how protests matter

Joshua Keating and Matthew Yglesias wonder about the effectiveness of protests. Perhaps spurred by the images of protestors waving signs and burning the effigy of a banker in London streets this week, Keating wonders if today’s protests are simply too unfocused. Rather than being led by leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King who had very specific agendas and goals, today’s protests, he claims, consist of chaotic clusters of issues that “tend to devolve into general lefty free-for-alls.”*  Yglesias thinks that Keating mischaracterizes Gandhi’s and King’s movements. Mass movements tend to have ill-defined goals and it’s only in retrospect that we provide a master narrative linking their grand visions of society with their eventual success. The main difference between the protests of old and those of the new, Yglesias claims, is tactical. King and Gandhi were able to convince groups lacking any kind of formal power to stop cooperating with the dominant institutions of control and bring them to a halt through a sustained campaign of civil disobedience. He compares this form of resistance to today’s street protests:

Organizing people around disciplined, consistent non-violent resistance in which you neither meekly submit to injustice nor angrily lash out against it, but instead move in a calm and determined way to challenge it is extraordinarily difficult. But it works. Getting people to come out every once in a while hold a “protest” is, by contrast, pretty easy. And in the right frame of mind, it’s even fun. I’ve had fun doing it. But it doesn’t really change anything.

Keating and Yglesias both make good points, but they’re also both wrong in different ways.  As someone who has published multiple studies about protests and who knows quite a bit about the history of social movements, I can safely claim to be an expert in this area. Here are my thoughts on why and how protests matter.

Keating makes a good point that protests that lack coherent goals or claims may be less effective. One purpose of protests is to communicate information about an issue that they would otherwise ignore to an audience (i.e., the general public). Usually the content of that information is relatively simple (e.g., people are unhappy about the compensation of AIG executives), but that’s okay because protests are not really the best forum for making nuanced arguments.  The main mechanism of communication is the media. If the media can’t figure out what the main issue is because there are too many issues being presented or because the issue is vaguely defined, then there is a greater likelihood that the media will portray the protest inaccurately or will simply ignore the protest altogether. So yes, it’s important that protestors know how to effectively boil down an issue for journalists. That said, I’m not sure that protestors are much worse at this aspect of protesting than they were 40 years ago. If anything, years of protesting has helped many social movement organizations to perfect their ability to pinpoint an issue and frame it in exactly the right way to draw the attention of the media.  Even protests like one in London this week, which consisted of multiple groups and that had a fairly incoherent or vague message, can get sufficient media attention and a coherent narrative emerges from that coverage due to the skillful entrepreneurship of one or two leaders in that group.

The next question of course is whether getting media attention is an end in itself or if getting media attention has any real consequences for the movement.  Yglesias’s point is that it doesn’t do much more than that. Media attention makes people feel good but it doesn’t have any long term consequences. But that is wrong too. Media coverage of protest matters because it gets people thinking about an issue and keeps it alive in the public consciousness. This feat – making an issue something worthy of public discussion – is itself a pretty important accomplishment and the first step to any kind of lasting social or political change. In our field, we call it agenda setting. By drawing the public’s attention to issues that might otherwise be ignored, protests shape the kinds of issues that get discussed in more formal settings of policymaking. One of my studies (coauthored with Keith Bentele and Sarah Soule) shows that rights-related issues (e.g., human rights, rights for the disabled) were given more space on the Congressional agenda – measured by the number of Congressional hearings in a year – when the number of protests for that issue in the prior year were relatively higher than the number of protests for other issues. Our model demonstrates that protests matter by drawing attention to issues and sustaining a public discussion about that issue, which in turn forces Congress to pay more attention to the issue. But to be successful in shaping the agenda, an issue must receive more protest treatment than other issues do. Protestors are actually competing with other protestors for agenda space.

Another study of mine (coauthored with Sarah Soule) shows that protests generate information that people use to evaluate their targets. We show that protests against corporations lead to a .4 to 1% decline in the stock price of that company during a two-day window around the protest.  The result demonstrates that when activists protest, investors listen. The protests are generating some type of information, which likely varies across protests, that makes investors worry about the value of the asset. In some cases, the protest may cause investors to be concerned about the soundness of a particular corporate policy or practice but in other cases they may interpret the protest as a signal that consumers will be unhappy with the company. The point is that the protest generates information and shifts public attention to a problem that prior to the protest was ignored. If it wasn’t being ignored prior to the protest, then the price would never have fluctuated because the information would already be reflected in the stock price. I’ve said more about this paper in a previous post.

To say that protests don’t matter because they don’t immediately lead to drastic social reform or fail to have direct consequences in policymaking is taking a narrow view of what protestors are trying to do. Protests matter because they make issues part of the public agenda and consciousness.  Social movement activists who use these tactics understand this better than anyone. I was talking to an activist recently about a protest they held outside a movie theater. The movie theater was owned by a person who had donated some money to the Prop. 8 campaign in California and the protestors hoped to shame the owner. I asked the activist what the goal of the protest was. Did they hope the owner would negotiate with them or make some sort of public apology? The activist laughed a little and said that as far she knew nobody in the campaign had even thought about contacting the owner or had any contingency plan to deal with the theater’s response.  Getting a public concession from the theater was not the purpose of the protest. “We were just trying to get people to talk about our rights,” she said.  And if that was the goal, I’d say it was a successful protest.

UPDATE: Check out Alan Schussman’s reaction to Yglesias’s comments. I like what Alan has to say about the tendency of public intellectuals to cast contemporary activists as either ineffective amateurs or as old hippies who’ve never been much good anyway.  My guess is that most critics of protestors have never met professional activists and so they have no idea of just how organized and savvy they can be.

*Evidence shows that a lot of contemporary protests aren’t even led by lefty groups. In my study of corporate boycotts, the most common boycott motivation was moral or religious. A lot of these boycotts were led by organizations that are very much right of center.

Written by brayden king

April 4, 2009 at 9:27 pm

12 Responses

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  1. Good post! My $.02: protests also help the internal cohesion of the movement. Attending protests, I’ve felt there is often a sort of convention to them. Even if the media totally ignored them, activists would find much benefit in meeting face to face.

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    April 5, 2009 at 12:15 am

  2. This discussion recalls Kierkegaard’s aphorism that “Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backward”. Coming from innovation and entrepreneurship studies, I tend to instinctively keep in mind the difference between, on the one hand, reflecting on and reconstructing open-ended processes after the fact, and, on the other hand, living through those same processes with all their ambiguities, false starts, recoveries, unanticipated consequences, trade-offs, compromises etc. In the present discussion While a developing social movement is of course much more than an innovation processes, I think it would be helpful to keep this distinction in mind when relationships between complex movement goals, leadership and movement development are discussed.

    I am no social-movements (theory) expert, but my impression is that the field has so far neglected to theorize the creative potential of individual agency in movement development. Movements are often seen as social wholes – frequently broken down into competing subgroups – that interact with an environment filled with grievances, resources, opportunities, legislators, constituencies, counter-movements, etc. Because of this focus on collective entities, many interesting questions are difficult to ask and other questions, including some which are already asked within the field, become very difficult to answer. It would therefore make sense for students of social movements to expand their theoretical and methodological toolboxes to also include richer conceptions of individual agency and social interactions.

    It is a frequently repeated fact that movement identities, goals, tactics etc. tend to change with time, often making the final impact of a movement quite different from what might have been predicted from the outset. While much effort has been spent teasing out the effects of external and organizational factors on movement change (Cress and Snow 1996, 2000) – often emphasizing the political dimension of establishing and legitimizing new movements (Fligstein 1996) – less effort has been spent trying to appreciate movement development as an ongoing accomplishment fueled by individuals who over time join and influence the movement.

    One reason may be that social movement theory mainly rests on quantitative studies where individuals are either anonymized, in the sense that they are viewed as members of larger cohorts that do collective political battle with other cohorts (e.g. Whittier 1997), or reduced as part of a research methodology that conceives human being as ‘being the value of a variable’ (e.g. Gould 1991).

    As far as I can tell, when individuals are theorized explicitly, they tend to be treated either as very narrow actors who maximize their utility in a world of pre-existing resources and opportunities (McCarthy and Zald 1977), or as extraordinarily creative of well connected movement leaders (e.g. Ganz 2000). Fewer attempts are made to theorize ‘ordinary’ movement members (or at least upper echelon movement members) as heterogeneous blood-filled individuals whose creative faculties and diverse social embeddings affect the development of the movement in essential ways.

    The proposition would then be that movements are in important ways affected by the individuals who participate, including what they are willing, able and allowed to contribute and in what order they come onboard.

    It appears that social movement theory is dominated by methodological collectivism or a somewhat unsophisticated methodological individualism that either emphasizes specific qualities or rational action, or highlights hero entrepreneurs. However, both collectivism and such a narrow individualism run the risk of ignoring the fact that all human beings are agents of change (and, consequently, at least potential agents of movement change). What social movement theory needs is therefore a richer understanding of human action. Moreover, the potential of individuals to affect a social movement can not be fully realized unless seen as part of a collective process of ‘interactive emergence’ (cf. Garud and Karnøe 2004). Simply stated, it is not enough to study individuals and their impact on the movement; focus should be on the emergent properties of the shifting coalition of participating actors whose interactions drive the process by dint of their different motivations, expectations and levels of involvement.

    By focusing on a social movement as a collective endeavor that consists of an expanding network of interacting stakeholders – a network into which individuals often willfully self-select based on what they are willing and able to contribute, rather than some strategic consideration of what is best given either the movement’s or the individual’s pre-conceived goals – it also becomes possible to theoretically transcend the paralyzing effects that radical uncertainty tends to have on theories of action. This makes it possible to theorize social movements as creatively developed from the bottom-up through a process of intelligent social interaction. The argument goes as follows (cf. Sarasvathy 2007). People have limited cognitive capacities. This, in combination with the radical uncertainty of the future, makes it impossible to rationally formulate strategic goal-driven plans for action. Consequently, the uncertainty of the environment must be bounded in some way to make intelligent behavior possible. This is accomplished as individual act based on a non-predictive logic of action, i.e. a logic where focus is not so much on what they should do in the face of an infinite number of possible future development trajectories (i.e. rational choice), but rather on the much more manageable set of things they can do – given who they are, what they know and whom they know – to actively help create the future movement of which they themselves will be part.

    On this view, a social movement is not merely a response to pre-existing resources and opportunities, or the execution of a bold vision by an isolated movement entrepreneur; social movements are created in social and emergent processes. By focusing on what can be done and keeping an open eye to the future, the need for individuals to predict in the face of uncertainty is thus locally transcended and the future of the movement is in important ways created by the actors involved. Movement development can thus be described in terms of an evolving network of individuals who, over time, self-select for participation to the extent that they are willing, able and allowed to contribute resources in the form of money, knowledge, ideas, contacts or other things. As a result of this process, both the general characteristics and specific tactics and goals of a social movement emerge as a result of the contributions made by the stakeholders involved. The process is thus determined by the actors partaking in it, including who they are, what they contribute and also in what order they come onboard.

    It is apparent that this social and processual view of social movements must rest, theoretically, on heterogeneous and quite full-bodied individuals to make analytical sense; without fundamentally different expectations and interpretations about the future, issues of coordination and dynamic social interaction become non sequiturs. Researchers will instead be forced to rely on charismatic leaders or on population ecological arguments of static cohort competition and ‘generational change’ (e.g. Whittier, 1997).

    Ganz, Marshall. 2000. “Resources and Resourcefulness: Strategic Capacity in the Unionization of California Agriculture, 1959-1966.” American Journal of Sociology 105:1003-1062.
    Cress, Daniel M. and David A. Snow. 1996. “Mobilization at the Margins: Resources, Benefactors, and the Viability of Homeless Social Movement Organizations.” American Sociological Review 61: 1098-1109.
    Cress, Dan and David A. Snow, 2000. “The Outcomes of Homeless Mobilization: The Influence of Organization, Disruption, Political Mediation, and Framing.” American Journal of Sociology 105: 1063-1104.
    Fligstein, Neil. 1996. “Markets as Politics: A Political-Cultural Approach to Market Institutions.” American Sociological Review 61:656-73.
    Garud R. and Karnøe, P. (2004). Distributed agency and interactive emergence. In Floyd, S. Roos, J. Jacobs, C. and Kellermanns, F. (eds.) Innovating Strategy Process, Blackwell Publishers, 88-96.
    Gould, Roger V. 1991. “Multiple Networks and Mobilization in the Paris Commune, 1871.” American Sociological Review 656:716-729.
    McCarthy, John D. and Mayer N. Zald. 1977. “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory.” American Journal of Sociology 82: 1212-41.
    Sarasvathy S. (2007). Effectuation: Elements of Entrepreneurial Expertise. Edward Elgar
    Whittier, Nancy E. 1997. “Political Generations, Micro-Cohorts, and the Transformation of Social Movements.” American Sociological Review 62 (October): 760-778.


    Henrik Berglund

    April 5, 2009 at 5:23 pm

  3. […] does  not benefit them. All the signs of desperation are present. They come from the rallies and burning of effigies around the world. The violent protests against NATO and the G-20 summit. The high prices of food. […]


  4. Henrik: Your comment on this post —- references and all —- takes commenting to a whole new level. (Post a link if you have a related paper in the works.)

    In the movements literature, you might look at some of James Jasper’s work — based on your comment, I think it would resonate with you (e.g., see his 2004 piece in Mobilization).



    April 6, 2009 at 2:33 am

  5. Henrik – Thanks for the extended comment. My take on your comment is that, sure, it’s important to study individual creativity in movements, etc., but social movements are fundamentally (or definitionally) collective phenomena, and therefore embracing methodological collectivism, as you say, seems natural. You accuse social movement theorists of failing to consider agency, but interestingly, one of the reasons organizational theorists are so interested in social movement theory is because it prioritizes agency as a source of institutional/organizational change. That is, much social movement theory is based on the assumption that collective action is a source of social, political, or organizational change. Rather than just focusing on the contextual determinants of change, like a lot of organizational research does, social movement research assumes that action, like tactics or framing, is consequential. If that isn’t agency, I don’t know what is.



    April 6, 2009 at 3:53 am

  6. tf: I don’t have a paper, nor did I really plan to write one. I am just an interested outsider. Also, parts of the text are from a note I wrote for a SMT course by Huggy Rao, which I audited last year – this also explains the referencing.

    brayden – Your point on the role of agency in SMT and organization studies is well taken. However, you appear to defend methodological collectivism since “social movements are fundamentally (or definitionally) collective phenomena”. We might talk past each other here, but I don’t think that methodological individualism needs to imply some sort of ‘ontological individualism’. I think it is perfectly fine to (methodologically) explain the workings of such (ontologically) collective phenomena using MI. And my main point is that is probably necessary to do so to understand early and transitional phases of movement development.



    April 6, 2009 at 9:50 am

  7. The above comment was written by *Henrik Berglund*, I just happened to be using my wife’s computer…


    Henrik Berglund

    April 6, 2009 at 9:51 am

  8. […] back-and-forth discussion about the political efficacy of protests involving Matt Yglesias and others. The focus has been on what might be called liberal protests (those orgaznied by Gandhi and Martin […]


  9. […] Do Protest Even Matter? […]


  10. […] protests effective? Management prof Brayden King says yes. I’m eager to dig into the research to see if any strategies seem to be more effective than […]


  11. […] you just can’t get enough of protests (and believe me, I understand the fascination), I wrote a post addressing this question a few months […]


  12. […] want to subscribe to the RSS feed for updates on this topic.Powered by Greet BoxWhen I saved this post by Brayden, at Orgtheory, on protests, I knew it would come handy some day. I was right, especially […]


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