The following collection of works and critical synopses is an attempt to put in one place various pieces of evidence for Direct Action Everywhere (DxE)’s approach to activism. For the uninitiated, our activism is largely a three-pronged approach:
Open Rescue: Challenge animal exploitation, free animals from violence, and document abuse and fraud for the world.
Protests: Disrupt places of violence, deepen activists’ identity, and change powerful institutions.
Community Building: Build social ties among activists to grow the movement for animal liberation.
We look to each of the works included in this annotated bibliography for different reasons. The first question we ask ourselves when we look at evidence is “What strategies work for social movements to achieve their goals?” This is close to the question of why social movements succeed. Do they succeed because of mass protest mobilization or careful institutional lobbying? The works included below have led us to believe that confrontation has been key to social movement success by mobilizing activists and using that mass mobilization to pressure institutions. They have also taught us that often invisible social dynamics are critical for both energizing activists and persuading the public.
The second question we ask ourselves is “How do these strategies work?” It is not enough to simply know which tactics seem to work. We need to know the mechanisms by which they work. For instance, if investigations change public opinion, that is a very different sort of change than if investigations pressure policymakers without actually changing public opinion. In only the latter case is an investigation that does not change many minds but gets a response from an institution a successful one. The research below has persuaded us that mobilization behind nonviolent confrontation is the best hope for building an effective movement. Based on this, we evaluate our activism by the quantity and intensity of activists mobilized to action and the degree to which institutions are affected by and respond to our activism.
The third question we ask ourselves is “Do our strategies backfire, and if so, how badly?” Even if a certain strategy has achieved success, its success may depend on context. We look to which strategies have worked when to figure out how we should focus our strategies. One of the key elements of success in activism, for instance, is knowing when to escalate, which has guided our decision to de-emphasize civil disobedience at this stage in our movement.
Table of Contents
Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth
Everything Is Obvious, Duncan Watts
Connected, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler
Power in Movement, Sydney Tarrow
Toward an Integrative Social Identity Model of Collective Action: A Quantitative Research Synthesis of Three Socio-Psychological Perspectives, Martijn Van Zomeren et al.
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, Taylor Branch
Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, John D’Emilio
Forcing the Spring, Robert Gottlieb
PLEASE NOTE: This is far from a comprehensive list of the evidence DxE has looked to. We intend to update this bibliography over time and as we examine more evidence.
Why Civil Resistance Works by Erica Chenoweth
Chenoweth started the research that led to this book as a skeptic that nonviolent resistance works. She wrote the book after realizing that despite her skepticism, the empirical support for nonviolent resistance was irresistible. Though the book was written primarily in response to the view that only violence can fundamentally change institutions, we think it also has insights for those choosing between nonviolent resistance and less confrontational forms of activism. Chenoweth is very well respected as a political scientist and this is the most highly regarded of her works.
Chenoweth uses a vast dataset on violent and nonviolent resistance movements to show that any movement in the historical record that has achieved active support (e.g. getting in the streets) from 3.5% or more of the population has succeeded in overthrowing a regime, and any movement achieving more than 1% support has been more likely to succeed than not. Chenoweth illustrates this with examples from Iran, Burma, the Philippines, and the Palestinian Territories, .
Does this work apply to our activism, and how so? One issue with applying this work to activism is that the work covers regime change, not campaigns against aspects of a regime that do not target the regime itself. In one sense, a regime might be an easier target: it generally has a public face who activists can direct collective anger toward, uniting them in opposition and defining the goal in a concrete, achievable way. On the other hand, toppling a regime is a tall order, which generally involves compelling the military to lay down its arms. We think that changing one aspect of a society without changing the regime is very likely an easier task, and when we spoke with Chenoweth she agreed that the steps she documented succeeding for regime change would likely work, if achieved, for the animal rights movement.
Chenoweth’s work suggests that nonviolence works by attracting a mass movement that, simply by virtue of its size, includes friends and family of powerful stakeholders and weakens the challenged institution. This sort of nonviolence is powerful but a high-risk, high-reward endeavor: the goal is to build a mass movement, which is necessarily a difficult task involving many random events. Choosing population centers where it is possible to more quickly achieve a large portion of the population - 1-3.5% - is a promising strategy for this approach. By selecting and powerfully challenging a specific enemy, a movement can change the world.
Everything is Obvious by Duncan Watts
Duncan Watts’s book documents the human tendency to attribute the reasons for things we and others do to our conscious processes, when in fact they often have more to do with social structures.
This may sound wonky and abstract, so let us get a bit more specific. In an elevator, it is customary to face the door. Suppose someone comes from a far away country where it is customary in an elevator to face away from that door. When that person enters the elevator facing the wrong way, we could ask what it is that is making them look away. Is it us? Someone behind us? Are they trying to back out of the elevator? In other words, we put ourselves in their position and ask what it is that would make us behave like that. Often, this is a good way to think about the way the world works. Yet when thinking about different social structures, it is often ineffective: the reason the person faces away from the door is not because they have different motivations – it is just what they do having followed different norms for most of their lives.
Great works of art, Watts argues, similarly thwart our “common sense” – our tendency to assume that putting ourselves in the shoes of a representative person can explain how people behave. When we ask why the Mona Lisa is famous, we look to figure out what aspects of it endear it to people, putting ourselves in their shoes. In fact, a likelier explanation is a series of events including a robbery that, given that it was a very good work of art, propelled it to iconic status. Watts has replicated similar effects in rigorous sociological experiments involving pop music.
The exact lessons to take from Everything are of course uncertain. One key takeaway is animal rights activists take stated motivations at face value too often. When people say that taste or convenience are their reasons for eating animals, we believe them. In fact, people may think these are why the eat animals when in fact they are simply doing what others around them do. If we can create major events that capture the attention of many people all at once, we can change these norms in a way that is exponentially more effective than targeting individual consumers.
Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler
Nicholas Christakis is a widely respected doctor and sociologist both popularly (ranking on Time and Foreign Policy’s lists of the most influential people) and academically (being published in top journals and elected to the National Academy of Sciences). James Fowler is a highly respected political scientist, including being a prestigious Guggenheim Fellow and also ranking on Foreign Policy’s list of top global thinkers. Connected documents the wide array of ways in which social networks influence human nature in surprising ways (making things like obesity or smoking contagious). Connected has been very influential but has also attracted quite a bit of criticism, including papers showing that obviously not contagious things like height are contagious under Christakis and Fowler’s models. The criticisms of the paper suffer from their own serious flaws though and in some ways support Christakis and Fowler’s models by not finding spurious correlations when the models are replicated more precisely.
Christakis and Fowlers’ conclusions are likely overstated in light of these criticisms, but even a more understated version of this research suggests significant lessons for the animal rights movement. A recent Facebook study on emotional contagion via newsfeeds as well as a couple economics papers on non-emotional variables show that peer effects can be quite powerful if not as powerful as Christakis and Fowler say.
Of particular relevance to the animal rights movement are two particularly powerful contagions: emotions and norms. Christakis and Fowler find that peer happiness can increase one’s happiness by anywhere from 8% to 34% (ranging from spouses to next door neighbors). They find that peer obesity effects can range from 37% 5o 57% similarly, although obesity is less dependent on in-person contact. Even adjusting downwards by a considerable factor these effects would be quite large. In the case of happiness, the Facebook ad cited above as well as additional follow up studies on Christakis and Fowler’s work found that negative emotions exhibited a similar effect with the exception of subdued emotions like depression. These findings support the phenomenon observed by scholars of social movements in which contagious anger motivates activists. They also suggest that keeping activists involved involves surrounding them with other social contacts, which predicts happiness.
Power in Movement by Sydney Tarrow
Power in Movement is one of the key books – maybe the key book – for students of social movements. It sadly only treats the issue of effectiveness of tactics fairly briefly, noting that disruption is the “most powerful weapon” of a movement insofar as it lasts but is unstable and unsustainable. Tarrow provides a very detailed and helpful discussion of what makes social movements persist and engage with opponents that should be helpful to all activists. Tarrow identifies three broad elements of what leads to social movement mobilization: dense social networks and coordinating structures; inherited cultural symbols; and political opportunities.
By “social networks and coordinating structures,” Tarrow means that social mobilization involves activists being tied to each other. One example of this is social movement organizations that pop up with the explicit purpose of organizing social movements (like the SCLC or ACT UP), a favorite feature of social movement scholarship in the late 20th century. More important, though, as described in sociologist Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer, is the ties between individual activists. As communication increases between various people prone to movement participation, they help each other become increasingly active and sustained communication and coordination among them is critical to sustained mobilization.
Movements also thrive on the cultural frameworks they inherit from prior movements and from society writ large: for instance, the idea of equality embedded in American culture has been critical to social movements, and the articulation what equality for women requires in the early 1960s by Betty Friedan and others was likely an important causal factor in the rise of modern feminism. In the animal rights movement, one can see this in the power of Singer’s Animal Liberation and the fact that the U.S. animal rights movement began in full force shortly after the publication of that book. As important as the statement of an idea is, though, it is also important that activists be empowered to feel they can change the world based on that idea – what sociologist Doug McAdam calls “cognitive liberation.” The empowering sense that the world is unjust and we can change it plays on cultural symbols to motivate social movements.
Finally, political opportunities involve a variety of circumstances that allow a social movement to succeed. Sometimes this is the advent of more democratic institutions susceptible to social movements. Other times, it can be severe repression that triggers a desire to organize among a given population. For social movements, identifying and taking advantage of political opportunities is critical.
For the animal rights movement, Tarrow’s book offers a wealth of lessons. The work on the importance of social networks and coordinating structures has profoundly inspired DxE. Our community building programs, including meet ups and peer-to-peer connections, aim to affirmatively create these sorts of networks. In addition, our protests aim to inspire greater participation by activists (whether in DxE or in other groups). We advocate for strong messaging – “violence” rather than “suffering,” “rights” rather than “welfare” – because it creates a greater sense of “cognitive liberation” and seizes on the language of rights that has been critical for other movements. Finally, we seek to identify institutions that rest on contradictions and thus offer political opportunities, such as purveyors of “humane” meat or dog meat festivals that arouse Western anger that can be funneled toward farmed animal issues in the West as well.
Toward an Integrative Social Identity Model of Collective Action: A Quantitative Research Synthesis of Three Socio-Psychological Perspectives, Martijn Van Zomeren et al.
This is probably the go-to summary of research on what makes people participate in social movements. Van Zomeren et al. identify principally three components of movement participation: (1) identity as an activist, (2) a grievance against a social system in question, and (3) a sense of injustice. The paper draws on decades of research in piecing together this three-part model.
Two refinements are of particular interest to us at DxE. First, Van Zomeren et al. find that a political identity is more effective for generating movement participation than an identity on its own. The sense that one is part of a mass phenomenon in society empowers people, which lines up with other psychological research showing that being part of a crowd empowers people to challenge authority. This has motivated, to some degree, our decision to emphasize systems and violence against animals over individual veganism – centering our identities around a political claim offers more powerful motivation for movement participation.
Second, Van Zomeren et al. find that an affective grievance better generates movement participation than a merely intellectual one. While having a grievance with society predicts participation whether or not it is tied to emotions, emotions strengthen it significantly. This suggests that it is mistaken to overly prize reason and ignore the role of emotion in activism. Specifically, outward negative emotions like nonviolent anger (directed toward the system of animal agriculture rather than individuals) can be helpful for generating movement participation.
More broadly, these three elements of movement participation offer some clues that we at DxE believe are too often ignored by the animal rights movement and that we try to seize on. First, people want to identify with a cause in a deep and challenging way – mere diet does not do the trick. Participation in protests, community events, and investigative work likely generate future participation in this model, and this is what we have seen as well. Second, it is vital to foster a grievance against the system (animal agriculture) that we are challenging. We cannot simply make veganism look good or win over non-vegans – we have to keep our vegans incensed at what goes on to make them want to act. Finally, along the lines of number two, we need to keep active among vegans the sense that not only is something bad happening – something unjust is happening. Animals are being denied what they are owed by right, and it is not merely a personal choice to deny them that. Most importantly, Van Zomeren et al. highlight considerations that are often missed in a movement focused entirely on external messaging. Our internal messaging to activists matters, and sometimes even if a weaker message is more palatable to the public, the stronger one is necessary to grow our still small movement.
With all history there are a number of issues with teasing out causality. At a basic level, in order to know how various actors in the civil rights movement changed the world, we need to know both how the world was after they took certain actions AND how the world would have been had they not taken those actions. Most of us look at the history of the civil rights movement and assume it changed the world given how different the United States was after the mid-1960s compared to before the mid-1950s. Obviously, this is impossible; we can observe only one world. Yet by looking at the details of history, we can see mechanisms in motion that make it possible to surmise causality with some confidence.
With all history, we try to 1) look as closely as we can at the details, 2) think about counterfactuals, and 3) look at the best quasi-counterfactuals we can find, like similar places at the same point in time.
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 by Taylor Branch
This is the first part in a three-part series, America in the King Years, which is often considered the canonical history of the American Civil Rights Movement. In it, Branch chronicles the early history of the black church and King’s rise from clerical training through the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the nonviolent unrest of the 1960s, interfacing with the Kennedy administration, and the Birmingham campaign.
Students in U.S. history classes can easily come away with the conclusion that the Civil Rights Movement changed the world, but for a social scientist it’s more complicated. The fact that major legal changes (most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965) followed a number of campaigns of nonviolent resistance does not show that the campaigns caused the changes. One possibility is that the campaigns and the changes were both effects of an underlying cause, such as growing public support of integration and civil rights (as exemplified by Jackie Robinson, the integration of the military, and Brown v. Board).
Branch’s book gives reason to believe that in fact the campaigns caused the changes to happen when they did. For one, the climate in much of the country actually wasn’t that favorable for civil rights at the time. Revanchist segregationists were winning office throughout the South, and Southern politicians held captive the party of urbane progressives. The historical evidence certainly suggests the Kennedys had no desire to fight for civil rights, and the Republicans would only forthrightly support more limited rights. While Brown v. Board had struck down segregation, integration was still on hold because of the irate crowds always guaranteed to greet it.
Of course, if King and a few dozen others hadn’t organized the movement then, it would likely have happened sometime later. It’s hard to know how much later, and there’s reason to doubt that the scale and degree of the change was inevitable. For one, U.S. history had swung backward in regard to race, especially at the collapse of Reconstruction and at the beginning of the twentieth century with the rise of Birth of a Nation. For another, periods in history when there was serious institutional support for civil rights, notably Reconstruction, had previously failed to yield dramatic change. It seems the best counterfactual to the civil rights movement would be a similar movement creating change within 5 to 50 years pending the lack of an extreme aberration (such as an economic collapse or racial conflict) that pulled the country backwards. It’s hard to see how such change could have happened without this sort of movement, though.
One lesson we took from this book as activists was that much of a movement’s success depends on it taking advantage of and appropriately responding to crises. Rosa Parks had not in fact planned to refuse to get out of her seat on a bus, though she had the demeanor and experience with the NAACP to respond appropriately. That event, though, created a political cataclysm that led to black preachers deciding to unite in support for the first time. It was a tornado of events that kept the bus boycott going far beyond its initial demands of ameliorated segregation to an end to the segregated buses entirely. Fomenting and capturing that urgency may be key to making a movement occur and succeed.
Another lesson is the outsized importance a small number of events can have for a movement. We’ve all seen pictures of the children attacked by Bull Connor’s dogs in Birmingham, but we still may not appreciate just how dramatically Birmingham affected the civil rights movement. King and the movement were known beforehand, but it made them widespread national celebrities and forced John F. Kennedy to finally support a civil rights bill because the crisis was so severe and embarrassing. Similarly, a now rarely cited jailing of King in 1960 and John F. Kennedy’s phone call to Coretta Scott King during the jailing dramatically shifted black votes, may have won Kennedy the election, and made Kennedy indebted to King in a critical way. It seems aiming for these rare, triggering events is vitally important because it leads to everyone in the country not only witnessing a dramatic confrontation but also knowing that everyone else witnessed it. Aiming for these events, though, requires doing a lot of strategic campaigns without knowing which will succeed – the day that Birmingham became national news was at the end of week 2 of daily protests there.
Finally, there are a number of limitations and strategic dynamics present in the civil rights movement that we should consider. Part of what made confrontations dramatic is that they were conducted by the oppressed class and hence demonstrated oppression. Yet it’s not clear that the actual agency of the black activists was the vital catalyst. It seems what mattered was the way in which they dramatized the issue on an extremely large scale. This worked in two ways, depending on the dynamic. In some cases, it created such a crisis that the only way to resolve it to give in. That’s what happened in Birmingham. That method was generally rarer and harder to pull off, since it requires great strength and persistence. The second dynamic was to attract third-party support by inciting a violent backlash. When beatings of the freedom riders showed up in Japanese newspapers, it terrified Southern politicians and businessmen.
The animal rights movement is probably for the most part not able to pull off the first type of victory except on fairly marginal issues (SeaWorld and Ringling, for instance). The second type seems doable only if we can make the public feel they are able to support the movement against industry without being hypocrites. If we undertake other strategies, though, the book suggests we should look to create those rare, dramatic events and seize crises in the right way.
Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities by John D’Emilio
Reading John D’Emilio’s book on the early or even proto- gay rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, it is hard not to come away with the impression that more confrontational activism against institutions was essential to the takeoff of gay rights. D’Emilio is easily one of the five best gay historians (who are likely tied for that honor) and this is his most respected work.
This era in history is one of the best examples of a comparison between multiple tactics and offers one of the clearest lessons. Unlike in the African American Civil Rights Movement where much of the nonviolent protests grew out of spontaneous situations, the use of protests as a tool were at first much less the product of immediate crises in the gay rights movement. The 1950s gay rights group the Mattachine Society and lesbian rights group Daughters of Bilitis both avoided public activism or pressure on institutions, trying instead to integrate into society. The Washington, D.C. Mattachine Society, under the leadership of Frank Kameny, decided to start picketing the White House in the early 1960s after Kameny was fired by the federal government for homosexuality. Others chastised him but other chapters started picking it up. The chapters that did grew faster both in members and in concrete wins than chapters that did not.
There is of course potential reverse causality as well as the confounding factor of the social environment in different cities. The timing and variation across locations seems to make the former unlikely while the changes do not readily track social environment, given that New York City, for instance, was far more welcoming than D.C. where gay picketing was born, which in turn was probably more welcoming than, say, Chicago where gay men did not pick up picketing. It seems right to conclude that picketing and similar activities significantly increased growth (and growth increased exponentially, of course, after the Stonewall Riots). It’s worth noting that this was a movement at its beginning with very little public support. Gays were a reviled and generally criminalized minority, with more gays than Communists having been fired by the U.S. State Department. Nonviolent confrontation worked very well in that context.
Forcing the Spring by Robert Gottlieb
There are not that many great books on the American environmental movement, but this one seems to be one of the most respected ones. It covers a range of figures and social processes from the early conservationists like John Muir through urban reformers like Alice Hamilton and Jane Addams to the birth Earth Day, the growth of the environmental regulatory system, mainstream advocacy, and grassroots anti-toxics and anti-nuclear movements. The environmentalist movement is probably one of the best parallels for the animal rights movement that there is because it came of age at a similar time, has similar roots (an ancient interest in nature and a modern rekindling and adaptation of that), and does not generally involve direct victims able to advocate for themselves.
Local mass confrontational mobilization seems to have been helpful to the movement, but not strictly necessary at all times. Measures that involved narrow administrative change by a selective elite were achievable with a small number of professionalized activists like John Muir’s conservation efforts and professionalized nonprofits in the 1970s’ efforts to enforce federal environmental policy acts. Mobilization seems to have been quite a bit better at achieving more radical change, like effectively ending nuclear power in the U.S. in the late 1970s even while it grew in other developed countries like France and Japan. Earth Day kickstarted the 1970s federal environmental legislation like NEPA, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. While organized by a sitting U.S. senator and his aide, Earth Day seems to have gotten its force from popular mobilization in the forms of Earth Day rallies and marches. This all suggests that divisions in the AR movement may be rational to the extent we disagree on goals - if our goal is more ambitious norm change, mobilization is important; if our goal is administrative change regarding animal welfare it may not be necessary (though it's not clear that it would be harmful).
Partnership with other movements or a lack thereof seems pretty valuable for environmentalism, but only insofar as there is a concrete connection. Mass mobilization seems to have depended on local concerns that directly affected people (toxic or nuclear waste, lead-based paint) or a tight connection with another movement (1960s anti-war activists concerned about nuclear armament). On the other hand, more intellectual attempts to merge movements, like ecofeminism, have not really yielded mobilization - there was a protest by a collection of ecofeminists at the Pentagon in 1980 that fizzled out and fell pretty flat. This suggests a general approach of focusing on animal rights while creating an accessible space and seeking out concrete partnerships when they are available.