Socialising some social movement thinking

Social movements mind map

We are doing some work on future trends and disrupters at CRUK.  This is to help inform our organisational strategy thinking going forward and is also a good opportunity to check in with some of the assumptions and ideas that underpin how we think about ourselves.  This blogpost is my ‘working out loud’ for the bit that I’m working on and so shouldn’t be taken as an organisational view of things.  I am also sure that any views I have here will change as we start to explore this more and I hear more from colleagues about some of our previous explorations in these spaces.  I’m involved with 3 areas of the work:

  • Social movements increase in prevalence and impact
  • Shift from consumer to citizen
  • Trust declines in institutions and traditional information sources

There are other areas which cross over with this looking at shifts in the political landscape (which relates both to social movements and citizenship) as well as the effect of increasing expectations around transparency which impacts trust.  I wanted to work on these three as the topics are separate but connected.  How people organise, the role they see for themselves and the shift this and other drivers bring to our relationships with traditional institutions are all factors which I could imagine driving change across a number of domains which are relevant to CRUK:

  • Our approach to fundraising and the social contract that we have with our supporters
  • The kind of experiences we offer our supporters and their role in creating those experiences
  • Our thinking about how we campaign and influence policy

There are I think deeper consequences to these and the other trends we are looking at in terms of the kind of organisation you need to be when you look at the combined impact on your core purpose – this is going to be the really interesting part of the process and comes later in the year.

This post provides the landscape for the social movements theme and starts to outline where we will want to explore over the next couple of months – I will update this once I have had chance to discuss it with my partner in crime/co lead @oh_henry.  Its a bit of a greatest hits compilation of stuff already on my radar and will need both adding to and focusing down before its really useful.

I have a long standing interest in social movements but in coming to this piece of work from a CRUK perspective its interesting to reflect on the variety of definitions that people see fitting in under the theme of ‘social movements’.  I’m going to do some informal research on this by asking people some questions in each of my meetings over the next few weeks and then doing some analysis – will report back.

My initial conversations/research has given us a useful set of perspectives to look at.  The summary list is below.  I will be linking to some slight deeper dives on each of these topics as we research and write them:

  • Social movements in the health space:  this is a mixture of patient activism and advocacy but is also reflective of the shift in the NHS (and other health systems) to patient led care and greater coproduction of health.
  • Campaigning charities that adopt a social movement model:  This may actually be two different things but we shall see.  They are;  1) charities that are using networked effects to campaign as well as fundraise (eg Greenpeace) and 2) Charities which are redefining themselves as a social movement (eg Joseph Rowntree).  Critical to the difference between these is the relationship with the supporter
  • Networked social movements with a more political framing:  clearly living my best life here and looking at the effects of these on the public sphere and political/democratic impacts.  The most topical of these is what is happening in Hong Kong right now.
  • Citizen science and participatory health:  this is distinct from the health as a social movement perspective (I think) in that they are about collective sense-making and not necessarily action – they may end up as being rolled into one of the other perspectives though.
  • Social movements of place which are a renewal of civil society on a more networked and systemic basis and reflect local democratic renewal as much as they reflect a turning away from traditional institutions of place. 
  • Networked organisations and workplace democracy:  I’ve added this as I think its useful to look at social movements from the inside out to help shape organisational responses but also to reflect the fact that the same drivers that see a growth in this trend externally also drive change within organisations forms and behaviours.

I’ll be digging into each of these perspectives but at the outset its worth outlining some of underlying fundamentals about social movements across all of these perspectives.  The main one is that it’s all about power.

Across all of these domains; the concept of social movements speaks to a shift on power from institutions to networks and a greater (theoretical) voice for the individual.  

Some of this shift in power is about information and some is about agency for the individual.  In other instances its about unblocking and removing barriers.  This is why you can’t think about movements without thinking of the individuals that form them and why I say theoretical ‘voice’ as much of the deeper reading into social movements actually shows that some degree of structure is what ensures that different voices can be heard.  

This gives us the second fundamental which is that the motivations and identifications of the people who make these social movements are as important as the form of organisation and this is why I see such a strong cross over with one of the other topics I’m working on which is looking at the shift in people seeing themselves as consumers to starting to see themselves as citizens (great intro to this theme at the New Citizenship project).

The third fundamental is the centrality of networks and their dominance over hierarchical structures as the form that social movements take.  Those networks may have social hierarchies within them but that is not the dominant organisational shape.

The final fundamental is informality.  While some movements will ask you to join or register they are porous and fluid forms that adapt to circumstances.  This informality of often the limiting factor of social movement which is why networked technology has been such a game changer in that it can allow for more transparent and faster decision making – though that doesn’t always provide a step change in impact (more on this in the piece of networked social movements).

There are many reasons why I think institutions needs to approach social movements with caution and make sure that they are embracing these fundamentals.  Social movements are powerful but one thing that is common across all of these forms that the greater the level of control a smaller group or a institution has or tries to have over the movement the less access you have the creativity and power of that movement – once you control it its no longer a social movement and has become something else.  One of the things I want to explore is where organisations have successfully embraced social movements – as well as looking at where this has gone wrong.  

Back when I started looking at this space (some years ago!) there was a huge surge of techno-determinism to the upsurge on more networked organising as part of the hype around the initial impacts of social media.  What is interesting is to see how much more nuanced the thinking is around the role that technology plays in each of these perspective but also that the fundamentals of social movements are not technology dependent though they can be enabled and amplified.

Each of these perspective provides a different frame for the concept of a social movement and not surprisingly each frame reflects the perspective of the originator.  Political scientists see this as politics, sociologists see it as social organising, marketeers see it as viral engagement and researchers see it as a way both of broadening ingress and egress for their research.  More cynically government see it both as a threat and as a free workforce and political parties see it as something to either counter or absorb.  The question for an organisation like CRUK is how to sit between these different framings and ask ourselves what the combinatorial impact of these collective actions could be?

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