“When someone whines about what they can possibly do if it’s really true that voting won’t fix everything, hand them this book. When someone proposes violence as the only serious option available, hand them this book.”

David Swanson, WarIsACrime.org & OpEd News

Expressive and instrumental actions

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“If the real radical finds that having long hair sets up psychological barriers to communication and organization, he cuts his hair.”

Saul Alinsky
In Sum

Political action tends to be driven by one of two different motivations: expressing an identity, and winning concrete changes. It’s important to know the difference, and to strike a balance between the two.


Resource Mobilization Theory of the 1970’s—Present

Sometimes activists will take an action without much thought to how others receive it, or what precisely the action will achieve. Many people participate in actions because it’s meaningful to them, or simply because it feels good to do the right thing. We call this the expressive part of an action. Expressive actions come from the heart and the gut — whether or not our “heads” calculate the specific outcome.

“Taking the street” during a march is a perfect example. Sure, it feels good to march un-permitted in the street. You and your comrades bravely disobey police orders and, all together, walk out into traffic. You can practically smell the group cohesion in the air. It’s intoxicating. It’s also usually inconsequential in terms of broader social movement objectives. Still, how many times have you heard someone say a march was “bad” simply because it stayed on the sidewalk? When someone says this, it may be because their goals are primarily expressive; affecting social change is of secondary importance.

Most trained organizers think on another level: regardless of the self-expressive value for those involved, we ask “what is this action actually achieving for our issue, cause, movement, or campaign?” We call this the instrumental value of an action.

Both aspects are important, and though a well-designed action can deliver on both simultaneously, expressive and instrumental often get pitted against one another. Many hard-nosed organizers focus exclusively on tangible impacts, forgetting that the self-expressive dimension of an action plays a critical role in affirming values and building group identity. On the other hand, many groups can carry out a whole string of expressive actions without ever winning anything. The danger here is clear: groups that don’t evaluate the success of their tactics in terms of their instrumental goals risk becoming narcissistic and self-referential. They can spiral into irrelevance because they aren’t tuned into how their action affects anyone outside of the group see PRINCIPLE: No one wants to watch a drum circle.

While instrumental actions are often focused on an “external” outcome, say, some measurable kind of pressure you can exert on the bad guy your campaign is targeting, they can also have an “internal” focus. Consider a mass teach-in that is designed to build your organization’s capacity, or increase the skills of participants, or shift the thinking in your movement. Here, the expressive value of the action is being directly translated into an instrumental outcome. Expressive and instrumental are therefore not mutually exclusive categories, but rather dynamics to which we need to pay attention.

Instrumental actions can be further subdivided into “communicative” and “concrete” see PRINCIPLE: Make your actions both concrete and communicative. Communicative actions are designed to sway opinion, express an idea, or contribute to public discourse, while concrete actions are designed to have a tangible impact on a target. These are two separate ways of measuring an instrumental outcome.

While self-expression is a necessary part of the social change process, it is not sufficient. Through our rituals of self-expression, we affirm our values and visions and build the kind of group identity and cohesion without which we’d be too weak and disorganized to change the world see THEORY: Political identity paradox. That said, expressing values is not the same as engaging society and effecting systemic change. If we really want to change the world, we must know the difference between — and artfully balance — our instrumental goals with our desire for self-expression.

Jonathan Matthew Smucker served as the first Training Director for Beautiful Trouble. A long-time participant, organizer, trainer, and theorist in grassroots movements for social, economic and ecological justice, Smucker has trained thousands of change agents in campaign strategy, framing and messaging, direct action, and other grassroots organizing skills. He is co-founder and Director of Beyond the Choir, a strategy and training organization. He is also a doctoral student of sociology at UC Berkeley.

Joshua Kahn Russell is an organizer and strategist serving movements for social justice and ecological balance. He is an action coordinator, facilitator & trainer with the Ruckus Society, and has trained thousands of activists. Joshua has written numerous movement strategy essays, chapters for several books, and a few organizing manuals, most recently Organizing Cools the Planet: Tools and Reflections to Navigate the Climate Crisis, with Hilary Moore (PM Press 2011). He has helped win campaigns against banks, oil companies, logging corporations, and coal barons; worked with a wide variety of groups in a breadth of arenas, from local resiliency projects, to national coalitions, to the United Nations Climate Negotiations.

Zack Malitz, a New Yorker, thinks that fossil fuels belong underground.

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