How Change Works: Social Movements

What do systems thinkers have to say about the mechanics of massive social transformation and how it can be applied to the most pressing problems of our times? How do the actions of a handful of people translate to the real world of effecting social change? Especially when it comes to bringing about change in governments that have become unpopular and nihilistic? Do you need a majority of the country to change its mind before things will really change “out there?”

According to political scientist Erica Chenoweth, absolutely not. She developed the 3.5 Rule, which holds that it only takes 3.5% of active and sustained participation of any population to achieve their goals.

Chenoweth started out as a graduate studying warfare. She was on her way to becoming a U.S. Army officer and wanted to know what made military campaigns successful. She happened to go to a conference sponsored by the International Center on Non-Violent Conflict, which introduced her to campaigns of civil resistance. She thought non-violent campaigns were well-intentioned, but was extremely skeptical about their effectiveness. She found that no research had been done to quantify the effectiveness of civil resistance, and by the end of the week the ICNC offered to sponsor a 2-year research study to investigate .

Along with her research partners she developed the most extensive database on civil resistance in existence, and found that for achieving strategic goals such as regime change, expelling foreign occupiers, and achieving self-determination, non-violent campaigns were not only effective, but were twice as effective as violent insurgencies. This has been true even in brutal, authoritarian conditions such as in Iran, the Palestinian Territories, the Philippines, and Burma.

Erica Chenoweth explains more in her TED Talk:

What is especially of interest for people interested in social change, is that she found a direct correlation between the success of the campaign and the popular involvement it managed to rally. Across the board, victorious campaigns consistently rely on broad-based public sympathy. And yet, the number of supporters who were actively engaged could be quite small.

At the time Chenoweth was doing her research, common wisdom said that no government could survive if 5% of its population mobilized against it. But she saw that the threshold was not even that high. Reviewing the data, she found that, “no campaigns failed once they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5% of the population — and lots of them succeeded with far less than that.”

What this means for the #Resistance and people interested in social change, is that collecting communities together and putting consistent attention towards a common goal is much more effective than you would think. As a strategy, you do not need to focus on trying to win over more than half of the population. It is actually more effective to work in a sustained way on the goals you want to achieve with 3.5% of the population. When there is sustained intention, it has the capacity to catch like wildfire.

Many successful grassroots social movements that have come on the scene within the last few years, like CosechaSURJIf Not NowAll of Us, and the Sunrise Movement, are based on work from theorists like Chenoweth. Many of these strategies are explained in This is an Uprising by Paul and Mark Engler. And the highly practical Resistance Guide, written as a summary for what we especially need to organize in this moment by Paul Engler and Sophie Lasoff.

For people working to shift the collective consciousness, the key takeaway from all this, is that the work you are doing on an individual basis matters. It is even more powerful and effective when you link up with a community.

If you are interested in shifting the collective consciousness, be sure to Like us on Facebook and sign up for our newsletter. We will be continuing our series on what systems thinkers across disciplines say about how change works — from science, nature mysticism, and social movements.

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