The role of social movements in systems change

The role of social movements in systems change

This month, the Systems Change Observatory (SCO) explores how social movements support systems change. Jessica Jacobson and Dr Sudhir Rama Murthy spoke with Charmian Love, Skoll Centre Social Entrepreneur in Residence working on climate and new economic movements, and Dr Jacqueline del Castillo, social movement and innovation scholar with a focus on health equity and social justice.

Social movements build solidarity

“Solidarity—there’s no feeling like it. People talk about it, they use the word, they write about it, they try to invoke it. Naturally. But to really feel it? You have to be part of a wave in history. You can’t get it just by wanting it; you can’t call for it and make it come. You can’t choose it—it chooses you! It arrives like a wave picking you up! It’s a feeling—how can I say it? It’s as if everyone in your city becomes a family member, known to you as such even when you have never seen their face before and never will again. Mass action, yes, but the mass is suddenly family, they are all on the same side, doing something important.” – Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson

Social movements must mobilise a critical mass of 3.5% of the population to achieve radical change (see research by Dr Erica Chenoweth). Building solidarity, or a deep connection to others engaged in the same struggle, helps social movements build this critical mass. For example, the social care futures movement has been building solidarity by hosting unconventional conferences, singing karaoke together, and having pre-pandemic tea and cake to share stories and encounters with the current social care system. Social movements build solidarity within movements, across movements and across generations – for example the women’s movement has progressed through multiple ‘waves’ across many cultures and geographies.

Social movements work across boundaries

“These levers are hard and rusted, and the best chance we have is to get everyone’s hands on those levers at the same time and pulling in sync.” – Charmian Love, Skoll Centre Social Entrepreneur in Residence

Social movements build solidarity across many boundaries, including social, cultural, political and organisational. Research into long-standing social movements such as HIV/AIDS and disability rights reveals that people in social movement often navigate a complex array of relationships, including institutions, funders, dissenters, and even, other social movements (del Castillo et al. 2017).

Through models such as Movement of Movements and the Social Movement Ecology Model, we can investigate how multiple groups and movements join forces to solve interconnected, systemic problems. Movement of movement maps can help visualise where movements are focused, what levers they are trying to pull, and opportunities for collaboration for systems change (read more in the Movement of Movements Primer).

Social movements challenge existing systems

Health social movements can, “blur the distinction between insiders and outsiders.” – Phil Brown et al. (2004)

Social movements challenge the status quo, often out of necessity and an impending sense of ‘enough is enough’. They do this by at the same time pressurising existing systems to change, and also often simultaneously formulating and posing multiple alternatives to existing systems, promoting their adoption and systems-wide transformation.

A study of the complementary and alternative health (CAM) movement in the U.S. reveals the complex ways – acquiesce, compromise, avoid, defy and manipulate – that physicians and hospitals responded to the demands of CAM activists. For instance, some physicians chose to actively work with CAM activists to develop integrative clinics while others hired activists but restricted their autonomy to enact further change. Activists do not always agree on intended and realised outcomes; therefore, a move towards one outcome leads to a continued process of negotiation. These multiple and opposing forces can blur the line between who is participating in a social movement versus upholding existing systems.

Maintaining momentum for change

“It’s hard… and it requires imagination and creativity. It requires organization. And it requires courage and discipline.” – Dr Erica Chenoweth, on sustaining a resistance movement 

People organised into social movements often commit to aspirational, long-term visions of change. Although social movements are known to wax and wane, and even go dormant for periods of time, they often persist, waiting for just the right opportunity to collaborate. After all, the fight for values such as health equity and environmental justice is never fully won!

Social movements as systems

“Social movements are system in themselves.” – Dr Jacqueline del Castillo, on social movements and systems change

We have been discussing the role of social movements in realising systems change. Social movements could also be viewed as systems themselves. For example, The Blue Shield of California Foundation’s Strong Field project focused on strengthening the leadership and collaborative networks of the domestic violence field to build a stronger movement to end domestic violence across California (Cao Yu, H. et al. 2016). Studying and understanding movements as complex systems can help activists better understand the internal dynamics of movements – their stakeholders, relationships, cultures and ways of appraising value as well as funders in identifying how best to support social movements to bring about systems change. More deeply understanding the relationships between social movements and systems change is an exciting area of study, one with potential practical value for activists and resource holders.

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