The life-changing experience of participation in collective action

By Sara Vestergren.

Since Donald Trump became the president-elect last week, people in the USA have taken to the streets, demonstrating for days to show their discontent, possibly even attempting to change society. The aim for most protests and collective actions is to change society in some way – or to build a movement capable of such change in the future. Yet one thing that often seems to change is the participant – we as individuals may change as a consequence of being part of collective actions.

My research has shown that participation, of various extents, in collective action can change the participants in a number of areas. We have just published a systematic literature review of previous studies of psychological change through participation in collective action. We found 57 papers, from 1967 to 2015, describing 19 forms of changes.  The papers cover a variety of collective actions from the 1960s civil rights protests, such as the Kent state sit-in protest and the Mississippi freedom summer camp, to anti-road protests, such as the No M11 Link Road campaign in the UK, to more recent actions, such as the anti-austerity protests in Greece.

Regardless of what year and geographical region we protest in, when we participate in collective actions we interact with other people protesting the same thing as us, and other people and groups that are protesting against us or trying to prevent us from protesting (usually the police). These new social relationships affect our social identity – the identity we use to categorize ourselves in on a group level (such as woman, British, environmentalist, activist, Scouse etc.). When we identify with a category we also internalize the attributes and norms associated with that category. For example, if we as protesters are in a situation where the police are behaving in a way that we feel is unfair, that the police are treating us all as ‘criminals’ even though we are just doing the right thing by peacefully protesting, our social identity may change – we may become more prone to take on an ‘activist’ identity with all that it means. Our identity changes as a result of social interaction between and within groups, this sets the norms and boundaries for that identity which in turn sets the rules for how and who we interact with.

These interactions, along with taking on a new group-based identity, such as an environmental activist identity, affect our lives outside of the immediate collective action. From our systematic review, we developed a new two-type typology of the 19 forms of change: objective changes that can be seen by an observer (marital status, children, relationship ties, work-life/career, extended involvement, and consumer behaviour) and subjective self-reported changes (identity, empowerment, legitimacy, radicalization/politicization, sustained commitment, self-esteem, general well-being, ‘traits’, self-confidence, religion, organizing, knowledge and home skills).

Drawing on the processes of interaction and identity, the subjective changes could perhaps be seen as elements of forms of identity change, and the objective changes could then be effects of the identity changes. For example, we internalize the attributes tied to the salient identity and these attributes may be directly behavioural such as what to eat, and more externally visible such as what to wear. Wives in the miners’ strike in the UK in the 80s showed a change in their fashion to a more unisex inspired style of clothing and no longer saw themselves as ‘wives’; and participants in the anti-whaling group the Sea Shepard Conservation Society changed their diet to a more meat-free or at least less meaty diet.

So even though it may not be intentional, participation in collective actions to change the world might change your life.

The full version of “The biographical consequences of protest and activism: A systematic review and a new typology” is published in Social Movement Studies and can be found here.

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One comment on “The life-changing experience of participation in collective action
  1. Old Observer says:

    Yes, there are reason why we in the seventees had bear, but why do young men have it these days?

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  1. […] A good review of the literature on this is found here. […]

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