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Barricade at the Paris Commune, March 1871 Barricade18March1871.jpg
Barricade at the Paris Commune, March 1871
Civil rights activists at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom during the civil rights movement in August 1963 1963 march on washington.jpg
Civil rights activists at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom during the civil rights movement in August 1963
A women's liberation march in Washington, D.C., August 1970 Leffler - WomensLib1970 WashingtonDC.jpg
A women's liberation march in Washington, D.C., August 1970

Activism consists of efforts to promote, impede, direct, or intervene in social, political, economic, or environmental reform with the desire to make changes in society toward a perceived greater good. Forms of activism range from mandate building in the community (including writing letters to newspapers), petitioning elected officials, running or contributing to a political campaign, preferential patronage (or boycott) of businesses, and demonstrative forms of activism like rallies, street marches, strikes, sit-ins, or hunger strikes.


Activism may be performed on a day-to-day basis in a wide variety of ways, including through the creation of art (artivism), computer hacking (hacktivism), or simply in how one chooses to spend their money (economic activism). For example, the refusal to buy clothes or other merchandise from a company as a protest against the exploitation of workers by that company could be considered an expression of activism. However, the most highly visible and impactful activism often comes in the form of collective action, in which numerous individuals coordinate an act of protest together in order to make a bigger impact. [1] Collective action that is purposeful, organized, and sustained over a period of time becomes known as a social movement. [2]

Historically, activists have used literature, including pamphlets, tracts, and books to disseminate or propagate their messages and attempt to persuade their readers of the justice of their cause. Research has now begun to explore how contemporary activist groups use social media to facilitate civic engagement and collective action combining politics with technology. [3] [4]

Definitions of activism

The Online Etymology Dictionary records the English words "activism" and "activist" as in use in the political sense from the year 1920 [5] or 1915 [6] respectively. The history of the word activism traces back to earlier understandings of collective behavior [7] [8] [9] and social action. [10] As late as 1969 activism was defined as "the policy or practice of doing things with decision and energy", without regard to a political signification, whereas social action was defined as "organized action taken by a group to improve social conditions", without regard to normative status. Following the surge of so-called "new social movements" in the United States in the 1960s, a new understanding of activism emerged as a rational and acceptable democratic option of protest or appeal. [11] [12] [13] However, the history of the existence of revolt through organized or unified protest in recorded history dates back to the slave revolts of the 1st century BC(E) in the Roman Empire, where under the leadership of former gladiator Spartacus 6,000 slaves rebelled and were crucified from Capua to Rome in what became known as the Third Servile War. [14]

In English history, the Peasants' Revolt erupted in response to the imposition of a poll tax, [15] and has been paralleled by other rebellions and revolutions in Hungary, Russia, and more recently, for example, Hong Kong. In 1930 under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi thousands of protesting Indians participated in the Salt March, [16] as a protest against the oppressive taxes of their government, resulting in the imprisonment of 60,000 people and eventually independence of their nation. In nations throughout Asia, Africa and South America, the prominence of activism organized by social movements and especially under the leadership of civil activists or social revolutionaries has pushed for increasing national self-reliance or, in some parts of the developing world, collectivist communist or socialist organization and affiliation. [17] Activism has had major impacts on Western societies as well, particularly over the past century through social movements such as the Labour movement, the Women's Rights movement, and the civil rights movement. [18]

Types of activism

Activists can function in a number of roles, including judicial, environmental, internet (technological) and design (art). Historically, most activism has focused on creating substantive changes in the policy or practice of a government or industry. Some activists try to persuade people to change their behavior directly (see also direct action), rather than to persuade governments to change laws. For example, the cooperative movement seeks to build new institutions which conform to cooperative principles, and generally does not lobby or protest politically. Other activists try to persuade people or government policy to remain the same, in an effort to counter change.

Activism is not an activity always performed by those who profess activism as a profession. [19] The term ″activist″ may apply broadly to anyone who engages in activism, or narrowly limited to those who choose political or social activism as a vocation or characteristic practice.

Judicial and citizen activism

Judicial activism involves the efforts of public officials. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. - American historian, public intellectual, and social critic - introduced the term "judicial activism" in a January 1946 Fortune magazine article titled "The Supreme Court: 1947". [20] Activists can also be public watchdogs and whistle blowers, attempting to understand all the actions of every form of government that acts in the name of the people and hold it accountable to oversight and transparency. Activism involves an engaged citizenry. [21]

Environmental activism

Environmental activism takes quite a few forms:

Internet activism

The power of Internet activism came into a global lens with the Arab Spring protests starting in late 2010. People living in the Middle East and North African countries that were experiencing revolutions used social networking to communicate information about protests, including videos recorded on smart phones, which put the issues in front of an international audience. [22] This was the one of the first occasions in which social networking technology was used by citizen-activists to circumvent state-controlled media and communicate directly with the rest of the world. These types of practices of Internet activism were later picked up and used by other activists in subsequent mass mobilizations, such as the 15-M Movement in Spain in 2011, Occupy Gezi in Turkey in 2013, and more. [23]

Internet activism may also refer to activism which focuses on protecting or changing the Internet itself, also known as digital rights. The Digital Rights movement [24] consists of activists and organizations, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who work to protect the rights of people in relation to new technologies, particularly concerning the Internet and other information and communications technologies.

Activism in literature

Activism in literature (not to be confused with literary activism) includes the expression of intended or advocated reforms, realized or unachieved, through published, written or verbally promoted or communicated forms.

Economic activism

Economic activism involves using the economic power of government, consumers, and businesses for social and economic policy change. [25] Both conservative and liberal groups use economic activism to as a form of pressure to influence companies and organizations to oppose or support particular political, religious, or social values and behaviors. [26] This is typically done either through preferential patronage to reinforce "good" behavior and support companies one would like to succeed, or through boycott or divestment to penalize "bad" behavior and pressure companies to change or go out of business.

Brand activism [27] is the type of activism in which business plays a leading role in the processes of social change. Applying brand activism, businesses show concern for the communities they serve, and their economic, social, and environmental problems, which allows businesses to build sustainable and long-term relationships with the customers and prospects. Kotler and Sarkar defined the phenomenon as an attempt by firms to solve the global problems its future customers and employees care about. [28]

Consumer activism consists of activism carried out on behalf of consumers for consumer protection or by consumers themselves. For instance, activists in the free produce movement of the late 1700s protested against slavery by boycotting goods produced with slave labor. Today, vegetarianism, veganism, and freeganism are all forms of consumer activism which boycott certain types of products. Other examples of consumer activism include simple living, a minimalist lifestyle intended to reduce materialism and conspicuous consumption, and tax resistance, a form of direct action and civil disobedience in opposition to the government that is imposing the tax, to government policy, or as opposition to taxation in itself.

Shareholder activism involves shareholders using an equity stake in a corporation to put pressure on its management. [29] The goals of activist shareholders range from financial (increase of shareholder value through changes in corporate policy, financing structure, cost cutting, etc.) to non-financial (disinvestment from particular countries, adoption of environmentally friendly policies, etc.). [30]

Visual Activism

Design Activism locates design at the center of promoting social change, raising awareness on social/political issues, or questioning problems associated with mass production and consumerism. Design Activism is not limited to one type of design. [31] [32]

Art Activism or Artivism utilizes the medium of visual art as a method of social or political commentary.

Fashion activism was coined by Celine Semaan. [33] Fashion activism is a type of activism that ignites awareness by giving consumers tools to support change, specifically in the fashion industry. [34] [35] It has been used as an umbrella term for many social and political movements that have taken place in the industry. [36] Fashion Activism uses a participatory approach to a political activity. [37]

Craft activism or Craftivism is a type of visual activism that allows people to bring awareness to political or social discourse. [38] It is a creative approach to activism as it allows people to send short and clear messages to society. [39] People who contribute to craftivism are called "craftivists". [40]

Science activism

While scientists have been traditionally less likely to be politically active as scientists yet aware of the need to better communicate the benefits of science, [41] perception of increased politicized [42] discrediting of science has motivated some scientists and science advocates to embrace an activist approach, such as that demonstrated in the March for Science. Some see activism as a way to get "out of the lab" and enhance communication efforts. [43] Approaches to science activism vary from more aggressive protests to suggestions that such activism should also include a more psychological, marketing-oriented component that takes into account such factors as individual sense of self, aversion to solutions to problems, and social perceptions. [44]


The longest running peace vigil in U.S. history, started by activist Thomas in 1981. PeacePark.jpg
The longest running peace vigil in U.S. history, started by activist Thomas in 1981.

Activists employ many different methods, or tactics, in pursuit of their goals. [2] Decisions over what tactics to use or not may be planned carefully in advance, result from negotiations with law enforcement such as when and where to hold a rally, or be made in the heat of the moment. The tactics chosen are significant because they can determine how activists are perceived and what they are capable of accomplishing. For example, nonviolent tactics generally tend to garner more public sympathy than violent ones [45] and are more than twice as effective in achieving stated goals. [46]

Charles Tilly developed the concept of a “repertoire of contention,” which describes the full range of tactics available to activists at a given time and place. [47] This repertoire consists of all of the tactics which have been proven to be successful by activists in the past, such as boycotts, petitions, marches, and sit-ins, and can be drawn upon by any new activists and social movements. Activists may also innovate new tactics of protest. These may be entirely novel, such as Douglas Schuler's idea of an "activist road trip", [48] [49] or may occur in response to police oppression or countermovement resistance. [50] New tactics then spread to others through a social process known as diffusion, and if successful, may become new additions to the activist repertoire. [51]

Many contemporary activists now utilize new tactics through the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs), also known as Internet activism or cyber-activism. Some scholars argue that many of these new tactics are digitally analogous to the traditional offline tools of contention. [52] Other digital tactics may be entire new and unique, such as certain types of hacktivism. [47] [53] Together they form a new "digital repertoire of contention" alongside the existing offline one. [54] The rising use of digital tools and platforms by activists [55] has also increasingly led to the creation of decentralized networks of activists that are self-organized [56] [57] [58] and leaderless, [23] [59] or what is known as franchise activism.

Common methods used for activism include:

Activism industry

Some groups and organizations participate in activism to such an extent that it can be considered as an industry. In these cases, activism is often done full-time, as part of an organization's core business. Many organizations in the activism industry are either non-profit organizations or non-governmental organizations with specific aims and objectives in mind. Most activist organizations do not manufacture goods,[ citation needed ] but rather mobilize personnel to recruit funds and gain media coverage.

The term activism industry has often been used to refer to outsourced fundraising operations. However, activist organizations engage in other activities as well. [60] Lobbying, or the influencing of decisions made by government, is another activist tactic. Many groups, including law firms, have designated staff assigned specifically for lobbying purposes. In the United States, lobbying is regulated by the federal government. [61]

Many government systems encourage public support of non-profit organizations by granting various forms of tax relief for donations to charitable organizations. Governments may attempt to deny these benefits to activists by restricting the political activity of tax-exempt organizations.

See also

Related Research Articles

Hacktivism Use of computers and computer networks as a means of protest to promote political ends

In Internet activism, hacktivism, or hactivism, is the use of computer-based techniques such as hacking as a form of civil disobedience to promote a political agenda or social change. With roots in hacker culture and hacker ethics, its ends are often related to free speech, human rights, or freedom of information movements.

Social movement Loosely organized effort by a large group of people to achieve a particular goal

A social movement is a loosely organized effort by a large group of people to achieve a particular goal, typically a social or political one. This may be to carry out, resist or undo a social change. It is a type of group action and may involve individuals, organizations or both. Definitions of the term are slightly varied. Social movements have been described as "organizational structures and strategies that may empower oppressed populations to mount effective challenges and resist the more powerful and advantaged elites". They represent a method of social change from the bottom within nations.

Electronic civil disobedience can refer to any type of civil disobedience in which the participants use information technology to carry out their actions. Electronic civil disobedience often involves computers and the Internet and may also be known as hacktivism. The term "electronic civil disobedience" was coined in the critical writings of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), a collective of tactical media artists and practitioners, in their seminal 1996 text, Electronic Civil Disobedience: And Other Unpopular Ideas. Electronic civil disobedience seeks to continue the practices of nonviolent-yet-disruptive protest originally pioneered by American poet Henry David Thoreau, who in 1848 published Civil Disobedience.

Alternative media are media sources that differ from established or dominant types of media in terms of their content, production, or distribution. Sometimes the term independent media is used as a synonym, referencing independence from large media corporations, but this term is also used to indicate media enjoying freedom of the press and independence from government control. Alternative media does not refer to a specific format and may be inclusive of print, audio, film/video, online/digital and street art, among others. Some examples include the counter-culture zines of the 1960s, ethnic and indigenous media such as the First People's television network in Canada, and more recently online open publishing journalism sites such as Indymedia.

Youth activism Youth engagement in community organizing for social change

Youth activism is the participation in community organizing for social change by persons between the ages of 15–24. Youth activism has led to a shift in political participation and activism. A notable shift within youth activism is the rise of “Alter-Activism” resulting in an emphasis on lived experiences and connectivity amongst young activists. The young activists have taken lead roles in public protest and advocacy around many issues like climate change, abortion rights and gun violence. Different from past protest or advocacy, technology has become the backbone to many of these modern youth movements. It has been shown in multiple studies that internet use along with seeking information online is shown to have positive impacts on political engagement. Popular applications like Twitter, Instagram and YouTube have become the newest tools for young activist in the 21st century. Technology and the use of digital media has changed the way youth participate in activism globally, and youth are more active in media than older generations.

Internet activism, also known as web activism, online activism, digital campaigning, digital activism, online organizing, electronic advocacy, e-campaigning, and e-activism, is the use of electronic communication technologies such as social media, e-mail, and podcasts for various forms of activism to enable faster and more effective communication by citizen movements, the delivery of particular information to large and specific audiences as well as coordination. Internet technologies are used for cause-related fundraising, community building, lobbying, and organizing. A digital activism campaign is "an organized public effort, making collective claims on a target authority, in which civic initiators or supporters use digital media." Research has started to address specifically how activist/advocacy groups in the U.S. and Canada are using social media to achieve digital activism objectives.

Economic activism involves using economic power for change. Both conservative and liberal groups use economic activism to boycott or outbid companies and organizations that do not agree with their particular political, religious, or social values. Conversely, it also means purchasing from those companies and organizations that do.

Media activism form of activism using media for social or political movements

Media activism is a broad category of activism that utilizes media and communication technologies for social and political movements. Methods of media activism include publishing news on websites, creating video and audio investigations, spreading information about protests, or organizing campaigns relating to media and communications policies.

The animal rights movement, sometimes called the animal liberation, animal personhood, or animal advocacy movement, is a social movement which seeks an end to the rigid moral and legal distinction drawn between human and non-human animals, an end to the status of animals as property, and an end to their use in the research, food, clothing, and entertainment industries.

Resource mobilization

Resource mobilization is the process of getting resources from the resource provider, using different mechanisms, to implement an organization's predetermined goals. It is a theory that is used in the study of social movements and argues that the success of social movements depends on resources and the ability to use them.

Mass mobilization refers to mobilization of civilian population as part of contentious politics. Mass mobilization is defined as a process that engages and motivates a wide range of partners and allies at national and local levels to raise awareness of and demand for a particular development objective through face-to-face dialogue. Members of institutions, community networks, civic and religious groups and others work in a coordinated way to reach specific groups of people for dialogue with planned messages. In other words, social mobilization seeks to facilitate change through a range of players engaged in interrelated and complementary efforts.

Boycott Form of protest

A boycott is an act of nonviolent, voluntary and intentional abstention from using, buying, or dealing with a person, organization, or country as an expression of protest, usually for moral, social, political, or environmental reasons. The purpose of a boycott is to inflict some economic loss on the target, or to indicate a moral outrage, to try to compel the target to alter an objectionable behavior.

Consumer activism Type of activist behavior

See also Brand activism

Culture jamming is a protest used by many anti-consumerist social movements to disrupt or subvert media culture and its mainstream cultural institutions, including corporate advertising. It attempts to "expose the methods of domination" of a mass society.

Repertoire of contention

Repertoire of contention refers, in social movement theory, to the set of various protest-related tools and actions available to a movement or related organization in a given time frame.

The consumer movement is an effort to promote consumer protection through an organized social movement, which is in many places led by consumer organizations. It advocates for the rights of consumers, especially when those rights are actively breached by the actions of corporations, governments, and other organizations which provide products and services to consumers. Consumer movements also commonly advocate for increased health and safety standards, honest information about products in advertising, and consumer representation in political bodies.

Anti-corporate activism is the idea that big business corporations are a detriment to the public good and to the democratic process.

Direct action

Direct action originated as a political activist term for economic and political acts in which the actors use their power to directly reach certain goals of interest; in contrast to those actions that appeal to others ; by, for example, revealing an existing problem, using physical violence, highlighting an alternative, or demonstrating a possible solution.

Online social movements are organised efforts to push for a particular goal through the use of new communications and information technologies, such as the Internet. In many cases, these movements seek to counter the mainstream public, claiming there is a wrong that should be righted. Online social movements have focused on a broad range on social and political issues in countries all around the world.

Fashion activism is the practice of using fashion as a means of social change, sometimes through ethical consumerism, but often beyond the act of purchasing symbolic fashionable objects. As with other forms of activism, the aim is to promote, impede, direct, or intervene into social arrangements of dress to lay claim to a certain political agenda. It merges popular styles of dress, from clothing and shoes, to headwear and accessories, with efforts to implement social and political change beyond the designated channels of influence offered by the local political system, such as voting. Fashion activism can be used as a form of protest, whether expressing dissent or support.


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Further reading