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Civil rights activists at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom during the Civil Rights Movement in 1963
A Women's Liberation march in Washington, D.C., 1970

Activism consists of efforts to promote, impede, direct or intervene in social, political, economic or environmental reform with the desire to make improvements in society. Forms of activism range from writing letters to newspapers or elected officials, running or contributing to a political campaign, preferential patronage (boycott) of businesses as a form of economic activism, and demonstrative forms of activism like rallies, street marches, strikes, sit-ins or hunger strikes.

Activism has also been expressed through the creation of art (artivism) or literature. Acts of protest may be performed on a day-to-day basis, including, for example, the refusal to buy clothes or other merchandise from a company as a protest against the exploitation of workers by that company or the company's public statements. Historically, activists have used literature, including pamphlets, tracts and books to disseminate their messages and attempt to persuade their readers of the justice of their cause. Research has begun to explore how activist groups use social media to facilitate civic engagement and collective action combining politics with technology.[1][2]

The Online Etymology Dictionary records the English words "activism" and "activist" as in use in the political sense from the year 1920[3] or 1915[4] respectively.


Definitions of activismEdit

The history of the word activism traces back to earlier understandings of social action and the emergence of public demonstrations as an acceptable democratic option of protest or appeal. As late as 1969 activism was defined as "the policy or practice of doing things with decision and energy",[5] without regard to a political signification, whereas social action was defined as "organized action taken by a group to improve social conditions",[6] without regard to normative status. No definition of social activism is included as an entry in that source. However, the history of the existence of revolt through organized or unified protest in recorded history dates back to the slave revolts of the 1st century BC(E) in the Roman Empire, where under the leadership of former gladiator Spartacus 6,000 slaves rebelled and were crucified from Capua to Rome in what became known as the Third Servile War.[7]

In English history, the Peasant's Revolt erupted in response to the imposition of a poll tax,[8] and has been paralleled by other rebellions and revolutions in Hungary, Russia, and more recently, for example, Hong Kong. In 1930 under the leadership of Mahatma Ghandi thousands of protesting Indians participated in the Salt March as a protest against the oppressive taxes of their government, resulting in the imprisonment of 60,000 people and eventual independence for their nation. In nations throughout Asia, Africa and South America, the prominence of activism organized by social movements and especially under the leadership of civil activists or social revolutionaries has pushed for increasing national self-reliance or, in some parts of the developing world, collectivist communist or socialist organization and affiliation.

Types of activismEdit

Activists can function in a number of roles, including judicial, environmental, internet (technological) and design. Historically, most activism has focused on creating substantive changes in the policy or practice of a government or industry. Some activists try to persuade people to change their behavior directly (see also direct action), rather than to persuade governments to change or not to change laws. Other activists try to persuade people to remain the same, in an effort to counter change. For example, the cooperative movement seeks to build new institutions which conform to cooperative principles, and generally does not lobby or protest politically.

In his 2008 book, Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution,[9] Douglas Schuler suggests something he calls an activist road trip, whereby activism and road trips are merged into an activity that can be pursued on geographical levels that range from neighborhood to international.[10]

Activism is not always an activity performed by those who profess activism as a profession.[11] The term activist may apply broadly to anyone who engages in activism, or be more narrowly limited to those who choose political or social activism as a vocation or characteristic practice.

Judicial and citizen activismEdit

Judicial activism involves the efforts of public officials. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. - American historian, public intellectual, and social critic - introduced the term "judicial activism" in a January 1946 Fortune magazine article titled "The Supreme Court: 1947".[12] Activists can also be public watchdogs and whistle blowers, attempting to understand all the actions of every form of government that acts in the name of the people and hold it accountable to oversight and transparency. Activism involves an engaged citizenry.[13]

Environmental activismEdit

Environmental activism includes the efforts of activists who align themselves with EarthFirst! or Road Protestors. Local community fighting to stop a park or green from getting sold or constructed on would also be included as part of a broader conservationist goal. Every year more than 100 environmental activists are killed: a Global Witness report[14] found that in 2014 at least 116 environmental activists were assassinated,[15] and in 2015 at least 185 activists were killed around this planet.[16] However, the expressions, aims and consequences of activism vary by region.

Internet activismEdit

Since the 1990s, the Internet has been a tool used by activists for mobilization and communication of causes. Specific platforms like, founded in 1998, allow individuals to establish petitions and movements for social change. Protesters in Seattle in 1999 used email to organize protests against the WTO Ministerial Conference.[17] Throughout the 2000s, protesters continued to use social media platforms to generate interest.

The power of Internet Activism came into a global lens with the Arab Spring protests. People living in the Middle East and North African countries that were experiencing revolutions used social networking to communicate protests, which put the issues in front of an international audience.[18]

They use different means to avoid political persecution, such as Tor Browser (a browser that uses Tor network to protect users' identity, IP address, network or location), and encryption data tools and encrypted mails to prevent governments or anyone else intercepting their communications.

Activism in literatureEdit

Activism in literature (not to be confused with literary activism) includes the expression of intended or advocated reforms, realized or unachieved, through published, written or verbally promoted or communicated forms. In the history of education in England (currently the United Kingdom), one of the most powerful and persuasive forms of activist literature is Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman arguing for the participation of women in national education. In the United States, powerful and famous texts include the speeches of various politicians and cultural promoters and reformers, like Sojourner Truth's Ain't I a Woman? and the verbalised legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is often assessed as a representative of the literary genre highlighting the inequalities and oppression of the average working immigrant family in industrialized Chicago. Similar examples of activism in literature include works of fiction such as To Kill A Mockingbird and other examples portraying or commenting on the predicaments faced by those perceive to be enslaved, oppressed or disenfranchised in the period.

The Abolitionist Movement in 18th and 19th century Britain sought to influence the local reading public to abolish the slave trade through the publication and promotion of various books and tracts, including the memoirs of former slaves Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano (also known as Gustavus Vassa), and Ottabah Cugoano in his book Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species.[19]

More recently, attempts by writers protesting sex trafficking and the selling of sexual services range from books like Prostitution Narratives, an edited collection by Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist, to Being and Being Bought by Kajsa Ekis Ekman.

Shareholder activismEdit

Shareholder activism involves shareholders using an equity stake in a corporation to put pressure on its management.[20] The goals of activist shareholders range from financial (increase of shareholder value through changes in corporate policy, financing structure, cost cutting, etc.) to non-financial (disinvestment from particular countries, adoption of environmentally friendly policies, etc.).[21]

CEO activismEdit

CEO activism refers to company leaders taking public stands on contentious social or political issues in ways that don't appear to be connected to the prospect of increasing the of their firm.[22] CEO activism efforts seek to increase public awareness about an issue by providing information (such as by writing op-eds, appearing in news interviews) and through economic actions (such as by threatening to cease planned expansions or boycott doing business in a particular location.[23] One of the earliest examples is when Apple CEO Tim Cook, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, and other corporate leaders spoke out in 2015 against the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana,[23] and Angie's List then-CEO Bill Oesterle cancelled a headquarters expansion project in Indianapolis. [24] Other examples include Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan and PayPal CEO Dan Schulman each publicly opposing a North Carolina bathroom law that prevented municipalities from allowing transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender with which they identify, and instead required them to use the bathroom corresponding to their birth certificate. [25] A field experiment has shown that CEO activism can sway public opinion toward the CEO's view and can increase consumers' willingness to purchase from the company of a CEO activist, especially among consumers that agree with the CEO's position.[26] Public relations firms including Weber Shandwick have launched practices specializing and writing reports on CEO activism.[27]

Design activismEdit

'Design activism' is a conceptualization that occurs across various communities of practice and can be associated with diverse initiatives such as transition movement, speculative design,[28] design futuring,[29] activist systems,[30] biopolitics[31] and others. One working definition of design activism describes it as "design thinking, imagination and practice applied knowingly or unknowingly to create a counter-narrative aimed at generating and balancing positive social, institutional, environmental and/or economic change."[32]


Criticisms and responseEdit

Criticisms of activism as a practice vary across the centuries in accordance with the time and place of the civil or social movement of which they disapprove. At the time of the French Revolution, for example, famous American or British writers like Burke disapproved of the activities in France while turning a more favorable eye to the revolution in America as more legitimate and less destructive. The primary argument against revolutionary activism in these texts is that it is unstable and/or destructive. In contrast, the primary arguments for activism are those of equality, fairness or democratic opportunities in the name of rights existing or alleged. Examples would include the famous slogan of the French revolutionaries under Citizen Robespierre, "liberté, égalité, fraternité." As such, the expression and experience of activism varies across time and place.

Activism can be understood in terms of the guarantee of religious freedoms, educational access, or social views of race, class or gender. Activism is a concept to be assessed and understood in defining the emergence and effects of politically and socially active individuals, organizations and groups and can include efforts ranging from the Right to Life Movement, women's suffrage, and the Civil Rights Movement. Not all forms of government or social organization place an equal emphasis on recognizing activists or responding to the demands of activists. In some countries and in some time periods, the practice of activism can result and has resulted in ostracism, beating, imprisonment, torture or death (capital punishment).

Activism industryEdit

Some groups and organizations participate in activism to such an extent that it can be considered as an industry. In these cases, activism is often done full-time, as part of an organization's core business. Many organizations in the activism industry are either non-profit organizations or non-governmental organizations with specific aims and objectives in mind. Most activist organizations do not manufacture goods,[citation needed] but rather mobilized personnel to recruit funds and gain media coverage.

The term activism industry has often been used to refer to outsourced fundraising operations. However, activist organizations engage in other activities as well.[33] Lobbying, or the influencing of decisions made by government, is another activist tactic. Many groups, including law firms, have designated staff assigned specifically for lobbying purposes. In the United States, lobbying is regulated by the federal government.[34]

Many government systems encourage public support of non-profit organizations by granting various forms of tax relief for donations to charitable organizations. Governments may attempt to deny these benefits to activists by restricting the political activity of tax-exempt organizations.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Obar, Jonathan; et al. (2012). "Advocacy 2.0: An Analysis of How Advocacy Groups in the United States Perceive and Use Social Media as Tools for Facilitating Civic Engagement and Collective Action". Journal of Information Policy. SSRN 1956352 . 
  2. ^ Obar, Jonathan (2014). "Canadian Advocacy 2.0: A Study of Social Media Use by Social Movement Groups and Activists in Canada". Canadian Journal of Communication. SSRN 2254742 . 
  3. ^ Harper, Douglas. "activism". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 17 December 2015. 
  4. ^ Harper, Douglas. "activist". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 17 December 2015. 
  5. ^ Barnhart, Clarence L. (1969). The World Book Dictionary. Chicago, IL: Field Enterprises Educational Corporation. p. 23. 
  6. ^ Barnhart, Clarence L. (1969). The World Book Dictionary. Chicago, IL: Field Enterprises Educational Corporation. p. 1963. 
  7. ^ Czech, Kenneth P. (Apr 1994). "Ancient History: Spartacus and the Slave Rebellion". HistoryNet. Retrieved 12 Aug 2018. 
  8. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica, Editors of. "Peasants' Revolt". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved 12 Aug 2018. 
  9. ^ Schuler, Douglas (2008). Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 9780262693660. 
  10. ^ "Activist Road Trip". Public Sphere Project. 2008. Retrieved 1 November 2015. 
  11. ^ "Introduction to Activism". Permanent Culture Now. Permanent Culture Now. Retrieved 20 December 2011. 
  12. ^ Keenan Kmiec in a 2004 California Law Review article
  13. ^ "Politically Active? 4 Tips for Incorporating Self-Care, US News". US News. 27 February 2017. Retrieved 5 March 2017. 
  14. ^ "Report | How Many More?", Global Witness, 20 April 2015.
  15. ^ Cronin, Melissa, "Map: 116 environmental activists were killed in just one year",, 4 March 2016.
  16. ^ Holmes, Oliver, "Environmental activist murders set record as 2015 became deadliest year", The Guardian, 20 June 2016.
  17. ^ Smith, Jackie (2001). "Globalizing Resistance: The Battle of Seattle and the Future of Social Movements". Mobilization: An International Quarterly. 6 (1): 1–19 – via Allen Press Miscellaneous. 
  18. ^ Sliwinski, Michael (21 January 2016). "The Evolution of Activism: From the Streets to Social Media". Law Street. Retrieved 6 February 2016. 
  19. ^ "Abolition of the Slave Trade". The National Archives. Retrieved 12 Aug 2018. 
  20. ^ Reasonable Investor(s), Boston University Law Review, available at:
  21. ^ Carried Interest: "Activist Investor Definition" [1]. Retrieved 17 July 2015.
  22. ^ Chatterji, Aaron K.; Toffel, Michael W. "Starbucks' "Race Together" Campaign and the Upside of CEO Activism". Retrieved May 31, 2018. 
  23. ^ a b Chatterji, Aaron K.; Toffel, Michael W. (January–February 2018). "The New CEO Activists". Harvard Business Review. 96 (1): 78–89. Retrieved May 30, 2018. 
  24. ^ "Angie's List canceling Eastside expansion over RFRA". Indianapolis Star. Retrieved 2018-06-06. 
  25. ^ "PayPal CEO says company 'just couldn't proceed' with Charlotte project". charlotteobserver. Retrieved 2018-06-06. 
  26. ^ Chatterji, Aaron K.; Toffel, Michael W. (April 3, 2016). "The Power of C.E.O. Activism". New York Times. p. SR10. 
  27. ^ Weber Shandwick. "Millennial Demand for CEO Activism Surges". Retrieved May 30, 2018. 
  28. ^ Dunne, Anthony; Raby, Fiona (2013). Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. 
  29. ^ Fry, Tony (2008). Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice. Oxford: Berg. 
  30. ^ Roudavski, Stanislav; Jahn, Gwyllim (2016). "Activist Systems: Futuring with Living Models". International Journal of Architectural Computing. 16 (2): 182–196. doi:10.1177/1478077116638946. 
  31. ^ Da Costa, Philip; Kavita, Fiona (2008). Tactical Biopolitics: Art, Activism, and Technoscience. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. 
  32. ^ Fuad-Luke; Alastair (2009). Design Activism: Beautiful Strangeness for a Sustainable World. Sterling: Earthscan. 27. 
  33. ^ Dana R. Fisher, "The Activism Industry: The Problem with the Left's Model of Outsourced Grassroots Canvassing Archived 5 December 2010 at the Wayback Machine.", The American Prospect, 14 September 2006
  34. ^ New Federal Lobbying Law Reporting Periods Begin

Further readingEdit