What Moves In a Social Movement?

Aidan Kankyoku
October 25, 2022

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

  • While social movements often fail to win specific policy changes, they are potent tools for political agenda-setting and shifting social narratives.
  • Social network science and the Snowball Strategy provide a compelling explanation for how social movements create cultural change, by turning passive supporters into passionate and socially-connected advocates.
  • Using the Snowball Strategy and Momentum-Driven Organizing, the animal movement can catalyze a chain reaction of norm change powerful enough to transform entire nations. This would address an gap in the current movement ecology around social norms.
  • Pax Fauna exists to reinvigorate the use of social movement strategies in the animal movement. Get in touch or get involved in our work if the ideas in this series excite you!

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 completely 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, brilliantly 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 we have seen. We believe that social movement strategies are the key to unlocking the power of social networks at scale, and inversely, 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.1 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.

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