findings still hold true -- I would guess not due to the effect the internet has had on media. – blunders Apr 9 '11 at 16:06

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