Activism: the do want to’s, the don’t realises, the might want to’s and the don’t want to’s

In reply to Dr Tig’s comments

From left to right: Activists of yesterday, activists of tomorrow, and people who like things just the way they are.

From left to right: Activists of yesterday, activists of tomorrow, and people who like things just the way they are.

I think psychology and sociology could offer a great deal to support people in becoming effective activists. But with limited resources the effort needs to be targeted. I think there are 4 groups of people to consider…

GROUP 1) People who do want to be activists. These people feel angry at what they see happening in their lives/community/society and they want to do something about it. The question then is “what?”

There are great resources out there such as Beautiful Trouble, which is a fantastic book but also a ‘movement’ in itself which trains people to tackle issues using creative activism. They are US-based, but there are things happening in the UK too, see Arnie Graf article for example, which is linked from the Leeds bedroom tax campaign page.

Applied psychology theory and techniques are very important here. Not least in building people’s resilience. It is difficult to face in a different direction to the crowd. Why are some people able to do this and others not?

(Side note: As part of helping people to become activists, I think it’s important to consider what ‘activism’ is, and that many people are actually being activists without considering themselves such. This is probably due in part to how the media have created the image of an ‘activist’ as a rioter, or as a dread-locked dropout who chains himself to a tree. This reporting is partly due to the need for news stories to have high ‘news value’ before they make it to the papers/TV, but there is something more deep-seated than that as anyone who saw the BBC’s biased reporting on the nodashforgas protests recently will have seen.)

GROUP 2) People who do want to be activists, but don’t realise it yet! Wouldn’t it be great if personal and community empowerment was on the National Curriculum?! You’d think politicians would support that, wouldn’t you? 🙂

GROUP 3) People who might want to be activists in the future but have significant barriers to overcome first, such as fear, poverty etc.

GROUP 4) People who don’t want to be activists because they are bought into how things are now as a result of cultural programming and/or dispositional factors (some people are just wired like that aren’t they?) Geert Hofstede’s worldwide research into culture finds the UK’s national culture to be masculine, individualistic, short-termist and confused about what equality is. What are the sub-cultural attributes of people engaged in activism?


So the might want to’s (group 3) would benefit from practical help, and I can see how positive psychology could help in some cases. But it’s a complex and diverse group. As for the don’t want to’s (group 4), perhaps we shouldn’t worry about them too much (except the ones in power of course). There is a critical mass for change. Perhaps some helpful sociologists could analyse this and tell us what it is (perhaps they already have?)

The Young Foundation report, “Why do some people get involved? How to encourage local activism and help communities to self-organise” finds the main reasons people become activists/increase their participation are: a personal interest, an aspiration to change things, exposure and access to community and voluntary sectors, and the chance to voice opinions. Klandemans (2004) identifies 3 psychological motivations for civic activism and participation: a desire to change circumstances (instrumentality), to belong to a group (identity), and to give meaning to one’s life. So perhaps the best place to start would be with the do want to’s (group 1) and the don’t realise’s (group 2) within which the factors above are already prevalent.


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