The Little Effort Paradigm: Asking People To Do Less, Sustainably
I recently completed a PhD thesis on the animal advocacy movement in Australia and the United States. This thesis was in the discipline of sociology but was also heavily influenced by the field of Critical Animal Studies. In the spirit of Critical Animal Studies and as an animal activist as well as an academic, it is my hope that my thesis will in some small way actually change things for animals, rather than just being about animals.
To make this research more accessible, I will present five lessons from my thesis that I believe may be useful for animal advocates. This is the first lesson, which is focused on how large national groups and smaller grassroots groups differ from each other.
One of the central debates in the contemporary animal advocacy movement is between animal rights and animal welfare. Animal rights rejects the use and slaughter of animals, whereas an animal welfare ideology accepts this use and slaughter but attempts to ensure that it is done “humanely.” Sometimes this debate is quite straight forward; for example, animal rights organisation Animal Liberation Victoria (ALV) fundamentally reject the use and slaughter of animals, promoting a vegan message.
In contrast, animal welfare organization the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA) see no problem with animal use or slaughter and promote the consumption of what they view as humane animal products. In other cases, this distinction is not as clear, for example where organisations who philosophically believe in animal rights engage in animal welfare campaigns as a tactic. This is for reasons such as believing that such campaigns are needed to provide some protection for animals in the short-term and/or that these campaigns will lead towards animal rights in the long-term.
As a result of such complexities, these ideologies are sometimes portrayed as a “continuum” of beliefs and tactics, rather than as an either/or debate. Such discussions are important and I certainly covered them extensively in my thesis.
However, in my research I found that the central difference between larger, more professionalized animal advocacy organizations with paid staff and physical office space and smaller, more grassroots animal advocacy organizations with no paid staff or physical office space was not actually between animal welfare and rights. Often those critical of welfare campaigns argue that smaller organizations encourage people to go vegan whereas larger groups encourage people to eat “humane” animal products. I found that there was a small amount of truth to this, but it was not the main point of differentiation. Rather, the differences between large and small organizations was more about how much they asked people to do.
I explored this issue by drawing on the theory of resource mobilization. This theory highlights the importance of resources (particularly money) in social movements. That is not to say that animal advocacy campaigns are purely driven by financial considerations (I also explored the impact of ideological and emotional concerns), but simply that resources must be a consideration to some extent, particularly for larger organizations that need a certain level of finances coming in to pay costs such as staff and rent. I started with a focus on how resources shaped campaigns but shifted to a focus on how certain campaigns are more or less consistent with attracting resources, therefore are consistent with different organizational forms, ranging from more grassroots to more professionalised.
[Different causes compete for resources with people choosing which charity gets the most money from Grill’d – a burger chain in Australia with some vegan options.]
Key resource mobilization theorists John McCarthy and Mayer Zald argue that in terms of maximizing participation and financial support for non-profit organizations, actions such as ‘giving money and signing a petition’ are optimal because they ‘require little effort and imply no long-term involvement’ from those supporting their campaigns. I referred to this assertion of McCarthy and Zald’s as the “little effort paradigm” in the thesis.
In Chapter Four, I analyzed the actions promoted in emails sent out by a selection of larger animal advocacy organizations: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Humane Society International (HSI), and Animals Australia (AA). One year’s worth of emails from these organizations were assessed for their consistency with the little effort paradigm, with the following results:
|Organisation||Petition / Letter||Phone||Donate||Buy||Send To Friends||Change Lifestyle||Other||Totals|
The main actions promoted by these organizations generally fit the “ideal type” activism postulated by McCarthy and Zald. Over 30% of the main actions promoted were petitions, or much more commonly, pre-written letters. These are letters to an official (generally a politician or other political figure, or business leader) requesting some form of change. The letter is pre-written by the organization but the individual can personalize the letter and add whatever they like. The individual, however, only has to add their name to the pre-written letter and hit “send.” These actions are very similar to petitions, in that very little effort is required. People were very rarely asked to take a step further and telephone an official. Although this takes slightly more effort than adding a name to a pre-written letter, it still can be done very quickly, and is fairly similar to petitions or pre-written letters.
Even more commonly, the main action promoted was seeking donations to the organisation in question, another of McCarthy and Zald’s ideal actions for the little effort paradigm. Over 31% of the main actions were to donate. Nearly 10% of the time the main action was to buy something, generally from the online shops of these organisations. Much like donating, this requires little effort. Overall, 62% of the actions promoted by these organisations are directly compatible with the two forms of actions that McCarthy and Zald argue are optimal for attracting resources to an organisation (donations and petitions). If the similar actions of phoning an official and buying something are included, over 73% of actions are consistent with McCarthy and Zald’s expectations.
Just less than 6% of actions were included under “send to friends.” They involved actions such as encouraging people to add the email addresses of their friends to send a pre-written message, reposting “tweets” and updating individual’s Facebook statuses. Some of these actions went well beyond just adding email addresses to a pre-written message; for example, one email from PETA asked people to take a picture of themselves with a sign opposing circuses to post on Facebook. Overall, however, actions in this category did not significantly depart from McCarthy and Zald’s little effort paradigm and certainly were not asking people to change their consumption habits.
Emails in the “change lifestyle” category focused on the lifestyle of the people receiving the email, for example, what they eat, wear, buy and support. Less than 7% of the actions promoted in the emails provided some challenge to the activities of the people receiving the email. Out of the twelve emails that fell in the “change lifestyle” category, I have classified nine as “minor” lifestyle changes and only three as “major” lifestyle changes.
This is demonstrated in the figure below. The actions classified as major lifestyle changes are all switching to a vegetarian diet (two emails from Animals Australia, one from PETA). The minor lifestyle changes promoted are: avoiding factory farmed products (Animals Australia); avoiding pet shops and caged eggs (HSUS); going fur-free, boycotting Canadian seafood, and two emails encouraging people to not support the wild animal industry from HSI; and two emails from PETA encouraging people to adopt companion animals.
Major and Minor Lifestyle Changes Advocated
While some of the lifestyle changes classified as “minor” would indeed be viewed as welfare changes (such as avoiding factory farmed products and caged eggs), many would not be. More importantly, it was found that larger organizations rarely challenge the consumption or other practices towards animals that those receiving the emails may be engaging in (whether on rights or welfare grounds). The problem of animal suffering was generally framed as occuring elsewhere and unrelated to the individuals’ consumption, with the solutions most commonly being to contact an official or donate to an animal advocacy organization to rectify the situation.
Veganism was never promoted by the organizations chosen for this case study, although one email from Animals Australia did mention “a plant-based diet.” Even with this email, however, the focus was more on eating less meat and vegetarianism. This contrasts with more radical organizations such as ALV, which promotes veganism as the “baseline” of the animal advocacy movement. Veganism is asking people to do more than actions such as signing petitions and making donations, which I believe helps to explain why ALV operate in a more grassroots way, for example with no paid staff, unlike the organizations focused on here. Vegan activism and the little effort paradigm will be explored in lesson two.
If you’d like to read more about the themes covered in this post, see Chapter 4 of my thesis: ‘A sociological examination of the contemporary animal advocacy movement: Organizations, rationality and veganism’ – it is available for anyone to read, you don’t need a university log-in or anything like that.
You can also listen to audio of a talk by Nick Pendergrast on this topic: just lesson 1 (5 minutes) or all 5 lessons (15 minutes).