UW News

December 15, 2015

Study: Reason, not disruption, rules when growing a social movement

UW News

When campaigning for social change, disruptive protests may win a few battles but education is more likely to win the war, according to research by Abhinav Gupta, an assistant professor of strategic management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Gupta and co-authors studied “Rein in Russell,” a 2009 campaign by United Students Against Sweatshops at Pennsylvania State University and other institutions designed to pressure the company Russell Athletic to change its anti-union business tactics and reopen a shuttered unionized plant in Honduras. Their campaign involved targeting Russell Athletics’ major business allies — other universities in the United States — and urging them to sever their licensing contracts with the company.

Gupta and colleagues studied the matter by analyzing the group’s campaign strategy and interviewing activists and university administrators, from schools targeted in the campaign and those not targeted.

Student protests such as sit-ins persuaded a few schools, but failed to create the sort of “spillover” or domino effect they wanted among other peer universities. The students found success when they changed tactics and brought workers from a closed factory to university campuses to share their dramatic stories. Within a year, more than 75 major universities had pledged to cut ties with Russell if it didn’t change its ways — and the company gave in to the pressure.

This reconsidered approach, Gupta said, was “purely intended to change minds and values.” It worked because it appealed to the sense of reason that drives organizational decision-making.

“Instead of justifying decisions in terms of right versus wrong, which is a question of values and morality, organizational decision-makers — university administrators and corporate executives — work by the principle of rationality,” Gupta said. “This is to say that there should be a reason that you can justify for its service to organizational goals.”

Still, he added, “There is a place for disruption. Evidence-based tactics and disruption-based tactics have a kind of good cop/bad cop dynamic. Disruption gets attention. Evidence and persuasion change minds.”

Gupta’s co-authors are Forrest Briscoe — who is lead author — and Mark Anner of Pennsylvania State University. Their paper, “Social Activism and Practice Diffusion: How Activist Tactics Affect Non-targeted Organizations” was published in the June 2015 issue of Administrative Science Quarterly.


For more information, contact Gupta at 206-543-4052 or abhinavg@uw.edu. Read a longer version of this article by Ed Kromer of the Foster School.