In Our Age of Social Protests, What Promotes Protest?


Protesters in Kiev
Protesters in Kiev’s Euromaidan. (Photo: Alexandra (Nessa) Gnatoush/Flickr)

The power of social protests has been made clear in the recent actions in Kiev. A president has been ousted and Russian war planes scrambled on the Ukraine border because people took to the streets. The much gentler protest of Pussy Riot in neighboring Russia also caused a stir far beyond its ironic activity.

Of course, there have always been social protests. They were even satirized 2000 years ago in Classical Greek comedies such as Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which women protest against the Peloponnesian war by withholding their sexual privileges. But I think the real change in the nature and prevalence of social movements happened in the mid-1980s when the world watched on television the mass demonstrations in the Philippines which ousted President Ferdinand Marcos. This was the first time that mass protests reached a world-wide audience because of the emergent availability of television news.

Television news now makes us aware of protests wherever they occur, showing how many and varied they are. Indeed, over the last quarter of a century I don’t think there has been a country anywhere that has avoided some significant form of social protest. This makes me wonder whether the 21st century could reasonably be called the Age of Social Protest? After all, even police officers protested on the streets of London not long after they had to manage similar protests in similar locations carried out by the more usual form of protesters, students.

Indeed, over the last quarter of a century I don’t think there has been a country anywhere that has avoided some significant form of social protest. This makes me wonder whether the 21st century could reasonably be called the Age of Social Protest?

Political and economic considerations are the usual sources for explanations of the emergence of social protests. But as social protest has become more of a topic for social scientists, other perspectives are emerging that elucidate how these protests come about. In particular three questions are emerging that are not often asked, but are central to understanding how protest movements gain momentum and sustain it.

One is that when some people take to the streets, others stay at home. What causes some to join the protests and others not to? A related but possibly even more challenging question is why these social events occur when they do and what maintains them? Their apparently often sudden outburst is a further aspect requiring explanation. These puzzles are highlighted be the playwright David Hare. In a recent interview he asks why the British were not on the streets to protest against the omnipresent power of the security services, which have been so widely revealed. Hare doesn’t make the point, but it is worth noting that a ban on foxhunting generated more demonstrations than any outcry against the state of the NHS or other daily concerns of people despite fox-hunting’s much more limited impact on most people’s daily lives.

The early explanations of who protests, particularly when they erupted into crowds on the streets proposed that the people involved were bizarre, from the fringes of society or at least displaced from their normal human state by being part of a crowd. The most influential of these viewpoints, still promulgated today, was Gustave LeBon’s 19th century use of Darwinian arguments to propose that people en masse become more like their animal origins. Half a century later Freudian suggestions that protesters were less open to control by their superegos was an only slightly more exotic framing of a similar idea.

The people putting forward these views of protesters as aberrant individuals were taking the standpoint of the authorities. They were really moral making moral judgements about those who challenged the existing social order. It was when social scientists themselves got caught up in protest movements in the 1960s, campaigning against the war in Vietnam and for civil liberties in the human rights movement,  that protesters began to be thought of as rational individuals. The research questions then moved from whom the protesters where to consider what processes encouraged or enabled them to join protest movements.

A start at answering these questions is given in the current special issue of Contemporary Social Science guest edited by Giovanni Travaglino, a young academic from the University of Kent. The studies reported do show that this area of research demands a rather more courageous approach to data collection than many other areas of social science. A notable example is the study by Tiina Likki from the University of Lausanne. She explored participation in the Spanish Indignados movement by getting people to complete a seven-page questionnaire while they were occupying the Hotel Madrid and waiting on the street for a demonstration to begin. The movement takes its name — Spanish for ‘outrage’ — from the anger against apparently impotent politicians felt by those experiencing the effects of the financial collapse in 2011.

Likki’s bold approach to data collection paid dividends because it enabled her to reveal what a mixture of participants such mass movements are made of. The responses she obtained show that for some people it is commitment to the protest movement itself that is dominant, derived from their outrage with what people are suffering. For others it is a more personal concern about their own material insecurity that moves them onto the streets. There is no necessary correlation between these two motivators for protest.

Craig Calhoun
In an audio interview from Social Science Bites, hear sociologist Craig Calhoun discuss the formation of mass protests.
This ‘unity in diversity’, as Likki calls it, is a recurring finding across the studies of social protest. A particularly interesting illustration of such diversity comes from Brian Callan’s examination, in this special issue, of the pro-Palestinian protests in Israel. Although based in the University of Loughborough, he spent time with different protest groups around Israel. As he  points out, the protesters include “everyone from the Palestinian waiting at the checkpoint, to a Rabbi for Human Rights, the Anarchist blocking a bulldozer, the UN report compiler, the fact finding Christian, or Fasel who wants his house back…” No religious or ideological viewpoints unite these people. It is more a feeling that things are not right. An emotional response brings them together rather than an intellectual one.

Where a community is obviously more homogeneous, as when students protest, there is a similar set of central concerns, but these are more obviously facilitated by social networks. This was examined when protests against the increase in tuition fees erupted in the winter of 2010.  Psychologists are rightly criticized for focusing too much on readily available students as subjects for their experiments, but when students participated in tuition fee protests they became an unusually appropriate topic for the study. Joseph Ibrahim, senior lecturer in sociology at Sheffield Hallam University, saw this opportunity and interviewed 53 students actively involved in the protests. Alexander Hensby from the University of Edinburgh also took advantage of the student protests to explore the paths and barriers to active participation in what he characterizes as high risk activities.

These interviews revealed that it was the moral, or ethical, disquiet with the increased fees which motivated protest rather than the actual financial values that the fees were set at. Social networks and prior experience of political activism can energize this moral stance. But it is a shared emotional outrage, as in Spain, that supports the action rather than reasoned argument.

One further challenge in explaining the emergence of social protest is that it does usually seem to flare up. One moment there is a grumbling disquiet, the next there are hundreds or thousands of people on the streets. What creates this qualitative change from words to action? This is explored by Andrew Livingstone in his thoughtful contribution to this special issue. He argues that sometimes it is the media awareness of the protest which emerges suddenly rather than the protest as such. It has been going on unnoticed until it reaches a level that the media cannot ignore.  But there are other processes that can encourage concerns to explode into active protest. These days they include the use of social media, which may well speed things up. Perhaps more importantly it is the build up of frustration that spills over into anger. The feeling that there is no redress by daily mechanisms gives rise to action, rather than just talk of action.

Social protest has brought the Ukraine to the brink of war, much as anarchist protests sparked the First World War. The studies in this special issue make clear that trying to find a simple reason for such protests is misguided. There will be a variety of motivations from a mixture of people. But what they all share is anger and frustration; a strongly emotional response that defies cold logic.


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David Canter

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

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