Democracy & Justice

What is Activism: Definition, Types, Role, Examples, Importance

From the 8-hour workday to women being able to vote, many of the rights and liberties we enjoy today weren't given to us voluntarily. Instead, we have activists to thank, who fought tooth and nail to challenge the status quo and demand social change.

by Eleanor Brooks

What is activism: definition

When we observe practices that cause harm, we feel obliged to speak up. Whether we’re concerned about the burning of fossil fuels, animal abuse through factory farming, or the ill-treatment of refugees, by demanding change we have the power to create a different, better world. Simply put, activism refers to action taken challenging those in power to bring about change in society and benefit the greater good.

What types of activism are there?

Activists challenge the status quo by use their voice to bring about social, political, economic or environmental reform. There is no single way to conduct activism - any collective action which draws attention to an issue constitutes activism. At its core, activism is about highlighting injustices and advocating for a better future. While traditional forms of activism include demonstrations and protests, activists often resort to non-conventional or disruptive forms of activism if their earlier efforts are ignored.

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Demonstrations and protests

One of the most common types of activism is demonstrations and protests. When people come together and rally around a united cause, it sends a strong message to the government that this is an issue the public cares about. Demonstrations can take lots of forms, from marching on the streets, public sit-ins, or picketing. Sometimes shocking tactics are used to increase the pressure, such as demonstrators protesting naked or chaining themselves to a tree.


Strike action is a form of activism in which employees refuse to perform their work to protest workplace grievances. It became a popular form of protest during and after the Industrial Revolution when members of the industrial working class, from coal miners to factory and cotton mill workers, put down their tools and demanded better pay and work conditions. Often organised by trade unions, striking legitimises the requests made by union representatives and gives them bargaining power during negotiations with the employer. While there is now talk of a 4-day work week, the 40-hour work week was a result of a lengthy labour reform movement in the United States whose activism strateghy included national strikes.


A form of economic activism, a boycott is a non-violent protest in which people collectively choose not to engage with an activity, event, organisation, country or person that is engaging in exploitative behaviour. For example, Boycott, Divestment, Sanction (BDS) is a movement led by Palestinians calling on citizens, organisations, institutions and governments globally to put economic pressure on Israel to end the oppression of Palestine by withdrawing commercial and social support. Corporations are encouraged not to trade with Israeli businesses and artists are asked not to perform in Israel.

Boycotting is a type of activism you can practise on a daily basis when you go shopping. Simple acts like choosing to buy fair trade coffee beans instead of Nestlé, or buying clothes from ethical clothing brands instead of Shein channels your consumer buying power for good.

Online campaigns

To convince those in power to stand up against injustice, the sway of public opinion can go a long way. Sending emails, posting on social media and signing petitions shows public officials, corporations and other power-holders that people are invested in a cause and sends the message that their popularity will be impacted if they don’t take heed. This is a form of mandate building, because it demonstrates that the public supports a certain course of action and legitimises the demand for reform. The more engagement, the stronger the pressure.

Civil disobedience

Civil disobedience is a form of protest with a long tradition in which protestors intentionally break the law in order to highlight injustices or bring about a change in law/policy. Protestors who engage in this type of activism willingly risk facing personal consequences such as being fined or arrested as a means of demonstrating their commitment to the cause. In recent years, environmental movements such as The Extinction Rebellion or Just Stop Oil have gained public attention for their unconventional protests which include blocking traffic, disrupting high-profile sporting events and throwing food at famous works of art.

Protest art

Artists often use their work to stimulate discussions about important social and political issues, particularly if their fame gives them a platform to reach the masses. One famous example is Sinead O’Connor's protest against the covering-up of the child sexual abuse by ripping the photograph of Pope John Paul II after her performance on Saturday Night Live. Keith Haring made art addressing the AIDs crisis and he designed posters which were used at anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid demonstrations.

Activist movements: Examples

Throughout history, activist movements have protested injustice and demanded equal rights for everyone in society. Many of the civil liberties we enjoy today were fought for tooth and nail by activist movements who challenged the concentration of power, wealth and freedom.

Gender equality

The feminist movement has been campaigning for women’s rights since the mid-19th century. Beginning with the right to vote in 1848, feminists have sought to end the treatment of women as second class citizens by overturning legal inequalities. Its focus has included a wide range of issues, from workplace equality, reproductive rights, sexual liberation, intersectionality, gender-based violence and discrimination.

Human rights

The mission of human rights defenders is to ensure that everyone’s human rights are respected. If governments, corporations or powerful individuals violate our rights, they engage in activism to draw attention to the violation and to demand reform. This kind of activism can focus on an issue that directly affect broader society, such as protecting the independence of the media or freedom of expression. It can also focus on issues which affect marginalised communities, who are deprived of proper enjoyment of their rights due to discrimination and mistreatment.

Racial equality

The movement to end racial inequality emerged from the civil rights movement, which can be traced back to to the 1950s in the United States and was in response to the unequal treatment of black people. It was a time during which racism was built into the legal system, as black Americans were deprived of basic civil racism, and there were laws which permitted discrimination and racial segregation. Modern racial inequality movements have focused on police brutality, violence, discrimination, racism and racial injustice experienced by BIPOC (black, indigineous and other people of colour) communities.

Climate change

The climate movement seeks to put pressure on governments and industries to take action to curb the impact of climate change. With rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns, the impact of climate change, which is primarily a result of the burning of fossil fuels, its impact poses a huge risk to humans and the environment. Climate change activists such as Greta Thunberg advocate centre climate justice in their message, which argues that those most responsible for climate change should also contribute the most to addressing the problem.

Social justice

Social justice activists aim to address inequalities and discrimination in society by focusing on political or social issues. Social justice movements can focus on the grievances of a particular social group, or it can focus on a particular issue such as housing or anti-war. A key demand of social justice activism is the fair distribution of resources and the restructuring of societal structures which produce and perpetuate inequalities. The goal of social justice movements is a fair and equal society.

Who are activists? What are the roles of activists?

It is a misconception that in order to be an activist, you need to be an expert on a topic or working in a professional capacity. Anyone who cares about a cause and participates in collective action to bring about change is considered an activist. Within a collective movement, there are many different roles that activists can take on to be effective in achieving their mission.

Citizens: Citizens who engage in activism play an important role because they embody the democratic values that ordinary citizens should be actively involved in political decision-making. Ideally, citizen activists will support social movements that benefit the common good, rather than only supporting causes that advance their personal interests.

Reformer: Typically, the reformer will try to create change from the inside by using existing institutions to achieve their movement’s goals. Lobbying, advocacy, referenda and rallies are the preferred methods of activism of the reformer.

Rebel: The rebel, on the other hand, works outside the system and challenges violations of shared values. They bring issues into the public arena, and their reform demands target power holders such as governments and institutions.

Change agent: The change agent is an activist responsible for ensuring that the public is educated about social issues and involving ordinary citizens in the change-making process. This type of activism mobilises the whole of society and relies on the collaboration of pre-existing grassroots movements with mass bases.

How does activism impact society?

Many of the most important social and political revolutions that occurred in history are the outcome of activism. From the abolishment of slavery, women being granted equal rights to the toppling of dictatorships, change that was once unthinkable became reality because of the courage, vision and commitment of activists.

Activists often emerge from disenfranchised social groups and play an important role getting their causes onto the public agenda. Because they operate at the heart of the communities, they can provide a detailed and nuanced insight into how a particular people are directly affected by an issue and propose impactful solutions. This creates a bridge between the population and political leaders and ensures the perspectives of marginalised communities are considered during political decision-making.

As they typically operate outside systems of power, activists keep checks and balances on powerholders. Their role is to ensure that governments, corporations and powerful individuals act in the best interest of the many, rather than an elite few. The climate change movement is a powerful example of activists holding political leaders and businesses accountable for their harmful impact on society and pressurising them to put the welfare of people and the planet ahead of profits.

Further reading:

What Is Freedom of Assembly and How Is the Situation in Europe?

What are Civil Rights: Definition, Origins, Movements, Present Situation

Civil Disobedience and Its Effects in Recent History Through 12 Examples

Photo credits:
Randy aka Randolfe Wicker
Jornal Brasil em Folhas
GPA Photo Archive

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