Google dictionary defines activism as “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.” But activism isn’t always vigorous and doesn’t always engage traditional campaign tactics. In fact, activism comes in many formats. According to Wikipedia, it consists of efforts to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, or environmental change, or stasis. Such a number of activistic trajectories cannot be contained only in the act of vigorous campaigning.
The central characteristic of activism is action toward transformation. The change is usually founded in the ideology of the acting individual or community and it is typically a change the group perceives as constructive and contributing to the common good.
Not all activism is politically leftist; in the United States, Pro-Life and Tea Party activists are adamantly right-wing and generally affiliate with Republican conservatives. But their actions to advance their vision of a better world, whether in the form of radio agitators like Rush Limbaugh or picketers in front of Planned Parenthood abortion clinics, constitutes activism as it is defined here.
In 2013, Canadian Professor Nadia Bashir led a 2013 study examining individuals’ perceptions of social issues and social change, establishing that “individuals resist social change because they have negative stereotypes of activists, the agents of social change…viewing them as eccentric and militant. Furthermore, these stereotypes reduced participants’ willingness to affiliate with ‘typical’ activists and, ultimately, to adopt the behavio[u]rs that these activists promoted.”
These study results suggest a broadly narrow understanding of activism, which not only complicates the growth of more traditional activist movements, but also makes it very difficult for people who are advancing causes more quietly and more locally to identify with “activism.”
This article proposes that there are many types of activist types and impact. Expanding the definition of activism into a more general notion of action toward transformation can help de-stigmatize the notion of social change, legitimize activist efforts, and facilitate collective civic resistance and movements supporting peace and justice.
If activism is defined broadly as action toward transformation, there is great leeway in the modalities and scope of transformation. Part II of this piece provides a catalogue of activist methodologies, defined and listed according to aims, vulnerabilities, recommendations, and real-world examples. This categorization may help you to develop some ideas about how to advance your movement, and to locate your efforts within the many types of activism. Hopefully it will help you to understand the illimitable strategies available for you to pursue your dreams of a better world, and to understand that your personal constellations of skills and efforts will always be useful and essential.
A variety of institutional and grassroots efforts can be categorized using a typology presented by Eric Sharpe (Encyclopedia of Religion, 2005) when he wrote about the “dialogue canopy,” detailing approaches to interfaith engagement that fit into such categories as “theological/discursive,” “spiritual,” “secular,” and “human/Buberian.” Each type of engagement advances discrete values and responds to specific challenges of particular contexts and participants.
A truly holistic social movement requires input and coordination from all types of activism. Inasmuch as systemic structures affect aspects of our personal relationships, one cannot fight for broad-scale social change without attending to the ways in which personal conduct and relational patterns are in need of transformation and expansion. Thus, all types of activism are needed. Political activism is bankrupt without personal/psychological activism, and academic/discursive activism falls flat without spiritual/religious activism.
There is never enough time to do all that we must do to better our world, and all we can do is never enough. Understanding the incredible variety of efforts that can be made can help us make peace with the inevitable limits of our capacities and conditions, and to know that the place we have found is a place that is needed.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.