Advocacy versus Activism: What is the difference?

Apparently ‘activism’ is a ‘dirty word’ based on how people think about activists and what they do in our society (UBC, 2010; Cucow, 2011). And who knew? I certainly didn’t … and I’ve been calling myself a human rights activist for years.
To get a sense of the differences, I googled ‘activism’ and ‘advocacy’ on Google Images to see what kind of imagery is associated with either term. Below are two photos that may demonstrate the way that people think about both change agents.



Whereas in the majority of photos, advocacy is displayed as a process of dialogue, friendly exchange or negotiation, activism is depicted as a more radical process, involving direct action such as protesting. In many images, activists are depicted as violent.

So what is the main difference and how can that difference help us understand our role as ‘change makers?

Advocacy and activism are tools to create some sort of social and political change. Advocacy is often thought of as “an act of publicly representing an individual, organization, or idea” and used as an umbrella term for many intervention tactics such as “speaking, writing or acting in favour of a participate issue or cause, policy or group of people.” (ChangeThink, 2011; PHAC, 2010). This can include lobbying which the Public Health Agency of Canada prefers to distinguish from advocacy in terms of public health interventions because lobbying is conducted “by a special interest group [that] may or may not be in the public interest” (PHAC, 2010).

According to, actress Angelina Jolie is an example of an advocate who uses her fame to advocate for refugees in her position as the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador (UNHCR) (no date).

Activism, on the other hand, often has a less favorable reputation even though by definition, it can be viewed as simply a form of advocacy. Activism is described as “a policy of taking direct action to achieve a political or social goal” (Zeitz, 2008). The term implies a direct action or intervention such as a protest in favour of change. According to blogger Shane Cucow, activism can be seen as part of the advocacy process or the action(s) that advocates take, such as organize a deliberate and direct protest, to increase awareness or push for change (2011).

According to DoSomething,org, Rosa Parks is an example of an activist. Parks was a civil rights activist in the United States that challenged racial segregation and is known for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a public bus (no date).

Advocacy is often seen as working “within the system” whereas activism is seen as working “outside the system” to generate change (UBC, 2010). The implications of this understanding are discussed in length between two professors; Dr. R. Deibert and Dr. J. Kennelly in a panel at the University of British Columbia titled “Advocate or Activist: What is the best way to effect change?” (podcast available here). Dr. Kennelly discusses her ethnographic research with activists across Canada describing how activists “often feel left out of public discourse, and/or feel that they don’t always fit in” to the political and/or social process (UBC, 2010).

Is it possible that people that call themselves ‘activists’ have given up on working “within the system” and feel like more “radical” actions is necessary to bring about true and transformative change? If ‘advocating’ for a healthier society does not produce results, as public health ‘change makers’, when do we become ‘activists’ and work “outside the system”? What are the advantages and disadvantages of working “within the system” or “outside the system”?
Both terms are not without a few drawbacks. Both concepts remove the importance of collective action in bringing about change. It is important to question our role as advocates if we are ‘speaking on behalf of a community, group or individual’ and how being a spokesperson affects collective action and the agency of the individuals to whom we are representing. The same applies to activism. Most importantly, both terms undermine the importance of recognizing the long and often difficult road to change that requires collective action from many individuals, communities and organizations that work both “inside” and “outside” the system.