Theories, Evidence, and How DxE Monitors Our Activism

Theories, Evidence, and How DxE Monitors Our Activism

By Zach Groff

Perhaps more than anything, what sets DxE apart in our approach to animal rights is our focus on a long-term plan to achieve animal liberation. Where other animal advocacy groups try to look at the immediate number of animals saved each year (even though it's often much more difficult to know than it seems), our aim is instead to maximize the chance that we achieve animal liberation - to secure the best future possible for all animals. Today we are unveiling an annotated bibliography of evidence on our activism as well as further details on how we at DxE think about evidence.

A year ago we laid out our basic model for testing how we’re doing at our goal by adapting the idea of a theory of change, the go-to tool for evaluating programs used by many evidence-based nonprofits.

In the year since, we’ve aimed to center our work in more concrete ways around what has always been our model and to integrate evidence-based thinking into regular meetings about our work. We followed three basic steps: refine our possible theories by engaging with critics, test the theories to see what works, and monitor how well we are living up to our theories.

1. Constructive engagement

After posting our theories of change last summer, we’ve had discussions online and offline with our friends and critics in animal advocacy and effective altruism. Discussions with thoughtful critics like Tobias Leenaert and Bruce Friedrich have opened our minds to possible avenues of change we might miss or ways our strategies could go wrong. In particular, we’ve discussed the importance of cooperation in animal advocacy, of complementing each other’s strategies, and of focusing on concrete wins to keep the movement going.

2. Testing the theories

Many activists involved with DxE have spent years studying the evidence on effective activism. We have a monthly reading group that often reads social science and social movement histories, and our activists include data scientists, sociologists, and behavioral economics scholars.

After focusing on a small number of theories of change for how nonviolent direct action affects the world and refining these theories after conversations with our critics, we looked to the literature on past social movements to see how they achieved their results. We’ve documented some of the main sources of evidence we looked to in our annotated bibliography. What we found coalesced around two big ways social movements can change the world:

I. Creating and mobilizing activists.

Through methods like the Liberation Pledge, activists influence those around them.

Through methods like the Liberation Pledge, activists influence those around them.

Nonviolent resistance, by offering a way to speak out that carries fairly low risks, inspires activist participation and deepens activists’ identity with their cause. Through programs like the Liberation Pledge, activists engage with family and friends and change their perception of animal rights as a political cause as well as their own behaviors. A groundbreaking study on the U.S. Tea Party found evidence suggesting that attending a tea party protest led people to change or mobilize the votes of twelve of their friends. Social scientists like Erica Chenoweth and Doug McAdam report similar effects on a mass scale. When this is done at a large enough scale, it changes the world in powerful ways.

II. Building a movement that can challenge institutions.

The second major way that nonviolent resistance works is that it forces changes by powerful institutions. This often occurs in tandem with the influential effect of activists on their family and friends. The historical literature is full of examples of dramatic changes that result from protest movements. Demonstrations against the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare by disability rights activists in the 1970s prompted some of the most significant regulations for disability rights up to that point in U.S. history. Anti-nuclear protests by American environmental activists around that same time achieved a taboo unmatched by environmental movements in other countries. Social scientists have found similar things consistently across movements.

3. Monitoring

Protests like those at political rallies force responses by public figures.

Protests like those at political rallies force responses by public figures.

After settling on two main theories of change - mobilizing activists and building institutional clout - we set out to monitor the degree to which we are achieving these changes. We created a dashboard on attendance at activist events, and in the coming weeks we are preparing a survey to get a rough and initial sense of the effects activists are having on those around them. Though we believe our movement still has growth to do before we can win truly morally significant changes from institutions, we have started tracking signs - such as Whole Foods being placed on the Wall Street Journal’s “risk list” and other major institutions privately reaching out for negotiations with us - to see whether we are building the right sort of clout.

Today's annotated bibliography on social movements paints a picture of the ins and outs of disruption, what scholar Sydney Tarrow calls "the strongest weapon of social movements." Now it's time for the animal rights movement to put it into use.


Want more details on DxE's strategic vision? Check out our Forty Year Strategic Roadmap to Animal Liberation. We want your comments! 

Want to get involved? DxE is a grassroots network focused on empowering you to be the best activist you can be. Here are some steps you can take. 

  1. Sign up to our mailing list and share our content on social media. 
  2. Join a local DxE community (or, better yet, come visit us in Berkeley).
  3. Take the Liberation Pledge. And join us in building a true social movement for animals.


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