Campaigning in Context

“The decision to protest is not taken in a social vacuum”
(Klandermans & Van Stekelenburg, 2013)

One of the words noted down most frequently in my notebook is context (another is power).

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For campaigners looking to bring about social change it is important to understand the context that affects how change happens (Krznaric, 2007).

Context is the circumstances that form the setting for a campaign (and likely the reason that it exists), it can affect the probabilities of mobilisation and individuals decisions to protest (Klandermans & van Stekelenburg, 2013) and can be important in determining whether change happens (or not).

The types of context that can be significant include: state (e.g. regime type, corruption, political rights), social (e.g. worldviews & ideologies, family structures, educational access), economic (e.g. industrialisation, wealth inequality, market access, unemployment), global (e.g. international trade rules, balance of power, conflict), environmental (e.g. resource availability, climate change, disease) and systemic (e.g. interdependence, uncertainty, power relationships) (Krznaric, 2007).

Context, particularly the media context has shaped the evolution of campaigning (Baringhorst et al. 2009; Hilder et al. 2007). NGOs have changed their approaches as media has become more fragmented and diversified (Baringhorst et al., 2009). Social media has offered campaigning organisations many opportunities to innovate their communications (O’ Brien, 2015).

Events and political context can lead to innovation and creativity in campaigning. In a recent blog I wrote about how two campaigns had to respond quickly and creatively to social and political shifts.

Context can also affect the efficacy of campaigns (Yaziji & Doh, 2009) and it is important to think about how context promotes, permits, or acts as a barrier to, change (Krznaric, 2007).

Friends of the Earth speak about how in the current political context it would be hard to get the Climate Change Act through parliament. The Act that was passed in 2008 was the first national law to commit a country to legally binding annual cuts in greenhouse gases. In 2008 the Big Ask campaign was working within a political context, with a supportive environment minister, that it enabled it to make policy progress. Despite there now being a much more favourable international context for climate change legislation, following the adoption of the UNFCC Paris Agreement, trying to get such an act through the inside track (Hilder et al. 2007) would be much more difficult.

Context has been very important to successes in the campaign for homosexual rights in 20th-century Britain. Broad social, cultural and political changes such as shifting moral attitudes, the rise of different family structures, declining religious membership and others produced a conducive environment for social change (Delap, 2016). Whilst not enough in themselves to bring about formally recognised homosexual rights the success of the movement was due to the “complex interaction between wider change in popular culture and interventions by campaigners” (Delap, 2016: 126).

Finally context can affect people’s decision to support a campaign or join a protest. (Klandermans & van Stekelenburg, 2013) observe that there is insufficient study of how economic, social and political developments impact the decisions that individuals take around protest.

This blog is part of a series for my Media, Campaigning and Social Change MA at the University of Westminster.


References

Baringhorst, S. et al., 2009. Political Campaigning on the Web.

Delap, L., 2016. Campaigning for Homosexual Rights in 20th-century Britain. In Campaigning for Change: Lessons from History. London: Friends of the Earth; History & Policy, pp. 115–128.

Hilder, P., Caulier-Grice, J. & Lalor, K., 2007. Contentious Citizens: Civi Society’s Role in Campaigning for Social Change,

Klandermans, B. & van Stekelenburg, J., 2013. The Social Psychology of Protest. Current Sociology Review, 61(5–6), pp.886–905.

Krznaric, R., 2007. How Change Happens. Oxfam GB Research Report.

O’ Brien, M., 2015. Movement for Change. Communication Director.

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