Sustainability | November 3, 2022
Risky Behaviour: University Students Associate Risks of Environmental Activism Online and Offline
Cassidy Formenti, Sarah Jackson & Lauren McMullen
In this study, the researchers explored how different types and levels of risks are associated with online and offline grassroots environmental activism. The researchers looked at an in-depth analysis of the history of environmental activism, both online and offline, and defined various risks that individuals have the potential to experience while participating in environmental activism. This research used a mixed methods approach of both qualitative and quantitative data gathering, focusing on coding quantitative data and using response averages to perform a deductive analysis on standardized questions. The qualitative data was based on the answers to open-ended survey questions in which participants identified additional themes related to risk and environmental activism not previously identified in the survey. The results reveal that university students associate more of all types of risk with offline grassroots environmental activism and that emotional risk was the highest-rated risk type on average. Gender identity had an impact on participants’ risk ratings, with non-binary participants reporting higher risk ratings on average. The results also show that participants’ involvement in different forms of environmental activism had some impact on their perceptions of different risk types associated with online and offline grassroots environmental activism.
Statement of Purpose
The purpose of this research is to better understand what risks university students associate with online and offline grassroots environmental activism and how their participation in activism, as well as different demographic traits, influence their perception of these risks. The research hypothesis is as follows: University students associate more of all types of risks with offline grassroots environmental activism than online environmental activism. To determine whether our hypothesis is supported by the findings of this research, four risk categories (social, economic, emotional, and physical) were identified. All participants in this research are current university students, and each participant was asked to complete an identical survey in an online format.
Support rose for environmental movements in North America in the 1960s, and by the 1970s, Greenpeace was established with the initial intent to stop nuclear weapon testing on Amchitka Island (Chubb & Lange, 2009). Soon, Greenpeace expanded to take on larger climate-related issues, spurring the expansion of the larger environmental movement at the same time. The environmental movement is resilient, and there are many groups that have played a large influence in turning words into action and advocating for policy change. Of these groups, university students are particularly significant due to their reputation and role as young change makers in our society; however, there is minimal research conducted on the impact of student environmental activism on the mobilization of external groups of people (Chubb & Lange, 2009).
As the impact of digital technology continues to grow, it is increasingly used to share content regarding political and social movements online, which is often referred to as digital activism or online activism. Digital tools remove the barrier that some individuals face when participating in activism movements. An individual does not need to disclose their personal identity when sharing posts via social media or commenting on a blog post. For some, a hidden identity may be a significant factor in the decision to participate in environmental activism. More research needs to be conducted on risks associated with online activism to make these connections, and gaps must be filled for risks perceived with offline grassroots activism.
The research that has been conducted within this study aims to bridge both gaps. The research is specific to university students, many of whom participate in environmental activism (72% of participants; see Appendix B); therefore, it provides more data related to the impact of university activism. Additionally, the research analyzed specific risks associated with both online and offline grassroots environmental activism and determined whether there are differences between risk associations with each form. Minimal research on this topic has yet to be conducted within the field of communications and social sciences.
Main Research Question. Do university students associate different risks with online environmental activism and offline grassroots environmental activism?
Sub Research Questions. Is there a relationship between the risks participants of different gender identities associate with each type of activism? Do university students with past activism experience associate more risk with online and offline grassroots environmental activism?
Significance of the Study
The results of this research will be significant to understand if university students associate different risks with online versus offline grassroots activism. Online communication is becoming an increasingly important factor in forming a comprehensive understanding of communicative ecosystems, and understanding how perceptions shift between online and offline environments is critical within the field of communication.
With many environmental and social justice movements arising globally, students are presented with a wide variety of politically charged rhetoric that can influence personal stances. This research explored whether different risks—such as social, emotional, economic, and physical—impact individuals from different demographic groups in universities, such as participants with different gender identities and visible minority statuses. Understanding the relationship between risk perception and different forms of environmental activism may have practical applications in how individuals communicate about activism online and offline, including how they frame events and news and the tone that this communication takes. It may also influence how people perceive the rhetoric surrounding environmental activism. Finally, the researchers anticipate that building this understanding may also pave the way to increasing the overall capacity of groups and individuals to facilitate safe activism that encourages participation from individuals of all backgrounds.
Although this research included a detailed analysis of university students’ perception of risks associated with online and offline environmental activism, it was limited by some factors.
Sample Size. This research was conducted on a sample of MacEwan University students across different programs, but the survey received only 25 total participants, of which 17 (68%; see Appendix B) belonged to the Faculty of Fine Arts and Communications. These participants make up only a small selection of university students across Edmonton, limiting the research to this sample selection. In addition, non-binary participants and participants who only participated in offline grassroots environmental activism represented only small portions of the sample size, limiting how well these groups were represented in the present study.
Researcher Bias. The researchers involved in this study have previous experience with environmental activism. It must be acknowledged that this experience may introduce biases into the analysis of the data and the following discussion and conclusions. Care was taken to reduce these biases, but this remains a limitation in the research.
Length of Research. The survey was open for participation for three weeks before it was closed. The short duration of research limited the number of students able to participate.
Length of Survey. A maximum of 18 questions were approved for the survey used in this research, which limited the breadth of questions that could be asked surrounding environmental activism participation and associated risks.
Activism. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (n.d.-a), activism is defined as “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.” Within the context of this research, activism was defined further as action taken for or against a political or social topic, as defined by Joyce (2010).
Economic Risk. “Economic risks include payment by subjects for procedures not otherwise required, loss of wages or other income and any other financial costs, such as damage to a subject’s employability” (University of Oregon, n.d., para. 4). When identifying economic risks associated with environmental activism, expenses incurred due to damage of personal property were included. Fines handed out by authorities were also considered an economic risk.
Emotional Risk. Emotional risk, also identified as a psychological risk, includes “the production of negative affective states such as anxiety, depression, guilt, shock and loss of self-esteem and altered behaviour” (University of Oregon, n.d., para. 3). Any risk perceived to put one’s mental well-being in jeopardy was considered an emotional risk within the context of this research.
Environmental Activism. Encyclopedia.com (n.d.) defines environmental activism as encompassing “a broad array of individuals and organizations working in scientific, social, conservational, and political fields that address the concerns of environmentalism” (para. 1). When looking to determine whether participants of our research have participated in environmental activism, the researchers focussed primarily on the political facet of environmental activism, although all other forms were still considered in the working definition within this research.
Grassroots Movement. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (n.d.-b) defines the term grassroots as being “basic or fundamental.” In reference to a movement or organization, this study used the term grassroots to describe working from a local level to mobilize a population to take political or social action. Grassroots was used within this research to reference traditional, offline methods of activism.
Offline Activism. Within the scope of this study, offline activism was defined as any form of activism outside of sharing content and interacting on social media or via blogs. This includes boycotting (in-person), attending protests, petition signing, and wearing campaign badges, which are categories used by Kopacheva (2021). Petition signing is a traditional form of activism and was defined as offline activism within the boundaries of this research, including petitions signed online through a website or other platform.
Online Activism. To define online activism, often referred to as digital activism, the researchers followed Kopacheva’s (2021) definition to include posting or sharing anything about politics online, such as on blogs or social media. Primarily, this research’s definition of online activism encompassed social media activism. Viewing live streams of protests online via websites or social media was defined as a form of online activism. Within the context of this research, petitions signed online through a website or other platform were not defined as online activism.
Physical Risk. The University of Oregon (n.d.) defines physical risk as, “physical discomfort, pain, injury, illness or disease” (para. 2). In this study, the researchers also included the possibility of death as a perceived physical risk.
Risk. This research defined risk primarily as a noun. Simply put, risk is “a situation involving exposure to danger” (Lexico, n.d.). As Wiltfang and McAdam (1991) noted, perceived risk is often subjective. This research acknowledged that perceived and objective risk may be influenced by demographic factors such as ethnicity, gender identity, socio-economic status, and other categories. Additionally, risks come in many forms, which is why multiple categories of risk have been defined within this research.
Social Risk. As defined by the University of Oregon (n.d.), social risks cause: Alterations in relationships with others that are to the disadvantage of the subject, including embarrassment, loss of respect of others, labelling a subject in a way that will have negative consequences, or in some way diminishing those opportunities and powers a person has by virtue of relationships with others (para. 4). Any risk that interferes with a participant’s relationships or social status was deemed a social risk within this research.
Existing research offers insight into the developments of environmental activism and student participation throughout history. Previous studies focused on risk association and factors impacting participation in activism also provide a foundation for the current research. Social justice movements began to grow in the 1960s, and by the late 1980s and early 1990s, the environmental movement was prevalent in many countries across the globe (Cox & Pezzullo, 2018). Terms including “sustainability” and “environmental justice” quickly became buzzwords that continued to propel the movement.
As the movement transitioned into the 21st century, digital activism became entangled with traditional activism methods. The internet grew into a medium for environmental discourse and soon, a catalyst for exchanging information and a means to close the gap between distance and action. Digital activism “refers both to the digital technology that is used in a given activism campaign and to the economic, social, and political context in which such technology use occurs” (Joyce, 2010, p. 14). Today, protests can be live-streamed, and photos, videos, and text can be shared internationally in seconds. The digital sphere has become a strong platform used to advocate for change and to hold people accountable for their actions.
However, demographic, social, and political factors can impact the access and acceptance of digital technologies as a means for activism. Digital activism may be widely accessible in more affluent countries, but it often leaves developing countries behind due to poorer internet connection and less access to modern cable infrastructure (Joyce, 2010). As Joyce (2010) notes, Societal norms can also greatly influence whether and how a person uses digital technology for activism. Just as there are expectations about what clothing one should wear or what one should do with leisure time, there are expectations about the practices associated with digital activism (p. 17).
Age, gender, religion, education, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status can all influence the expectations for activism in digital spaces, as can politics. Select demographics have been included within the current research to analyze the impact of gender identity and participation on risk association.
In democratic and semi-democratic societies where citizens have meaningful influence over the actions of their government, the political context of digital activism can be understood in terms of law and regulation (Joyce, 2010). At the other extreme, authoritarian and repressive governments do not limit themselves to legal channels when handling the online environment. In these societies, governments can track online speech and halt political and social action taken by activists online. Acknowledging that activism does not look the same across countries is important to place the current research in context with pre-existing studies. Risks associated with both online and offline activism vary depending on each of the demographics listed.
All activism (and change) brings with it risks. One group of political activists might be able to use online communication effectively to organize collective action, while another might endanger its members and supporters through an easily traceable digital data trail (Joyce, 2010, p. 45). Wiltfang and McAdam (1991) undertook research to better understand why offline grassroots activism movements exist and the factors that influence an individual’s choice to participate.
Wiltfang and McAdam settled on variables of risk and ‘cost,’ or “anything given up, forgone, spent, lost or negatively experienced activists during their participation in movement activities” (1991, p. 994). They determined that this ‘cost’ was dependent on both the actions of an individual and another person’s reaction to those actions and concluded that demographics were one factor that impacted perceived risk and cost. The study found that younger participants were more likely to be involved in risky activism as well as participants with older children (12 years or older) when compared to participants with no children or young children. Job security, prior activism experience, and attendance of religious events also impacted involvement in activism with high-risk associations.
While Wiltfang and McAdam’s (1991) research provides useful insight into factors that may influence participation in offline grassroots activism, it was undertaken at the cusp of the digital era and therefore, did not consider digital activism within its scope. To fill this gap, Kopacheva (2021) analyzed the relationship between online activism and offline forms of unconventional political participation through a secondary research analysis of the 2018 European Social Survey.
The study sought to better understand how internet activity influences both offline and online political participation (Kopacheva, 2021). The results showed that of the 35,807 participants, only 15% recorded participating in online activism. Most participants recorded participating in offline forms of unconventional political participation, including 24% who had signed petitions, 18% who had boycotted, 8% who had worn campaign badges, and 7% who had protested. These types of unconventional political participation were useful in categorizing forms of online and offline environmental activism within the current study.
Some insightful conclusions arose from this research. One was that social trust was non-significant for online activism (Kopacheva, 2021). Although both online and offline activism have the potential to mobilize new groups of people, online forms mobilize groups with lower risk preferences. One explanation for this difference was that online activists “believe their identity can be secured by the depths of the internet space,” hence, the lack of need for social trust (Kopacheva, 2021, p. 77). A secondary explanation was that people who participate in online activism do not believe in the effectiveness of their actions, and therefore were not looking for the support of other participants. Other research supports this conclusion (Barney, 2010; Gladwell, 2010; Larsson, 2013).
Additionally, Kopacheva (2021) determined that individuals with more trust in political systems were less likely to seek involvement in all forms of activism. Overall, the study concluded that “online activism is similar to any other form of unconventional political participation” (p. 77). This conclusion is vital to the current research because the researchers within the current study determined that the online form of activism is just as valid as the offline form.
The current research focuses on university students’ involvement in environmental activism, therefore analyzing the impact and adversity faced by youth activists is significant to understanding their rationale for participation. Although this area has been under-researched (Chubb & Lange, 2009), select scholars have approached the topic. Lund and Van Beers (2020) interviewed several former youth activists to determine the challenges and negative experiences they faced when engaged in activism during their high school and university years. The study explored personal experiences with several types of risks, including the negative social and emotional impacts the participants associated with youth activism.
Lund and Van Beers (2020) reported several anecdotes relating to the difficulties and risks the participants experienced as youth activists. Notably, emotional and social risks were frequently identified. While grateful for their activist experiences, the participants shared key memories of times when they were bullied or experienced other stresses as a part of their work. Some youth activists experienced racism, others bullying, and some were left “jaded and burnt out” when older activists showed little interest in supporting the younger members of their community (Lund & Van Beers, 2020, p. 9). This research offers insight into the reality of risks associated with youth activism through personal anecdotes, helping researchers to develop an understanding of the emotional and social risks involved with activism.
The current research aims to bridge the gap in understanding of university student participation in environmental activism. By sampling the MacEwan University student population and conducting research directly related to the contrast between online and offline forms of activism, this study will provide significant findings to add to existing scholarship. By defining four distinct risk types (social, emotional, economic, and physical), this research also contributes to the literature by studying various risk types simultaneously that were more commonly studied individually or implicitly in the pre-existing literature. The researchers in the present study replicate, synthesize, and expand upon the general risk-related discussions performed in previous literature by analyzing these four variables and connecting them to gender identity and participation in environmental activism.
This study engaged in a mixed methods approach to address the previously identified research questions. Also known as triangulation, both qualitative and quantitative approaches were used at different stages to gain a better understanding of the problem being addressed (Wimmer & Dominick, 2014). The quantitative portion of the study involved coding data and performing a deductive analysis on standardized questions, aligning with Wimmer and Dominick’s (2014) definition of quantitative research. Wimmer and Dominick (2014) define a qualitative research method as one that “uses flexible questioning” (p. 460). Qualitative research methods were engaged in the later portion of the study when the open-ended questions were analyzed.
This study used a self-administered online survey to collect data from the participants. The survey was posted to online groups twice over the three-week period of data collection to ensure as many students had the opportunity to participate as possible. The survey consisted of five demographic questions. Participants had the option to not disclose demographic information if they did not wish to. In addition, there were twelve questions that related to the variables in this study (economic risk, social risk, emotional risk, physical risk, online environmental activism and offline grassroots environmental activism). The variable-based questions involved participants using a rating scale. Participants were given a risk type (i.e., emotional risk) and were asked to rate it on a scale of one to five to indicate what level of that risk they associated with each form of activism. Participants were also asked to identify whether they participated in either type of activism (or both). Finally, participants were presented with an open-ended question that asked them to identify any additional types of risk they associate with digital environmental activism and in-person grassroots environmental activism. The data was collected over a three-week period. A copy of the survey questions can be found in Appendix A.
To achieve a sample of university students to take part in our survey, the researchers used a combination of random and purposive sampling. For the portion of the study that uses random sampling, the survey link was posted online to two Facebook groups consisting solely of MacEwan students—MacEwan University Student Experience and MacEwan Communications Program. For the portion that involves purposeful sampling, the survey was distributed to MacEwan University Communication students currently enrolled in either an introductory or advanced communication research course. The resulting sample included 25 total participants.
The data in this study was collected using a self-administered survey via Google Forms. Participants were able to access the form through a link and fill the survey out anonymously. Google Forms allowed the researchers to generate a spreadsheet in Google Sheets containing the data. This study also used the built-in data analysis feature on Google Forms to generate charts for the results of each question. Google Forms also allowed for simple and reliable cloud storage of data, minimizing the risk of any data loss or corruption during the research process. Each variable was measured using specific questions.
Online and Offline Grassroots Environmental Activism. The survey aimed to not only identify a difference in risks associated with online and offline grassroots environmental activism but to also address the following sub-questions: “Do university students with past activism experience associate more risk with online or offline grassroots environmental activism?”
To measure these variables, the survey included the questions, “Have you previously or do you currently participate in online environmental activism?” and “Have you previously or do you currently participate in offline grassroots environmental activism?” These questions established the prior activism experience of participants and allowed the researchers to determine if their involvement related to their reported levels of perceived risk associated with activism.
Risk-Related Variables (Economic Risk, Physical Risk, Emotional Risk, Social Risk). The risk-related variables were measured using a rating scale to determine to what degree each type of risk was associated with which type of activism. These questions asked participants to rate each type of risk between one and five to indicate what level of each type of risk they associated with each type of activism. The answers were then coded as follows:
1 = Low risk
2 = Somewhat low risk
3 = Moderate risk
4 = Somewhat high risk
5 = High risk
These questions appeared as, “How much [risk type] do you associate with [environmental activism type]?”
Question Development: The researchers constructed 17 questions that provided a wide range of data to be analyzed.
Survey Creation: The researchers input the previously developed survey questions into the surveying software, Google Forms.
Survey Dissemination: The researchers posted the completed survey to two Facebook groups exclusive to MacEwan University students: MacEwan University Student Experience and MacEwan Communications Program. Additionally, the survey was disseminated to all students currently enrolled in a research-based course in the communication studies program at MacEwan University.
Data Monitoring: The researchers monitored the incoming responses three times per week to identify and record any emerging trends in the answers.
Data Analysis: The researchers analyzed each question using the graphs and charts produced by the Google Forms software after the survey’s closing date.
Data Comparisons/Discussions: The researchers analyzed pairs/groups of questions to determine how these comparisons could achieve a deeper understanding of the research questions posed in this study.
Conclusions: The researchers developed multiple broader conclusions that addressed the research questions posed in this research.
Each variable was analyzed using the numeric data provided by the corresponding question(s). The survey data was converted into visual charts using Google Forms, which allowed the researchers to conduct a deductive analysis to uncover trends in the data.
First, the researchers analyzed the data to identify if there was a difference between the types of risks that most university students associate with online environmental activism and offline grassroots environmental activism by calculating the average rating for each risk type’s association with each type of activism. The researchers also analyzed the open-ended questions to explore any additional insights or themes the participants were able to provide about risks and activism that were not covered by the main portion of the survey.
Then, the researchers analyzed the data in terms of reported gender identity to compare the relationship between gender identity and risk association. For this part of the analysis, the researchers found the average rating for each risk type’s association with each type of activism for each represented gender identity.
This comparison process was repeated for the questions relating to environmental activism participation. The average rating of each risk type’s association with each type of activism was calculated for participants who were involved in online activism, participants who were involved in offline grassroots activism, participants who were involved in neither type of activism, and participants who were involved in both types of activism.
The demographics deemed necessary to survey within this research included age, year of study, faculty or school, gender identity, and minority status. Participants were also asked to record their participation in online and offline grassroots environmental activism by responding Yes or No. All raw survey data is compiled into Appendix B.
In reference to participation, participants reported more involvement in online environmental activism (n=18; 72%) as compared to offline grassroots environmental activism (n=13; 52%). It is important to note that almost half of participants listed that they do not participate in offline grassroots environmental activism. Of these participants, the majority (n=18; 72%) reported falling into the 18–24-year-old group, followed by 24% (n=6) in the 25–31-year-old range. Over half (n=13; 52%) were in their fourth year of study, and most participants reported being enrolled in the Faculty of Fine Arts and Communication (n=17, 68%). This is likely due to the demographic of the MacEwan Communications Program Facebook group and sharing the survey amongst communications students.
In terms of gender identity, most participants were cis female (n=18; 72%) with 20% listing cis male (n=5) and 8% listing non-binary (n=2). The researchers also inquired about visible minority status in a Yes, No, and Prefer not to say format. Most participants listed they did not identify as a visible minority (n=21; 81%).
Question 8: How much Social Risk do you Identify with Online Environmental Activism?
For Question 8, participants were asked to rate on a scale of one to five the level of social risk that they associate with online environmental activism. Of the 25 participants that responded, no participant rated the level of associated social risk higher than a four. As shown in Figure 1, most students (n=10; 40%) rated social risk associated with online environmental activism 2.0 (somewhat low risk). This indicates that the social risk associated with online environmental activism is somewhat low for the participants.
Question 9: How much Social Risk do you Associate with Offline Grassroots Environmental Activism?
Figure 2 shows the results of Question 9. Participants were asked to rate on a scale of one to five how much social risk they associated with offline grassroots environmental activism. No participant rated this risk measurement higher than a 4.0 (somewhat high risk). The most popular rating was a 4.0 (somewhat high risk), but the average rating for Question 9 was 2.6 (somewhat low–moderate risk). This average indicates that the amount of social risk involved with offline grassroots environmental activism is low–moderate in the view of the participants.
Question 10: How much Emotional Risk do you Identify with Online Environmental Activism?
Figure 3 shows the results of Question 10. All 25 participants rated on a scale of one to five how much emotional risk they associated with online environmental activism. The ratings for this question ranged from one to five, and the most popular answer was a rating of 1.0 (low risk). The average rating across all participants was 2.2 (low–somewhat low risk), indicating that the emotional risk associated with online environmental activism is somewhat low.
Question 11: How much Emotional Risk do you Associate with Offline Grassroots Environmental Activism?
All 25 participants in this study listed the emotional risk associated with offline grassroots environmental activism on a scale from one to five (Figure 4). As shown in Figure 4, the most popular rating, with 28% (n=7) of participants responding, was 4.0 (somewhat high risk), which showed that seven individuals felt a large amount of risk participating offline. The average rating across all participants was 3.0 (moderate risk), indicating that the emotional risk associated with offline environmental activism is moderate.
Question 12: How much Economic Risk do you Identify with Online Environmental Activism?
Twenty-five participants responded to Question 12, as shown in Figure 5. An overwhelming 60% (n=15) of participants responded with a 1.0 (low risk) rating. The average rating across all participants for this question was 1.5 (low–somewhat low risk), indicating that they associate little economic risk with online environmental activism.
Question 13: How much Economic Risk do you Associate with Offline Grassroots Environmental Activism?
All participants responded to Question 13, as shown in Figure 6. Approximately half (n=12; 48%) of participants rated the economic risk as a 1.0 (low risk), showing these 12 participants felt a little amount of risk in participating offline. The average rating across all participants for this question was 2.2 (low–somewhat low risk). The average rating indicates that the emotional risk associated with offline environmental activism is low.
Question 14: How much Physical Risk do you Identify with Online Environmental Activism?
In Question 14, where researchers asked participants to rate on a scale of one to five on how much physical risk they associate with online environmental activism, 96% (n=24) of students said they rate at a 1.0 or associate low risk. The average rating across all participants for this question was also 1.0 (low risk). As shown in Figure 7, only one participant rated the physical risk associated with online environmental activism over a 1.0 (low risk), with this participant rating it at 2.0 (somewhat low risk).
Question 15: How much Physical Risk do you Associate with Offline Grassroots Environmental Activism?
Figure 8 exemplifies the results of Question 15. The most popular ratings (n=7; 28%) were 1.0 (low risk) and 2.0 (somewhat low risk), which showed that 14 participants felt a low or moderately low amount of risk participating offline. The average rating across all participants for this question was 2.6 (somewhat low–moderate risk). The average rating indicates that the physical risk associated with offline environmental activism is low–moderate. Although, it is notable that almost one-quarter of the participants (n=6; 24%) rated this variable a 5.0 (high risk), the highest possible rating.
Question 16: Do you Associate any Other Forms of Risk with Online Environmental Activism? Question 16 offered a short answer for participants to add any forms of risk associated with online environmental activism they felt the researchers had missed within the survey. Most (n=21; 84%) participants did not leave a response to this question, listed No, or left another phrase implying no answer was given. However, 16% (n=4) of the participants chose to answer.
Some (n=2; 8%) of the responses listed cyberbullying as a possible risk not covered in the survey. The types of risks listed within the survey, specifically emotional and social risks, can be applied to the experiences of cyberbullying victims. The other 8% (n=2) of participants listed reputation, harassment, and foul language as additional risks. Again, the survey included broader categories of risk associated with each of these experiences. The researchers concluded that all areas of risk were covered within the survey’s parameters and the participants’ understanding.
Question 17: Do you Associate any Other Forms of Risk with Offline Grassroots
Environmental Activism? Question 17 offered a short answer for participants to add any forms of risk associated with offline grassroots environmental activism they felt the researchers had missed within the survey. Like Question 16, 84% (n=21) of participants did not leave a response to this question, listed No, or left another phrase implying no answer was given. Again, 16% (n=4) of the participants chose to answer. Racialization, police brutality, assault, and vandalization of property were listed as specific risks that some of the participants felt were not covered. Some participants explained that risk levels depend on the type and location of offline grassroots environmental activism. One participant listed that having a large following online could lead to heightened risk factors on the ground. Like Question 16, researchers concluded that these more explicit examples of risk are included within the general categories of social, emotional, physical, and economic risk.
The following section discusses the relationships between gender identity and risk association as well as participation and risk association. Comparing the relationship between different data sets in this way allows the researchers to explore the results on a broader scale and address the study’s main and sub research questions from a statistically informed perspective.
Gender and Specific Risk Associations
The data discussed in the following section compares how participants of different gender identities relate to risk associations with different types of environmental activism. This comparison addresses the sub research question, “Is there a relationship between the risks participants of different gender identities associate with each type of activism?”
Figure 9 compiles the data from Tables 3–10 (see Appendix C). This data shows the average rating of each risk type and environmental activism type by participants of different gender identities.
The data in Figure 9 indicates that participants who identified as non-binary reported the highest average risk ratings for many risk categories (Tables 4–8 and Table 10), with social and physical risks in online environmental activism being notable deviations from this trend (Tables 3 and 9). Similarly, cis male participants rated their association of each risk type lowest in all cases except for social risk associated with online and offline grassroots environmental activism (Tables 3 and 4) and physical risk associated with offline grassroots environmental activism (Table 10).
Notably, the largest difference between non-binary participants’ average risk rating and the average rating of cis gendered participants was for physical risk in offline grassroots environmental activism (Table 10), and physical risk in offline grassroots environmental activism was also the only category in which all three represented gender identities had at least one participant rate a 5.0 (high risk).
Cis Male (2.6: somewhat low–moderate risk): Emotional risk associated with offline environmental activism (Table 6) and social risk associated with offline environmental activism (Table 4).
Cis Female (3.1: moderate risk): Emotional risk associated with offline environmental activism (Table 6).
Non-binary (4.0: somewhat high risk): Emotional risk associated with offline grassroots environmental activism (Table 6) and physical risk associated with offline grassroots environmental activism (Table 10).
These trends show that despite non-binary participants reporting higher average ratings for most risk types in this study, there is a consensus among participants of all gender identities that emotional risk during offline environmental activism is the most significant as it appears as a top rating for all groups. The highest average rated risk across all represented gender identities was a 4.0 (somewhat high risk), which was the social and emotional risk rating associated with offline grassroots environmental activism (see Figure 9).
On the other hand, cis male participants reported the lowest risk rating in most categories, with social risk associated with online and offline grassroots environmental activism (Table 3 and Table 3) and physical risk associated with offline grassroots environmental activism (Table 10) being notable exceptions. For social risk associated with online environmental activism (Table 3), non-binary participants reported the lowest average risk rating (1.5: low–somewhat low risk), whereas cis males rated it an average of 2.2 (somewhat low risk). For social risk associated with offline grassroots environmental activism (Table 4), cis female participants reported the lowest average risk rating (2.4: somewhat low risk), whereas cis males rated it an average of 2.6 (somewhat low–moderate risk). For physical risk associated with offline grassroots environmental activism (Table 10), cis female and non-binary participants rated the risk at an average of 1.0 (low risk), and cis male participants rated it an average of 1.2 (low risk). The lowest average risk rating for each represented gender identity is as follows (see Appendix C):
Cis Male (1.2: low risk): Physical risk associated with online environmental activism (Table 9).
Cis Female (1.0: low risk): Physical risk associated with online environmental activism (Table 9).
Non-binary (1.0: low risk): Physical risk associated with online environmental activism (Table 9).
As shown, the unanimous opinion of participants of all represented gender identities is that the physical risk associated with online environmental activism is the lowest risk rating.
Table 1 shows the average risk rating (all risk types) for each type of environmental activism as reported by each represented gender identity. The data in Table 1 shows that non-binary participants report a larger difference between their average ratings of all risk types for online and offline grassroots environmental activism. For this group, the average reported risk rating for online environmental activism was 1.9 (low–somewhat low risk), whereas the average reported risk rating for offline grassroots environmental activism was 3.8 (moderate–somewhat high risk), indicating a difference in average rating of 1.9 between the two types of environmental activism. In contrast, cis male and cis female participants reported only a 0.8 and 0.9 average rating difference between online and offline grassroots environmental activism, respectively. This is almost twice the difference between online and offline grassroots environmental activism, as reported by cis gendered participants.
Table 1 also shows that the difference in average risk rating for online environmental activism is minimal between the represented gender identities, whereas there is a more significant difference in the average risk ratings for offline grassroots environmental activism. The difference in the lowest average risk rating for online environmental activism (cis male at an average rating of 1.6: low–somewhat low risk) and the highest risk rating for online environmental activism (non-binary at an average rating of 1.9: low–somewhat low risk) is only 0.3. In comparison, the difference in the lowest average risk rating for offline grassroots environmental activism (cis male at an average rating of 2.4: somewhat low risk) and the highest risk rating for offline grassroots environmental activism (non-binary at an average rating of 3.8: moderate–somewhat high risk) is a difference of 1.4.
Participation and Specific Risk Association
The data in the following comparison analyzes how participants’ past environmental activism experience relates to their association of overall risk with online and offline grassroots environmental activism. Tables 11–18 (Appendix C) exemplify the relationship between risk association and participation in online and offline grassroots environmental activism. Within this research, participation in environmental activism was classified into four groups:
- Participation in both online and offline grassroots activism (Both)
- Participation in only online activism
- Participation in only offline grassroots activism
- Participation in neither online nor offline grassroots activism (Neither)
The researchers analyzed the comparisons between Question 6, Question 7, and Questions 8–15 (as exemplified in Tables 11–18). A few key comparisons were noted.
Figure 10 compiles the average of each risk associated with both online and offline environmental activism. The highest average associations with each group of participants listed above were as follows:
Both (2.7: somewhat low–moderate risk): Emotional risk associated with offline activism (Table 16)
Only online activism (3.3: moderate risk): Emotional risk associated with offline activism (Table 16)
Only offline activism (4.0: somewhat high risk): Social risk associated with offline activism (Table 14)
Neither (2.7: somewhat low–moderate risk): Emotional risk associated with offline activism (Table 16)
These results exemplify that regardless of participation in environmental activism, the risk most associated is emotional risk with offline grassroots activism. The outlier in this data is individuals who participate in offline activism. The highest average for these participants was 4.0 (somewhat high risk), and it was in relation to social risk associated with offline activism. However, only one participant fell into this category of participation. The researchers acknowledged there was insufficient data to prove this rating (4.0: somewhat high risk).
The lowest average risk associations with each category of participants based on participation are as follows:
Both (1.0: low risk): Physical risk associated with online activism (Table 17).
Only online activism (1.0: low risk): Physical risk associated with online activism (Table 17).
Only offline activism (1.0: low risk):
- Physical risk associated with online activism (Table 17).
- Emotional risk associated with online activism (Table 13).
- Economic risk associated with offline activism (Table 16).
Neither (1.0: low risk): Physical risk associated with online activism (Table 17).
This data exemplifies that all participants, regardless of their participation in environmental activism, view the lowest risk (1.0: low risk) to be physical risk associated with online activism. The individual who only participates in offline activism also viewed the lowest risk (1.0: low risk) with emotional risk associated with online activism and economic risk associated with offline activism.
Aside from analyzing the highest and lowest associated risks by participation, a few more specific comparisons were identified.
Table 2 compares participation in environmental activism with overall risk association. The highest overall risk association with online activism (1.8: low–somewhat low risk) was identified by individuals who participate in both forms of activism. In contrast, the lowest average risk association for online activism (1.5: low–somewhat low risk) was identified by individuals who only participate in offline activism and neither form. Adversely, the highest average risk association with offline activism (3.0: moderate risk) was recorded by individuals who participated in only offline activism. The lowest average risk association with offline activism (2.0: somewhat low risk) was identified by individuals who only participate in online activism. The researchers found this low-risk association interesting.
Table 2 also shows there is only a 0.3 difference between online and offline risk association for individuals who participate in only online activism. This value is quite small, and the relationship offers the possibility for continued research. As exemplified in Table 2, individuals who participate in neither form of activism listed the lowest average risk association with online activism (1.5: low–somewhat low risk) but also listed the second-highest average risk association with offline activism (2.0: somewhat low risk). Given the data and current analyses, it is not clear whether individuals who participate in environmental activism associate more risk with their activism. However, each of the comparisons analyzed offer a glimpse into how participation in environmental activism impacts risk association with the online and offline forms.
The researchers’ purpose was to take an in-depth look at how different types and levels of risks are associated with different forms of online and offline grassroots environmental activism. To do so, the researchers used a mixed methods approach of both qualitative and quantitative data gathering, focusing on coding quantitative data and performing a deductive analysis on standardized questions. The qualitative data is based on the answers to open-ended survey questions. Questions included in the survey directly address university students’ association with risk in online and offline grassroots environmental activism.
University Students and Risk Associations
Many conclusions arose from the data collected through this survey. First, by the participants’ responses in this survey, researchers were able to see a trend that offline grassroots environmental activism is considered riskier for all types of the surveyed risks (Figures 1–8). This finding supports the researchers’ hypothesis: “University students associate more of all types of risks with offline grassroots environmental activism than online environmental activism.” From the ratings, the researchers also determined that the highest average level of risk associated with any type of environmental activism was emotional risk associated with offline grassroots environmental activism, which was rated an average of 3.0 (moderate risk). The type of risk that had the largest difference in risk association between online and offline grassroots environmental activism was physical risk (Figure 7 and Figure 8). Further, the open-ended question portion of the survey also indicates that some participants associated highly specific forms of risk scenarios rather than within general social, emotional, physical, and economic risks. An example of a specific risk is police brutality; the participants decided to indicate this risk separately as a specific example rather than including it in the broader categories defined by the survey.
Gender Identity and Risk Association
By using the data from Tables 3–10 (Appendix C) and the compiled data in Figure 9, a few key conclusions have been made about the correlation between gender identity and the association of all types of risk with online and offline grassroots environmental activism.
The results from the survey suggest that participants who identify as non-binary associate higher risk levels with offline grassroots environmental activism than cis gender identities for most risk types (see Tables 3–10; Table 3 and Table 9 are notable breaks in this trend). For all types of risk except social and physical risk in online environmental activism, non-binary participants reported the highest average ratings.
Cis male participants reported the lowest average rating for all risk types except for social risk associated with online and offline grassroots environmental activism (Tables 3 and 4) and physical risk associated with offline grassroots environmental activism (Table 10), indicating that cis male participants are less likely to associate risks with environmental activism.
Additionally, non-binary participants also perceive a bigger difference in risk between online and offline grassroots environmental activism than cis gendered participants (Table 1).
Drawing conclusions about the relationship between gender identity and risk association addresses one of the sub-questions of this study: “Is there a relationship between the risks participants of different gender identities associate with each type of activism?” This study shows there is a relationship between gender and risk associated with environmental activism.
Participation and Risk Association
This section references Tables 11–18 (Appendix C). The comparison between participation and risk association was defined primarily to conclude the research sub-question: “Do university students with past activism experience associate more risk with online and offline grassroots environmental activism?” Concerning this question, the researchers conclude that participation in environmental activism does not always equate to a higher level of perceived risk.
As per Table 2, the individual who participated in only offline activism reported the highest average rating (3.0: moderate–high risk) with offline activism. Meanwhile, individuals who participate in both forms of activism associated the highest average risk (1.8: low–somewhat-low risk) with online activism, closely followed by individuals who only participate in online activism (1.7: low–somewhat-low risk). These results highlight that individuals who participate in the chosen form of activism associate higher levels of risk with said form. This poses the question of whether perceived risk associated with participation influences the decision for an individual to participate.
Additionally, when analyzing the comparisons, risk-specific conclusions can be made. Interestingly, the highest average associated risk for individuals participating in both forms of activism, only online activism, and neither form of activism was emotional risk associated with offline environmental activism. The participant who was involved in only offline activism also listed a high level of emotional risk with offline activism, which was the highest recorded risk (3.0: moderate–high risk). However, due to the small sample size, the researchers could not form conclusions based on this individual’s response. In terms of this comparison, it can be concluded that emotional risk is generally perceived to be the highest across all types of participation in environmental activism.
The mixed methods form of research highly suggests that university students associate higher levels of risk with offline environmental activism.
The main recommendation for this research is based on the limited number of responses that this survey received. The researchers would suggest that other higher-level institutions in Edmonton like the University of Alberta, NAIT, Concordia University, Kings University, and Athabasca University also participate in the survey, which would directly help address the lack of participation. Additionally, gaining a better understanding and overall representation of minority groups participating in this study would be beneficial to achieving more widespread results. For example, only two non-binary participants were identified out of 25 participants. Ensuring the research includes more diverse participants would help the researchers better understand the risks associated with these forms of online and offline environmental activism.
Within the constraints of this research, the researchers were not able to conclude whether risk perception influences an individual’s participation in environmental activism. More research should be conducted to better understand whether perceived risk association influences participation in this regard. The researchers also suggest that future research on this topic integrates interviews or focus groups to get a more in-depth understanding of why risk associations vary between different groups.
About the Authors
Cassidy Formenti is a digital storyteller with a passion for understanding and sharing stories from within the activist community. She’s worked alongside fellow political and social activists, entrepreneurs, and small business owners to help develop their digital identities.
Sarah Jackson is a local communications professional based in Edmonton. Recently, she has worked on campaigns with the United Nations Foundation with a focus on getting girls politically active.
Lauren McMullen is a recent Bachelor of Communication graduate. In her undergraduate research, she focused on gender inequality in organizations during the pandemic. She has previously published in New Pathway.
Earth Common Journal
An online journal dedicated to supporting and promoting student research projects on the topics of sustainability, conservation and climate adaptation