top of page

Choosing Tactics: Evidence from Social Movement Theory

Updated: Apr 5

This report could be useful for grassroots and ‘outside game’ animal advocacy organisations as well as more institutionalised (‘inside game’) organisations looking to improve their tactical diversity and innovation within the constraints that they operate under.

Authors: Max Carpendale


In the pursuit of social change, social movements have used a variety of tactics to attempt to reform institutions and change public opinion. Here we define tactics as specific methods that an organisation might use to whip up public support or apply political pressure when conducting a campaign towards a given ask

Social movement theorists often observe that campaign groups do not consider novel tactics often enough, preferring to default to tactics suggested by the tradition in which the group works and their identity as an organisation. However, this is unfortunate as tactics will be more effective when they are carefully chosen for the given context. In addition, continued tactical innovation as well as tactical diversity play important roles in keeping targeted institutions ‘on their feet’. Tactical diversity opens up multiple fronts of attack against target institutions while tactical innovation keeps the situation fresh and compelling for media coverage and prevents the targeted institutions from learning how to effectively counter the tactics used.

There are a variety of background factors that may predict which tactics will be more successful than others according to some limited experimental evidence. Unfortunately, the more granular evidence on the success rates of individual tactics does not exist, meaning that we can only make inferences from these background factors to the success rates of individual tactics. You can see the coded list of these tactics with some of our thoughts on them in the tactics spreadsheet. In the coded categories, one indicates top performance in that category and a five indicates bottom performance in that category.

The most significant grouping of these success factors is dWUNC which offers a framework for evaluating different tactics. According to this framework, tactics will be more successful according to how well they display diversity, worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment.


The evidence concerning the use of disruptive tactics is less clear, lessons from the social movement suggests that it may have its role to play within animal advocacy when used with care. However, more research is needed to figure out the cases where it is productive or counterproductive. In contrast, the evidence against the use of violent tactics is more clear-cut; they are less effective or outright counterproductive. 

This report could be useful for grassroots and ‘outside game’ animal advocacy organisations as well as more institutionalised (‘inside game’) organisations looking to improve their tactical diversity and innovation within the constraints that they operate under.

We remain significantly uncertain about conclusions. There has been relatively little scientific study of these questions, owing in part to substantial methodological difficulties. Some of these questions therefore fall to the informed judgements, either those of experts or our own  in some cases.


The full list of tactics we considered is available here. Most of these tactics were drawn from other sources (mostly Gene Sharp’s collated list) and collated together in this list (1). You can see our brief thoughts behind each of the tactics. We are not very confident in these thoughts, since there has been very little work evaluating the individual tactics from which to draw on. Instead, we present this list in the spirit of provoking thought on this issue and inspiring groups to be more innovative in their tactic selection. A rank of 1 indicates best performance in the category in question while 5 indicates worse performance.

Unfortunately, there is very little literature directly evaluating specific tactics to inform this research. More literature exists evaluating general features of different tactics, such as disruptive versus non-disruptive or violent versus non-violent. Much of this literature also concerns specifically protests, rather than tactics more broadly. However, other types of tactics share broad similarities with protests, so we think that extrapolation from this research to other tactics is reasonable (or at least the best we can do given the lack of evidence in this area). 

We initially set out to evaluate and strictly rank individual tactics, but, in part because of this lack of research, we later realised a broader report discussing the underlying basis of tactical choice would be more appropriate. This is because 1) the evidence does not exist at a level of granularity needed to evaluate individual tactics and 2) the value of tactics may be quite context dependent. While some tactics may generally not be good tactics or may not be suited to the animal advocacy context, in general, many tactics could usefully play a role, at least in some specific cases. 

We have not included violent tactics in the spreadsheet. Based on evidence and reasoning presented in the section “Violent versus nonviolent tactics”, we do not recommend the use of violent tactics.

Tactics may or may not have a direct (or material) impact. For example, a boycott can have a significant economic impact on the target independent of any secondary societal reactions or knock on effects from the boycott. However, many tactics have no direct effects (such as a protest) and for others (such as open rescues) the direct effects pale in significance with the indirect effects. In general then, we think the symbolic or indirect effects are more significant in the vast majority of cases.

We categorise the tactics based on our cursory assessment of their relative performance in different categories. This should not be taken as any strict ranking of the tactics, just the relative strength. We hope that this can help inform groups and organise the list based on best use cases. For example, organisations that are quite institutionalised will not want to use disruptive tactics with a higher rating in the risks category whereas these may be a relative strength for groups that work more outside of these systems.

The numbers used are drawn from our intuitive judgement, rather than derived from any strict or rigorous process. They should therefore be treated as rough assessments, groups own knowledge of activists motivations in their circles would likely be more accurate. We defined the coding categories as follows:

  • Pressure: This represents how costly the tactic makes it for institutions to maintain the status quo. This can be both through direct material consequences from the tactics, such as economic damages, or through indirect societal pressure.

  • Attention: This represents how salient the tactic makes the issue in the public mind, and particularly in the minds of important officials.

  • Convincingness: This represents the proportion of people who are won over as a result of the tactic (as opposed to just acquiescing to the demands through pressure).

  • Contextual action logic: This represents how much this tactic makes sense in the context of animal advocacy with particular attention to its action logic. Action logic refers to how much the action itself directly or symbolically implies the goal of the action. Tactics with high action logic will be more easily scrutable to the public and could be more likely to elicit sympathy rather than confusion (Beautiful Trouble n.d.).

  • High action logic in the context of animal advocacy would include open rescues where the goal and the method align.

  • Low action logic would be cases where the action does not transparently relate to the goal, such as throwing soup at a painting.

  • The value of action logic has not been studied in the literature on social change. Though it is implicitly valued by many of those carrying out actions as well as experts on the topic. Özden et al. (Özden, Rogers, and Wouters 2023) finds that, of the 40 experts surveyed for the question, 88% believe that actions with strong action logic are more likely to be effective than those without strong action logic.

  • Risks/negative externalities:  This represents the possible risks as well as expected negative consequences, such as harm to activists, financial risks, legal risks, reputational risks, and risks of repression. 

  • Resources needed: This represents how much is required in order to use a tactic in terms of financial resources, people mobilised, and capital required.


Though the literature on movement tactics selection (sometimes referred to as tactical repertoires or repertoires of contention) is quite shallow, some things can be said on this point. 

Each tactic has its distinctive benefits and trade-offs. Gene Sharp analogized them to weapons in the arsenal, with different tactics being strong options in different contexts. Having said this, tactics are often selected for reasons other than strategic cost benefit analysis. There are non-rational factors that influence the choice of tactics. 

The use of tactics tends to spread by diffusion across social movements and can therefore be slow because it is limited by the situations in which social movements come into contact with each other (Taylor and Van Dyke 2004; Wang and Soule 2012)

Many groups and social movements begin to use tactics when they become part of the identity of that social movement, rather than strategically considering which tactic might work best in their given context (Taylor and Van Dyke 2004)

For example, Larson (Larson 2013) notes the Christian cultural heritage of the Plowshares Movement “When nuns and priests in the Plowshares Movement poured blood and pounded hammers against nuclear weapons, they were communicating with a Christian audience by evoking the biblical story of the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 2:4) who prophesies a day when nations will “beat their swords into plowshares” and war will give way to peace.” Further, they may persist in using these tactics because of this cultural attachment, even after they have proved ineffective (Larson 2013)

This indicates that there is relatively little strategic reflection on tactical choice, and suggests that further reflection could be valuable, as the most effective tactics in a given context are unlikely to come about through diffusion or identity. However, important exceptions certainly accessed such as Otpor (Engler and Engler 2016).

Having said this, culturally resonant tactics may also tend to have higher action logic and have been argued to be more effective in engaging the public (Taylor and Van Dyke 2004), meaning that selecting tactics based on identity is not irrelevant to the impact of the selected tactics.

More broadly, social movement tactics often play a symbolic and expressive role for groups. In this way, tactics are chosen because they express the values of the group and what they are fighting for. The protest movement in this way serves as a microcosm of broader societal struggle, as well as the future that they are moving towards (Tufekci 2017)

Again, this can help the tactics of the group have higher action logic and more clearly express  the movement’s values, but there will be cases where there will be trade-offs between this and other strategic considerations that must be navigated. For example, a group may be reluctant to enter into negotiation and strategic compromise when given the opportunity by officials because a compromise solution will be imperfect as a statement of values. 

There are also several factors that influence how disruptive the tactics used will be. People from marginalised racial and ethnic groups have been found to use confrontational tactics more often (Taylor and Van Dyke 2004), perhaps because insider tactics are less available to them. Similarly, students have also been found to use confrontational and higher risk forms of protest. This may also be because of lower enfranchisement in the current system and because of fewer constraints associated with adulthood (Taylor and Van Dyke 2004)

Different theories have also been proposed on the waves that protest movements go through (Koopmans 1993). In particular, it has been proposed that there are (seemingly paradoxically) waves of both radicalisation and institutionalisation that protest movements go through (Taylor and Van Dyke 2004)

This may happen because of the different ways that institutions respond to pressure: through  integration or repression depending on the existing role of the group. Moderate groups are targeted for integration and radical groups are targeted for repression, leading respectively to further institutionalisation of the former and further radicalisation of the latter (Koopmans 1993)

Moderate groups can be integrated by giving them official power or at least a seat at the table. As they become integrated and institutionalised, advocacy groups will be less likely to use provocative tactics to avoid disrupting their new closer relationship to the levers of power. This can result in further integration as concessions from each side are traded and the two work increasingly closely.

Meanwhile, radical groups can be given the opposite treatment as they are repressed through punitive legislation, arrests, or police violence. Radical groups tend to use progressively more radical tactics as retaliation, as well as because insider tactics become increasingly out of reach. This can prompt further waves of repression followed in turn by retaliation by the radical groups.

Institutionalisation can also happen as groups grow in size and influence and insider tactics become available to them. This could be thought of as a move from the grassroots to professionalisation. To some extent this has happened in the animal advocacy context, with groups such as The Humane League going through significant professionalisation over time into a large animal advocacy organisation after grassroots beginnings (Odene and Özden 2023)

Meanwhile, radicalization can also happen as disruptive tactics begin to lose their shock value and increasingly more disruptive tactics are used to maintain the same level of pressure (Taylor and Van Dyke 2004). Simple frustration with the slow pace of progress may also lead to increasingly disruptive or even violent tactics, even in cases where this may be counterproductive. Alternatively, groups may use more disruptive tactics as retaliation for the repression that they experience (Taylor and Van Dyke 2004).

Wang and Piazza (Wang and Piazza 2016) analysed a dataset of 23,000 protest events to assess the situations under which a group will use more disruptive and violent tactics. These were drawn from the New York Times between the years 1960 and 1995. They found groups with relatively narrower aims will be more likely to use disruptive and violent tactics and groups with broader aims, aims that would naturally have more public support, will tend to use nonviolent tactics.

Though the study does not directly assess the internal motivations of the actors involved, they discuss different explanations that have been posed for these findings: 1) increasing professionalisation allows groups to use more insider tactics, which also preclude the use of more disruptive tactics by those same groups and 2) violent and disruptive tactics used by protest movements are often provoked by repression, including police violence, which  provokes a response in kind.

Interestingly, they also find that protests targeting state actors were 50% more likely to use disruptive tactics compared to those targeting nonstate actors (Wang and Piazza 2016). According to the hypothesis, this would be because disruptive tactics have a comparative advantage in applying pressure which is more useful in this context, versus public focused protests which may be relatively more concerned with public support. They view the decision to pursue these tactics as a strategic choice, potentially as one that may be strategically justified.

Finally, Ratcliff and Hall (Ratcliff and Hall 2014) write that the selection of tactics can be thought of as a kind of art. Typically this is true in two senses: “(1) literally, protest uses art and artistic practice (i.e., paintings, street theater, artistic displays, images, etc.) to challenge authority; and (2) metaphorically, protest is an ‘‘art form’’in the sense that the practice of protest is a skillful, strategic performance exhibiting sensory techniques that evoke and channel emotions for social and political change”.

This is true in the sense that the new tactic depends on the pre-existing scene and setting as well as the role that the new tactic has in completing that composition. Choosing tactics can then be seen as a kind of dramaturgy where different tactics should be chosen as elements in a composition, to work together to evoke a particular emotional response from the viewer and a particular substantive response from society. Tactical diversity could then be seen as valuable because different tactics have different artistic dimensions and will evoke different emotions, and the overuse of the same tactic could therefore be a monotonous performance.


Innovative tactics may take the target by surprise, compared to more traditional tactics that institutions may have learned how to counter. Innovative tactics may also garner more media attention because they fall outside of the status quo and are therefore more interesting to the public. But tactics can also be innovative in the sense not that they are completely new, but that they are well fitted to the current context, perhaps being repurposed from their use in the context of a different social movement.

Similarly, a diverse range of tactics may contribute to overwhelming the targeted institutions by attacking them on multiple fronts simultaneously. This can give the feeling of a large, coordinated campaign, which in turn may receive more media attention. Additionally, using a diverse range of tactics can allow greater mobilisation by presenting a range of possible ways for people to get involved.

We consider two case analyses as part of this: McAdam (McAdam 1983) and Morris (Morris 1993), which retrospectively analyse the value of tactical innovation and tactical diversity. 

McAdam (McAdam 1983) analyses the strategic interplay between tactical innovation by Black activists versus repression by white segregationists between 1955 and 1970. This was done through analysing and coding a total of 12,000 New York Times news articles on the subject during that period. He argues that there is a cycle of repression as dominant institutions learn how to counter in use tactics, which in turn necessitates the use of new tactics which institutions do not yet know how to effectively counter. 

He argues that the success or failure of an insurgency will be driven by how well the protest movement uses tactical innovation compared with how well the institutions adapt and effectively counter each innovation. 

He argues that the most significant success of this tactical innovation is the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 to 1956. Buses at this time were segregated between Black and white sections, but received 70-75% of their income from Black ridership. There was then a massive gulf between their level of institutionalised power and their level of economic power, and the mobilisation of 90-95% of the Black population of Montgomery for this boycott allowed this to be felt. 

In 1956 the Supreme Court ruled that segregation of buses in Montgomery was unconstitutional, and five weeks later they were formally desegregated. However, they merely switched to allocating seats based on ‘public safety’, which they conveniently argued implied segregation in practice.

Though the Black community had of course been struggling for civil rights in the US for many years before, the tactical innovation of an economic boycott was successful enough that it marked the beginning of the civil rights movement in the popular imagination. However, there was soon a crackdown against this protest method, which in turn necessitated further innovation.

Morris (Morris 1993) presents another model of the value of using multiple tactics. He argues that multiple tactics can be used in a dynamic fashion, with multiple tactics deployed in quick succession to overwhelm authorities on multiple fronts and create a sense of social crisis. 

He models this after the 1963 Civil Rights confrontation in Birmingham, Alabama. This is one of the most important victories in civil rights history, because of the victory achieved despite previously being the most segregated city in America. He argues that it was successful because of the multiple tactics used and the overall level of mobilisation achieved. 

In addition to the main tactic which was an economic boycott of the city, they staged “sit-ins, mass marches, picketing, mass arrests to fill the local jails, defiance of court injunctions prohibiting demonstrations, and media coverage to generate favorable public opinion.” In addition, Some more innovative tactics were used including “Tactical innovations in the Birmingham campaign included defying court injunctions, conducting kneel-ins in churches, varying the times of demonstrations in order to surprise social control agents, utilizing decoy groups, setting off false fire alarms, and staging demonstrations from sites not anticipated by the authorities”

Their goal in using multiple tactics was in combination to generate a social crisis that could not be ignored. This was done in sequence to build a kind of social drama. Employing different tactics in sequence appear to be quite helpful in focusing maximum pressure. The earlier acts of civil disobedience leading to mass arrests also filled the jail cells, making further arrests difficult, though this may have further encouraged the police towards violence against subsequent protesters.

Of note is that, though the Black population in Birmingham, Alabama at this time was extremely marginalised, they represented 250,000 of the total population of 600,000, which is many times more people than animal advocates could count on for similar actions.

Several other cases also provide evidence on the value of tactical diversity and innovation:

  • Glover (Glover 2022) studied the case of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty and found that tactical innovation was highly useful in the case, allowing a diverse range of advocates to get involved in their work. The exception to this is their use of extreme – including occasionally violent – actions which were likely to have been counterproductive to their goals. It should be noted that they were ultimately unsuccessful.

  • Piazza and Wang (Piazza and Wang 2020) analyse the data behind the success or failure of multiple anti-nuclear campaigns, finding that greater tactical diversity was associated with higher rates of success. 

  • McCammon (McCammon 2012) analyses the case of women’s jury movements in the US, finding that tactical innovation was associated with success in the states that used them. They found that in many states there was an initial period of stagnation, when only slow progress was made as the same tactics were tried over and over again, but that this was often followed by a “tactical turnabout” where movements began to be more strategic and employ more tactical innovation.

Our analysis of the literature suggests that there are advantages to the movement engaging in more tactical innovation as well as more tactical diversity (2). This may be true both of the movement as a whole as well as within individual orgs. Having said this, the evidence on this point is not strong. It is mostly borne out by case study analysis as well as conventional wisdom in the study of social movements.

To clarify, tactical diversity could come at the level of an individual organisation pursuing a variety of tactics, though to the extent to which these tactics are very different and require different skill sets, organisational focus, and organisational branding, it is better if it is carried out by multiple organisations together creating a robust movement ecology. 


The seminal framework for understanding social movement success is the WUNC framework put forward by Tilly et al. (Tilly, Castañeda, and Wood 2019). According to this framework, the degree to which a movement is seen as worthy, united, numerous and committed is vital to its success. Protests and other tactics should then be organised in such a way so as to maximise the display of these characteristics. These can be defined as follows:

  • Worthy: noble and virtuous. People whose motives for the protest cannot be easily dismissed and who cannot easily be ridiculed.  

  • United: sharing a common voice and purpose; not easily divided or reduced to infighting. 

  • Numbers: the protesters are not a small subsection of society who can be easily dismissed. 

  • Commitment: the protesters demonstrate determination and doggedness through sacrifices that they make to the cause and through regular organising. 

Finally, Wouters and Walgrave (Wouters and Walgrave 2017a) adds diversity as a fifth feature which we will consider here, creating the dWUNC framework.

  • Diverse: the protesters come from a broad spectrum of society, not a small, isolated special interest group that can be easily dismissed. 

Tactics can then be evaluated according to how well they display these characteristics. 

Wouters and Walgrave (Wouters and Walgrave 2017a) suggest that it may be difficult to optimise for all of these traits at the same time because there may be trade-offs between them.  For example, as you mobilise more people you can expect the level of commitment to be diluted. They suggest that low scorers in some aspects of the framework may be compensated for by high scores in other aspects. 

In this way, the total value of the tactic could then (roughly) be conceptualised as the multiplicative product of the value of the five components, with very low scores on any factors being highly detrimental or fatal to the success of the action, but otherwise with significant compensation being possible between the factors of the framework, but that extremely low scores may be difficult to compensate for (e.g a drunken mob will not be seen as worthy and therefore not be taken as a reasonable political force).  

An important consideration is that a significant proportion of the impact of many tactics may come from their subsequent media portrayal, which is significantly more difficult for activists  to sculpt and control. For example, unfavourable media could focus on a smaller number of young men who match the stereotype of radical activists, thereby portraying the movement as  unworthy, not numerous, and not diverse. Cultivating relationships with the media and generally paying attention to likely angles in which the tactic could be covered, may help to improve the coverage (CARE 2022).

The framework has seen some experimental testing, such as (Wouters and Walgrave 2017b),  which generally supported the framework, in addition to some testing of the components of the framework (Özden and Glover 2023), which will be discussed in the individual sections. For more discussion of the evidence regarding the framework, see What Makes a Protest Movement Successful? (Özden and Glover 2023).

dWUNC: Diverse 

Tactics can display the diversity of a movement by including a broad cross-section of society in the action and by amplifying their salience within the action. 

There is some significant overlap between numbers and diversity, as these two are highly correlated. Many ways of increasing one may in turn increase the other. However, there are some things in particular that could be done to increase diversity: 

  1. In order to make actions as diverse as possible, tactics are as accessible and inclusive as possible. This is in addition to general justice considerations for doing so, as well as in order to maximise the number of people participating in the tactics.

  2. Diversity may also attract more diversity as people come to view the demographics as represented in the movement and participation comes to be seen as possible by them.

The evidence assessing the importance of diversity as a predictor of tactic success is limited as it is mostly not based on experimental evidence. Ozden and Glover (Özden and Glover 2023) identified only two studies in their literature review on the subject. 

dWUNC: Worthy

This part of the framework is about displaying moral character and intrinsic moral value, whether through valued societal rank or through innocence. Worthy individuals cannot be easily dismissed or ridiculed as simply being grifters or troublemakers. Displaying worthiness therefore demands a more serious engagement with the claims of those involved in the tactic.

Protesters can display the worthiness of the participants by featuring worthy groups such as women and children, by having respectable dress and demeanour, by not using tactics that are gimmicky or unserious (Sentience Institute 2019), and by not using tactics that are ‘beyond the pale’. The specifics of what counts as worthy will vary by culture and region; however, some common worthy groups include mothers with children, respected elders, and religious figures.

There is an inherent tension in displaying worthiness in social movement tactics and protest since these inevitably involve a stand against the significant aspect of the establishment. The key is to not make it any easier to dismiss the demands of the movement as being criminal or deviant. However, the use of more disruptive tactics may inevitably involve a trade-off in reducing the perceived worthiness of the participants. Conversely, the use of comparatively brutal methods of repression by authorities will enhance the perceived worthiness of the movement.

dWUNC: United

A united social movement moves as one with a common voice and purpose. Displaying unity suggests to its targets that the movement will not waste energy on infighting and that it will not be possible to divide it or force schisms. Additionally, presenting a unified task gives more signal clarity; there will be less risk of confusion about what the movement actually wants. This makes it clear what institutions need to do to satisfy the movement, and could therefore make it more likely to achieve that ask. A consensus may also be more convincing, as widespread agreement indicates the protesters may have a more compelling case and may be part of a changing world tide.

Tactics can display unity by having synchronised movements, chanting, or by wearing a common uniform, symbol or colour. In general terms, to display unity you should move and act as one. There may be some inherent trade-off between displays of unity and displays of diversity, though it is still possible to have diverse demographic groups broadly united in these ways.

There is some experimental verification of the value of unity, with at least three studies finding that it has some value (Özden and Glover 2023).

dWUNC: Numerous 

Protests that very successfully display the numbers can therefore begin to make claims towards majority support. For each person who protests we can expect that there are others who share their views (though perhaps more moderately) but simply decided not to protest.  Therefore each person mobilised for a tactic sends a strong signal of even stronger latent support. 

In addition to boots on the ground, numbers can be represented in other ways such as looking at the number of calls received, the number of post shares or likes, and the number of signatures on a petition.

Tactics can display the size of the movement by mobilising more people for the action, by concentrating the movement together in a single location, or by choosing a form of tactic that naturally shows and accentuates the number of people involved. Out of these, the first is perhaps more important, especially since the number of people mobilised will also be helpful in making sure the tactic is performed successfully.

In their review of the literature, Social Change Lab (Özden and Glover 2023) finds that “numbers is likely to be one of the most important factors in determining success”. They also found that displaying numerosity is probably even important for influencing politicians, who may rise or fall precisely by the number of people who choose to act politically against them. 

dWUNC: Committed 

Social movements can show commitment by organising regularly and by performing costly actions (whether emotionally, socially, financially, or physically). They may also show commitment generally by appearing disciplined, such as not being on phones and not smoking or drinking. This can also extend to showing discipline by maintaining strict nonviolence and not being flustered or provoked by authorities or bystanders. 

Tactics that rely on gimmicks or stunts for popular attention display less commitment as  these represent a distraction from the serious moral topic at hand (Jacy 2018). It may suggest  opportunism or lack of principle.  

Commitment of this kind represents a kind of moral seriousness. It shows that those involved care deeply about the issue and this can prompt more serious reflection from those witnessing the tactic. This may help to convince other people that their cause is one worth taking seriously, as well as demonstrating that any disruption or damage caused by the movement is done for a significant reason, not lightly.

That there may be some tension between the level of commitment and the level of diversity  as older, less physically able, or less privileged demographics may be less able to make costly sacrifices or risk physical danger. However, since some of these demographics (such as older people) face greater barriers to mobilising in the first place and are less likely to do so, their mere presence demonstrates a higher level of commitment.

There has been less experimental evidence supporting commitment than some of the other components of this framework.


Violent versus nonviolent tactics

In summary, we adamantly recommend against the use of violent tactics.

According to systematic analysis of social movements by Chenoweth and Stephan (Stephan and Chenoweth 2008), non-violent campaigns are twice as likely to succeed than violent ones. Though there are some detractors to this claim, it is overall one of the best supported and most studied claims in the literature. 

There have been many reasons proposed why this may be the case, but the chief reason suggested by the authors is that violent campaigns have considerably lower mobilisation than nonviolent campaigns. The barrier to entry for violent campaigns is considerably higher because you have to be willing to hurt or kill others and risk being hurt or killed in return. You must also be physically capable of winning these fights.

Analysing this in terms of the dWUNC framework, violent campaigns might substantially reduce diversity, worthiness, and numbers mobilised while substantially increasing commitment. This is unlikely to be a worthwhile trade-off.

Unlike other forms of tactics, violent tactics have a serious incompatibility with other tactics,  which means they do not have a useful role to play. Many other tactics rely on the use of a kind of ‘political jujitsu’ whereby the much stronger physical force of the state is used as leverage against itself, because any crackdown against innocent, nonviolent protesters looks comically villainous in comparison (Engler and Engler 2016). In contrast, violent action abandons the moral high ground and moves to fight the targeted institutions in the terrain where they have an overwhelming physical advantage. 

Many nonviolent tactics, such as civil disobedience or forms of protest, rely on the government not responding with overwhelming force. For example, a blockade relies on people stopping the vehicles to avoid hitting the people doing the blockade and on police  showing some restraint and simply beating the activists aside. If tactics such as this are used in combination with the use of violent tactics by other groups, the nonviolent tactics may cease to be effective and activists may be endangered. In this way, the strategic logic of violence and nonviolent tactics are at odds.

To the extent to which force is used by the targeted institutions, these tactics rely on those institutions paying a cost in terms of societal legitimacy by resorting to violence against the comparatively innocent target. This logic no longer works if the movement at large can be tarnished as violent.

The actions of governments themselves show that in some cases they are willing to go to considerable lengths to encourage the movement to abandon the moral high ground. The historical use of agent provocateurs by government to attempt to induce the social movements to commit violent acts itself represents evidence against the effectiveness of violence (Engler and Engler 2016). It suggests that activists who use violent means are playing right into the hands of the institutions they are working against. 

Violent approaches may exert more pressure on the target in the short term, such as to achieve a specific concrete objective, but likely happens through coercion rather than by convincing the people involved in terms of their own values. In such a situation, the person may revert to the previous practice once the pressure is lifted and may be no more likely (or even less likely if there is a backlash effect) to support animals in the future. In Machiavelli’s terminology, this could be conceptualised as the difference between being loved and feared (Machiavelli 2015). Given the very limited powers that the animal advocacy movement currently has and its comparative advantage, it may be better to be loved than feared. 

There are some preliminary reasons for also extending this prohibition against the forms of property destruction. Though many theorists on the topic make a sharp distinction between violence and property destruction (Sharp 2010), the use of force against property has been coded as violent in many studies, therefore some of this literature also provides evidence against its use (Özden and Glover 2023). Research that does not conflate these two would be needed to pull these apart and establish that property destruction does not also carry these risks. 

The use of force against other people’s property may be interpreted as violence in the minds of many people (Delmas and Brownlee 2021). Though they may morally be very different, there is some incidental association. In some acts of destruction of property, especially buildings or cars, people may inadvertently be injured or killed. 

There may also be some psychological connection between the actions. A person who is willing to take a sledgehammer to a car or plant explosives in a building may have fewer psychological barriers to also be violent towards people (Engler and Engler 2016). Having said this, there is no necessary connection between these two things and some protest movements in the past have successfully threaded this needle.

It may be better and more effective to inflict economic damage through actions that do not scare people, make them believe that you may be violent in the future, or carry risk of physically harming anyone, even indirectly (Source: expert interviews). Examples of this include blockades or occupations. The test for this may be that if you can imagine an innocent, but morally outraged, child doing the action, then it is acceptable.

Ultimately, this is also a lesson that the animal advocacy movement seems to have learned. Towards the end of the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, there was a period of self-reflection among the activists involved. They found themselves isolated from others in the animal rights movement as a new generation of activists became involved. Those involved with SHAC became convinced of a need for focusing on public support (Ellefsen and Busher 2020). This sentiment can also be seen earlier in the movement’s history with some Animal Liberation Front prisoners coming to regret their choice of tactics (Ellefsen and Busher 2020), as well as the dearth of other animal groups attempting violent tactics since that time.

Disruptive versus moderate approaches

In contrast with violent approaches, some level of confrontation seems important in many contexts in order to apply more pressure and be heard. Metaphorically, it can be thought of as a social movement raising its voice. Confrontational tactics have seemingly played an important role in the victory of many past social movements (Engler and Engler 2016) (3) although experimental evidence on it so far has been mixed (though so far only immediate and short-term effects of social events have been studied). 

Some have argued if there is a trade-off between more confrontational approaches that draw much more attention but may be less persuasive to those who hear the message, and more moderate approaches which may have smaller audiences but alienate fewer of them.

Feinberg (Feinberg, Willer, and Kovacheff 2017) is one source that has advocated for this position. They found empirical confirmation of the receptivity to extreme messaging. In some of their studies the public were shown vignettes describing protest actions varying from “moderate”, “extreme” and “highly extreme.” People who were shown the “extreme” and “highly extreme” vignettes registered lower support for the causes advocated for by the protesters. This effect seemed to be mediated by how much the public identified with the movement and could see themselves engaging in that form of protest.

They suggest that this means that advocates may want to find the sweet spot between confrontational tactics that generate more attention and media coverage and more moderate tactics that generate better responses in each member of the public who hears about them, such as if it is perceived constructively (Shuman et al. 2021).

In the context of Black activism against white segregationists, McAdam (McAdam 1983) argues that the use of non-institutionalised tactics is necessitated by needing to work outside the system, where the institutions currently derive their power.

Another downside to more disruptive tactics is the potential for state repression making  future efforts more costly. For example, Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil protests in the UK have been met with progressively heavy handed responses in recent years. This culminated in The Police, Crimes, and Sentencing Courts Act of 2022, which allows heavier sentences for many types of protest (for causing a ‘public nuisance’), as well as expanding stop and search powers for protests (Walter 2023).

Ellefsen and Busher (Ellefsen and Busher 2020) analyses this in the context of the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign. SHAC claimed to be a non-violent group, but some violent tactics were used by some members of the group including “setting fire to cars in people’s driveways, throwing bricks through the windows of their houses, disseminating malicious rumors and threatening to harm people’s children.” 

Table 1:

Benefits of disruptive tactics

Benefits of non-disruptive tactics

Greater public attention

Much lower risk of backlash/alienation

Much lower risk of repression

More pressure

Can give you a seat at the table

Stronger statement of values

Allows higher mobilisation

Özden et al. (Özden, Rogers, and Wouters 2023) surveys 120 social change experts on a number of different aspects of what makes protest successful. They find that 69% of experts surveyed say that the strategic use of disruptive tactics plays an important role in making protests successful. Note that this does not mean that they think that any disruptive tactic will be effective in any context, just that disruptive tactics have an important role to play for many social movements. 

However, when specifically asked about social movements with both low awareness and low public support (like the farmed animal advocacy movement) the percentage answering that strategic use of disruptive tactics is important drops to 48%, with 42% saying that it was at least somewhat ineffective towards this goal.

The experts were also asked about the effect of disruptive and non disruptive protests in the animal advocacy context respectively on the outcome measures of "higher salience in public discourse", "movement building", public opinion", "support from influential individuals", "government policy", "people's behaviour and choices", "corporate behaviour", and "supportive media coverage". 

Of these factors, disruptive protests only had more agreement that they were effective in the outcome measure of "higher salience in public discourse", with the other measures having more agreement of efficacy for non-disruptive protests. They should not be read as expert agreement that disruptive tactics should not be used in animal advocacy context, since they may still have a useful role to play, even if in most contexts nondisruptive tactics are more effective. Still, we take this as a significant update away from disruptive tactics in the context of animal advocacy.

Radical flank effect

We should also consider the radical flank effect which may be important in this case. The most valuable evidence on the radical flank effect that we have seen comes from Social Change Lab (Özden and Ostarek 2022). This was a study of the Just Stop Oil action to block the M25 motorway, a large motorway surrounding London and one of the busiest roads in the UK. This was done to promote awareness and action for climate change.

The study was conducted by surveying 1715 members of the public following up with 1415 of them over the same month just following the Just Stop Oil action. Among those surveyed they found 1) an increase in awareness of just Stop Oil from 87% of those surveyed to 92%, 2) an increased support for Friends of the Earth (4), and 3) increased support for climate policies in general.

However, concerning 3) they note that the study also took place over the period of COP27. As such, attributing the effects of the protest could be difficult, since the climate change conference could also be expected to affect people’s view of the issue. To try and isolate this they examined the relationship in the data between knowing about Just Stop oil and support for Friends of the Earth.

Note that this study also provides a sort of test for the tactic of blocking motorways. Namely,  to provide some evidence that it can help provide a radical flank effect, but not that it  increases public support for the cause.

Simpson et al. (2022) conducted two online experiments assessing the radical flank effect, one with climate change activism vignette and another with an animal advocacy vignette. They found that a flank employing radical tactics increases support for moderate groups through a contrast effect. That is to say, the moderate group comes to seem less extreme in comparison and so more worthy of support. Radical tactics created a radical flank effect, but radical agendas did not.

In the animal advocacy context, the radical group was portrayed as having “had traffic and prevented entry into the offices of meat producers, and “doused streets and meat delivery trucks with the blood and entrails of animals slaughtered in factory farms”. This is contrasted with the moderate faction which were described as performing “peaceful demonstrations and marches around cities, and organizing teach-ins”. This study is interesting for having specifically used an animal advocacy vignette, as well as for trying to explain the factor underlying the radical flank effect (the contrast).


If there is some strategic promise in disruptive tactics, the case of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty Suggests that it is certainly possible to go too far in this direction. That is to say, tactics may be too extreme, even if they fall short of violence (Glover 2022).

Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty was an organisation that campaigned against Huntingdon Life Sciences, the largest animal testing organisation in Europe, for their exploitation of animals (Glover 2022).

The entire campaign had some successes, with significant divestment happening to Huntington. The direct economic damage to the company vandalism and security costs were also reported by the company at 12.6 million (Peachey 2014). However, this was a very large campaign conducted over 17 years (from 1997 until it petered out in 2014). It was conducted against a company that was conducting horrifying experiments on dogs, an issue where you would expect a large amount of intrinsic public support and expect many tactics to be successful. 


Some of these extreme tactics include directly targeting employees of Huntingdon for harassment and property destruction, including at the houses where children were present. Unsurprisingly, a poll regarding the case found that “Eighty-eight per cent of those questioned said threatening to circulate names and addresses of targets was unreasonable and 95% said that vandalism was completely unacceptable” (Upton 2012).

This can be seen in response to the release of It’s A Dog’s Life in 1997. This documentary  could be considered to have started the SHAC campaign, but more successfully than later campaign efforts. Of which (Upton 2012) writes: “It triggered political furore. The Home Office, the government department responsible for regulating all UK animal testing, temporarily suspended HLS, pending investigation. Two staff members were subsequently dismissed and convicted of animal cruelty charges.” If an investigative documentary was able to accomplish this much, we would have hoped that a further 17 years of campaigning against the company, including the use of very risky and costly tactics, would accomplish significantly more.

Moreover, exerting pressure on a company is something that we would expect extreme tactics to have a comparative advantage in, so this represents an especially poor showing for extreme tactics.  

Having said this, SHAC made some key decisions that could have led to their failure which groups with other extreme tactics may not necessarily need to follow. The first of this was refusing to negotiate or open up communication channels between them and Huntingdon Life Sciences. They viewed their position as absolutely against the exploitation of animals, and saw dialogue as antithetical to this ethical stance.

We can also see the cost associated with these tactics in the large numbers of arrests and ultimately jail time faced by the activists such as the nine year prison sentences that two of the founders, Heather Nicholson and Gregg Avery, received (Glover 2022).


Carefully considering choice in tactics is important because, according to the limited literature, tactical innovation and tactical diversity play important roles in keeping targeted institutions ‘on their feet’, preventing media acclimatisation, and creating a sense of impending crisis. For this reason, we recommend that organisations consider decisions on which tactics to use as live choices between a number of options.

Choice in tactics is highly context dependent making any strict assessments or rankings of tactics very difficult. Combined with the dearth of evidence assessing the efficacy of particular tactics, any such project is unjustified at this time. Instead we have coded tactics according to the broader literature and given our thoughts on their use. While for some of the framework of the evidence is limited, the dWUNC framework offers one of the best frameworks for evaluating tactics and should be considered by campaigning groups.

Disruptive tactics most likely have a role to play for outside game groups, as we have seen with many past social movements, but they should be done very carefully. This is also an important remaining uncertainty and productive subject to research, since groups can be tempted to try increasingly disruptive tactics, and at some point these tactics may be overall harmful for the movement. In contrast, the literature on the use of violent tactics, is perhaps the clearest significant finding in the literature. Violent tactics are less effective than nonviolent tactics. For more detailed thoughts and conclusions about particular tactics, refer to the tactics spreadsheet.

We have significant remaining uncertainties owing especially to the relative nascency of systematic and empirical study of factors in social event success. Of this variety of remaining uncertainties, one of the most significant is the value of disruptive tactics. We believe they may have an important role to play in some cases; however, we remain quite uncertain about how widely they should be used because of the risk of backfire and backlash that they can cause. Getting a better sense of their use cases is particularly valuable, so that an important line is not crossed.


Much more remains to be said about adapting this research into practice and successfully implementing different tactics.  Here are a number of further resources, especially resources focusing more on practical implementation.


1. Our taxonomy often differs from Sharp’s, but there is very substantial overlap. List of tactics will always vary in length depending on whether those making the lists are ‘lumpers’ or ‘splitters’. Sharp’s full list can be found here, alongside case studies of their use. We recommend that advocates examine relevant case studies before adopting a tactic.

2. Note that ‘tactical diversity’ is sometimes used as a euphemism for being open to pursuing violent tactics. This is not the sense in which we mean this and we adamantly recommend against violent tactics. In fact, violent tactics are incompatible with other tactics, such as blockading motorways, which would put the blocking activists at great risk if this were used alongside violent tactics.

3. Note however that in their spreadsheet summarising conclusions from case studies, Sentience Institute finds that many of their case studies were not particularly confrontational. They rank the average as a 3.8 where a 1 is most confrontational and 5 is least confrontational.

4. Friends of the Earth is an umbrella organisation representing an international grassroots network of moderate environmentalist groups.


Beautiful Trouble. n.d. “Action Logic.” Beautiful Trouble. Accessed July 16, 2023.

CARE. 2022. “CARE 2022 | Andrzej Pazgan | A Newsroom’s Look on Investigations.” Youtube. October 13, 2022.

Delmas, Candice, and Kimberley Brownlee. 2021. “Civil Disobedience.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Winter 2021. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

Ellefsen, Rune, and Joel Busher. 2020. “The Dynamics of Restraint in the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty Campaign.” Perspectives on Terrorism 14 (6): 165–79.

Engler, Mark, and Paul Engler. 2016. This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century. Bold Type Books.

Feinberg, Matthew, Robb Willer, and Chloe Kovacheff. 2017. “Extreme Protest Tactics Reduce Popular Support for Social Movements.” Rotman School of.

Glover, Sam. 2022. “Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty: Case Study.” SCL.

Jacy, Reese. 2018. “3 Big Changes We Need in the Farmed Animal Movement.” Sentience Institute. 2018.

Koopmans, Ruud. 1993. “The Dynamics of Protest Waves: West Germany, 1965 to 1989.” American Sociological Review 58 (5): 637–58.

Larson, Jeff A. 2013. “Social Movements and Tactical Choice.” Sociology Compass 7 (10): 866–79.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. 2015. The Prince. HarperCollins.

McAdam, Doug. 1983. “Tactical Innovation and the Pace of Insurgency.” American Sociological Review 48 (6): 735–54.

Morris, Aldon D. 1993. “Birmingham Confrontation Reconsidered: An Analysis of the Dynamics and Tactics of Mobilization.” American Sociological Review 58 (5): 621–36.

Odene, Amy, and James Özden. 2023. “David Coman-Hidy on Welfare vs Abolitionism and Promising Strategies to Help Animals.” Podcast Website. 2023.

Özden, James, and Sam Glover. 2023. “What Makes a Protest Movement Successful.” SCL.

Özden, James, and Markus Ostarek. 2022. “The Radical Flank Effect of Just Stop Oil.” Social Change Lab.

Özden, James, Cathy Rogers, and Ruud Wouters. 2023. “Social Change and Protests.” Apollo Surveys. 2023.

Peachey, Paul. 2014. “Animal Rights Group Ends 15-Year Campaign against Experiments at Huntingdon.” The Independent, August 24, 2014.

Piazza, A., and D. J. Wang. 2020. “Claim Specialization, Tactical Diversity and the Protest Environment in the Success of US Antinuclear Activism.” Mobilization: An International.

Ratliff, Thomas N., and Lori L. Hall. 2014. “Practicing the Art of Dissent: Toward a Typology of Protest Activity in the United States.” Humanity & Society 38 (3): 268–94.

Sentience Institute. 2019. “Summary of Evidence for Foundational Questions in Effective Animal Advocacy.” Sentience Institute. 2019.

Shuman, Eric, Tamar Saguy, Martijn van Zomeren, and Eran Halperin. 2021. “Disrupting the System Constructively: Testing the Effectiveness of Nonnormative Nonviolent Collective Action.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 121 (4): 819–41.

Simpson, Brent, Robb Willer, and Matthew Feinberg. 2022. “Radical Flanks of Social Movements Can Increase Support for Moderate Factions.” PNAS Nexus 1 (3): gac110.

Stephan, Maria J., and Erica Chenoweth. 2008. “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” International Security 33 (1): 7–44.

Taylor, V., and N. Van Dyke. 2004. “‘Get Up, Stand Up’: Tactical Repertoires of Social Movements.” Companion to Social Movements.

Tilly, Charles, Ernesto Castañeda, and Lesley J. Wood. 2019. Social Movements, 1768 - 2018. Routledge.

Tufekci, Zeynep. 2017. Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. Yale University Press.

Upton, A. 2012. “‘Go On, Get out There, and Make It Happen’: Reflections on the First Ten Years of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC).” Parliamentary Affairs 65 (1): 238–54.

Walter, Natasha. 2023. “‘They’ve Taken Away My Freedom’: The Truth about the UK State’s Crackdown on ​protesters.” The Guardian, February 5, 2023.

Wang, Dan J., and Alessandro Piazza. 2016. “The Use of Disruptive Tactics in Protest as a Trade-Off: The Role of Social Movement Claims.” Social Forces; a Scientific Medium of Social Study and Interpretation 94 (4): 1675–1710.

Wang, Dan J., and Sarah A. Soule. 2012. “Social Movement Organizational Collaboration: Networks of Learning and the Diffusion of Protest Tactics, 1960–1995.” The American Journal of Sociology 117 (6): 1674–1722.

Wouters, Ruud, and Stefaan Walgrave. 2017a. “What Makes Protest Powerful? Reintroducing and Elaborating Charles Tilly’s WUNC Concept.”

———. 2017b. “Demonstrating Power: How Protest Persuades Political Representatives.” American Sociological Review 82 (2): 361–83.


bottom of page