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Social Movement Ecology

Posted by Meaghan Carmody on July 03, 2020 at 04:17 PM

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In a recent workshop we ran for STAND’s Ideas Collective programme, participants were asked what came to mind when they heard the word ecosystem.

Harmony. Diversity. Many parts to make a whole. Working together. Collaboration.

This set the stage for a rich discussion on ‘Social Movement Ecology’, informed by a recent two-part online training for activists in Ireland led by the folks at the Ayni Institute.

Ayni (Quechua, also spelled Ayniy or Aini) can refer to either the concept of reciprocity or mutualism among people of the Andean mountain communities or the practice of this concept.        

Plants need soil to grow, and soil needs roots for stability, and roots need water for nourishment, and water falls by a cyclical process of cloud formation due to the landscape and climate. Just like the tangible ecosystem we rely on to live, we rely too on a diverse, healthy and subsequently resilient social movement ecosystem. Over two evenings, Carlos & Rodrigo at the Ayni Institute led 80 or so change-makers through the process of reflecting on the social movement ecosystem we operate within. They also met with a smaller group of activists to troubleshoot specific issues they were having in their groups, something we are very grateful to them for taking the time to do.

Theories of change are the elements in our social change ecosystem. A theory of change is the premise we base our strategies and tactics on. If we do this, then that is likely to happen. Our actions are driven by theories of change.

Theory: a set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based. an idea used to account for a situation or justify a course of action.

ToCs 2

The people at the Ayni Institute taught us about five theories of change: Alternatives, Personal Transformation, Structure Based Organising, Mass Protest and the Inside Game. All have strengths. All have weaknesses. All are necessary. None alone are sufficient. Most changemakers prioritise one of these, and disregard at least one other one entirely.


One reason why conflict between different individuals and groups in a movement arises is when alternative theories of change are not respected. One reason is dogmatism or purity culture, a complete attachment to one theory of change at the expense of the rest. This might sound like, “this is the only way change happens.” Additionally, some individuals or organisations might think they simply don’t need the other theories as they can make the necessary impact alone. This individualism might sound like, “Sure, go ahead and protest, but the truth is we need people directly influencing Government and then we’ll have the change we need. We’ll make the changes we need alone.” Other points of conflict are displayed below.


We have a responsibility to those who support us, those who want to join us and those who are on our side ideologically to be explicit about which theory or theories of change we are using. The theory of change underpins a credible plan to win, without with it is challenging let alone disrespectful to encourage people to join you in your cause.

You can watch the video of session 2 here.

Ayni’s Movement Ecology series can be watched here.

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