4.2.2 Agents

Human agency is the capacity of individuals or groups to change an outcome or course of events (Alsop et al., 2006; O’Brien, 2015). Agents (as policymakers, politicians, business leaders, activists, campaigners, artists, academics, investors, consumers or voters) can act, either intentionally or accidentally, individually or collectively, in ways that either assist or hinder social change (Newell et al., 2022; Gaupp, forthcoming). Individual and collective efficacy, or the belief that one’s agency can avert threats or influence events, increases the motivation to act and enhances emotional wellbeing (Bandura, 1999; Feldman and Hart, 2016; Stern, 2018; Bostrom et al., 2019). Even small individual acts can lead to widespread collective effects – for example, the refusal of Rosa Parks to move bus seats in 1955, or the school strike initiated by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg in 2018. Numerous studies and the history of social movements show that a committed and well-organised minority (between less than 3.5 per cent to 10 per cent of a population) can mobilise around a common aim long enough to exceed a critical threshold and transform a prevailing social structure – for example a social norm, law, institution or government (Chenoweth and Stephan, 2011; Xie et al., 2011; Rogers, 2010; Han, 2014; Marshall et al., 2018; Centola et al., 2018; Bolderdijk and Jans 2021; Constantino et al., 2022). Such social movements typically gestate in and benefit from ‘free social spaces’ (Törnberg, 2018) that protect them from the prevailing hegemony and actively cultivate and empower minority groups to challenge dominant agendas and narratives (Laybourn-Langton et al., 2021).

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