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James Ozden: research for the revolution

The founder of Social Change Lab spoke to Ian Sinclair about how their work informs, and is informed by, the strategy of the burgeoning climate movement that has grown around Extinction Rebellion

SET up in 2021, according to its website, the Social Change Lab is a nonprofit that “conducts and disseminates social movement research to help solve the world’s most pressing problems,” with a particular interest in environmental protest.

James Ozden
James Ozden

This research, it hopes, will “inform advocates, decision-makers and philanthropists on the best ways to accelerate positive social change.” Founder and director James Ozden tells Ian Sinclair about the Social Change Lab’s origins, some of its key research findings and the importance of Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) action The Big One taking place from April 21-24.

What inspired you to set up Social Change Lab?

Before Social Change Lab, I spent several years working full-time for XR and Animal Rebellion on their campaigns and strategy.

Throughout this time, we had so many thorny questions on how to design and execute a good strategy: who should we target? How disruptive should we be? How do we best mobilise people to join us? We had many more questions than answers and it didn’t seem like anyone was doing research that was directly helping us answer these questions.

In addition to this lack of relevant research, we also had a tough time fundraising as more institutional funders would express scepticism about whether our campaigns were actually having a big impact or even a positive impact.

We would hear time and time again that our actions might be alienating people and putting them off the cause, even though there was very little research to back up these campaigns.

Even though most of us had the intuition that we weren’t necessarily putting people off, based on the successful disruptive nature of previous people-powered movements like the US civil rights movement, we weren’t experts on the political science literature and struggled to prove this empirically.

As a result, I wanted to personally delve into the social movement literature to understand how valid these concerns were, as well as commissioning some high-quality public opinion surveys of UK direct action to understand the impact of ongoing campaigns. Then, Social Change Lab was born.

The Social Change Lab has already published an impressive amount of research. What are some of your key findings so far about social movements?  

One piece of research I’m particularly proud of is our work on the radical flank effect, which is the mechanism whereby radical factions of a movement can increase support for more moderate factions.

This has been theorised for a long time and also demonstrated experimentally using online surveys with fictional organisations, but never in a real-life setting with existing campaigns. Using nationally representative YouGov surveys we commissioned, we managed to identify that increased awareness of Just Stop Oil after a disruptive campaign increased support for more moderate climate organisations, like Friends of the Earth.

We also found that increased awareness of Just Stop Oil led to greater identification with Friends of the Earth, which is relevant as identification with a group or movement usually precludes getting actively involved.

For us, this identification of a radical flank effect clearly shows the symbiotic nature of moderate and radical organisations within the same movement and the importance of a plurality of non-violent tactics.

Through other public opinion polling we’ve conducted, we’ve also found no evidence that exposure to disruptive tactics actually reduces support for the cause being protested about.

We’ve observed that support for the particular organisation might go down, but this isn’t what grassroots activists actually care about. Ultimately, people care about overall support for the goals of a movement and their policies, which we’ve found no negative effects on.

We’ve also found some positive indications of people being more willing to engage in climate action after being exposed to disruptive protests.

One smaller but quite interesting finding is the idea that politicians, and probably the public, are very affected by who the group protesting is. Particularly, this group is much more persuasive if it’s a group that doesn’t usually take part in street activism and protest.

For example, Fridays for Future involved millions of schoolchildren taking to the streets all around the world — and it’s pretty rare for schoolchildren to protest! When things like this happen, it provides a much stronger signal to politicians, and the wider public, that this issue is so important that even groups that are generally less politically active are getting involved.

Your research shows non-violent protest tends to be more successful than violent protest in achieving desired goals. Why do you think this is?

While it’s not a hard and fast rule, the academic literature suggests that non-violent movements have higher odds of achieving their goals compared to movements that use more violent tactics.

For example, research from the US Civil Rights movement showed that whilst non-violent protests increased votes for Democratic candidates, violent protests actually increased votes for Republicans, antithetical to the aims of many activists.

There are a few mechanisms which might explain the relative strength of non-violent tactics over violence, but most importantly, it’s the ability to turn out larger and more diverse crowds. Erica Chenoweth, a professor of political science at Harvard, studied over 300 social movements from 1900-2006.

One of their key findings is that non-violent movements tend to be larger in size, as well as more diverse. The reason for this is that violence only attracts a niche demographic, typically young men. Relatively very few people want to engage in physical violence — it presents risks to their safety if faced with police repression, which is especially true for more marginalised groups.

However, movements are successful when they can attract people from all walks of life, whether that’s children, the elderly and everyday working people. As such, non-violent movements provide a more inclusive and safe environment for broad swathes of the public, which in turn provides a compelling signal that an issue is cared about by the public at large.

In January XR announced a shift away from disruptive action, pushing for a turnout of over 100,000 people at The Big One — a more conventional, legal protest outside parliament on April 21. Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain have vowed to continue their disruptive civil resistance. What’s your take on XR’s tactical shift, and what do you think the grassroots climate movement in Britain should do next?

I think this was actually a pretty good move by XR. The reality is groups like Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain have been the main groups taking more disruptive forms of action over the past year. However, these actions tend to appeal to a fairly small subset of the population, so participation isn’t as large as one would hope.

As a result, there are actually lots of people who want to take part in climate activism, but they aren’t willing to risk prison like many Just Stop Oil or Insulate Britain activists. This is exactly the gap that XR is trying to fill — by organising mass, non-violent protests that can draw a much larger and more diverse crowd.

I think it’s vital that the climate movement offers different levels of engagement, and think that this decision reflects that. Ultimately, we need a variety of approaches to tackle this huge problem, both disruptive and non-disruptive, and huge swathes of people getting involved. So if this decision means more people take part in climate action, I think that’s the right call.

Obviously, the proof will be in the pudding when we see how many people turn out for the Big One from April 21-24, but I’ve heard it’s on track to being the most well-attended XR demonstration to date.

Fundamentally, XR has always been an experimental organisation, and I think this decision reflects that. While their disruptive tactics led to huge progress in 2019, significantly impacting British public opinion and even global discourse on climate change, the results have been harder to see recently.

Many people have been complaining that they support XR’s goals but don’t agree with their tactics — well, this is XR’s challenge to all those people: “We’ve changed our tactics, so now will you join us on the streets?”

Visit www.socialchangelab.org to find out more about their work.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

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