Radical flank effect

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The radical flank effect refers to the positive or negative effects that radical activists for a cause have on more moderate activists for the same cause.[1]

According to Riley Dunlap, the idea of a radical flank effect "has a lot of credibility among social-movement scholars".[2]


In 1975, Jo Freeman introduced[3]: 28  the term "radical flank" with reference to more revolutionary women's groups, "against which other feminist organizations and individuals could appear respectable."[4]: 236 

The term "radical flank effect" was coined by Herbert H. Haines.[5] In 1984, Haines found that moderate black organizations saw increased rather than decreased funding as the radical black movement emerged.[6] In his 1988 Black Radicals and the Civil Rights Mainstream, 1954-1970, Haines challenged the prevailing view that confrontational and militant black activists created a "white backlash" against the more moderate civil-rights movement.[7]: 2  Rather, Haines argued, "the turmoil which the militants created was indispensable to black progress" and helped mainstream civil-rights groups.[7]: 2 

Haines measured positive outcomes based on increases in external income to moderate organizations and legislative victories. While nearly half of the income data was estimated or missing[8] due to the refusal of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress of Racial Equality to divulge their complete financial records, it was more extensive than the data used by Doug McAdam in his classic work on resource mobilization. Haines' data was thorough for the moderate organizations (such as the NAACP) which comprised the dependent variable for his research.[9]

Positive and negative effects[edit]


  • Radicals make moderates appear more reasonable by shifting the boundaries of discourse (see Overton window), such as when radical feminists in the 1960s-70s made reformist women's groups seem mild.[7]: 4  ExxonMobil's radical stance rejecting climate change allowed BP to appear more moderate when it acknowledged in 1997 that human-caused climate change existed and posed a problem.[10]: 65 
  • Radicals may also create crises that authorities seek to resolve through concessions to moderates. An example was acceptance of labor unions as a means to stave off more radical demands by workers to exercise greater control of production systems.[7]: 4  When Rainforest Action Network threatened Staples Inc. with protests exhorting it to sell more recycled paper, Staples responded by asking help from the more moderate Environmental Defense Fund.[10]: 64 
  • Armed radical flanks often protect more moderate nonviolent activists from repression, thereby allowing the nonviolent actions to continue.[11] In 1964, the Deacons for Defense and Justice militia were guardians of the pacifist CORE chapter in Louisiana, and later protected Martin Luther King Jr. and other demonstrators during the March Against Fear.[12][13]


  • Radicals may discredit a movement.[7]: 3 
  • Radicals might make it harder for moderates to collaborate with third parties.[7]: 3 

Predictors of positive flank effects[edit]

It's difficult to tell without hindsight whether the radical flank of a movement will have positive or negative effects.[2] However, following are some factors that have been proposed as making positive effects more likely:

  • Greater differentiation between moderates and radicals in the presence of a weak government.[2][14][15]: 411  As Charles Dobson puts it: "To secure their place, the new moderates have to denounce the actions of their extremist counterparts as irresponsible, immoral, and counterproductive. The most astute will quietly encourage 'responsible extremism' at the same time."[16]
  • Existing momentum behind the cause. If change seems likely to happen anyway, then governments are more willing to accept moderate reforms in order to quell radicals.[2]
  • Radicalism during the peak of activism, before concessions are won.[17] After the movement begins to decline, radical factions may damage the image of moderate organizations.[17]
  • Low polarization. If there's high polarization with a strong opposing side, the opposing side can point to the radicals in order to hurt the moderates.[2]

Game-theoretic formulation[edit]

Devashree Gupta developed a game-theoretic model of radical flank effects. In addition to distinguishing positive vs. negative flank effects on moderates, she suggested also considering effects on radicals:[18]: 10 

Moderates gain Moderates lose
Radicals gain Overall movement strengthened (INCR) Movement becomes radicalized, driving away moderates; negative radical flank effect (RFE-)
Radicals lose Moderation of movement with mild concessions; positive radical flank effect (RFE+) Overall movement weakened (DECR)

Her extensive-form game involved a choice by moderates of whether to clearly distinguish themselves from radicals, and then a choice by the external actors being lobbied as to whether to grant concessions:[18]: 18–19, 23 

  • If moderates distinguish themselves from radicals:
    • If external actors grant concessions:
      • RFE+ (concessions granted to moderates only)
    • If external actors refuse concessions:
      • If external actors are strong:
        • DECR (whole movement is repressed)
      • If external actors are weak:
        • RFE- (movement becomes radicalized)
  • If moderates don't distinguish themselves from radicals:
    • If external actors grant concessions:
      • INCR (concessions granted to the movement as a whole)
    • If external actors refuse concessions:
      • If external actors are strong:
        • DECR (whole movement is repressed)
      • If external actors are weak:
        • INCR (movement as a whole wins)

Violent radical flank[edit]

In the radical-flank literature, "radical" may mean either more extreme in views and demands or more extreme in activist methods, possibly including the use of violence.[19]

Studies of civil resistance have typically found that nonviolent activism is ideal, since violence by a movement makes state repression seem legitimate. That is, violence yields a negative radical flank effect.[19] Indeed, states sometimes seek to label nonviolent movements as terrorist and violent, or incite them to violence through provocation and agents provocateurs, in order to justify suppression.[19]

Barrington Moore, Jr., in books such as Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy and A Critique of Pure Tolerance, observed the prominent use of violence which preceded the development of democratic institutions in England, France and the United States. A survey of Moore's critics notes that they were generally "impressed by Moore's case for progressive violence, but eager to move on to other topics, instead of considering the implications of these issues."[20]

In a study of 53 "challenging groups", social movement analyst William Gamson found that groups that were willing to use "force and violence" against their opponents tended to be more successful than groups that were not.[21]

In a cross-national quantitative analysis of 106 maximalist campaigns, Erica Chenoweth and Kurt Schock examined armed flank effects (not radical or violent flank effects). They found no general pattern of armed flank direct effects across 106 cases. However, in the case studies they found evidence for both positive and negative armed flank effects.

Francis Fox Piven writes that the use of in violence in social movements is often under-reported by activists cultivating a nonviolent image, as well as by social movement scholars who are sympathetic to them.[22]

Some recent studies have compared the violent flank with the diversity of tactics effect, and found both to have positive effects in movement campaigns.[23] [24]

The African National Congress believe that both nonviolence and armed conflict were important in ending Apartheid.[25] John Bradford Braithwaite concludes from this that when violent factions already exist, moderates shouldn't necessarily shun them, but moderates shouldn't seek to create violent factions.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Haines, Herbert H. (14 Jan 2013). "Radical Flank Effects". The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements. Blackwell Publishing. doi:10.1002/9780470674871.wbespm174. ISBN 9781405197731.
  2. ^ a b c d e Mooney, Chris (17 Apr 2013). "How Science Can Predict Where You Stand on Keystone XL". Mother Jones. Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  3. ^ Dillard, Courtney Lanston (2002). "The rhetorical dimensions of radical flank effects: investigations into the influence of emerging radical voices on the rhetoric of long-standing moderate organizations in two social movements". Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  4. ^ Freeman, Jo (1975). The Politics of Women's Liberation: A Case Study of an Emerging Social Movement and Its Relation to the Policy Process. Addison-Wesley Longman Limited.
  5. ^ "Herbert H. Haines". State University of New York College at Cortland. March 2007. Retrieved 24 February 2015.
  6. ^ Haines, Herbert H. (Oct 1984). "Black Radicalization and the Funding of Civil Rights: 1957-1970" (PDF). Social Problems. 32 (1): 31–43. doi:10.2307/800260. JSTOR 800260.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Haines, Herbert H. (1988). Black Radicals and the Civil Rights Mainstream, 1954-1970. Univ. of Tennessee Press.
  8. ^ Mary Nell Morgan (1990). "An Imperfect Assessment of Movement Flank Actions". Southern Changes. 12 (1): 12–13. Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  9. ^ Herbert H. Haines, "Black Radicalization and the Funding of Civil Rights: 1957-1970" Social Problems, Oct., 1984 (University of California Press), pp. 31-43
  10. ^ a b Lyon, Thomas (5 Feb 2010). Good Cop/Bad Cop: Environmental NGOs and Their Strategies toward Business (1 ed.). Routledge. ISBN 978-1933115771.
  11. ^ Francis Fox Piven, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), pg 23-25
  12. ^ Emilye J. Crosby “‘This Nonviolent Stuff Aint No Good. It’ll Get You Killed.’: Teaching About Self-Defense in the African-American Freedom Struggle” in Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement, Julie Buckner Armstrong et al, eds. (Routledge, 2002)
  13. ^ “We Will Shoot Back – Reviews” NYU Press website
  14. ^ Gupta, Devashree. "The Strategic Logic of the Radical Flank Effect: Theorizing Power in Divided Social Movements" (PDF). Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  15. ^ The Social Movements Reader: Cases and Concepts (2 ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. 20 Apr 2009. ISBN 978-1405187640.
  16. ^ Dobson, Charles (August 2001). "Social Movements: A Summary of What Works" (PDF). The Citizen's Handbook. Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  17. ^ a b Belinda Robnett; Rebecca Trammell (14 Aug 2004). "Negative and Positive Radical Flank Effects on Social Movements: The Influence of Protest Cycles on Moderate and Conservative Organizations". Paper Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, Hilton San Francisco & Renaissance Parc 55 Hotel, San Francisco, CA. Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  18. ^ a b Gupta, Devashree (Mar 2002). "Radical flank effects: The effect of radical-moderate splits in regional nationalist movements" (PDF). Conference of Europeanists. Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  19. ^ a b c Erica Chenoweth; Kurt Schock (December 2015). "Do Contemporaneous Armed Challenges Affect the Outcomes of Mass Nonviolent Campaigns?". Mobilization. 20 (4): 427–451. ISSN 1086-671X. Wikidata Q83970885.. This 2015 study is based on 106 primarily nonviolent campaigns between 1900 and 2006. A 2012 Webinar by these authors mentions "323 primarily violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006"; see Kurt Schock; Erica Chenoweth. "Radical Flank Effect (Webinar)". Archived from the original on 21 August 2014. Retrieved 25 February 2015.. It seems that between the time of the 2012 Webinar and the publication in 2015, they restricted their focus to only the 106 of the 323 campaigns that were primarily nonviolent.
  20. ^ Jonathan M. Wiener, "The Barrington Moore thesis and its critics" Theory and Society, 1975, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 301-330
  21. ^ William Gamson, The Strategy of Social Protest (Wadsworth, 1990)
  22. ^ Francis Fox Piven, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), pg 23-25
  23. ^ Taylor, Blair (2013-12-01). "From alterglobalization to Occupy Wall Street: Neoanarchism and the new spirit of the left". City. 17 (6): 729–747. doi:10.1080/13604813.2013.849127. ISSN 1360-4813. S2CID 144857959.
  24. ^ Rowe, James K.; Carroll, Myles (2014-04-03). "Reform or Radicalism: Left Social Movements from the Battle of Seattle to Occupy Wall Street". New Political Science. 36 (2): 149–171. doi:10.1080/07393148.2014.894683. ISSN 0739-3148. S2CID 145393997.
  25. ^ a b Braithwaite, John Bradford (2013). "Rethinking Radical Flank Theory: South Africa". RegNet Research Paper No. 2014/23. SSRN 2377443.