This piece has been written by Micah Ingle and was first published by Mad in America on November 1, 2019 and can be accessed here.
A recent study published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology examines how involvement in collective political efforts can result in personality, behavioral, lifestyle, and worldview changes. The authors interviewed 28 participants belonging to the Swedish ‘Ojnare’ environmentalist campaign. Eleven themes were discovered from the data, including psychological changes related to radicalization, empowerment, self-esteem/confidence, personal relationships, career, and consumer behavior.
Existential threats such as climate change have spurred some psychologists to encourage collective forms of political action, rather than individualistic efforts to reduce anxiety. Research has shown that, in addition to being necessary for our survival as a species, collective action also has psychological benefits.
This type of research is important for demonstrating that collective political effort need not be a ‘chore,’ but can encourage personal healing as well as collective change. In addition, new research is providing a greater look at outcomes, rather than the traditional social psychological preoccupation with motives for engaging in political protest.
The current study expands existing research into the psychological effects of involvement in collective action, focusing on the range of possible psychological change stemming from a single political campaign. The authors interviewed 28 participants in the Swedish ‘Ojnare’ anti-deforestation campaign, using the qualitative thematic analysis research methodology to map relevant themes of psychological change. A mix of open and closed-ended questions was presented to interviewees in an attempt to get them to speak freely about experiences of change in relation to the collective action.
The authors found 11 types of change in their analysis: legitimacy/illegitimacy, radicalization, personal relationships, extended involvement, consumer behavior, empowerment, self-esteem/self-confidence, well-being, skills, knowledge, and career.
Two broad types of change were noted by the authors: subjective and objective change. Subjective change is associated with phenomena such as self-confidence/self-esteem, empowerment, and well-being. Objective change, on the other hand, deals with behavioral issues such as changes in relationships, career, extended political involvement, and consumer behavior. Subjective change may lead to or interact with objective change, but the researchers chose to keep them separate in the analysis.
The first changed noted by the authors was around legitimacy and illegitimacy, particularly concerning the police and social authorities. 21 of 28 participants described an increasing distrust in the police after involvement in the campaign, which was also associated with the psychological change of increasing radicalization—or a willingness to go further than before to achieve their goals. All of this took place in the context of the non-violent conflict between protestors and law enforcement, with a large contingent of police officers attempting to remove protestors forcefully. This conflict is described as “police week” and had a significant impact on the participants.
Empowerment was another significant theme, with some participants reporting an increased sense of agency and the ability to effect change around issues important to them. One participant describes:
This sense of empowerment was also linked to changes for some participants in perceived self-esteem/self-confidence. Additionally, all but one of the 28 participants described an increase in general well-being. Alongside these changes in self-perception, many participants felt that they learned new skills and acquired new knowledge through their participation about Sweden’s legal system, for example.
Changes in personal relationships were also described. Intergroup changes occurred between protestors and police, such as the increasing distrust or perception of authoritative illegitimacy, as well as intragroup changes. Participants noted a strong sense of solidarity with other ‘Ojnare fighters,’ including bridging the gap between vegans and meat farmers. The authors suggest that pressure from an outside group, law enforcement, may have helped to solidify ingroup relations.
Another change noted by some participants was related to career, such as taking time off of school to participate and wanting to extend involvement in similar collective action, to “keep fighting.”
The authors describe how many of these changes were interrelated. Perceived injustice at the hands of law enforcement encouraged greater radicalization, extended involvement, stronger ingroup relationships, and greater empowerment. Ingroup relationships and solidarity encouraged some participants to become vegan, promoting changes in consumer behavior, sense of self, and worldview.
The authors do discuss some limitations to the study. Relying on self-report can present problems of exaggeration or misrepresentation from participants. A pre-participation set of interviews would have helped, but the authors were unable to achieve this because of the context. In addition, the specific nature of some interview questions could have primed certain types of responses. However, the authors note that behavioral and relationship changes can also be mapped by referring to external data, such as “interviews with a family member or close friend to participants, and sales figures from shops selling ethical products.”
The authors conclude:
Vestergren, S., Drury, J., & Chiriac, E. H. (2019). How participation in collective action changes relationships, behaviors, and beliefs: An interview study of the role of inter- and intragroup processes. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 7(1), 76-99. (Link)
MIA Research News Team: Micah Ingle is a doctoral student in Psychology: Consciousness and Society at the University of West Georgia. He has published on therapeutic approaches centering the person-in-context, as opposed to the individualizing medical model, and on the characteristics of people high in empathy. His current interests include the intersection of sociopolitical/economic structures and mental health, individualism in psychology, gender, liberation psychology, and mythopoetic perspectives inspired by Jungian thought.