forum on the impact of protests

The Freakonomics blog hosted a forum of a number of scholars addressing the question, “How much do protests matter?” The consensus seems to be that protests matter, but not always in the ways we expect. Protests matter much more for their cumulative effect than for the direct effect of any single protest. My favorite answer (not surprisingly) comes from David Meyer of UC-Irvine’s sociology department. An excerpt:

A protest is a signal about who you are, what you want, and what else you might do…When people protest, they tell authorities that they’re unhappy about something, and implicitly threaten to do more than protest: vote, contribute money, lobby, set up a picket, blockade a clinic, or try to blow up a building. Opponents and allies in government make judgments about how strong and widely held demonstrators’ grievances are. Demonstrators can force leaders to explain, again and again, what they’re doing and why….Demonstrators also signal to other citizens who might share their views that they are not alone, that things could be otherwise, and that they might be able to do something about it. The large national event that receives coverage in The New York Times reflects hundreds of smaller, less-visible actions and meetings in church basements and living rooms around the country, as people develop the temerity to think they can change the world. Sometimes they can.

I like the idea of saying that protests are signals. It corresponds with Spence’s definition of signals. The costlier a protest is to organize, the more value it should have in the eyes of third parties.  I also like thinking of protests as signals because it suggests that protests are informational. One of the main functions of protests is to communicate new information about a social issue to a broader public (even if only to let others know that some people are really pissed off about this issue!). If 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 ago.

Written by brayden king

August 20, 2009 at 8:27 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Interesting stuff. I have been reading a fair amount of Tarrow lately. There are some useful passages on violence in which he makes the point that it is not the violence itself that motivates the attention of elites; it is the threat of violence. He also talks about Diani’s stuff on the signal value being tied to the idea that there is a larger group of sympathizers standing behind a protest episode. Again, it is not the particular protest, but the uncertainty about just how big the movement may be or become if action isn’t taken.



    August 20, 2009 at 9:21 pm

  2. One other thing I might have added to that forum is the effect protest has on the protesters. I am constantly reminded of the comment, attributed to EM Forster, “How do I know what i think until I see what I say?” Protests have a way of getting (some) people off the fences and into a camp. Escalating commitment, and all that.



    August 20, 2009 at 9:31 pm

  3. […] protests mean and why they matter By Guru Brayden at Orgtheory: I like the idea of saying that protests are signals. It corresponds with Spence’s definition of […]


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