Data for Equality: What is the Impact of Social Movements?

SFU Distinguished Professor challenges conventional thinking that diversity and identity politics weakens political activism.

Social justice movements play an important role in creating policy reforms and shifting social norms, but often face conflicts that mirror broader social struggles for equality and liberation. Social movements are often criticized for playing “identity politics” by emphasizing group marginalization and oppression, which commentators say lead to fragmentation within social movements which weakens them. However, emerging research is challenging this assumption.

Laurel Weldon, Distinguished Professor of political science at Simon Fraser University, is showing that emphasizing differences actually strengthens social movements and can ensure a movement’s persistence in the long run. Weldon is an internationally recognized scholar of gender, social movements and public policy who uses advanced statistical analyses of original datasets combined with field work in her research to show how and when women’s movements prompt government action to advance women’s rights.

With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Weldon’s team created a database of more than 8 million tweets using the #blacklivesmatter and #sayhername hashtags over the period from May 2015 to April 2016.

Weldon wanted to investigate how the #sayhername campaign, which called attention to the intersectional marginalization of Black women, impacted the broader #blacklivesmatter social movement. Applying network analysis to map engagement between the two movements revealed that the emergence of #sayhername increased engagement in the #blacklivesmatter movement. This showed that emphasizing differences does not lead to divided and weakened social movements. Difference is what strengthens social movements and encourages more active participation.

Just as with her past work, Weldon has established the importance of women’s movements in shaping women’s human rights, especially in the area of violence against women. Her book The Logics of Gender Justice: State Action on Women’s Rights Around the World broke new ground in the analyses and dataset on women’s rights and associated movements.

Women’s movements in civil society and protest movements are critical catalysts for government action on women’s rights” Weldon says. “They can be more important than electing women or left parties (in some cases) for advancing women’s rights.

Social movements give voice to the marginalized and disenfranchised people of the world and offer pathways to political representation. Movements like #sayhername bring to the forefront opportunities and challenges of advancing women’s rights in our modern age. That is why Weldon’s work is as important as ever.

“Women’s rights are so important, not just because they’re human rights, but also because they are critical for developing strong democracies, economies and families,” Weldon says. "Identifying patterns in movements like #blacklivesmatter helps us understand why governments sometimes seem to support significant advances in women’s rights in some areas, while rolling them back or failing to advance them in others.”

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