The B.C. Activist: A Survey

By David H. Erickson, Penny Tilbay, Alison Walkley | 1988-10-01 12:00:00

Peace activists have been shown to differ from the general population. They have more education and a higher income, and are politically more liberal. Activists, including those in the peace movement, have a strong sense of self-efficacy - i.e. a belief that their efforts will be effective in stimulating change. Activists also report that their issue is highly salient to them; they think about the topic very often. We do not know whether these characteristics are the causes or the effects of activism.

As a group of psychologists, we have undertaken to provide a demographic and organizational profile of B.C. peace activists. We also explored the question: "Why do some people get involved, while others do not?" In the spring of 1987, we mailed about 500 questionnaires to 64 peace groups throughout B.C. Each peace group was asked to distribute questionnaires to their active members. About 46 percent were returned, giving us confidence that our data are a reasonable representation of the activists in the Peace Movement in B.C. Our results suggest that peace activists in B.C. are similar to those described elsewhere.

The age range is from 13 to 87 years, with an average age of 46. About half of the sample live in Greater Vancouver or Victoria, with the remainder evenly divided between larger and smaller centres. They are a well-educated group. Seven percent have completed university, and 67 percent report professional occupations. The average family income is $30,000. Sixty percent of respondents were female.

Respondents belonged to an average of 3.8 organizations, and reported being active in an average 2.5 groups. Table 2 shows that peace activists participate in a broad spectrum of community groups. It is noteworthy that, while political support at the federal level is almost one-directional (as shown in Table 1), most activists do not belong to a political party.

About half of the respondents (52 percent) had been active on peace issues for five years or less; they are part of the "new" peace movement that has developed since the latest round of weapons deployments began in 1981-82. Many others (15 percent) have been involved at least since the Vietnam era and, surprisingly, 19 percent have been in the peace movement since the "Ban the Bomb" days of the late 1950s and very early 1960s. The time spent on peace activities is substantial. The most typical time commitment is eight hours per month, with a small number of people(10 percent) investing upwards of 40 hours per month. Women, on average, put in twice as much time as men.

Attitudes and Beliefs

There was little variability in our sample when queried with four common research questions regarding attitudes. Most of the respondents felt that nuclear war was preventable (89 percent agree); that an individual could contribute to the prevention of nuclear war (96 percent); and that there could be no meaningful survival after nuclear war (92 percent agree). The only lack of unanimity in this section was over the notion that nuclear war would happen in their lifetime: 59 percent were undecided. We asked our respondents why they originally got involved. Who were the people who motivated you to become involved? Almost half of the respondents. listed "a friend" as one of their three choices. The two answers selected next were Helen Caldicott and family. Religious contacts were significant for people over sixty years of age.

We asked about the issues that influenced them. Among Canadian topics, the most significant events were: test mg nuclear weapons, and Canadian participation in Star Wars.

Among the general issues, the thought of accidental nuclear war, the increasing costs of the arms race, and the risk of political crises escalating into nuclear war were named most frequently. We asked about feelings. The top three were: hope for the future, care for the earth, and concern for family. Respondents were asked to think back to the time prior to their becoming active, and to identify reasons for not being active at the time. Three reasons were clear front-runners: a lack of information, a lack of awareness of the importance of the issue, and a feeling of powerlessness.

Finally, we asked how our respondents initially contacted the peace group that they eventually joined. Fifty-three percent of all people who had become active during the last two years indicated some kind of personal contact-e.g. friends, acquaintances, or colleagues. The next two categories were endorsed far less frequently: 15 percent of these activists attended a peace movement event where they first made contact; and 15 percent started their own group.

Promote Efficacy

It is not clear whether the peace movement attracts people with these tendencies or whether being active in the movement for some time causes these characteristics. Likewise, these results cannot be generalized beyond this sample. We have no idea what factors motivate average citizens to attend events, say.

Sociologists emphasize that community groups attract new members through friendship links in organizations. These observations, together with our results, suggest both an advantage and a hazard. The advantage is that searches for people to become active in peace issues will be most effective among people with the attributes described here. The hazard is that a probable bias exists against people who lack any of these characteristics. We speculate that overcoming this in-group homogeneity, if so desired, would take much work.

From this research and a review of the literature, a number of implications for the peace movement are immediately apparent. First, activists should continue to talk to friends, family, and colleagues about getting involved. Such efforts have the highest likelihood of attracting new activists. The second implication is that traditional, fear-provoking messages should always be paired with a prescription aimed at people's sense of self-efficacy. This is the "what you can do" theme that sometimes, but not always, appears in leaflets, speeches, and soon. Finally, to the extent that the peace movement relies heavily on the printed word- which is geared toward the academically trained -- people with less education will be disadvantaged. For the same reasons, long term philosophical goals should be clearly defined in a series of concrete, achievable steps.

Some of these suggestions are not new. What is new is that they are based on empirical evidence. We believe that this kind of evidence can usefully contribute to planning outreach.

The authors belong to B.C. Psychologists for Social Responsibility. Address: 208 - 1S41 W. Broadway, Vancouver. B.C.

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1988

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1988, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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