In the previous article, I explained how the narrative of "welfarism vs. abolitionism" was misguided and created unnecessary conflict among animal advocates. Now, I show how, by switching to the vocabulary of "inside game/outside game", the animal freedom movement can shift from infighting to collaboration.

The Gist

Stronger Together

I learned the phrase inside-outside strategy from the work of movement scholars Mark and Paul Engler, though I assume it’s been in use before them. The idea is simple enough: when social movements seek to change society, there are two routes they can take. One is to work inside the system, through the formal structures that have been set up to change policies. Running for office, getting a job inside a company or government agency, and corporate outreach are all ways to try to use the system’s built-in mechanisms to win a policy change. This is the inside game.

The outside game consists of the kinds of strategies people turn to when efforts inside the system fail. The thing that unifies outside-game strategies is building power outside of the dominant institutions. Once movements build alternative centers of power, they can try to exert pressure on the dominant institutions to accept change, or they can try to usurp and abolish those institutions altogether. Standard outside-game strategies include community organizing, picketing, civil resistance (e.g blocking roads or mass open rescues), and noncooperation (e.g. strikes).

The phrase inside-outside strategy speaks to the belief that these two approaches taken together are more powerful than their sum. The ideal dynamic is like this:

  1. Inside-game players work slowly and diligently to insert themselves in positions of influence inside the target institution, usually by pushing for modest reforms.
  2. The outside game provokes a crisis for the institution, a situation where ignoring activists’ more radical demands is more costly than responding to them. (Movement theorists call this the moment of the whirlwind.)
  3. The activists on the inside seize the opportunity to make sure the institution accepts (and follows through on) the movement’s full demands.

Put another way, outside-game strategies target social and cultural norms, shifting the playing field and bringing previously unimaginable demands into the mainstream. The inside game then works to translate these cultural shifts into concrete changes in law and policy, before political inaction leads the culture to backslide.

Dynamic Duo

To give a fictional example of how this might work, imagine two organizations working to get the government of Los Angeles to buy animal-free food instead of meat for its public facilities. Humane LA focuses on the inside game, building relationships with friendly council members and eventually working with them to start a small default-veg pilot program in public hospitals. They become a familiar presence around City Hall and lawmakers know them as helpful, accessible experts on the issue.

Meanwhile, Angelenos for Abolition is working the outside game, tracking down passive vegans and organizing them into a volunteer-led organization doing dramatic protests. By giving people a sense of ownership over their own participation in activism, A4A is able to build a list of hundreds of people willing to participate in their raunchy protests. Soon, their colorful antics demanding rights for animals are getting regular coverage in the local section of the LA Times.

Once they’ve built up enough commitment from their members, Angelenos for Abolition decides to build a fortified encampment occupying the road in front of City Hall. Their action is unprecedented, and so is their demand: an animal bill of rights. Faced with what social movement theorists call a moment of the whirlwind, lawmakers turn to the familiar faces at Humane LA. “We’re already implementing the program you asked us for. Can’t you get these people to go home?” And what do they hear?

“We’re not responsible for this. Those are the radicals! The current program isn’t enough for them. But, we just went out to negotiate with them, and we think we could get them to settle for 100% meat-free procurement across the entire city budget, based on our successful pilot in the hospitals…”

Family Feud

The inside-outside strategy sounds pretty good on the surface, especially when I oversimplify it as above. But unfortunately, across many different causes, it usually doesn’t work out so neatly. Conflict between outside-game “radicals” and inside-game “moderates” is almost a universal truth of social movements.

The reason, I believe, is that each side struggles to understand the reasons the other side pursues different demands. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we can deeply understand the dynamics of the inside-outside strategy, we can transform our conflict into a brilliant bit of political theater.

When inside- and outside-game players choose their demands, they are trying to meet a completely different set of needs. The job of the inside game is to gain access to key pressure points in the decision-making of the target institution. The outside game, meanwhile, aims to transform the norms surrounding the institution—the water it swims in.

If inside-game players trumpet radical demands or use radical tactics, they will be frozen out of the dominant institutions. Then the movement will have no allies on the inside when the moment of the whirlwind hits. Our momentum will fizzle out without achieving concrete progress.

Meanwhile, the entire purpose of the outside game is to shift the goalposts of the culture. If outside-game players pursue moderate demands, nobody will pay any attention, and the range of acceptable views will stagnate. And disruptive tactics can be a very effective way to draw attention to these agenda-setting demands.

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Welfarists

When I first learned about cage-free campaigns, naturally, I assumed that the main reason organizations like THL pursued them was because they thought it meaningfully improved the lives of egg-laying chickens. When I saw some footage of cage-free farms (and later, when I set foot inside them myself as an undercover investigator), I reached a different conclusion.

Since then, Welfare Footprint released their findings from a massive study undertaken to quantify the suffering of hens in battery cage vs. cage-free facilities. Among animal advocates, the study did not change many minds. Those who already supported cage-free campaigns hold it up as the best stringent scientific examination of the welfare question; skeptics question the assumptions the study used to score different types of pain or outright reject the notion that suffering can be quantified in this way. These arguments often come down to disagreements on first principles, and it seems to me that no amount of data or debate will lead to a reconciliation.1For myself, I finally came around to believe in the welfare merits of cage-free campaigns when a colony of mice formed in my house. After other efforts failed, we decided we would build a house for them, trap them all together, and relocate the house as a whole to a faraway field where we would gradually wean them off food we provided. In the course of trapping them, however, I came to see the extreme traumatizing effect it had on these mice to be stuck inside the traps even for just an hour or two. The trap is large enough for them to move around, very similar to a battery cage, but they show signs of severe shock and lasting trauma if they are in it for more than a couple of hours. This experience helped me look at the Welfare Footprint study with new eyes, though I’m still sympathetic to those who argue against it as well.

Regardless of how you feel about the welfare footprint of cage-free egg farms, however, there may be better reasons to celebrate these kinds of welfare campaigns in the animal movement. Here are three, starting from the least compelling and building up to the one that really convinced me.

Reason #1: Driving up the cost of factory farming

The first alternative explanation I ever heard for welfare campaigns was that they could effectively drive up the costs for factory farmers, reducing the profitability of the industry and, eventually, consumer demand for their products. This rationale was immediately more appealing to me than the welfare argument, and I could more easily see how this strategy could undermine the industry and bring us closer to abolition.

For cage-free campaigns specifically, this argument was undercut by a recent economic analysis from California showing that the price of eggs statewide only increased $0.08 per dozen eggs compared to other states after full implementation of Prop 12’s cage-free requirement. It’s hard to imagine that an increase of less than a penny per egg will have any impact on demand. Ironically, while this news might make it easier to persuade other jurisdictions to adopt similar laws, it could also make outside-game activists less likely to accept these campaigns.

But this doesn’t apply to all welfare campaigns. The Better Chicken Commitment, a bundle of welfare standards for chickens raised for meat, was designed specifically to force the commercial chicken industry to start absorbing its externalized costs. 

Reason #2: Build momentum with winnable campaigns

This starts to get at the essence of the inside-outside strategy. While the radicals are working to build up enough power outside the system to create a crisis, the insiders can accumulate influence by winning modest reforms. These campaigns help the insiders gain recognition inside the system. They can even come to be seen as reliable experts who decision makers should consult on policies relating to their cause area.

The crisis created by the radicals will create a tiny window of opportunity; it is crucial that inside game players are in this position before the moment of the whirlwind hits. Modest reforms are a tried-and-true way for them to elbow their way in.

What’s more, these campaigns may even work to bring more of the public on our side for more ambitious demands. There isn’t yet enough research specifically looking at the effects of welfare campaigns on public opinion. But from what we know about psychology and marketing, welfare campaigns seem like they could be an effective foot-in-the-door strategy: by getting people to take a small action in support of a cause, we can sneak that cause into their identity. Once they’ve taken one supportive action, it will be easy and even imperative for them to bring their actions further in alignment. This could be a healthy complement to the door-in-the-face technique embodied by campaigns like IP3 in Oregon; further research on these dynamics in our movement would be useful.

Reason #3: Develop inside-game infrastructure

This reason is closely related to #2, but I see it as distinct. I only became aware of this rationale recently. This fall, 6 years after Kristy (the local THL director) and I (the local DxE organizer) became an embodiment of the conflict swirling between our organizations and the larger movement factions they belonged to, I had the pleasure of meeting Dave Coman-Hidy, who led THL for the last decade. Dave built the organization from when he was one of a few employees to a force that had shaped animal welfare policies for several multibillion-dollar multinational corporations. So perhaps it’s to be expected that I learned something new about these campaigns from him.

Dave and I got to talking about the inside-outside strategy, and I was surprised that we used much of the same language to talk about it. I was all ears when he told me there was one thing he wished the outside-game radicals understood:

“I’m all for radical tactics pushing the boundaries of what demands we can make. But right now, the movement as a whole is not developed enough to effectively take advantage of it.”2(I’m paraphrasing)

The truth is, right now both the outside and inside games in the animal movement are underdeveloped. We simply do not have the power culturally or politically to make the changes we need to make. The question we face is precisely the one posed by Freire:

What can we do now in order to be able to do tomorrow what we are unable to do today?

Nothing we can accomplish right now in terms of political or cultural change is exciting to me. I’m far more interested in asking how we can build enough power to be able to make those changes.

For me, this is the crux of the conflict over cage-free campaigns: strategists like Dave were tasked with building up organizations that could powerfully fill a specific role in the animal movement ecosystem. As a small team with a small budget, THL needed to build an organization that could impact the policy decisions of governments and massive corporations. This meant building up a steady organization with dependable revenue streams, skilled staff, and durable organizational knowledge about how to navigate the halls of power. Eventually, they zeroed in on cage-free campaigns, around which not one, but an entire sector of inside-game organizations is being built.

Who am I to argue with that?

From Conflict to Collaboration

The inside-outside strategy is a much better way to make sense of old tensions in the animal movement than welfare vs. abolitionism. This new frame can help both sides understand each other. The outside game can understand why insiders use modest demands to strengthen their position inside the system. Meanwhile, the inside game can understand why outsiders incorporate radical demands that aren’t achievable in the short term.

By demanding complete abolition, followers of DxE and Francione are trying to jumpstart the slow process of normalizing an idea that will take a long time to become mainstream. In the meantime, it serves to make other demands look relatively more modest, and thus makes them easier for inside-game strategies to pursue. Radical demands grab people’s attention and can reshape the mainstream narrative in a way that modest demands cannot. If we are bringing people closer to our side, it doesn’t matter in the short term whether or not we’re getting what we ask for.

Like all theoretical models, the inside-outside model I’ve relied on here is an oversimplification of the real world. In reality, THL has sometimes used informal means of creating pressure, such as protests, to push corporations to accept their demands. And DxE at times has turned to the legislative process to win real victories, such as banning fur in Berkeley and San Francisco, then the whole state of California.

That said, I think the overall model holds up. It’s obvious to me that groups like THL are in a better position than DxE to negotiate with policymakers public and private; they have far more experience navigating those systems and have learned painful lessons. Meanwhile, DxE’s rugged grassroots orientation allows them to jump on risky, attention-grabbing tactics (like gluing their hands to NBA courts) that more conservative organizations won’t touch.

We’ll Set ‘Em Up, You Knock ‘Em Down

Does it matter that inside and outside game organizations understand each other? It’s possible that we can accidentally harness the inside-outside strategy even if we don’t get along. After all, the strategy is a kind of theatre, with roles for a good cop and a bad cop. Wouldn’t that work even better if we really believed it ourselves?

Maybe, but I’m convinced we can do better the more we understand we’re on the same team. First, it makes conferences much more enjoyable. And I think it even makes us more effective.

The essence of the inside-outside strategy is that we’re all building power towards a moment of the whirlwind, the time that our issue becomes a crisis for the dominant institution. The role of the outside game is to create that moment, while the inside game works to positioning themselves to seize it. This is our precious opportunity to make real change.

Without inside-outside coordination, movements are easy to co-opt,3For lack of space here, I’m only going to briefly mention one pair of examples. The Gezi Park protests in Turkey were built on relatively spontaneous grassroots energy with weak connections to an institutional wing. When it came time to negotiate with the government, nobody had the legitimacy to represent the protesters, a crisis which eventually unwound the movement. By comparison, the Tunisian revolution featured heavy involvement of labor unions, which eventually represented the street in negotiations that led to a peaceful governmental transition and a new constitution. leaving us with a far worse compromise than we could have gotten otherwise. Here’s what we need to do to prevent that.

Inside game: remember where you came from

You’re going to use modest reform campaigns to position yourself at points of leverage inside the system. But don’t forget the endgame.

Always remember that there will be a moment in the future when you can win something far more ambitious than what you’ve sought so far. That moment will come when a surge of grassroots pressure (combined with scrutiny from the press) forces the decision-makers close to you to wrestle with a truly radical activist demand. This surge of grassroots energy will probably be smaller than you think; it won’t look like Black Lives Matter or Occupy Wall Street, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful.

You’ll have spent years working to build these relationships and win modest reforms. It’ll be easy to mistake this moment for a threat to all your careful work instead of what it is: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for truly transformational change.

You’ll be the movement’s negotiators on the inside. Don’t sell us out for a cheap compromise in the exact moment we can go for a big win.

Outside game: accept insiders as our allies

Playing the outside game, we get the privilege of asking for what we really want, while the insiders have to wear a mask. We must not mistake this for moral superiority. We’re playing different positions on the same team. 

We need the inside game. When the time comes, they will be crucial to help us navigate the halls of power and turn our momentum into real, durable victories. If we’re constantly dumping on them for the more modest goals they advocate for, they’re not going to feel very enthusiastic about working with us.

Everyone: build strong lines of communication

Finally, both sides need to talk frequently and build trust. If we don’t have strong lines of communication, we’ll have no hope of coordinating during the hectic moments in which rare opportunities tend to present themselves. We’ll work at cross-currents and end up with a weak compromise when we could have won real concessions.

We will be at our strongest when the inside and outside games are merely two faces of the same united movement. To ensure this, everyone should have a best friend on the opposite side of the inside-outside strategy. 

Starting now, you can find out who lives and works in your area, then meet for tea to start building a relationship. Outside-game folks can attend the Animal and Vegan Advocacy Summit, while inside-game folks can come to the Animal Liberation Conference, to get a taste of how the other half lives (and make a few friends while you’re at it).

And most importantly, you can leave a comment on this post, and click the button below to subscribe to this blog! It just might be your first step in shifting from conflict to collaboration.

In this article, I explain how the narrative of "welfarism vs. abolitionism" missed the mark and created unnecessary conflict among animal advocates. In the second part, I’ll show how, by switching to the vocabulary of "inside game/outside game", animal advocates can shift from infighting to collaboration.

The Gist

An Innocent Question

When I was in college, around 2016, my campus animal rights club hosted a talk by the local representative of The Humane League1 Throughout this post, I’ll talk about THL as a stand-in for many organizations that pursue similar goals, mostly because of my personal experience with them. (THL). As she stood facing about two dozen college students interested in animal activism, she began her talk with a question:

“What goal should animal activists pursue?”

After several seconds of silence, I threw out an answer that reflected my background as an organizer with Direct Action Everywhere (DxE for short). DxE had a notorious flair for dramatic confrontations with the public, using disruptive protest to demand a complete dismantling of the legal systems abetting the exploitation of other animals for the benefit of humans. My answer, one of DxE’s slogans, was shorthand for that:

“Total animal liberation.” 

The THL rep (I’ll call her Kristy since I haven’t asked permission to use her name) endured an awkward silence waiting to see if anyone else would respond. Kristy had been working for THL about as long as I’d been organizing with DxE. Her job was to mobilize volunteers to support THL’s signature tactics: handing out leaflets to the public about meatless diets, and pressuring corporations like Mcdonald's to set animal welfare standards for their supply chains. When she clicked to the next slide, the answer waiting there was, like mine, a reflection of her organization’s ethos:

“Reduce the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest number of animals we can.”

Them’s Fightin’ Words

For an outsider to the world of animal advocacy, these two answers would probably seem perfectly compatible. Yet from the moment they were spoken, room 217 of the Hellems Arts & Sciences building was filled with a palpable tension. A conflict much larger than us had asserted itself.

The humans that make up both THL and DxE share the extremely uncommon view that farming animals is a grievous moral harm, and the even less common conviction to dedicate their lives to opposing it. Yet back in 2016, this didn’t seem to be worth much. The relationship between the organizations was racked with mutual distrust, even disdain. And this malaise was merely a microcosm for a larger conflict among animal advocates, one that had been playing out for years in vicious comment threads across social media. To at least one side, this was known as the battle of welfarists vs. abolitionists.

In a moment, I’ll explain why I hope this dichotomy will finally be relegated to the dustbin of history. In fact, I believe it was as useless and misleading back then as it is now. But that’s not what I thought at the time.

As soon as Kristy’s answer appeared on the screen, a familiar narrative was racing through my brain. I had labeled her a welfarist, and as fast as my neurons could fire, this label was joined by a series of harsh judgments. Kristy, I decided, was a sellout who lacked either a strong commitment to creating real change for animals or the imagination to believe it was possible, or both. She must be small-minded, I immediately concluded, if she’s willing to settle for asking corporations to make such tiny changes to the way they torture and exploit animals, rather than demanding an end to that exploitation.

I feel pretty confident that something similar was happening for Kristy. In her view, I was a hopeless naïf, someone more concerned with doing activism that made me feel good than with actually making a difference in the lives of animals. By insisting that animal advocates set our sights on the unattainable, I and my ilk were damaging our ability to make any difference whatsoever, and driving the public further away in the process. Like others before me, I would soon realize that my goals were futile. At that point, I would either come around to her side or burn out and stop advocating for animals altogether. 

I wish I could say otherwise, but I never developed a successful collaborative relationship with Kristy after that. For the next few years, we managed to steer clear of each other as we each worked in the same metro area to organize volunteers toward different goals. 

Looking back, this was a stupid waste. Our efforts could have synchronized to be greater than their sum; instead, our mutual disregard ensured they were less than.

My purpose for this blog is to explain what I wish both Kristy and I had understood differently at the time, and how I believe that understanding can pave the way to a renaissance of collaboration among animal advocates.

Antispeciesister-Than-Thou

If there was one person responsible for framing this debate as one of abolitionists vs. welfarists, his name was Gary Francione. You can guess which side he was on from the title of his book, The Abolitionist Approach. Indeed, for the law professor and vegan philosopher, welfarist was a dirty word, one many of its targets never identified with (he sometimes deigned to call them regulationists or incrementalists)

Francione more concisely laid out the fault lines as he saw them in an essay titled “Irreconcilable Differences.” (Gotta hand it to him, the guy knows how to get his point across in a title.) Describing the welfarist view as “blatantly speciesist,” Francione rails against the strategy of pushing for incremental improvements in farmed animal welfare regulations, in which he sees a “symbiotic relationship” with the industry itself. Ultimately, he concludes that asking for anything less than veganism (for the individual) and total abolition (for society) sets us up for failure.

When I was first getting involved in animal activism, I found Francione’s perspective appealing. His criticisms of welfare campaigning fit well with my own values, and he wrote about the basic questions of animal ethics with fierce clarity. I still cherish his animal rights philosophy, but I’ve come to see many points of his movement criticism that I don’t agree with. Specifically:

1. Welfarists are abolitionists

I had to contend with the plain fact that the humans working their butts off at organizations like THL are ethical vegans who long just as deeply as I do for an end to violence against animals. This reality came home for me when one of my best friends from college, Zoë Sigle (her real name this time) succeeded Kristy as the local grassroots director for THL. I’d known Zoë for years, and we’d grown into our activism together. I knew her to be a person not only of deep integrity and dedication, but also piercing intellect. It was impossible for me to write her off the way I had done with Kristy, who I didn’t otherwise know. (Not that that was any excuse.)

Of course, Francione insists the intentions of “welfarists” don’t matter. So let’s look at their impact.

2. Welfare campaigns aren’t responsible for the humane myth

The logic behind Francione’s accusation of a “symbiotic relationship” is that by pursuing incremental reforms, advocates are sending a message to the public that farming animals is a basically acceptable practice that just needs to be reformed:

Groups… identify practices that are economically vulnerable, such as the gestation crate; industry resists; a drama ensues; industry eventually agrees to make what are meaningless and possibly even financially beneficial changes; the animal groups declare victory and fundraise; industry, praised by the groups, reassures the public that it really cares about animals.

It makes sense that welfare campaigns might lead members of the public to think that farming animals is no problem after all. But is that actually what happens? It turns out, we don’t have to guess. 

Two research teams have recently investigated this exact question. The first study (n=1,520), published this April, measured people’s opposition to animal farming (AFO) after being shown three different readings: one about current animal farming practices, one describing welfare reforms, and a control about an unrelated topic. The welfare group reported slightly lower AFO than the current practice group, but greater AFO than the control group.

The differences were too small for statistical confidence, but to address Francione’s accusation, we only need to show that welfare reforms don’t reduce AFO. The purpose of welfare reforms is not to change public opinion; we have other tactics for that, as long as they aren’t making it worse. (Another team led by Pax Fauna’s own Zoe Griffiths reached similar findings in a study soon to be published.)

Now, it’s certainly true that the humane myth is a key idea propping up the slaughter industry. But the available evidence suggests that welfare campaigns by animal advocates aren’t to blame. Indeed, meat corporations seem perfectly capable of spreading that lie themselves, even in countries with the fewest protections for farm animals. And inversely, when we look at countries with relatively higher protections (such as Germany, Sweden, and the UK) it appears they go hand-in-hand with stronger energy for animal-free foods and animal liberation activism.2I am not aware of anyone studying this rigorously, and it seems worthwhile. If it has been studied, I’d love to see it so please share! That is, higher welfare protections don’t seem to stifle abolitionist impulses in a society.

3. No strategy is without limitations

The final thing that turned me off Francione’s argument was asking: well, what are you offering instead? Instead of welfare campaigns (and just about everything else) Francione believes we should all be focusing on vegan education: convincing people to embrace a vegan lifestyle, one-by-one or lecture-hall-by-lecture-hall. He used to point out that if every vegan in the UK would convert just one other person to veganism each year, the whole country would be converted in just 7 years. This is mathematically correct3If 1% are currently vegan, 1% x 27 = 128% just as surely as it is not remotely happening (the number of vegans is growing very slowly or not at all), and Francione offers no credible strategy to make it start happening.

I don’t think that someone needs to have a solution to a problem in order to point one out. But it bothered me for Francione to spend so much time criticizing others when his own strategy was so full of holes. And ultimately, it led to a shift in my perspective.

Everyone’s an Incrementalist

Incrementalism is just another word for strategy, especially following on Paolo Freire’s definition in Pedagogy of Hope:

What can we do now in order to be able to do tomorrow what we are unable to do today?

Unless you have a plan for how we’re all going to wake up tomorrow in a vegan world, you are an incrementalist. The thing that differentiates us is not the purity of our desire to end violence against animals; it is merely the incremental steps we are each focusing on to get there. Every animal advocate I know is in basic agreement about the world we’d like to see (at least insofar as it concerns humans’ relationship to other animals). We’re just focusing on different increments to get there:

I’m guessing that if most people reading this were to isolate any one of the strategies listed above, we’d have a hard time seeing how that strategy alone can get us all the way from the world we have today to a radically different relationship to other animals.

Fortunately, all of these strategies and more are being pursued in parallel in a diverse movement ecology. And if we play our cards right, each strategy can make up for the deficiencies of another.

Alright, so now we can all hold hands and sing as we march towards a glorious vegan future, right?

Kumbaya

It probably isn’t a very controversial idea to say that the movement will need a diverse, multistrategic approach to win real change for animals. But needing a variety of strategies doesn’t mean any one of them should be above criticism.

The conflict that existed between DxE and THL back in my college days may have gotten out of hand, but it was based on real, substantive disagreements about strategy. It wouldn’t work to paper them over by throwing around terms like multistrategic and movement ecology.

Rather, it is precisely by examining those disagreements up close that my own views changed. I have come to believe that the strategic disagreements between DxE and THL were based on fundamental misunderstandings because we each only saw things from our particular position in a complex movement. It has taken me years to realize, but the different demands we were pursuing were a reflection of the different roles we were playing in the movement and the needs of those roles. This is something more subtle than the diverse incremental strategies listed above.

Fortunately, DxE and THL each provide great case studies. No two strategies divided the movement more back in those days than the corporate cage-free campaigns pursued by groups like THL and the signature restaurant disruptions of DxE. In the sequel to this blog, I try to convince my skeptical 21-year-old self that there was a depth of wisdom to cage-free campaigns, and convince Kristy of the same thing about DxE’s antics. I’ll recruit the help of a new, more collaborative frame for thinking about this old division in the movement: inside game and outside game.

Read part 2 now.

Part 3 of It’s Social Norms, Stupid

This is the last in a series of three articles. In part one, I made the case that the farmed animal movement’s dominant theory of change is neglecting the role of social norms in shaping people’s attachment to meat, resulting in insufficient strategies. In part two, I introduced the science of social networks, which has cast new light on how changes in norms spread. Now, I build on this science to discuss how social movements can unleash the power of social networks to change norms at scale, particularly for the animal freedom movement. In fact, I believe this is precisely where social movement strategies excel. If you don’t know what I mean by “social movement strategies,” you’re in the right place.

The Gist

Norms, Networks, Movements

Social norms are one of the most powerful forces that keeps people eating animals. Most people are surrounded by other people eating animals. These connections make it socially costly for them to change, a cost most people are unwilling to bear no matter how hard we try to persuade them. As a result, individual diet change advocacy has been extremely limited in its reach, and per capita meat consumption continues to rise.

This seemingly insurmountable challenge has led many animal advocacy organizations to shift their attention away from the general public completely. Organizations like The Humane League and Mercy for Animals, which used to invest heavily in leafleting and vegan outreach, now prefer corporate welfare campaigns. These campaigns may help to address one hurdle (the relative cost of animal vs. non-animal meat) by driving up the price of animal products. But if we ever want to end the use of animals for food, we will most likely need to engage with social norms directly. 

But there is good news: new research has illuminated the process by which changes in social norms spread. This research, helpfully summarized by network scientist Damon Centola in his book Change, suggests that with the right strategy, social networks could be flipped from our greatest obstacle to our most powerful tool. Counterintuitively, by focusing on social clusters on the margins of society’s relational networks, we can build momentum for a new norm, growing like a snowball until it can take over society.

In part 2 of this series, we imagined how this Snowball Strategy could be used to spread a new norm through the network pictured above. Starting on the periphery, just two individuals would be enough to create a small bubble where the new norm reached majority status. From there, it could spread slowly through the periphery and build momentum before ever coming up against the full force of the previous norm.

That’s all well enough for a simple diagram. But an entire nation? U.S. society is an endlessly complicated social network of clusters within clusters within clusters deeply and mysteriously intertwined, with central nodes (influencers) on all different scales. What does this really look like at the societal level, in practice? 

That question is the subject of this third and final article. For me, the most exciting thing about this new research on social networks is its potential to answer a question that has confounded sociologists for decades: how do social movements create change? Most sociologists agree that social movements (and protest movements in particular) often play an important role in major social and cultural transformations, but there is far less agreement on how. Centola’s research points towards the most compelling answer I have seen. I now feel more confident than ever that social movement strategies are the key to unlocking the power of social networks at scale, and conversely, that the new research on social networks teaches us how to design movements that are most likely to change norms. 

First, what exactly do we mean by social movements?

Culture on the Move

In the summer of 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement blossomed into the largest protest movement in U.S. history. This wave of protest was highly decentralized and had elements of spontaneity, but it was also a direct product of years of hard work by BLM organizers and campaigners across the country, especially in the Southeast (not to mention decades of organizing dating back even before the Civil Rights era). From 2013 onward, these organizers had toiled in the background, building a common narrative and preparing communities to mobilize rapidly in response to murders by police. These repeated mobilizations especially from 2014-2016 normalized the idea of mass street demonstrations in response to police violence and helped spread BLM’s message.

The mainstream media mostly stuck to the dominant narrative, describing the victims as “suspected criminals” and the movement as “riotous mobs.” But on the periphery, a counter-narrative was building momentum, a story of long-oppressed communities refusing to stay silent as power-drunk police officers murder Black teens. The Black Lives Matter narrative snowballed through urban Black communities, as well as clusters on the political left such as college campuses and alternative media, slowly building up the momentum necessary to challenge the dominant narrative (Centola documents this spread in Change using Twitter data). 

Cycles of grassroots organizing often last for only a few years, and by the end of 2017, much of this original organizing energy had fizzled out. The number of protests by active BLM chapters dropped sharply. But by this time, the narrative had taken on a life of its own. The snowball kept building, invisible to the mainstream and even to most activists, until it finally exploded into view with the murder of George Floyd.

Tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets in a tsunami of moral outrage. Unlike the protests of 2014-16, these extraordinary mobilizations were to a large extent spontaneous and leaderless. It was a messy process, but eventually the movement coalesced behind a clear political demand: defunding police departments. While it sounded shocking on its face, protesters backed this demand up with a serious plan, to redirect funding towards other forms of public safety, including housing and employment programs meant to target the root causes of many crimes. Throughout the summer, “defund the police” was the unmistakable rallying cry.

To make a long story short, this demand did not come to pass. A few cities passed bills to redirect some funding away from police departments only to quickly reverse course. The idea of reducing police department funding has receded back to the political fringe.

An observer might look at this and conclude that the Black Lives Matter movement was largely a flop. They’d be entirely missing the point. 

Outside Game

For our purposes right now, let's define social movements as:

Large, informal coalitions mainly composed of volunteers that use tactics including protests and community organizing to build alternative centers of power outside of dominant institutions, for the purpose of reforming or abolishing those institutions.

To simplify that a bit, we could think of social movements as change initiatives driven primarily by large numbers of volunteers working outside the system, as opposed to politicians or NGOs working inside of it. However, while some change initiatives renounce the status quo completely and seek to build independent alternative systems, social movements build power outside the dominant system for the purpose of directly challenging it. For this reason, social movements are sometimes called the outside game strategy, paired with the inside game strategies of lobbying, building relationships with policymakers, or or seeking office inside dominant institutions.

When we think of it that way, it makes sense that outside game strategies often aren’t the best way to get a specific policy passed, at least not directly. Besides Black Lives Matter, another recent example is Extinction Rebellion (XR) in the UK. In 2019, XR catalyzed the largest mass civil disobedience (and corresponding mass arrests) in Britain in decades, perhaps ever, with thousands of Brits deliberately getting themselves arrested to protest the government’s inaction on climate change. Yet besides the empty gesture of national and local governments formally declaring a “climate emergency,” none of XR’s concrete demands were enacted. 

If social movements don’t change laws, what are they good for? We need only take a step back to see the profound effect each of these movements had on their surroundings. XR transformed the way the British public and media talk about the climate crisis, leading to a sharp, persistent increase in public concern. The Black Lives Matter movement transformed cultural mores regarding race in the U.S. Public statements that didn’t raise an eyebrow ten years ago are enough to end someone’s career today, a clear way to observe the dramatic shift in social norms. This is precisely the kind of shift the animal movement desperately needs: to create a stigma around eating animals.

XR’s first major wave of protests contributed to a significant and durable increase in public concern about the climate crisis. (source)

The Missing Link

Social movements excel not in directly changing policies, but in changing narratives. If ordinary politics are a game of tug-of-war, mass protest movements transform the entire landscape the game is being played on, making the previously unimaginable seem inevitable or at least feasible. In a healthy movement ecology, the outside game strategies work to shift the landscape in favor of an issue, opening up new space for inside game players to secure more ambitious policy changes than would otherwise be possible. (Think of the Overton Window if you’re familiar with it.)

In other words, social movements change political norms. But how? For a long time, researchers and social scientists have been divided. Is news coverage of dramatic confrontations between protesters and police uniquely effective for persuading the public to support a cause? Are powerful decision makers afraid of what would happen if the protests keep growing? Or is there something else going on, something below the surface? If we understood what mechanism social movements use to create this change, we’d know how to design the most effective movement for transforming social norms around eating animals.

Before explicitly hearing of the science of social networks, I was aware of a different theory explaining how movements create change, associated with the work of social movement scholar Doug McAdam. According to the Proximity Theory, the main power of social movements lies not in press coverage or in the righteous fear of the powerful, but in the creation of activists. Essentially, protest movements work by drawing in huge numbers of people who were already sympathetic to the cause but had not yet been activated. Through shared experiences of transgressing social norms (as is done in a mass protest), their identity is transformed. The movement becomes a core part of who they are, and they unite behind its shared narrative. Yet the real work of social change happens not during the protest, but afterwards, when these people return to their preexisting social networks as passionate evangelists, turning the gears of change one conversation at a time.

Well, so the theory goes, anyway. But I’ve always found Proximity Theory challenging. On one hand, it seems to fit with other things we know about social movements. For instance, social movements are more likely to succeed if they have more people. That might seem obvious, but why? A 500 person protest and a 5,000 person protest aren’t actually all that different in their capacity to disrupt a city and garner media coverage, especially if the smaller protest is more willing to risk arrest. But if protest movements work by transforming latent supporters into activists who then make change by persuading their friends and family, that would explain why the number of activists a movement can create is so crucial. Another predictor of social movement efficacy is narrative unity: is everyone in the movement singing the same tune? Organized protest can be a highly effective way to let both supporters and opponents know what the narrative is, even if it doesn’t change minds right away.

But could Proximity Theory really explain the mechanism by which protest movements could change norms in a nation of hundreds of millions of people? One conversation at a time? In my early years in the animal rights movement, I remember riding the bus home from protests in Denver, gazing out the window as we zipped past miles and miles of suburban developments, contemplating the enormity of individual humans just in this one small corner of one country. How were we ever supposed to build a movement that could actually reach inside hundreds of millions of minds and change their views about nonhuman life? On some level, it just didn’t seem realistic to me. 

Until, that is, I learned of the Snowball Strategy and the research behind it. Social network science didn’t cause me to massively rethink my belief in the value of social movement strategies. Instead, it provided a missing link to help me fit different ideas together. In fact, the two theories are remarkably compatible, with network science providing a window inside processes that social movement theories treat as a mystery. The new science of how change spreads through social networks explains the norm-transforming chain reaction set off by social movements, while social movements provide the ideal catalyst for the Snowball Strategy to be implemented on a massive scale.

We Go Together Like…

Consider the animal movement. Conservatively, there are right now at least a million (perhaps several million) ethically motivated vegetarian and vegan adults sprinkled across U.S. society.1Of 258.3 million adults in the U.S., conservatively 5% (13 million) are vegetarian, 5% being near the low end of the very wide spread of survey results on the topic. 10% is a very conservative offer of the number of vegetarians strongly motivated by animal rights. These people care deeply enough about the suffering of animals to break the norm of eating them, but hardly anyone else around them does. Even on the periphery, they feel they’re too small of a minority. Many of them stay silent on the issue of animal freedom, because they’ve learned that speaking up has a high social cost. Perhaps they even insist that other people’s meat eating doesn’t bother them, potentially reinforcing the normality of eating animals just to avoid being seen as the pushy, annoying vegetarian.

These isolated vegetarians represent enormous potential for the animal movement. To borrow a term from legendary behavioral economist Cass Sunstein, they are norm breakers, “those who simply depart from the existing norms.” The challenge is to transform them into norm entrepreneurs, “who oppose existing norms and try to change them.” In How Change Happens, Sunstein explains how crucial this transformation is for catalyzing change in norms. If even a fraction of these people could be transformed, they would comprise an enormous army of antispeciesist evangelists hundreds of thousands strong, an enviable goal for any social movement.

You understand by now that the key to this transformation is social networks. As long as they remain isolated, it is extremely difficult to turn norm breakers into norm entrepreneurs. And even if they can be transformed, they likely won’t be very effective. If you drop one lone evangelist into a social group with a deeply entrenched norm, it is rare that they will convert even one person. It only becomes more unlikely if that norm is dominant in the society surrounding them. Overcoming this resistance presents an enormous challenge. Most evangelists will fail or even be converted back into the dominant norm.

But if you can connect these people together, you can create a bubble where norm entrepreneurship is the norm. You can give people the confidence to speak out, and start building a snowball. 

Social Crystallization

Well, connecting and activating norm breakers is the name of the game in social movements. The precise thing that sets social movement organizations (SMOs) apart from inside-game organizations is that their strategy depends entirely on turning out large numbers of volunteer activists. Whereas a small, well-funded professional organization can successfully lobby for a piece of legislation or campaign for a company to change their animal welfare policies, SMOs build their theory of change around mass participation.

SMOs need to turn out thousands or tens of thousands of activists. But most of the time, those activists don’t yet exist. So the day-to-day life of a social movement organizer is all about creating them, by finding latent norm breakers and transforming them into norm entrepreneurs.

At Pax Fauna, we are proponents of a specific set of social movement strategies called Momentum-Driven Organizing (outlined in This Is an Uprising by Mark and Paul Engler, one of my top two books on social change alongside Change). Momentum-Driven Organizing is built on a rich history, but the core idea is simple enough: create a cycle of escalating confrontation with the status quo to attract more and more passive supporters into the movement, absorbing them into a well-organized SMO where they can be transformed into a dedicated activist.

The Cycle of Momentum is a strategy social movements can use to build power using escalating confrontation with the status quo. (Source)

It’s no coincidence the Momentum-Driven Organizing and the Snowball Strategy are both named after momentum. (For those who count something other than English as your first language, “snowballing” is a common metaphor for building momentum, because of the way a snowball rolling down a hill gets larger and larger.) I don’t mean to say that the two theories were developed in tandem; as far as I know, they are just becoming aware of each other. But they are wonderfully compatible because both have tapped into an essential truth about how cultural change spreads.

Momentum-driven SMOs believe that mass-producing activist transformations for people is one of their core measures of success (though not the only one). It turns out that confrontational protests are a great way to do this. It’s hard to imagine a better place to form a norm entrepreneurial identity than shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other activists, facing down a police line, chanting in unison, spiritually high on shared purpose and solidarity.

But momentum organizing doesn’t just use mass protest. It also seeks to absorb people into a volunteer organization, a network of strong social ties where the new norm can be reinforced. At their best, it’s easy to see how social movement organizations could function as the initial clusters of strong ties on the network periphery through which new norms can spread and build momentum, while at the same time spreading awareness of the issue through media coverage of protests, thus priming the ground for dramatic cultural transformation when the tipping point is reached.

It’s Social, Stupid

Speaking of things that aren’t a coincidence, I’ve been grasping this whole time for some clever trick to play with the common word in social norms, social networks, and social movements. Alas, I wasn’t able to come up with anything, so this humorless conclusion will have to do.

In the very beginning of this series, I suggested that within the landscape of people working to end the use of animals for food, a great deal of resources are being put into what I called the Taste, Price, Convenience postulate. If I had to sum up what I think is missing from this theory of change in a single word, it would be social.

The TPC postulate focuses on the single relationship between consumers and their food provider, imagining that all the problems of animal-free meat adoption can be addressed there. That’s not how people work. We are social, and anything a tenth as fundamental and controversial as food is processed through our social selves. The price and chemistry of alternative meats may have an important role to play, but ultimately, the matter of animal freedom will be settled in the social arena.

Fortunately, we have a wealth of research and tools to guide us in that arena, if we know where to look.

For organizations focused on levers other than public opinion, keep doing what you’re doing. But to the extent you’re trying to build support or behavior change among the general public, social clusters and the snowball strategy should be at the heart of your planning. And for leaders or funders who can shape what programs the movement undertakes, we need to reengage with social norms on a much larger scale. We need a renaissance of advocacy aimed at the public. Social movement strategies should be a major part of that.

Pax Fauna exists to reinvigorate the social movement sector of the animal freedom ecology, but we have no delusion that we can do it alone. If you resonate with the ideas shared in this series, you can reach out to get plugged into our work on a volunteer or full-time basis. Or if you’re already involved in a project that could use (or is using) some of these strategies, get in touch so we can compare notes and build power together. We’d love for you to join the conversation about how we can incorporate the Snowball Strategy more deeply into our strategies. If we’re going to focus on social connections, the ones within our movement are a great place to start!

  1. Of 258.3 million adults in the U.S., conservatively 5% (13 million) are vegetarian, 5% being near the low end of the very wide spread of survey results on the topic. 10% is a very conservative offer of the number of vegetarians strongly motivated by animal rights.

Part 2 of It’s Social Norms, Stupid

This is the second in a series of three articles. In part one, I made the case that the farmed animal movement’s dominant theory of change is neglecting the role of social norms in shaping people’s attachment to meat, resulting in incomplete strategies. In this section, I introduce the science of social networks, which has cast new light on how changes in norms spread. In part three, I’ll build on this science to discuss how social movements can unleash the power of social networks to change norms at scale, particularly for the animal freedom movement.

The Gist

Gordian Knot

Amongst animal advocates, there is a lot of excitement about a theory of change we can call the Taste, Price, Convenience (TPC) postulate. This theory holds that the moment animal-free foods taste the same or better, cost the same or less, and are as accessible as animal meat, people will choose to buy them instead. But it is incomplete. In fact, taste, price, and convenience represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to people’s food choices.

Consciously, people are motivated by strong cultural attachments to meat from animals, as well as values connected to naturalism. But the (often unconscious) influence of social reinforcement is even more important. Most people can’t imagine being the first one in their social group to change what they eat. As long as everyone else keeps eating animals, they will too. The most convincing arguments won’t matter. 

On the surface, this seems like an impossible puzzle. If everyone eats animals, and everyone eats animals because everyone else eats animals, how can we ever get anybody to stop eating animals? Where do we start?

Nodes and Connections

It turns out that a simple shift in perspective holds the key. When we think about influencing the behavior of individuals, we run into a roadblock: their relationships with other people are stopping them from changing. But social reinforcement doesn't have to be our foe. In fact, it can be a powerful tool. The reason lies in the young science of social networks.

When you think of society, do you mostly think of people? For social network researchers, society is made up not of people, but of relationships. (In network parlance, these are nodes and connections). From this perspective, the attributes of individual nodes are much less important than the connections between them, and the way those connections are arranged. 

On an individual level, humans are unique and full of quirks. But once we are arranged into a social network and norms take over, our individual traits stop having much effect on the behavior of the network. The larger and more complex the network gets, the more we start to look like legos: interchangeable. The behavior of the system is determined by how the blocks are connected to each other, much more than any traits of the blocks themselves.

Why It Matters

Once again, this may all seem a bit elementary. But the simple fact is that up to this point, the farmed animal movement has not been engaging with society according to this perspective. Efforts at influencing public behavior have focused on individuals, barely sparing a thought for the relationships between them. We have already established that the influence of relationships is one piece missing from the Taste, Price, Convenience postulate. Classic vegan outreach methods like leafleting share this flaw. Targeting individuals with information ignores the social forces that prevent them from changing their diet. This more than suffices to explain high recidivism rates among vegetarians and the inefficacy of leaflets.

Realizing this, many animal advocates have given up on winning over the public. Most of the organizations that used to focus on leafleting have redirected their attention to corporate welfare campaigns 1 To the extent that these campaigns (and protest activity more generally) have a goal of influencing the public, they represent a shotgun approach, reaching individuals at random without any attention to social clusters or a systematic plan for altering the public’s views (that I am aware of). (not to mention their budgets: such campaigns now guzzle 60% of total farmed animal funding from Effective Altruism-aligned grantmakers). While these campaigns may be worthwhile, it’s hard for me not to interpret this as a white flag. We have surrendered the war over public opinion for the more tangible battleground of corporate boardrooms. 

The TPC postulate focuses on the single relationship between consumers and their food provider. It imagines that all the problems of animal-free meat adoption can be addressed there. That’s not how people work. We are social, and anything a tenth as fundamental and controversial as food is processed through our social selves. The price and chemistry of alternative meats may have an important role to play. But ultimately, the matter of animal freedom will be settled in the social arena.

I’m here to tell you that we don’t need to give up on social change for animals. In fact, the very social network science that explains why individual diet change advocacy was so ineffective offers a different and far more powerful solution.

The Myth of Virality

Social networks attracted the attention of researchers in the mid-20th century. Since the beginning, the principal metaphor used to describe how change spreads through these networks has been a virus. One person adopts a change, then introduces it to everyone they meet. Each connection presents an opportunity for the virus to spread. As long as each person spreads the change to more people (and sticks with it themselves) it’s only a matter of time before the change has spread throughout society.

For decades, this metaphor of viral spread was the accepted mechanism for social change. A social media post or hashtag, a new slang word or hand gesture for greeting, a diet or health philosophy, or a political idea would all spread like a virus through social connections. This theory led to three familiar ideas about how change happens, which in turn became common sense.

How Viruses Spread: The Old Model

That last one is less widely known, but in fact, it describes the thesis of the most-cited paper in the entire field of sociology. That paper is Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties” published in 1970. Granovetter's study began with the observation that not all connections are equal. Our connection to our friends and families is not the same as our connection to the dentist we see twice a year. Strong ties are the core of our social network, people we see many times a week. Weak ties are our casual acquaintances, our outer circle. 

The key difference for Granovetter was that weak ties lack redundancy. Accordingly, information will spread faster through people who don’t know each other very well, because they’re much less likely to know the same people (compared to close friends, who are also close friends with each others’ close friends).

Distinguishing strong ties and weak ties was a brilliant insight. It propelled Granovetter to fame and helped establish the field of network science. Yet as it turns out, that distinction contained a seed that would grow to turn this entire paradigm on its head. 

Dentists Don’t Spread Veganism

In the last couple decades, a new wave of research has radically overturned the understanding of social change that reigned when Granovetter published “The Strength of Weak Ties”. Social media and other digital technologies have enabled scientists to look inside these networks for the first time. One such scientist, Damon Centola, surveys this new era of research and its importance for changemakers in his recent book Change. Without hesitation, I would call this one of the two most important books published on social change in the last decade. (The other being Mark and Paul Engler’s This Is an Uprising, which I’ll discuss in part 3 of this series.) The rest of this post represents my best effort to summarize the relevance of this research to animal advocates in a few hundred words. That said, I implore any serious strategist to download and start reading Change immediately.

Like Granovetter, Centola’s work rests on a crucial distinction: simple contagions vs. complex contagions. It turns out that simple changes do indeed spread through social networks like a virus. If, for instance, you want to spread information about a breaking news event, the strategies above are effective. Highly connected influencers and other weak ties help information spread fast across different social groups. The defining quality of a simple contagion is that it doesn’t encounter resistance to its spread through the network. One or two exposures to the contagion is enough not only to change someone, but to make them a spreader. If you have a literal virus and you stay at home, it will just bounce around among your family or housemates until everyone is immune. But if you bring it to your dentist, she might spread it to dozens of other households before she has any idea she’s sick.

But the viral model breaks down with complex contagions. Spreading a behavior change is fundamentally different from spreading information or a virus. Changing one’s behavior comes at a cost: time, attention, and most importantly, social belonging. Most people won’t bear the cost of a behavior change just because their dentist is doing it. (Be honest, how often have you really been flossing lately2I’ve actually been flossing regularly for the first time in my life, but it had nothing to do with my dentist: two of my housemates floss twice a day, often in common areas. This is a perfect demonstration of the power of strong ties!?) The higher the cost, the more resistance the contagion will encounter. And the more resistance a change encounters, the more it must rely on a set of strategies that are almost exactly the opposite of the old paradigm described above.

The Snowball Strategy

Although this new model for changing social norms is a major departure from the influencer model, in its own way, it is also fairly intuitive. The starting principle is that the basis of a social norm is that most people are doing it. The bulk number of people doesn’t matter as much as the percentage of people who have adopted the behavior. And from the perspective of any individual in the network, that means the percentage of people they are connected with who have adopted it.

Let’s consider the network diagram above. Imagine it represents all the people who attend services at a neighborhood church. The core of the community is made up of people who regularly attend service and are involved in other programs the church puts on. These core individuals are highly interconnected and have strong ties with many other people in the community. At the very center of the network would be the pastor, who has strong ties with everyone in the core and many in the periphery.

If you wanted to spread a behavior change through this church community, where would you start? By now, you understand that it depends on what kind of change you want to spread, and how much resistance you expect. If resistance will be low, the logical place to start would be with the pastor. 

Imagine the pastor sometimes has a hard time getting everyone to quiet down when she needs to make an announcement. Your idea is that when everyone is talking and one person raises their hand, everyone who sees them raises their hand and goes quiet, until the whole group has gotten quiet enough to hear an announcement. If you get the pastor on board, she can announce this new method at a few Sunday services. Soon, everyone will be notified of the change and it will become the new norm.

Reforming the Church

But what if you’re spreading a complex contagion? What if you want this church community to embrace the farmed animal movement, or even establish a norm of getting arrested protesting violence against animals? Even in a very liberal church, this will be no easy task. You’re expecting a lot of resistance.

Should you start with the pastor? It may be a moot point; she’s very unlikely to start advocating this from the pulpit if it’s significantly outside the social norms of the church. Like any community leader, part of her job is to reflect the values of the community. If she strays too far away from that, people will start to leave, or she’ll get fired. In fact, even if she did start calling for the community to change their values and norms to include civil disobedience for animals, it would likely just demonstrate the limits of her leadership position. People might ignore her. 

When it comes to social norms, trusted influencers might have a bit more sway than the average community member. But this is more than counterbalanced by their highly connected position in the network. When it came to simple contagions, this high connectivity was an asset. But for spreading complex contagions, it becomes a weakness. Even if the pastor adopts the change, she’ll be surrounded by people who haven’t, and all those people will be surrounded by people who haven’t. All those other people represent countervailing influences: resistance to the new norm, in the form of reminders that the old familiar norm is still going strong. The pastor only makes up a small percentage of each person’s social network in the church. Despite her respected position, the pastor alone cannot declare a new social norm of such magnitude in this highly interconnected community. If she tries to, she’ll just invite a rebellion. 

Power Lies on the Periphery

When it comes to spreading changes that face resistance, the potential for change lies on the network’s periphery. Looking at the diagram above, these are the green nodes that each have three or fewer connections. These people sporadically attend service and only have a few social connections in the church. The magic of the periphery is that change initiatives that begin here have a chance to build momentum before running up against the full force of the entrenched social norm and the countervailing influence of the highly interconnected network core. 

Let’s say you have a finite amount of energy you’re able to invest in getting this church on board with animal freedom. You could spend all that energy trying to persuade the pastor. Even if you can convince her to take a big social risk, it may not even matter; she’s only one person.

Instead, you could identify someone on the periphery of the community. You find Sally, a hip 20-something who is already sympathetic to the movement. Sally has a small friend group of four. If you can help Sally convince one of her friends to get involved, suddenly, half of their friend group is on board with your campaign. Already, you can see how the dynamics here on the periphery are quite different than at the network core. For the other two members of this friend group, doing civil disobedience for animals will quickly become something they associate with their social life in the church; half of their friends are doing it. The power of social norms means they’ll be easier to convert, especially if Sally and her friend keep reminding them about it.

By now you can see why Centola calls this the Snowball Strategy. Looking at the diagram again, we can imagine the new change creeping across the network periphery, then encroaching on the core. Once 10 or 15% have converted to the new norm, its momentum is palpable and impossible to ignore. Now, if the pastor gets on board, she’ll have the backing of an organic movement. The tipping point is within reach.

Spreading Complex Contagions

Over the last two decades, social network scientists have found more and more evidence that complex social contagions spread most effectively through strong ties on the network periphery. This is just the opposite of simple contagions, which spread rapidly through influencers and weak ties. (Centola effectively surveys much of this evidence in Change, with a lengthy appendix on further reading.) This research has been made possible by social media platforms and other digital technologies. These recreate the dynamics of social networks while enabling interactions and connections to be recorded and measured. Taken together, this body of research arms social change strategists with a new playbook, an uncanny inversion of the strategies listed earlier for viral spread.

Overcoming Resistance to Change: The New Model

Norms, Networks, and…

Around this point, you might be thinking, “OK Aidan, I can see how this all could be applied to a church. But how can we apply this to a whole society? It all seems a bit abstract.” Well, that’s a great question. I wish I’d thought of it myself! Because it leads us directly to what I personally find to be the most exciting thing about all of this. Centola’s work on social networks provides the most compelling answer I’ve seen yet to a question that has confounded sociologists for decades: Why do social movements (and protest movements in particular) seem to be such an effective strategy for changing social norms? And perhaps more importantly, how can we design social movements that are most likely to succeed in doing so?

The next (and last) article in this series tackles precisely those questions.

In the meantime, here are some even simpler ways animal advocates and organizations could incorporate social networks into their current strategies:

  1. To the extent that these campaigns (and protest activity more generally) have a goal of influencing the public, they represent a shotgun approach, reaching individuals at random without any attention to social clusters or a systematic plan for altering the public’s views (that I am aware of).
  2. I’ve actually been flossing regularly for the first time in my life, but it had nothing to do with my dentist: two of my housemates floss twice a day, often in common areas. This is a perfect demonstration of the power of strong ties!

On to part 3!

Part 1 of It’s Social Norms, Stupid

This post is the first in a series of three articles. In part one, I make the case that the farmed animal movement’s dominant theory of change neglects the role of social norms in shaping people’s attachment to meat. As a result, current strategies are insufficient to bring about the end of animal farming. In part two, I’ll introduce the science of social networks, which has cast new light on how changes in norms spread. In part three, I present social movements as a potent strategy for unleashing the power of social networks to change norms at scale, particularly in the case of animal freedom.

The Gist

What’s in a Food Choice?

At a recent conference, I had a chance to hear Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute give his standard talk on GFI’s work. In case you’re not familiar, GFI exists to support the development of animal-free foods by coordinating the industry, conducting research, and lobbying. I’ve heard a fair amount about GFI’s theory of change, and I wasn’t expecting anything surprising, though I was impressed with how polished and forceful a talk Bruce fit into 15 minutes. It was reassuring to imagine him as a representative for the cause, giving this pitch to legislators.

Yet even though I knew to expect it, one moment in Bruce’s talk has been replaying in my mind: when he asserted that “people decide what to eat based on taste, price, and convenience.” I’m so familiar with this argument that it exists in my head as an acronym: the TPC postulate.1Many thanks to Jacob Peacock for some of the insights, terminology, and research used to discuss the TPC postulate in this post. The TPC postulate holds that the moment animal-free foods taste the same or better, cost the same or less, and are as accessible as animal meat, people will choose to buy them instead. 

A substantial portion of the animal movement’s resources is invested in the TPC postulate each year.2It is difficult to quantify the extent of resources invested in the TPC theory of change. Data collected by James Ozden indicates major EA grantmakers directed only about 9% of their combined $84 million in animal funding in 2021 towards cultivated and plant based meats. However, I’m arguing that some of the much larger portion of funding ($50 million, or 60%) spent on corporate campaigns should be considered here, because one of the two major goals of these campaigns is increasing the cost of animal products. But all this is dwarfed by the nearly $5 billion dollars raised by alternative protein companies in 2021, according to GFI. It isn’t easy to compare philanthropic funding with venture capital, but if even 1% of those funds were motivated by altruistic desire to end animal farming, it would make alternative protein the largest category in animal movement expenditures. Organizations using this theory of change work either to improve animal-free foods or to drive up the cost of producing animal meat. The latter is one strategic argument I’ve heard in favor of welfare campaigns for cage-free eggs or the Better Chicken Commitment for chickens raised for meat: higher welfare products are more expensive to produce and thus less competitive with ever-improving alternatives. Together, these two parts of the movement (those working to drive up the cost of meat or drive down the cost of alternatives) make up what I call the Economic Theory of Change.

This is what Bruce was referring to when he said that “people decide what to eat based on taste, price, and convenience.” There’s just one problem: that statement has some major flaws. In fact, the TPC postulate makes a huge error, one which highlights what I believe is the biggest gap in the animal advocacy ecosystem today.3A quick disclaimer: I think highly of GFI. I’m confident their work is worth doing, and as far as I can tell they seem to be doing a great job with it. It could be that they are well aware that the TPC postulate is incomplete, but they’ve chosen to focus on those factors in their own work, and therefore it makes sense to focus their pitch to politicians on those factors. Or they really believe taste, price, and convenience matters the most, which might be just fine given the role they’re performing in the animal movement ecosystem. My intention here is not to say GFI should change anything about their work, it is just to make clear that we should not rely on their work alone to bring about the end of animal farming. My goal for this series of posts is to illuminate that gap and chart a path for how to fill it, using three closely related ideas: social norms, social networks, and social movements.

The Price of Eggs in Chinatown

Where in the world is the missing piece of the TPC postulate? We might begin our search in New York City. Like most cities, NYC grows virtually no food; food is brought in on trains, trucks, and boats from all over the world. From the standpoint of taste, price, and convenience, everyone in the city has access to basically the same foods at the same price. Yet on a day’s walk through Queens and Brooklyn, you could pass through a dozen ethnic enclaves and watch the food environment change dramatically. Totally different foods dominate in Chinatown than in Petit Senegal, Bangla Town, or Jamaica.

As a reader at this point, I’d be thinking, “What a mundane observation.” Of course people from different cultures eat different foods. Yet this unremarkable fact flies in the face of the TPC postulate. There is much more to people’s food choices than just taste, price, and convenience. Rather, people’s relationship to food is mediated by deep cultural attachments, such as nostalgia for familiar childhood foods.

But can’t we just replace the meat in those dishes with identical cultivated meat or equally tasty meat made from plants? That depends on what it means to be identical or equal.

In a 2008 study, researchers gave participants two sausages. One was made from a pig, and one was from plants. Most people said they preferred the taste of the pig sausage. No surprises there, but plant-based meat has improved dramatically since 2008, right?

Not so fast. The twist of the study is that half of the participants were misinformed about which sausage was which. And the decisive factor determining which sausage people preferred was not what it was made of, but what people thought it was made of. The actual chemistry of the sausage didn’t matter. Most people preferred the taste of the sausage they thought was from a pig, regardless of whether it was. And who are we to argue? This is precisely the point: taste lives not in the physical form of the food we eat, but in our minds. The chemical reactions of food-on-tongue are only one factor. Consider that wine tastes better when you think it’s more expensive.

A Matter of Taste

So what factors besides chemistry might shape people’s perception that animal meat tastes better? This is an existential question for animal advocates. Without the right answer, we may never overcome public ambivalence about animal-free food. With the right answer, we may find an even more direct path to ending animal farming than we ever thought possible.

It turns out that cultural attachments have everything to do with people’s preference for “real” meat from animals. In Pax Fauna’s public opinion research4A qualitative study involving over 100 hours of interviews with more than 200 meat-eating Americans. with ordinary meat-eating Americans, culture has been one of the most consistent themes, as in these quotes:

In fact, in the aforementioned study using sausages, while most people preferred the animal-based sausage (or so they thought), some preferred the sausage they thought was plant-based. And researchers noticed a pattern: the thing that predicted what sausage people would prefer was their cultural values. Cultural values affected people’s experience of the taste of each sausage more than chemistry.

Or consider the blowback against GMOs. Genetically modifying crops promised to make food less expensive and perhaps even more nutritious without changing the taste. Opposition to GMOs had nothing to do with taste, price, or convenience. The concerns were economic (small farmers’ control over their own crop supply) as well as naturalistic. Whatever your personal feelings about GMOs, this is a cautionary tale for animal-free foods. Anti-GMO campaigns successfully banned the practice in dozens of countries, and the same naturalistic values are central to many consumers’ attachment to meat from animals, at least according to our research participants:

Without a doubt, taste, price, and convenience have also been common themes in our interviews. But if the participants are taken at face value, addressing these issues alone would fall short of overcoming people’s attachment to animal meat.

It’s Social Norms, Stupid

Besides taste, price, and convenience, people’s food choices are heavily shaped by deeper values connected to culture and naturalism. These values are less tangible than price and chemistry but they are no less real and may be even more important. As the story of GMOs shows, animal advocates cannot afford to ignore them.

Yet even culture and naturalism may represent only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the psychology of meat. Research points to an even bigger obstacle to changing eating habits. This problem has been articulated with brilliant simplicity by Dr. Melanie Joy: most people eat meat because… most people eat meat! That is, most individuals eat meat because everyone around them is doing it.

While culture and naturalism may be the frames through which people rationalize their continued meat consumption despite their ethical misgivings about killing animals for food, social reinforcement is the much more powerful force keeping this norm in place. Social norms influence our behavior in profound ways that we are often totally oblivious to. In study after study, people are able to see that social norms are influencing other people’s behavior but deny the effect on themselves. Yet in the case of meat-eating, we have found that these normative effects are so undeniably strong that a reasonable number of people are able to recognize them:

A recent study by Faunalytics reached similar conclusions about the main barriers to diet change. Researchers followed new vegetarians over a period of six months and asked about the top barriers people experienced to maintaining their new diet. They found that while cost and convenience (“Difficulty finding or preparing veg*n food”) were factors, “The worst barriers to diet change were feeling unhealthy, not seeing veg*nism as part of one’s identity, and believing society perceives veg*nism negatively.” In other words, social factors (and health). Of 14 barriers Faunalytics identified, 7 were different types of social and cultural influence, 2 were health-related, and taste, price, and convenience were each one.5Faunalytics found that social strategies were only modestly effective in helping people overcome these barriers. Still, as you will see, the approach I propose in this series of articles is far more sweeping than the ones they tested. 

Most of the challenges faced by new vegans and vegetarians in a study by Faunalytics had to do with social and cultural influence. (original graph from this data)

Shattering Equilibrium

Finally, we can see the crux of the problem with the TPC postulate. People have deep ethical misgivings about killing animals for food, but they continue to eat meat. Taste, price, and convenience are part of the reason, but they only scratch the surface. Deeper values of culture and naturalness contribute to meat attachment, even shaping taste experiences. But social reinforcement may play the most significant role of all.

Taste, Price, and Convenience are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to people’s decision to eat animal meat.

This, again, is not good news for animal advocates. It means that even if we can overcome one person’s counterarguments, it won’t matter; they’ll just go back to eating meat because everyone around them is doing it. 

Instead, we must figure out how to engage at a higher level, rather than trying to reach consumers one at a time. We need a systems model for understanding the web of interactions and signals that create dominant norms in society, and a set of strategies for shattering the equilibrium around one of the world's most prevalent, entrenched social norms.

It sounds like a tall order.

Are you finally ready for some good news?

We have it. (Read part 2 now.)

  1. Many thanks to Jacob Peacock for some of the insights, terminology, and research used to discuss the TPC postulate in this post.
  2. It is difficult to quantify the extent of resources invested in the TPC theory of change. Data collected by James Ozden indicates major EA grantmakers directed only about 9% of their combined $84 million in animal funding in 2021 towards cultivated and plant based meats. However, I’m arguing that some of the much larger portion of funding ($50 million, or 60%) spent on corporate campaigns should be considered here, because one of the two major goals of these campaigns is increasing the cost of animal products. But all this is dwarfed by the nearly $5 billion dollars raised by alternative protein companies in 2021, according to GFI. It isn’t easy to compare philanthropic funding with venture capital, but if even 1% of those funds were motivated by altruistic desire to end animal farming, it would make alternative protein the largest category in animal movement expenditures.
  3. A quick disclaimer: I think highly of GFI. I’m confident their work is worth doing, and as far as I can tell they seem to be doing a great job with it. It could be that they are well aware that the TPC postulate is incomplete, but they’ve chosen to focus on those factors in their own work, and therefore it makes sense to focus their pitch to politicians on those factors. Or they really believe taste, price, and convenience matters the most, which might be just fine given the role they’re performing in the animal movement ecosystem. My intention here is not to say GFI should change anything about their work, it is just to make clear that we should not rely on their work alone to bring about the end of animal farming.
  4. A qualitative study involving over 100 hours of interviews with more than 200 meat-eating Americans.
  5. Faunalytics found that social strategies were only modestly effective in helping people overcome these barriers. Still, as you will see, the approach I propose in this series of articles is far more sweeping than the ones they tested.

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