Reason, not disruption, is the most effective means of growing a social movement

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Abhinav Gupta

When campaigning for social change, disruptive protests may win a few battles, but efforts to educate are more likely to win the war.

This according to new research by Abhinav Gupta, an assistant professor of strategic management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Gupta’s study of the effectiveness of activist efforts indicates that disruptive tactics such as protests and sit-ins can yield some immediate, localized success, but they do little to expand the objectives of a cause more broadly.

Evidence-backed education efforts, on the other hand, prove more potent at persuading even leaders of organizations not targeted by activists. By appealing to their rational decision-making processes, activists can generate a spillover effect in their campaign for change.

This “contagion” can multiply their impact and grow a movement exponentially.

“Disruption plays a role in terms of raising attention and bringing awareness to an issue,” says Gupta. “But if it’s used exclusively, it can turn off a lot of people and be very limited in its effectiveness. We find that evidence-based education proves more effective at achieving a campaign’s larger goals.”

Act locally, think globally

Racial equality. Environmental protection. Same-sex marriage. Gender pay equity. A living wage. The list of causes that inspire people to organize for change is long and unending.

But the resulting campaigns for social change—often described as “grassroots” efforts—typically have far fewer resources and capabilities than the organizations they endeavor to influence.

So activists are forever calculating the way to maximally multiply their impact. Gupta says that they often target a few influential organizations—universities, corporations, government agencies—that are likely to set the standard for peer institutions.

A textbook example of this strategy is the “Rein in Russell” campaign engineered by a group called United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) in 2009.

To make progress toward its ultimate goal of improving working conditions in developing countries, the group went after the apparel manufacturer Russell Athletic which had recently closed a manufacturing facility in Honduras after efforts to unionize its 1,300 workers. To pressure Russell to reopen a fully unionized plant, USAS targeted the company’s biggest organizational customers: universities. Not all of them, but a select group of influencers.

Rein in Russell achieved success quickly. Within a year, the campaign reached critical mass. More than 75 major universities pledged to cut ties with Russell if it didn’t reopen the unionized factory. And the company gave in to growing financial pressure.

Hearts and minds

Gupta’s interest in Rein in Russell began while he was in graduate school at Pennsylvania State University, where the campaign was born.

What he found most intriguing was that so many of the universities that got on board came to this decision without even being targeted by activists.

How did they do it? What tactic triggered this spillover effect, this contagion to change policies?

To find out, Gupta and co-authors Forrest Briscoe and Mark Anner analyzed the strategy and tactics of the campaign, and interviewed activists and university administrators—from both targeted and untargeted schools.

They learned that the USAS activists deployed two very different tactics to rein in Russell: disruption and evidence-based education. They first tried disruption, acting on what Gupta calls a longstanding intuition that localized protests expand impact by prompting organizations to surrender pre-emptively.

So the students fomented protests and sit-ins, which persuaded a few of the targeted universities to drop Russell. But they found that disruption and the threat of disruption did not lead to anything like the domino effect they desired.

“We found that those tactics didn’t have a positive spillover effect,” Gupta says. “They were effective where they were deployed. But peer universities that weren’t protested did not join the cause. Their administrators would say that other universities did not make their decision rationally, that they caved in to intimidation.”

What did get the ball rolling across the nation’s major universities was a change in tactics. USAS organizers brought workers from Russell’s shuttered factory on a limited campus tour to share their stories of abuse.

This new approach, Gupta says, was “purely intended to change minds and values.”

And it was hugely effective.

Know your target

Why did it work?

Gupta says the evidence-based tactics appealed to the sense of reason that drives organizational decision making.

“Instead of justifying decisions in terms of right versus wrong, which is a question of values and morality, organizational decision makers—university administrators and corporate executives—work by the principle of rationality,” he says. “This is to say that there should be a reason that you can justify for its service to organizational goals.”

Those goals may be maximizing profits or galvanizing reputation or recruiting the best employees.

Gupta believes that knowing how to speak to these organizational goals is the key for would-be agents of social change to multiply their local actions into global results.

He adds that organizations, for their part, can avoid some of the bad publicity and lost productivity that are byproducts of disruptive demonstrations by proactively giving audience to activist groups, hearing their concerns and communicating the reasoning behind organizational policies and behaviors.

The place for protest

Though the study finds that education is one of the most effective social activist tactics in the long term, Gupta says it also reveals that disruptive tactics have a role to play as well.

First, disruption can apply enough pressure to be locally effective. Beyond that, protests and other disruptions can serve as a precursor for more broadly effective demonstrations of education and reasoning. By drawing attention and raising awareness to the cause (if not universal sympathy), they can pave the way for more rational messages to convince organizational decision makers to change their policies.

“There is a place for disruption,” Gupta says. “Evidence-based tactics and disruption-based tactics have a kind of good cop/bad cop dynamic. Disruption gets attention. Evidence and persuasion change minds.”

Social Activism and Practice Diffusion: How Activist Tactics Affect Non-targeted Organizations” was published in the June 2015 issue of Administrative Science Quarterly.