Chris Blattman

The science of activism

A new APSR paper by Daniel Carpenter and Colin Moore:

Examining an original dataset of more than 8,500 antislavery petitions sent to Congress (1833–1845), we argue that American women’s petition canvassing conferred skills and contacts that empowered their later activism.

We find that women canvassers gathered 50% or more signatures (absolute and per capita) than men while circulating the same petition requests in the same locales. Supplementary evidence (mainly qualitative) points to women’s persuasive capacity and network building as the most plausible mechanisms for this increased efficacy.

We then present evidence that leaders in the women’s rights and reform campaigns of the nineteenth century were previously active in antislavery canvassing. Pivotal signers of the Seneca Falls Declaration were antislavery petition canvassers, and in an independent sample of post–Civil War activists, women were four times more likely than men to have served as identifiable antislavery canvassers.

For American women, petition canvassing—with its patterns of persuasion and networking—shaped legacies in political argument, network formation, and organizing.

Also, a couple of days ago The Monkey Cage did a Q&A with Hahrie Han on her new book, How Organizations Develop Activists.

many organizations maintain a purely transactional relationship with their members, simply asking them to donate money or take action without being responsive to members’ needs in return. In a series of field experiments, I found that organizations that emulate characteristics of social relationships—such as being responsive to people’s goals, referring to a shared past and implied future, and acting as openers who invite others to open up to them–make people more likely to sign petitions, recruit others, and attend meetings.

I think activism could be a really important area of study in developing countries. Is it a technology that can be easily adapted and transferred, but there are barriers to diffusion? Could they be overcome? And what’s the social science embedded in classic organizing techniques. What could we learn about how rebel groups or parties grow support by looking at activist tactics.

I’d welcome pointers to literature.

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