Hahrie Han on how relationships improve mobilisation

I have shocking news for you: people are more likely to take action if a relationship exists. The are particular ideas associated with relational engagement, and using these ideas can improve mobilisation outcomes.

This is my takeaway from an upcoming paper by Hahrie Han: The Organizational Roots of Political Activism: Field Experiments on Creating a Relational Context. In this paper, Han demonstrates that a relational context affects civic engagement, arguing that decisions like voting or other forms of activism aren’t based upon a simple cost-benefit analysis. This is relevant to my work because of the particular experiments Han describes and their demonstration of applying relational concepts to mobilising. A short summary of what I got out of it follows.

Creating a relational context

Han describes a handful of ways to create a relational context. A key attitude is “responsiveness”: relationships are responsive in that they are idiosyncratic and oriented around the unique people in that relationship. Han emphasise two ways to demonstrate this responsiveness: “enthusiasm” for another’s goals, and recognising a “shared past and implied future”. The experiments also show how prompted self-reflection creates a relational context which encourages action.

“A key aspect of creating relational value is demonstrating responsiveness (Clark and Lemay 2010, Leary 2010; Reis, et al. 2004). Responsiveness can take multiple forms, from helping partners meet needs they cannot meet alone, to demonstrating enthusiasm for a partner’s goals, to demonstrating interest in choices they make, to recognizing a shared past (Clark and Lemay 2010; Reis, et al. 2004). Relatedly, another way people can demonstrate relational value is by prompting others to talk about themselves, to be what social psychologists call “openers,” who are people who invite others to open up to them (Miller, et al. 1983; Leary 2010).”

In the latter part of her paper Han describes three field experiments which each create a relational context in a different way, with the results showing that this improves the impact of an action ask.

Using a relational context to improve actions

Han’s paper describes three different experiments. Each one employs a different method for creating a relational context and it’s possible to see the impact of this intervention in the results.

Briefly, the experiments:

  • The first experiment tests the ‘goals’ idea in responsiveness. A segmented audience gets emailed a petition ask with reference to either no goal, a generic goal, or a personal goal obtained from a previous survey. People who received the personalised goals message “were almost three times as likely to sign the petition as those who received the standard message.”
  • The second experiment tests the ‘shared past’ idea. An organisation emailed a control group of new members asking them to recruit three others with a petition. A second group received a similar email which specifically made reference to their status as a new member. This second group was three times more likely to recruit others.
  • The third experiment (my personal favourite) tests the idea that prompting others to talk about themselves demonstrates “relational value” and encourages action. In this experiment, people who had attended a past event were called and invited to attend a future event. But some of these people were engaged in a debrief of sorts of the past event: asked how they found it,  their feedback, and what it accomplished for them. 12.5% of those who got the regular call attended, 42% of those who had the debrief conversation did. To put it mildly: “Asking people to reflect on their experiences and to contextualize the meaning of their participation had a powerful effect on whether people attended a follow-up meeting.”

Applying a relational context

This paper did feel a bit smutty to me. There’s a risk these relational approaches are seen as tricks that allow you to get better action rates without actually creating relationships. And, really, that’s probably true. However, I think the more valuable lesson from this research is the sheer awesome value of relationships to motivate action. Yes this is stuff that can happen in any and every email blast. But it can be truly transformative when it’s not just an extra sentence in an email but a true commitment to relational organising: to investing in the skills and people that will allow you to be genuinely responsive.

As an organiser, I think this boils down to two things. Firstly, if you’re the sort of organiser who likes a bit of empiricism, here you go. This paper begins to show that on organiser’s staple like the 1:1 definitely does facilitate greater involvement – through, that is, practising responsiveness and encouraging openness. Secondly, this paper provides some straightforward ways that any organisation can campaign in a more relational way and work to better respond to the goals and histories of its members.


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