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Interviews with collective actors: Identity and action.

Researcher: Avelie Stuart

Supervisors: Dr Emma Thomas and Associate Professor Ngaire Donaghue

Research Study Completed: 2013

Summary of Research

Background

The term activist invokes a very particular image in mind. In previous research we found that sometimes people who want to be involved in movements for social change feel that they need to fit this stereotypical activist image: someone who loudly and proudly protests. The problem that this creates is that in attempting to broaden social movements - i.e. converting sympathisers into active participants - from the “outside” all forms of political (and apolitical pro-social behaviour) can look the same.

This study

In this study we interviewed thirteen people who are actively engaged in various social causes: environmentalisms, animal rights, human rights and youth volunteering. What we found is that they each had rich and unique stories to tell about their particular work and niche within a broader movement. They talked about the availability of a range of different types of actions: such as apolitical volunteering; educating the public; blogging and maintaining social networking communications; individual advocacy; writing letters to policy makers; and even simply donating money. Because of their years of experience they were able to negotiate their place within the movement in ways that allowed them to feel that they were making a meaningful but distinctive contribution - one way in particular that they achieved this was to distinguish themselves from “the activists”. While some interviewees preferred to think of themselves as activists, others did not. For those who did not, this was not because of a negative view of activists, but because they saw themselves as having an equally important but different role to fulfil, and that social movements are made up of people “from all walks of life”.

Implications

The aim of this research is to communicate an inside view into social movement activity, which is often not accessible or visible to people who are inexperienced but interested in engaging in collective action. Sustained participation in collective action is known, in the literature, to involve “certain processes” of socialisation into social movement groups, and the development of an attachment to the people with whom they share similar opinions and values. This research gives examples of the ways in which this alignment and attachment can come about. Therefore it has implications for understanding both the experiences of more committed collective actors, but also for illustrating pathways to initiating involvement in collective action.