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Five Questions for… James Ozden
James Ozden is the founder and director of Social Change Lab, a non-profit that researches the impact of protests and social movements. James is both an Effective Altruist and someone who has been involved in protest activity (with both Extinction Rebellion and Animal Rebellion).
I should mention that I also work at Social Change Lab (although I’m leaving at the end of the month), so it’s possible that I have an incentive to ask James questions that make SCL look especially good - keep that in mind when you read both the questions and the answers. I promise that I’ve tried to ask James questions I think are most likely to be interesting rather than questions that are likely to make SCL look good, but you can be the judge as to whether I’ve succeeded!
It’s also worth mentioning that SCL is hiring either a Researcher (see job ad here) or a Director of Research (see job ad here), so if you think the work SCL is doing seems interesting and important, and that you could help SCL think about whether protests seem to be effective, you should apply!
1) You wrote an extremely detailed and useful post making the case for the effectiveness of protest on the Effective Altruism Forum, can you briefly outline the strongest argument(s) for the view that nonviolent protest is likely to have a large impact?
In short, I think there are a few reasons why nonviolent protest could be a cost-effective and impactful way to improve the world:
Just looking at previous instances of moral circle expansion, nonviolent protest has seemingly played a key role in those struggles. Think of the Civil Rights Movements, Indian Independence, the Colour revolutions, and so on. Just extrapolating from historical instances, there’s good reason to think nonviolent protest and grassroots movements might influence society in transformative ways again.
The academic literature corroborates this, and we find significant impacts of protest on public opinion, voting behaviour, public discourse, and more. I would refer people to our literature review for more details but there have been reported shifts of 1-6 percentage points on voting behaviour, and around 2-10 percentage points for public opinion - which are pretty large in my opinion!
Less on the impact but more on the costs side - movements can be extremely cheap to get off the ground. For £100,000 or so, you could incubate a new social movement organisation, which could have a huge impact. In the grand scheme of things, this is the same as paying for 2 salaries at a traditional NGO, so the potential upside for impact-focused donors can be quite large.
I would also refer people to our most recent piece of work at Social Change Lab, which is our report on protest outcomes. It covers the last 6 months of our research, and summarises our findings from our literature review, public opinion polling, expert interviews, and more.
2) It seems as though there’s some evidence that lots of activists who partake in protests are quite unpopular. For instance, YouGov seems to say that only 15% of people in the UK say that they approve of Extinction Rebellion, other polling seems to suggest that Insulate Britain’s actions weren’t popular. Is this consistent with the idea that these sorts of protests are likely to do a lot of good?
I think so. Organisations or individuals taking disruptive (and nonviolent) action aren’t often very popular with the public, for obvious reasons. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. was in many ways the figurehead of the American Civil Rights Movement, but he had a 63% disapproval rating before his death. Yet we look back on his work now as a hero, where the last relevant poll shows a disapproval rating of only 4%. He is also credited by many for being a key player in the advancement of civil rights, and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
I think this highlights a situation where activists take disruptive action to shine light on a key issue, which they believe is being massively overlooked within the current society. Usually history vindicates them, by looking back on them as the moral vanguard. Even very recently, unexpected commentators have been coming out to say that groups like Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain might have been right after all.
With Extinction Rebellion specifically, it’s true that lots of people dislike them and their actions, but I think that’s completely consistent with their actions having significantly increased the salience of climate change. YouGov have some compelling polling from before and after Extinction Rebellion protests that I think shows that they plausibly had an impact:
That said, this means it might be hard to know when your tactics are genuinely harmful, because people will look unfavourably upon disruptive actions almost no matter what you do.
3) You’ve claimed that Effective Altruists have paid too little attention to social movements and protests. Assuming that you’re right, what’s your best explanation as to why EAs would fail to properly examine the impact of protests, given that EAs spend so much time thinking about ways to have a large impact on the world?
I don’t have a great answer to this but I have some hunches. One is that EAs have historically been very apolitical, and unwilling to engage with any kind of political activity for fear of reputational damage, or just plain misunderstanding about how important it is. I think this is changing, but the interest of EAs getting into policy or politics has really only been taking off in the last few years. I expect that that will lead to some increased interest for social movements, as it then becomes apparent that political decision-making isn’t a rational process, and vested interests play a big role. To counter these vested interests, grassroots organisations are often a good solution (e.g. the climate movement taking on the fossil fuel lobby).
Another reason, which also relates to most EAs underrating the importance of politics, is the difficulty in measuring the impact and outcomes of grassroots social movements. Most EAs until recently (i.e. last 2-4 years) have been quite sceptical of any intervention which didn’t have tons of good evidence, ideally in RCT format. This is just so hard to come by for things like protest, so often people ignored these hard-to-measure interventions for much more evidence-backed things, even though they might actually be less effective overall. I think this has changed a lot in recent years, with the popularisation of things like hits-based giving, but it still feels like a work in progress.
Another random hunch is that many EAs I know just don’t have any background being involved in social movements (other than Effective Altruism), protest or other similar grassroots activities. Even now, many EAs tend to be working in academia, high-paying jobs such as consulting or banking, or government roles, where it might be frowned upon (or worse!) to be a vocal grassroots activist. I also think that most EAs I know tend to be quite agreeable. They’re reasonably conflict averse, so I doubt that taking part in confrontational protests or laborious internal decision-making is their idea of a good time.
4) Suppose that someone is convinced that social movements have the potential to do a lot of good, how would you recommend they think about which social movement to participate in, and which ones to avoid?
Well I think this depends hugely on what global issues people most want to address. I’m of the opinion that people should spend their time and energy working on the issues that have the largest chance of improving the world - which might look like reducing animal suffering, reducing existential risk or mitigating climate change.
Importantly, I think a key distinction to make here is that a social movement is different to a social movement organisation (SMO). For example, the climate movement might be the overall social movement, but there are many SMOs within the climate movement, such as Extinction Rebellion, The Sunrise Movement, Fridays for Future, and so on. So if the question is, how do I pick a social movement organisation to participate in, that requires a different answer.
Generally, I think SMOs that have clear governance and policies about decision-making, conflict, and compensation are much more likely to succeed, due to lower levels of internal conflict or other drama. This might be hard to tell from the off, but even well-facilitated meetings are a good sign that the group understands the importance of process, as well as fair participation.
5) What is the best argument against the view that protests are likely to be effective, and how do you respond to it?
One argument is that protest can also lead to negative consequences, such as political polarisation. It’s fair to say that political polarisation seems worrying, taking the US as one extreme example. Specifically, it might actually make it harder to pass favourable policies, if for example we make animal welfare a very partisan issue such that conservatives will always vote against welfare improvements.
However, some social movement theorists actually view polarisation as a necessary and important step in building political power. They see polarisation as an important way to frame an issue as right vs wrong, hence urging the majority of the public to join on the side of “right”. One example of this working quite well was during the lunch counter sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement, where peaceful black activists were juxtaposed with angry white patrons, potentially highlighting the injustice of racial segregation laws to the public.
I’m personally quite unclear on how likely protest is to polarise an issue, and if polarisation is net good or bad, but I definitely think it is something to consider. This is an area where I would love some more research in, and is something we’re considering looking at in the future.