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What is activism?

Defining activism: what is an activist?
6 min read
Last update: Mar 3, 2023

On this page we explain what activism is. We argue anyone can be an activist. Even though you might not refer to yourself as an ‘activist’, we believe this handbook can be useful for anyone who would like to achieve societal change.

What is activism?

At its most basic, activism means action taken to create social change. Clearly, this is very vague. We probably all agree that attending a climate protest is activism, but what about voting? Buying organic food? Challenging powerful people in your workplace? All of these things have been used as tactics to create social change, but are they activism?

To help us map-out this debate, let’s think of the different definitions of activism as answering the question “what actions does it include?” Answers to this question sit on a spectrum from the most to least inclusive; from the broadest to the narrowest.

Broad definitions

My definition of activism is… the practice of addressing an issue, any issue, by challenging those in power.

- Anjali Appadurai

In the above quote, Climate justice activist Anjali Appadurai defines activism as challenging authority. In the same Ted Talk, she includes the example of a junior doctor complaining about the medical malpractice of senior doctors as activism. This is an extremely broad definition that raises a number of questions. For example, depending on your interpretation, it may or may not imply that you can use shopping as a form of activism - a controversial debate in leftist and environmental movements. This is where our organic shopping example comes in.

Shops have to be a site not just of oppression but resistance – because they are the prime site of life.

- Neal Lawson

In this article from the New Internationalist, two activists debate whether shopping should be a form of activism. On the one hand, it is argued that in a society where shopping is so important, it is essential to make it a site of activism. On the other hand, it is argued that if we want to change society, then we need to grasp at the root of consumerism by creating and using alternatives. This debate is largely strategic, rather than definitional, but it's an interesting insight into the different understandings of what ‘activism’ can and should include.

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Narrow definitions

Activism is action on behalf of a cause, action that goes beyond what is conventional or routine.

- Brian Martin

One popular, narrower, definition of activism is that it only includes unconventional actions. However, as Brian Martin says, “the boundary between activism and conventional politics is fuzzy and depends on the circumstances”. For example, it is not immediately clear why Martin includes lobbying as conventional, (in representative democracies at least) but not protests. While Martin argues “activism” is only what is unconventional, the next definition argues to the contrary.

Activism ”fits into this society and doesn’t challenge it - activism is an accepted form of dissent.

- Anonymous author, libcom

In this anonymous Libcom article, the author rejects the term ‘activism’ partially because it includes only actions which are considered acceptable. While Martin argues that ‘activism’ only includes action that sits outside of conventions, this author argues that it is a problematic concept exactly because it fails to challenge what is conventional. This article is discussed in relation to the term ‘activist’ below.

Our understanding

For us, activism means collective efforts to create change from the grassroots.

- Activist Handbook

Clearly, there are many different understandings of ‘activism’, and sometimes they contradict each other. At Activist Handbook, we use this word a lot, so what do we mean? The best way to answer this question is to think about what activities our website is designed to support. For us, activism means collective efforts to create change from the grassroots. By collective, we mean any number of people working together. You don’t have to be an expert to do ‘activism’, and you don’t have to define as an ‘activist’ to create change. This very article is an example of activism - a collective act by a number of ordinary people who want to create change.

Who does activism?

Activist: A problematic term?

I don’t think the word activist should exist.

- Saffiyah Khan

‘Activist’ means somebody who does activism. Because of this, the term is debated for many of the same reasons as ‘activism’, as well as many more.

To carry on the earlier discussion of this anonymous libcom article, the author argues that ‘activist’ only applies to self-defined ‘experts’ of social change, which has a number of problems (only some of which are covered here). Firstly, this excludes the vast majority of people from creating social change. Secondly, it separates the activist from their community, framing them “as being somehow privileged or more advanced than others in [their] appreciation of the need for social change”. Finally, they argue that the understanding of the ‘activist’ tends to be associated with suffering and self-sacrifice, which makes activism miserable and makes the activists further separated from those who are perceived as having such a sacrifice.

Saffiyah Khan makes a similar argument in this TEDx talk entitled “Be active, not an activist”. She argues “I don’t think the word activist should exist”. Khan argues that everybody should be engaged and active with what is happening in their community so that we don’t need a specific term to restrict those who are more active.

Our response: Take the ‘expert’ out of ‘activism’

We want to help redefine ‘activist’ to a term that can include anyone who wants to work collectively to create social change.

- Activist Handbook

At Activist Handbook, we agree with the motivation behind Khan’s argument; everybody should be active, and we should intentionally avoid excluding people from being active. But we think ‘activist’ is a useful term for people who are trying to create change. We want to help redefine ‘activist’ to a term that can include anyone who wants to work collectively to create social change. You don’t have to be an expert, and you don’t have to spend every waking minute trying to do ‘activism’. You just have to be a person who wants to create change with other people.

Feeling like an Activist?

Personal is political

One of the first things we discover in these [discussion] groups is that personal problems are political problems. There are no individual solutions at this time, and only collective action can create a joint resolution.

- Carol Hanisch

People on the planet are being routinely convinced by the public discourse that the situation they find themselves in is inevitable, and that the suffering they feel is their own issue, but we know better. Organizing around activism helps people realize that personal suffering is a part of a larger collective struggle and that the truth is not an objective state of nature separate from our shared lived experiences. People who do activism reclaim their own agency in deciding what kind of world they want to live in. Activism helps us bridge the gap between what needs to be done and what our governments are willing to do so that we could live dignified lives.

Change is the victory of the people

Relatively small groups of people can have strong social impact through activism. Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo being just two of the most recent historical examples which have changed the way we think about identity, race, gender, and what is considered acceptable behavior in relationship to the people who live with those identities. Erica Chenoweth performed a study about non violent protests between 1900 and 2006 and found that every social movement that managed to mobilize more than 3.5 percent of population managed to overthrow a dictatorship*.

Importance of your voice

Speaking and listening are a form of psychic breathing.

- Carol Gilligan

You might be living in a so called “democratic state” but how much impact on the political reality do you actually have? Do people who represent your interests in the government actually listen to your needs? And how often do you listen to them? Being represented is not the same as having a voice. People whose job is to take care of others through already established (governmental, educational, medical, economic etc.) institutions often misinterpret the needs of the people they are supposed to provide services to. Activism gives us a platform to fight for common interests when our representatives fail us.


*Potentially biased. Research was funded by the U.S. State Department


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