How Do We Do Advocacy?

24 Apr

Fellow STAND members like myself  perform advocacy almost every day.  We write blog posts, prepare one-pagers, discuss foreign policy issues, analyze news, and hold events to amplify our voices.  We do this to contribute to the reduction of violence against civilians and in that hope that, maybe one day, we will end mass atrocities.  But how do we execute this advocacy?  What factors influence the development of policy or the discourse we use?  To borrow a Marxist analogy, ideology forms the base of advocacy.  When we enter advocacy, ideology (or moral beliefs) is what initially drives us.  However our advocacy, unless we wish to be totally marginalized, cannot be entirely ideological.  Therefore, we allow our advocacy to be shaped by strategic, environmental, and institutional pressures that form the superstructure.  Ultimately, the base and superstructure interact with each other to form the manner in which we carry out advocacy.

While our a priori beliefs are essential for motivation to pursue advocacy, advocates quickly encounter a constraint.  In order to perform advocacy, advocates must present their ideas to an audience, and also quickly learn that to most effectively do so, they must shape their ideas, channeled through discourse, in a way that is accepted by the audience.  This however, immediately presents a dilemma.  What if the audience is full of libertarian isolationists?   Saying that the United States should withdraw as much as possible from the United Nations and foreign affairs would compromise our ideology as STAND advocates, but saying the opposite would not be well received by the audience.  Therefore, when advocates must engage with an audience, they weigh the pros and the cons to come to the most desirable outcome.  However, strategy is not simply limited to picking a position that will cause the audience to react in the desired way.  In fact, it is more about presenting the underlying ideology via well-planned discourse in a way  that conforms to the audiences expectations and inclinations.  (While advocates generally attempt to please their target audience because it correlates with getting what they want, pushing individuals into performing specific actions is almost always the final goal.)  Advocates must also be careful to present our ideology in a discourse that will not come back to bite them later.  Therefore, as individual advocates interact with multiple audiences over time,  ideology and the way they present it in discourse become hardened.  As advocates’ positions become more accepted, they have less need to win over every audience.  Conversely, as advocacy reaches more people, audiences’ a priori beliefs about advocates and their ideas become more positive.

Though ideology forms the base of advocates’ actions, it by no means exists in a vacuum or a freezer.  The development of ideology, and advocates’ reasons for becoming advocates, is strongly (if not totally) influenced by their environment, and once people become advocates, their ideology is shaped by their social, familial, and intellectual contexts.  Again, advocates encounter the audience/strategy dilemma, and while they may not intend to present their ideas in the same way they would in a formal capacity, engaging in conversations in informal contexts still requires strategic thinking and intellectual reconsideration of ideas.  This informal discourse also ultimately influences ideological development.  However, as with ideology and audience, the interaction between ideology and environment goes both ways.   Ideology, manifested in discourse and actions, changes the ways those around advocates think and speak about the issues that important to them.  Advocacy, therefore, produces an interplay between advocates in society, in which both, consciously or unconsciously, struggle with ideas.

Finally, there are institutional influences on the way advocacy is performed.  When advocates form organizations to amplify their effectiveness, they must find a way to work together a present a clear message.  Therefore, organizations tend to temper extreme views.  In this process, official organization discourse will reflect the beliefs of those somewhere near the middle, while individuals with extreme views will likely be pulled closer to the middle.  This happens through the strategic/audience dilemma posed above.  Members with extreme views will feel the need to present their ideas in a discourse that other members will respond to, and over time, this compromise in discourse will also cause an ideological shift.  (I do not mean to suggest that institutions will always simply moderate any radical views.  Contexts change, and new individuals with different beliefs enter organizations over time, meaning institutional moderation alone is insufficient to explain ideological trajectories.)  Within institutions, the same audience effect exists, but another layer is added.  Individuals must present ideas through discourse that will appeal to other members, who then can transmit that idea to a target audience.  Therefore, existing with an organizational space inherently alters discourse, and by extension, ideology.   However, because decision-making power in organizations is diffuse, strategy becomes more muddled.  Individuals within organizations with perceive strategic decisions differently, and then as multiple people interpret inter-organization ideas and transform them into official policy, concepts will inevitably be altered from their original form.  While this process can confuse strategy, multiple minds can also collaborate to create more factual, more compelling, and better-worded discourse.

The way we do advocacy is a complex process of interaction between multiple influences in which each one affects the development of the others.  For the sake of conceptual clarity, I separated ideology, discourse, strategy, environment, and organizational influences, but none of them exist without the others.  Ideology, for example, can only be conveyed through discourse, but the way we talk about our ideas inherently shapes what those ideas are.  This performance of advocacy then, is a fluid and interactive process, in which we must navigate a large and sophisticated array of problems and considerations .  Understanding these influences, and why they make us act the way we do, will surely help improve the quality of our advocacy.


4 Responses to “How Do We Do Advocacy?”

  1. Andrew Wojtanik April 25, 2013 at 12:41 am #

    “Fellow STAND members like myself perform advocacy almost every day. We write blog posts, prepare one-pagers, discuss foreign policy issues, analyze news, and hold events to amplify our voices.” You lost me there. HOW DO YOU HAVE TIME?!?!

    • dhirsch1 April 25, 2013 at 2:41 am #

      Didn’t mean to imply we do each one of those every day. If we did, we’d probably win over those libertarian isolationists.

      • Andrew Wojtanik April 25, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

        True dat.


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