I have long been critical of “effective animal advocacy” research on the grounds that (a) The work is often conducted by untrained amateurs without research experience; (b) The work has a bias against animal rights; (c) The research design, methods, analyses, and interpretations of findings have been highly flawed; (d) Peer review is almost never sought; (e) Often, misleading reports are disseminated in a reckless way and released directly to the public; and (f) This largely pseudoscientific research is misused to direct donations to a small group of charities that are highly inter-connected and all share the same basic ideology. A recent, excellent article by Harrison Nathan digs into this work in considerably more detail than previous efforts, demonstrating how some of these problems, particularly the methodological ones, may be even worse than some of us thought.
While these issues are all very serious, I would like to take a step back for a moment and ask more of a meta-question: What should the role of research in animal advocacy be in the first place?
This is a question that I have never seen substantively debated. It seems that many take it as a given that we should go where the science leads us, that the research should drive where we go as a movement. I believe that there is a place for research in the movement, but it need be conducted within the proper framework where it is guided by theory and where we are mindful of its limitations.
A fundamental error that the effective animal advocates make is that they disregard the importance of theory in research on behavior change. In clinical psychology and the social sciences, we don’t just throw out specific change promotion techniques that are not grounded in any particular theory of change. Such an approach would be considered unscientific and would lack credibility. In the effective animal advocacy community, however, there is an overemphasis on testing specific strategies without any regard for their theoretical basis. We will have a difficult time helping others make true internal change regarding how they view non-human animals, and help them come to a place where they decide to opt out of contributing to their harm, if we base our strategy on a haphazard collection of marketing techniques, evaluating them one by one using studies that also lack rigor. This limits what we can learn about how our advocacy influences change, and hinders our ability to derive replicable, action-oriented strategies from our work. We need to have a theory that guides our efforts and that places our research findings in context.
There are many theories of change and motivation that are applicable to research in animal advocacy, some of which I outline in my book Motivational Methods for Vegan Advocacy: A Clinical Psychology Perspective. There are vast research and theoretical literatures on motivating others to change, the processes of change, the process of goal-setting, and the importance of developing relationships in helping others change, all of which have heretofore been ignored by effective animal advocacy.
Another problem is that efforts to determine effective activist messages lack clarity about what values they seek to promote. I believe that animal advocacy research should be conducted within an animal rights framework. By this I mean that we should begin from an assumption that every animal has inherent value and a basic right not to be treated as a commodity or resource, and therefore we won’t promote strategies that affirm or accept harm to nonhuman animals.
This goes without saying in research aimed at preventing violence against humans. In my field of domestic violence intervention, it is taken as a given that we promote nothing less than an end to the violence. There is vigorous debate regarding the strategies beyond that, but none about the starting position that no violence is acceptable. For example, as a domestic violence researcher, I would not investigate an “abuse-less Monday” strategy, or any strategy of harm reduction where we encourage domestic abusers to only cut down on their violence and not eliminate it. Such strategies run counter to fundamental principles of human rights and social justice. Conducting research into these strategies would legitimize them and reinforce social norms that support violence towards others. Any argument suggesting that this is not so in the case of nonhuman animals is speciesist by definition.
We also need to recognize the limitations of what research can tell us. Available research methods may not tell us much about the impact of different strategies on societal norms. It is critically important to look beyond our direct effect on individuals, and consider what sort of messages we put out into the world. Giving the broad message that it’s socially acceptable to do harm to animals in moderation, such as by promoting reduction in animal use rather than veganism, could reinforce the speciesist societal mentality that animals are ours to use. Even if we are able to show that we can persuade some people to cut down on their animal use through speciesist strategies, the net impact of such interventions may be negative for the animals. It would be difficult to quantify these impacts in either direction.
Social science cannot replace social justice. Research in animal advocacy should be embedded within a social justice framework and should not be thought of as the source of the movement’s strategic vision. If we are not mindful of the limitations of this enterprise, it may lead to unrealistic expectations, dubious claims, and a misallocation of resources. Nevertheless, it is my contention that marrying an animal rights perspective with existing frameworks for enhancing motivation and facilitating change has powerful potential, and could teach us a great deal about how we can change the game for nonhuman animals. Hopefully a larger discussion about these important issues will take place in the near future.