Service delivery protests, class action lawsuits, anti-corruption marches. Hell, even #FeesMustFall. Wouldn’t we all love to be part of a successful movement that actually achieves some greater good that would make us all feel better about ourselves?
People have been mobilising each other since way back when. The ability people have of coming together to fight injustice has allowed for a great deal of social good to come out of it. From the mass marches in the Civil Rights Movement to those calling for the fall of the Berlin Wall. It seems as if it is the go-to strategy for getting things done.
The question, however, is how do we make it successful? Charles Duhigg has an answer for us. Socail habits. Actually, let him rather explain...*
"A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighbourhoods and clans together. And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership."
This sounds vague so let's explain these in a bit more detail...
1. A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances.
Let's imagine a far-out world where students are protesting against the high fees it costs to go to university. In this world people believe that everyone should be afforded the right to go to university if they are smart enough, irrespective of their financial or social status.
Everyone knows that the fees are expensive but something needs to happen to set the ball in motion. Perhaps it's the exclusion from the university by those who can't pay or the announcement that fees will increase for the following year. Something needs to happen for people to take notice.
In this example, when the catalytic event occurs, the people who are there in the initial stages of the protest are those who genuinely believe in the cause, those who are directly affected by the cause and those who have been dragged along by their friends, family or partners.
Social groups play a big role here as people share key information with each other. Text, emails, tweets, and posts. Word gets around and momentum slowly begins to build. People at this stage are enthusiastic, motivated and determined to see this movement to the end.
This is the easy step.
2. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighbourhoods and clans together.
Weak ties are characterised by our casual acquaintances. These are people you know but are not in your close group of friends. Some may be friends of friends, others may be people you've seen at work, others are the people in your yoga class that you're friendly with.
These people have an influence over you that makes it easy for movements to progress. Weak ties are influential because they bridge the information gap between social groups. Without weak ties, the momentum gathered does not spread to other groups of people that aren't already part of the movement. This leaves most of the population untouched as they have no access to information or the protest.
How do we then move from being a group of people protesting to a widespread social movement?
A way to compel people to participate is through peer pressure. The issue with this step is that most people do not care enough about the cause to expose themselves to the hardships of protesting, like missing a test or potential injury. This is where weak ties come into play.
Peer pressure works because if you ignore the expected patterns of your community, you risk losing your social standing. You risk losing the social benefits of being part of a group. So when Siya asks why Portia isn't part of the protests, he is questioning her rejection of the communal expectations of participating in the protests and thus questioning her social standing in the group.
This coupled with the strong ties from our friendships allow for movements to gather even more momentum and thus gain a wider audience.
3. It endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership
These social habits mentioned above alone are not enough to keep a movement going.
Fast forward a month and now the situation is quite different now. Numbers are dwindling, non-violent tactics that were effective have been countered and people are losing morale. Pressure starts mounting on leaders to end the protest.
What needs to happen at this point so that people do not become disillusioned is that there needs to be a way for the movement to grow beyond the social ties that bound communities and it needs to self-propelling. What this means is that people need to identify with the movement at a personal and emotional level, rather than just a purely mental one.
In our example, this can be achieved by creating a new set of individual habits for protesters. Ensuring they know why they are protesting, giving them literature to work with to provide a new perspective to their thinking, ensuring they engage everyone they come across as to why they are protesting. This new set of habits ingrains itself into the individual, making them more likely to be resolute.
This way, participants don't question their roles and thus are willing to be more proactive because it has become a way of life for them until the end goal has been achieved. When people start holding themselves accountable, it is unlikely that the movement will wither away.
Something more subtle also happens here; people stop looking for guidance or leadership elsewhere and they start leading themselves. This explains why during apartheid people were willing to risk their lives. This is why during the civil rights movement people endured abuse at the hands of law enforcement. BECAUSE THEY HAD A SENSE OF PURPOSE!
The difficulty with this step is trying to ensure that thousands, even millions, of people are willing to make changes in their lives and routines to ensure the success of the movement. If this doesn't happen, you will have protests that seem prosperous at the beginning but ultimately fail when the going gets tough.
These three fundemental characteristics are all needed if a movement is to be a success and change is to happen. Miss one and all you will have is people killing time with struggle songs.