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Expressive & Instrumental Actions (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 5)

by: Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Joshua Kahn Russell, and Zack Malitz

Sometimes activists will take an action without much thought to how others receive it, or what precisely the action will achieve. Many people participate in actions because it’s meaningful to them, or simply because it feels good to do the right thing. We call this the expressive part of an action. Expressive actions come from the heart and the gut &#151 whether or not our “heads” calculate the specific outcome.

“Taking the street” during a march is a perfect example. Sure, it feels good to march un-permitted in the street. You and your comrades bravely disobey police orders and, all together, walk out into traffic. You can practically smell the group cohesion in the air. It’s intoxicating. It’s also usually inconsequentialin terms of broader social movement objectives. Still, how many times have you heard someone say a march was “bad” simply because it stayed on the sidewalk? When someone says this, it may be because their goals are primarily expressive; affecting social change is of secondary importance.

Most trained organizers think on another level: regardless of the self-expressive value for those involved, we ask “what is this action actually achieving for our issue, cause, movement, or campaign?” We call this the instrumental value of an action.

Both aspects are important, and though a well designed action can deliver on both simultaneously, expressive and instrumental often get pitted against one another. Many hard-nosed organizers focus exclusively on tangible impacts, forgetting that the self-expressive dimension of an action plays a critical role in affirming values and building group identity. On the other hand, many groups can carry out a whole string of expressive actions without ever winning anything. The danger here is clear: groups that don’t evaluate the success of their tactics in terms of their instrumental goals risk becoming narcissistic and self-referential. They can spiral into irrelevance because they aren’t tuned into how their action effects anyone outside of the group.

While instrumental actions are often focused on an “external” outcome, say, some measurable kind of pressure you can exert on the bad guy your campaign is targeting, they can also have an “internal” focus. Consider a mass teach-in that is designed to build your organization’s capacity, or increase the skills of participants, or shift the thinking in your movement. Here, the expressive value of the action is being directly translated into an instrumental outcome. Expressive and instrumental are therefore not mutually exclusive categories, but rather dynamics to which we need to pay attention.

Instrumental actions can be further subdivided into “communicative” and “concrete”. Communicative actions are designed to sway opinion, express an idea, or contribute to public discourse, while concrete actions are designed to have a tangible impact on a target. These are two separate ways of measuring an instrumental outcome.

While self-expression is a necessary part of the social change process, it is not sufficient. Through our rituals of self-expression, we affirm our values and visions and build the kind of group identity and cohesion without which we’d be too weak and disorganized to change the world. That said, expressing values is not the same as engaging society and affecting systemic change. If we really want to change the world, we must know the difference between &#151 and artfully balance &#151 our instrumental goals with our desire for self-expression.


This is one of several pieces by Jonathan Matthew Smucker published in the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd, the book includes short concept pieces about grassroots action, activism and organizing, contributed by more than 70 authors. Order it here!

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