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Professor Sarah Soule, who has researched thousands of social protests, stands in front of a mural on social activism painted by teenagers in San Francisco's Mission district.

Professor Sarah Soule, who has researched thousands of social protests, stands in front of a mural on social activism painted by teenagers in San Francisco's Mission district.

SOCIAL ACTIVISM HAS A LONG AND STORIED HISTORY in the United States. American protest dates back to the 1773 Boston Tea Party, when colonists tossed 45 tons of tea into Boston Harbor to voice their opposition to the British government’s policies. Organizations dedicated to causes continued to grow through the 19th and 20th centuries. In recent decades, Americans have marched, rallied, and lobbied for civil rights, women’s legal equality, and environmental protection, among many other causes.

But how exactly do social movements create change? And at what stage do these movements have the most impact on governments and even on corporations?

Sarah Soule, the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior, has looked at thousands of protests staged over numerous causes to find the answers. Her conclusions? Movements have their greatest effect in the early stages of policy debate on a given issue, before the debate becomes too broad and acrimonious and before cause supporters become too outspoken. And, she says, activism often begets more activism as groups that come together over one issue find future ground for agreement and take on yet more issues.

Before 2000, researchers had not proven empirically the power of protest to create change, says Soule, who joined the Business School’s organizational behavior faculty in 2008 after teaching at Cornell and the University of Arizona. She and colleagues set out to find evidence of whether social movements make a difference, and if so, when they have the most impact.

To do so, they drew on a huge dataset Soule compiled with three other researchers—Stanford’s Susan Olzak and Doug McAdam, and John McCarthy of Pennsylvania State University, all professors of sociology. Specially trained Stanford, Penn State, and Arizona students gathered data from newspaper accounts and coded evidence of 22,000 protests, public displays covering a wide range of causes, between 1960 and 1995.

Using a statistical model known as “discrete time event history analysis,” Soule systematically analyzed the data to isolate the key points in time when these movements were most effective at achieving their policy goals.

By carefully examining the timing of protests, she was able to show that they had specific effects on congressional actions, such as the scheduling of hearings and roll call votes on issues related to the protests.

Along with sociologist coauthors, she has written extensively about the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) movement from 1972 to 1982, which was an unsuccessful effort to promote legal equality for women by amending the U.S. Constitution. More recently she has focused on the environmental movement.

In the process, she uncovered a provocative concept: Movements have their greatest effect in the early stages of policy making, when an issue is first being considered by legislators and an agenda is being set. Her work shows that women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, and environmentalists have been able to have a greater impact on what legislators do at the outset of policy making, around the time that bills are being introduced.

Soule paints a picture of a typical movement’s effects on policy in this way: When an issue first appears on legislators’ radar, activists may be able to convince them to introduce bills sympathetic to their cause because lawmakers feel that they have little to lose. “In the earlier stages, there’s less at stake,” Soule says. After all, decisions are not yet being made, and the issue may be relatively unknown to constituents, so public opinion may not have been formed or solidified about the issue.

Later, when a bill comes closer to a vote, legislators face much higher risks. A decision could produce a law that some constituents may not like. The potential law often “becomes much more controversial and the public becomes much more engaged,” she explains.

As movements evolve, so do their tactics. As time passes, they tend to adopt more radical forms of protest that produce vocal critics and may even prompt a counter-movement against their cause. At that stage, legislators, fearful of alienating voters, may get cold feet because they do not want to jeopardize re-election. The bill may die or be watered down.

The case of the ERA movement demonstrates Soule’s theory. Beginning in the early 1970s, women’s organizations sought to pass a constitutional amendment that would have stated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” The movement met with success in its first years—the amendment was ratified by 22 states in 1972 alone, and soon by 35 states. But public opinion began to shift as the years passed. Pro-ERA women’s groups were perceived as “extreme” when they began staging sit-ins and mass demonstrations that led to arrests. These actions went against the commonly held image of women as homemakers, Soule says. The “Stop ERA” movement formed and worked to reinforce a more traditional image of women. While pro-ERA activists were carted off to jail, Stop ERA women countered by baking bread for legislators. Eventually, the ERA fell short of ratification by three states.

Such research “tells movements when they should focus their efforts,” Soule says.

Some of Soule’s recent work has focused on the impact of social movements on corporations. Both groups that operate within firms and those that protest businesses from the outside have succeeded in changing companies in important ways, she says. Employees were involved in a successful drive for domestic-partner benefits in the 1990s and early 2000s, for example. “The movement sold this issue as being good for business, and as soon as a few key players in the Fortune 500 began to adopt it, it became disadvantageous for others not to do so—they couldn’t compete for talent,” she says.

In a recent research paper, Soule examined outside protesters’ effect on stock prices and investor confidence in corporations. She and coauthor Brayden King of the Kellogg School of Management showed how vocal protests and boycotts—coupled with new, negative media coverage of the company involved—could significantly bring down its stock price and, in turn, create policy changes by influencing investors.

A key example was Lebanon, Tenn.–based Cracker Barrel, a restaurant chain that in 1991 created a policy against employing gays. After highly publicized protests and boycotts by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, stock prices fell 26 percent, even though sales had not actually declined. This stock price crash inspired shareholders to introduce a resolution to force the company to change its policy. Executives reconsidered their approach and orally retracted it in response. Then in 2002, the company finally made a written change to their nondiscrimination policy, adding sexual orientation.

Focusing efforts on the most efficient forms of protest is also smart. Soule has found that groups with strong elite allies, such as legislators sympathetic to their cause, make much more progress. For example, she found that “insider forms of activism, like lobbying and letter writing,” increased the number of congressional hearings on women’s issues such as equal pay and abortion rights in the years between 1956 and 1979.

The ties that form among individual protesters are another critical element in social movements’ development. In a sense, activism begets more activism. As people come together to work for a cause, they forge relationships—network ties. Later, as that movement’s influence wanes or as that movement dies out, those same people find ways to work together to form the next wave of social activism around new causes, often creating new organizations and new coalitions.

Today’s politics offers one example. Soule says that the tide of political engagement that helped elect Barack Obama president in 2008 has the potential to spark more activism. Obama’s successful campaign mobilized people, many of whom may not have participated in politics before. These individuals now have the interpersonal connections and the training to focus on other challenges, like racial discrimination, she says.

Soule says she was lured to the School by its “incredible” organizational behavior group, home to some of the “best social scientists in the world.” An award-winning teacher, she was also eager to offer courses to business students. “I was looking for a new challenge, and I was ready to try teaching at a business school.”

Exploring the role of women in the workplace and in business leadership will be central to a revamped Women in Organizations course scheduled for winter quarter 2009. Last taught by Professor Joanne Martin prior to her retirement, the course has been redesigned by Soule to cover “a whole lot of issues related to gender in the workforce.” She plans to include discussion of gender within teams on the job, discrimination, sexual harassment, and work/life balance.

Colleagues point to Soule’s own work ethic and innovative thinking as secrets to her success as both a researcher and a teacher. Her work bridges the worlds of sociology, political science, and organizational behavior to uncover new insights into social movements—which makes her approach unique among her colleagues, says Olzak, who has been a colleague of Soule’s since her master’s studies.

Given Soule’s expertise on the subject, it’s natural to ask whether she practices activism herself. She does—and in fact, first became interested in the 1980s through her own involvement in the American student movement to end apartheid in South Africa. That movement later became the subject of her Cornell University dissertation.

Soule has recently focused on promoting women’s equality in academia. Social science research shows that women’s names are not recalled as easily as men’s, she says, and as a result, “when a group is brainstorming about who we’re going to bring for speakers, or who should be on our board for external review, men’s names come up first.” She inserts herself, saying, “Let’s think about women’s names,” and soon prominent women are added to the list.

It’s an example of how speaking up can make a difference—and multiplied over thousands of people, over thousands of protests, it’s the kind of act that can lead to change.

By Meredith Alexander Kunz

–Photo by Gabriela Hasbun

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Professor Sarah Soule Explains Effective Social Movements
  2. Protest Movements: How Do They Create Change?
  3. How Do Police Respond to Women’s Protests and Demonstrations?

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