The perfect social movement – is there a recipe? This expert explains

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kateryna Gordiychuk, Video Producer, World Economic Forum, HyoJin Park, Video Producer, World Economic Forum


  • Social movements can create a huge impact in the world and can bring about vital changes.
  • But what makes some of these movements so successful, and how were they able to succeed?
  • Hahrie Han is a professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University and author of several books on social movements. Here’s what she thinks.

Social movements are behind the most powerful changes around the world. From voting rights, to political upheavals and the fight for racial equality – social movements can change mindsets, enact laws and shift policies. But only if they succeed.

So what are the features of a movement that can hold the attention of leaders and involve millions of participants?

https://cdn.jwplayer.com/players/F8wdmEvW-ncRE1zO6.html

This episode of our YouTube show Experts Explain delves into how to make a social movement succeed. To do so, we spoke to Hahrie Han, Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University and author of four books about social change.

Han is also Inaugural Director of SNF Agora Institute, using data and research to realise the promise of democracy all over the world; and a Schwab Foundation for Social Enterpreneurship Awardee.

“One of the trends that we’re seeing in social movements in the 21st century is this funny paradox between participation being possible but not being as powerful.”

Hahrie Han was speaking to video producers Kateryna Gordiychuk and HyoJin Park at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos in May.

Kateryna Gordiychuk: How do you define a successful social movement?

Hahrie Han: A successful social movement does several things. It makes the participation of ordinary people possible, so that people can participate. It makes it probable, so that people want to participate. And then it makes it powerful, right? It creates a scaffolding or a vehicle through which people can realise their own power. And one of the trends that we’re seeing in social movements in the 21st century is this funny paradox between participation being possible but not being as powerful.

Right now we live in an era where it’s easier than ever before for people to get involved. I can send out one tweet or a viral hashtag. I can get hundreds of thousands or even millions of people out into the streets. But when you talk to the people who are on the front lines, on the one hand, they feel like it’s easier than ever before to get people involved. But on the other hand, it’s harder than ever to make it feel like their participation actually matters.

“We live in an attention economy. But attention doesn’t necessarily mean that you can actually make the change that you want.”

Kateryna: There have been social movements in the past that have succeeded. But what makes a successful social movement prosper as opposed to the social movements that will get forgotten over time?

Hahrie: First, a lot of social movements mistake attention for power. We live in an attention economy. But attention doesn’t necessarily mean that you can actually make the change that you want.

The second thing is a lot of social movements mistake mobilising for organising. So mobilising is about trying to essentially harness people’s outrage. And because of all the tools that we have with new technologies, it’s easier than ever before to phrase just the right ask to get lots of millions of people who are really angry about something to come out and take action. Organising, on the other hand, is about actually transforming people’s capabilities to turn people who are just outraged into the people who are actually working with each other to create the kind of flexibility and strategic capacity they need to make the change that they want.

The third thing that we find is that the most powerful movements are not the movements that have the best strategy at time one. They’re the movements that at time two are able to react in real-time with flexibility to the challenges that come their way.

There’s never been a social movement in the history of the world that has said, “Hey, we want it to happen” and everyone is like, “Great, it’s going to happen, right?” Instead, what happens is that a social movement agitates for change and then they get pushback. And the real thing that differentiates a successful movement from an unsuccessful movement is how do they react when they get that pushback?

“As an organizer, I have to try to think, ‘What choices can I make today that are going to help me build that successful movement in the future?’”

Kateryna: Have you ever seen a social movement with real power? Where attention was translated into power so well that the movement achieved something specific, like a policy or legislation?

Hahrie: The classic iconic movement that people talk about a lot is the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. One of the core pieces of that was the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where the Black community in Montgomery, Alabama, boycotted buses to protest segregation on buses.

What people forget, a lot of times, when we tell that story of the Montgomery bus boycott, is that it lasted for over a year. For over 365 days, the Black community had to be able to hold together its entire community so that none of them would take the bus. These are people who were trying to get their families to the doctor. They were trying to get groceries. They still had to get to their jobs. They still had to get children to school. And in this climate, people were really pushing back against them. How many social movements do we have in the 21st century that could sustain a boycott for 380 days? There aren’t many right now.

Kateryna: Let’s say something happens inside the movement that forces all the participants of the movement to change course completely…

Hahrie: As an organiser, I don’t know what challenges are going to come my way in three months, six months, one year, five years down the road. And so I have to try to think, ‘What choices can I make today that are going to help me build that successful movement in the future?’

So much of it, we find from our research, has to do with the extent to which you build an interconnected set of relationships among the people in your base. So if the people are only connected through the movement, through an email address or through a hashtag or something like that, then when you need to pivot, when you have to turn that ‘giant yacht’ in a different direction, then it’s really hard to bring all those people along.

But if people are connected to each other in a set of horizontal networked relationships, then when you have to pivot, it’s a lot easier to have the kind of complex conversations that you need in order to bring a team of people along with you. And in fact, that’s where technology plays a huge role in allowing us to build those kinds of relationships at scale. But the key is you have to have those relationships in place.

“Most successful movements are simultaneously bold and pragmatic. They simultaneously negotiate but also hold big ideas.”

Kateryna: So there needs to be a kind of a more deep bond between the participants to kind of keep going, even with the pivot?

Hahrie: A lot of times people will ask me, ‘If I want to join a movement, how do I know if this is a movement that’s likely to be successful or not?’ And the answer that I always give is, ‘If you feel like you’re an interchangeable cog in a machine, you probably are.’

It’s impossible for the leaders at the centre of the movement to be in relationship with everyone, of course. But what it means is that they’re connected with other people who actually will notice, ‘Hey, Hahrie didn’t show up for this meeting.’ It’s not just that we’re missing one person, it’s that this specific person didn’t show up because we needed them.

Kateryna: We could argue that right now we’re in the middle of a huge global movement for climate change. Young people are so determined to push for a social movement to protect the planet. And sometimes they feel that older generations are not listening to them. How can everybody come to the table for dialogue?

Hahrie: All the research that I’ve seen about social movements indicates that the most successful movements are simultaneously bold and pragmatic. They simultaneously negotiate but also hold big ideas. And I think that it’s incumbent on both the young people and the older generation to figure out how we can create a table where we can negotiate together about realising this shared purpose?

In order to make systemic change, you have to have multistakeholder partnerships at stake. A lot of systemic changes that we see bring private partners, civil society partners, governmental partners together to be able to realise and maximise the tools that they’re using at their disposal to make the change that they want.

HyoJin Park: In the case of a social movement, can the end justify the means?

Hahrie: The research does not show that there is any unitary strategy that makes movements work.

So I think sometimes when people say, ‘Oh, if I sit at this table, then I’m giving up, I’m sacrificing some of my ideals. Or the fact that I’m entering into conversation with this strange bedfellow means that I’m losing some of the purity of what I’m trying to achieve.’ And what we find is that there aren’t clear black and white lines that are going to tell you when you can form this coalition or when you can’t and when you should sit at a table when you can’t.

But the key thing is, are you accountable to an actual base of people? And do you make those decisions about sitting at these tables in constant conversation with the people who need the change the most?

Having both the inside and outside strategy is absolutely a key part of the movement. So I don’t mean to suggest, at all, that movements shouldn’t sit at those tables. They just have to be really clear about what their source of power is when they’re sitting at those tables.

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