The Activism Knowledge Gap

Earlier this week I met Nathan Matias, who will be starting his PhD at the MIT Media Lab this fall.  He pointed me to a great blog post he wrote about the many intelligent people talking about how little we know about changing the world, how fuzzy so much of the social change endeavor still is.  This is a concern that I share and that I am trying to use the Digital Activism Research Project to change.  From Nathan’s post:

Mark Simpkins, who does socially responsible design in the UK:

Sometimes you wake up and realise that you want to change the world….  The next step is always one of the hardest, what to do next, how do you go about changing the world?… When do I create a pledge? When do I contact my MP? When do I take to the streets?…. You examine it and start to break it down, possibly into steps.

This is not about creating a platform to ‘help you make change’…. its a discussion about taking part in the community that can make change happen.

Tom Steinberg of MySociety:

The knowledge-sharing disconnect between the academic and activist/practitioner communities is really, truly terrible, everywhere except data-driven voter-targeting..

Greenpeace is part of the environmental movement. Oxfam is an international development charity. Human Rights Watch is part of thehuman rights movement. Obama for America is a political campaign…. But what primary movement or sector is mySociety part of? Or Avaaz? Or Kiva? Or Wikileaks?

When I ask myself these questions, no obvious words or names race quickly or clearly to mind. There is a gap – or at best quite a bit of fuzziness – where the labels should go.

From Nathan himself:

We still have much to learn about the basics of creating change…. Mark suggests that we need services that help us decide how to create the change we care about. One response is to curate marketplaces or collect case studies to list the options and strategies for change.

[But] as attractive as it seems, change doesn’t simply come from picking the right tool or tactic…In addition to knowing what we could do and having the confident experience to try, we need to know what works and what doesn’t. This is an area where academics can help.

To this discussion I’ll also add a Personal Democracy Forum talk by Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Executive Director,  Taren points out how little campaigners know about their effectiveness, and how useful an empirical and evidence-based approach to campaigning could be.

Who else is talking about these issues?


Image: Flickr/Martin Deutsch


Cross-posted from The Digital Activism Research Project

2 thoughts on “The Activism Knowledge Gap

  1. George Lakey at Swarthmore College is building a database evaluating the effectiveness of nonviolent direct action campaigns. So far it includes analysis of over 600 (yes, six hundred) campaigns worldwide. Each case looks at objectives, to what degree they were achieved, what tactics were used, what allies were gained or lost, etc. The cases are categorized by country, continent, decade, and issue.
    Another useful recent resource is Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, “Why Civil Resistance Works” (2011), which compares the effectiveness of campaigns with varying degrees of violence; one key variable is the number of participants.

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