On Moyer’s Four Roles of Social Activism

Bill Moyer’s MAP (Movement Action Plan) model for organising social movements gives social activists a conceptual framework for analysing past and contemporary social movements. One aspect of this model is “The Four Roles of Social Activism”.

Moyer’s model is useful primarily because it highlights the interdependence of the four roles: he argues that “social movements require all four roles”. The model allows activists in different roles to understand and value the diversity of roles in action, helping to minimise the tradition that can traditionally occur between activists in different roles.

Moyer outlines four roles: the citizen, the rebel, the change agent, and the reformer. I will outline each of these, using Moyer’s words, and providing my own examples from the climate movement and associated sub-movements. Along the way I’ll pop in a few thoughts.

The Citizen

Citizen activists are everyday people who non-activists can identify with, even as they act for the movement. They:

  • are “grounded in the centre of society”
  • are perceived by majority as “good citizens” who are “seeking the public good”
  • play their main role in Stage 6 – Majority Public Opinion

Citizens are important because the strategy of the powerholders is to discredit the movement by portraying it as “fringe” or contrary to mainstream values. While they wouldn’t often be considered activists or be recognised for their contribution, they play a vital role in a movement’s success.

In the climate movement I think Earth Hour is the best example of harnessing citizen activism. It gives lots of everyday people a really simple way to identify with the movement and to influence others. The citizen activist is the person who talks to their neighbour about why they themselves are doing Earth Hour. Alternatively, imagine the mum of a certain climate campaigner. The mum may not be a campaigner themselves, but in their day-to-day, in every third conversation, they may make simple mention of climate change and why action matters. They’re like you and me (well, not you and me, but you get the idea), and they help the movement’s ideas to filter in to the mainstream.

Understanding this enables us to value the contribution of people who don’t seem to be activists.
People who share the movement’s goals can help to advance them simply by going about their lives, influencing other citizens, standing up for the movement. This is a vital and valuable contribution.

(However, Moyer argues that citizen activists are most important in Stage 6 – Majority Public Opinion. For the Australian climate movement we may not be in this stage in which case citizen activism is still valuable, but not enough to get us to Stage 7 – Success, from where we are.)

The Rebel

The rebel uses dramatic and controversial action to alert society to the fact that mainstream values are being violated. The rebel:

  • puts issues on society’s agenda through dramatic, nonviolent actions
  • “forces society to face its problems”
  • plays their biggest part in Stage 4 – Take Off

Rebels are important because they prevent society from ignoring or denying a violation of widely-held values. In particular, non-violent direct action (NVDA) can be used to foster “creative tension” by highlighting the gap between “what is and what should be”. But rebels can also utilise more plebeian methods such as leafletting or public rallies – in either case the idea is to spark a public dialogue.

The climate movement has lots of examples of people using NVDA to force issues in to the spotlight: Greenpeace Australia, Rising Tide, Quit Coal. By playing the role of rebel, activists in these groups strive to bring in to relief the chasm between Australians’ values and Australia’s climate and energy policy. Miranda Gibson has bodily compelled Australians to consider the shortsightedness of deforestation; Quit Coal has exposed the absurdity of coal mining in Melbourne’s food bowl. Rebels compel people to sit up and take notice.

Both the media and those in the reformer role often criticise rebels. And, indeed, Moyer himself warns of the ‘ineffective rebel’ who veers towards violence or ego-trips. But the rebel has a role to play. Rebels bring issues in to the public consciousness, increasing awareness.

(After Stage 4 – Take Off, rebels are not as necessary for a movement’s success. Currently, most of the ‘rebel’ action in Australia is focused on particular sub-movements that have not reached Stage 4 and is thus, I feel, effective. While there is a temptation to play the role of ‘rebel’ in the movement as a whole, it is less clear how this helps.)

The Change Agent

I can’t put it better than Moyer: “change agents…work to educate, organise, and involve the general public to actively oppose present policies and seek positive, constructive solutions.”

Change agents:

  • “organise, enable and nurture others to become actively involved in the democratic process.”
  • “redefine the problem to show how it affects every sector of society”
  • “use the immediate symptoms of a specific social problem to educate and promote a change in the underlying worldview that causes the problem”

Change agents strengthen the fundamentals of a democratic society by raising consciousness and building skills. They make it possible for others to get involved in the movement by educating, training, and empowering them. They move the public.

The Australian Youth Climate Coalition is an organisation in the role of ‘change agent’; you could also think of local climate action groups (CAGs). Most simply, the AYCC provides young people who care about climate change with ways to take action. Young people who get involved develop skills, deepen their consciousness, and grow in knowledge. This is change agentry in action.

After a movement takes off it often seems subdued or invisible – this is when change agents are doing their work. By subtly and incrementally influencing the public, and subtly and incrementally building a network of able and willing actors, change agents help to build towards Stage 6 – Majority Public Opinion.

(One interesting point Moyer makes is the role of change agents in acting for paradigmatic change. Myself, I’m often wary of repositioning climate change as symptomatic of broader failures in our economic and social systems as I feel like it may be opportunistic. But perhaps failing to open a broader debate, or failing to encourage broader question-posing by fellow activists, is failing to be an effective change agent?)


Reformers work with the official structures to incorporate solutions in to new laws and policies that will be accepted as the new conventional wisdom of society. They:

  • transmit movement analyses and goals to powerholders
  • are often “professional opposition organisations”
  • act as “powerbrokers” between movement and the powerholders
  • have little innate power and are dependent on the power of the grassroots

Reformers act as a ‘go between’ that can transmute the public support developed by other activists in to political change. They are levers that amplify the impact of grassroots activists upon the powerholders. They have a crucial role as they ensure that the efforts of others translate in to political and structural changes.

The Australian Conservation Foundation is a classic example both of a body in the ‘reformer’ role and of a “Professional Opposition Organisation” (a concept Moyer discusses several times). In relation to the passing of the Clean Energy Future Package the ACF took a lead role in meeting with government, negotiating policy, and making sure that movement goals took effect in Parliament. On this issue citizen activists, rebels, and social change agents all played a part, and reformers worked with government to leverage the grassroots mobilisation to see new policy introduced.

During the Franklin river dam campaign, Bob Brown and his mates kept a bunch of suits handy. As ‘rebels’ they broke the law when they had to, but they were always ready to whack on a suit and negotiate with a politician. Playing the role of reformer was crucial to get the governmental action that eventally saved the Franklin.

(Moyer’s noting that reformers have little innate power is profound. It should be a reminder to every ‘reformer’ organisation that they cannot possibly afford to neglect the grassroots. While their role is crucial and they may not be well-suited to taking on another role, reformers must nonetheless make sure to value and develop players in other roles.)

Where does this leave us?

Moyer goes on to discuss how each role can be played effectively or ineffectively, and what this looks like. He puts particular emphasis on the ineffective or “negative” rebel, a stereotype many of us know all too well, from the media if not reality. He notes the tension between different roles, and how this framework can help us to resolve these tensions. So, for greater detail and insight, I strongly recommend you read his excellent book, Doing Democracy.

In summary, I think the “Four Roles of Social Activism” module of the MAP Model for Organising Social Movements is an asset for understanding the contributions various people and organisations make to effecting social change. Being able to categorise actions and strategies in terms of the four roles helps us to evaluate their effectiveness or lack thereof. At a strategic level, it makes it possible for a movement as a whole to consider what roles are being neglected, or for individual players in the movement to reflect on their own role. Whether as a citizen, rebel, change agent, or reformer, each activist can make a worthwhile difference when it comes to effecting social change. Moyer’s model enables us to know and to value that difference.


  1. Lessons from the Greensboro student sit-ins - May 30, 2014

    […] been observed numerous times in social movements, and named by Bill Moyer in his discussion of the four roles of activists. Moyer appreciates the role of the reformer – the NAACP certainly played an important role in […]

  2. » Dear Paprika: My Time At SekolahAktivisme - December 3, 2014

    […] were taught Moyer’s 4 types of activists you could be: Rebel, Citizen, Social Change Agent or Reformer. To quickly find out which role […]

  3. Why progressive voters should vote for the Greens | Scit Necessitas - May 5, 2015

    […] [1] This idea and the language I use is derived from the idea of the “Overton Window“. One could also consider this in terms of the four social movement roles. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: