libya and the failure of social movement theory

Modern social movement theory has made great strides in the last thirty years or so with studies of individual recruitment, framing, and social movement organization. But we’ve collectively failed in one big way – we don’t have a terribly good ability to predict when movements occur.

For example, scholars have long noted that Skocpolian theories of revolution are in need of serious modification. While adequately describing a few of the biggest cases, many have noted that the “dual pressures” theory didn’t quite fit other cases, a point ceded in Skocpol’s later writings. A lot of revolution studies focuses on the role of key domestic actors and how their defection from the regime can make revolutions succeed. But still, I am not sure that we have a good account of when domestic actors will abandon the regime. For example, did these theories predict any of the Arab Spring revolts?

If you are a specialist in revolution studies, do chime in.


Written by fabiorojas

August 25, 2011 at 4:09 am

14 Responses

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  1. No specialist on social movements in the Arab world predicted any of the Arab uprisings. Everyone was taken by surprise. Predicting revolutions is hard because they happen rarely, it’s hard to study them while they’re happening, and it’s hard to compare them because examples are from different countries and different historical periods. I suspect they may be impossible to predict, because they result from the chance intersection of independent, simultaneous chains of events.


    Benjamin Geer

    August 25, 2011 at 7:33 am

  2. This reminds me of the early 90s debate about whether we were able to predict the end of the Cold War: Randall Collins had a great piece critique of his own work and others on the collapse of Soviet Union with “What Theories Predicted the State Breakdowns and Revolutions of the Soviet Bloc?” Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, Vol. 14 (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1992).

    Though I do think we could have identified Libya as a potential site for state breakdown. I think of Randall Collins here: brewing revolutionary tension in the region, unequal distribution of resources in Libya. Public emotionally and morally outraged by military response to peaceful protests in Benghazi in February. Public becomes mobilized. Continued use of “extreme” force by Gaddafi-backed military. Pressure put on Libya by other states leads to military defections as many top military become uncertain about Gaddafi’s future and worry that they might be held accountable for the Gaddafi push-back. They, therefore, abandon or switch allegiance because of it.


    Scott Dolan

    August 25, 2011 at 1:57 pm

  3. I’m currently working on a dissertation proposal related to the problem of predicting revolutions. I’ll check back in a few months.



    August 25, 2011 at 2:58 pm

  4. I agree that it’s very difficult to predict uprisings and revolutions. However, I do think that some of the social scientists working on the Middle East in recent years have definitely chronicled some of the underground and even above-ground social currents that have been influential (though perhaps not so much in Libya). I’m thinking of people like Asef Bayat, Lara Deeb, Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, Charles Kurzman, Afsaneh Najmabadi, Margot Badran, and many others.



    August 25, 2011 at 2:59 pm

  5. Once the revolution happened in Tunisia, it wasn’t too difficult to think that it might inspire uprisings in other Arab states. But how this happened remains to be explained. Uprisings in neighboring countries aren’t automatically perceived as inspiring or as examples to be followed. Did the satellite TV channel Al Jazeera, for example, play a crucial role in framing the Tunisian uprising in this way for Arab viewers? In any case, this line of thinking doesn’t help explain the Tunisian revolution.


    Benjamin Geer

    August 25, 2011 at 3:03 pm

  6. Timur Kuran says it’s always hard to predict them because there is preference falsification where people don’t reveal their true attitudes, and a “snowball” effect where getting some threshold amount of people out in the streets can embolden others to come out.


    Wonks Anonymous

    August 25, 2011 at 3:04 pm

  7. bedhaya: Sure. But chronicling social movements is one thing; predicting revolutions is another.


    Benjamin Geer

    August 25, 2011 at 3:04 pm

  8. I agree with both Benjamin and Fabio: identifying sites of potential state breakdown is a far cry from predicting if/when a revolution will occur. And it’s not like Gaddafi’s reaction to protests in Benghazi was completely atypical. Though I do think the kind of force (artillery, cluster bombs, etc) he used against the peaceful Benghazi protesters was an overreaction even for Gaddafi. And it was only after his overreaction that the protesters took up arms.

    Not only do we have to think about how framing elicited a response from below, but I also think we have to pay attention to how the framing elicited Gaddafi’s response to the protesters in the first place. Was he trying to reassert himself as the preeminent dictator, while the world was paying attention to him? Not a far cry for a meglomaniac like Gaddafi. But bringing this into the equation only makes the prospects of prediction even more difficult.


    Scott Dolan

    August 25, 2011 at 4:01 pm

  9. I think “Wonks” makes an important point about cascade effects. Even a complete understanding of the mechanisms underlying revolutions may not guarantee that we can predict *when* they happen. Granovetter’s threshold model, stylized as it is, nicely illustrates the problem: in that model, an almost unobservable change in individual preferences (thresholds) can trigger a population-wide revolution. Perhaps we should be more modest in our aspirations?



    August 25, 2011 at 4:25 pm

  10. I’m no theorist of revolution, but I’ll still give my two cents. I have to say, Trotsky is pretty good here. His two arguments seem to have legs. Particularly, that,

    1.) “The “February Revolution” was not spontaneous and in fact was not without leaders
    2.) Theory of “dual power” as vital to understanding revolutions

    Both the non-spontaneity and dual power thesis seem to work here. As for spontaneity, Trotsky gives us as discussion of the Feb. revolution by presenting the “theory of spontaneousness” – most of the “authoritative revolutionists” were in exile or in prison at the time. In fact, the Bolsheviks were originally opposed to insurrection. So how did it happen? Trotsky argues for 3 main factors:
    a.) Political experience of failed 1905 revolution – was an education for Bolsheviks / workers
    b.) Army was not isolated from rest of population – everyone was related to a soldier.
    c.) Strategic assessment of workers – informal coordination was present
    We seem to have all of these. That is, if we look at Egypt and Libya, there have been sever “failed uprisings” over the past years. Further, the embedding of the army within the population (rather than removed from it), and the forms of informal coordination (technologically facilitated) help explain how a surprising “revolution without leaders” has been anything but.

    This kind of “bottom up” revolutionary process, has a series of elements we might look for, then, in the Arab uprisings:

    1.) Political education (from previous attempts, as well as from neighboring uprisings)
    2.) Revolutionary experience (earlier failed revolution)
    3.) Embeddedness of military. People could predict that army would not fight them
    4.) Strategic assessment
    5.) Informal coordination

    And we might then generate some hypotheses: (1) in those Arab countries without political eduction (past attempts or ties to other actions), you will find less political action. (2) in those Arab countries where the military is more distinct from the broader population, revolutions will be less likely, and more bloody, etc. etc.

    As for the dual power thesis… well, it seems pretty apt given the distribution of political power right now. Tilly might be a good model for the expansion of this idea.


    Shamus Khan

    August 25, 2011 at 7:41 pm

  11. I’m with Wonks and Rense, a revolution is to a certain extent a large-scale coordination game and that implies that while the preconditions may be structural. Similarly, I don’t hold it against meteorologists that they can’t tell us when and where hurricanes will hit in the late summer of 2012. Nor for that matter do I blame economists who can recognize an asset bubble but not tell us exactly when it will pop or how far the damages will cascade. Nor do I blame record companies for not being able to forecast with certainty which records will go platinum.

    Once you see this as having a lot of nonlinear positive feedback loops then the most we can reasonably hope for from poli sci / political soc is a probabilistic understanding of the necessary but not sufficient conditions for revolution, state collapse, and the like.



    August 25, 2011 at 8:06 pm

  12. correction, first sentence should read
    I’m with Wonks and Rense, a revolution is to a certain extent a large-scale coordination game and that implies that while the preconditions may be structural, the timing is stochastic.



    August 25, 2011 at 8:07 pm

  13. People writing about the new media ecology –which I define as Al Jazeera, social media and cell phones, not any one of them alone– have been predicting changes for a few years. Well, to the degree academics ever predict anything but let’s say they’ve been pointing out that the changes to the connectivity infrastructure in the region were quite likely to create strong forces. (And interestingly, some of these changes occurred in just the last two years — Facebook was almost nothing in Tunisia in 2008, for example).

    See, Phil Howard, (2010). Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam. Lynch (2007). Blogging the the Arab Public., Work by Rasha Abdalla at AU in Cairo, etc… My talk using protester data on media use from Tahrir (survey done during the unrest) is later in September: (paper under review).

    My point would be that while it is pretty hard to predict when exactly a cascade like this would begin (it does look like 1848) but we did have a potent combination: aging autocrats, unpopular regimes, global economic stress, rapid and massive changes to the connectivity infrastructure… Once Tunisia happened, Egypt was swept up with hope; now that Gaddafi has fallen, I’m seeing tweeps in Syria starting campaigns asking for UNSC council, etc.

    To why social movement theory didn’t see some of this coming: my sense is that most of the theory was developed in Western countries. Hence, mechanisms of repression are undertheorized and underexplored. (Even when they are explored, they are explored in a relatively democratic context; authoritarian regimes have different modalities). Role of censorship, role of connectivity networks, the mechanisms by which these regimes create collective action problems for their citizens (for example, torture is not an afterthought but a key mechanism of punishing early dissent to prevent cascades) etc., are all underexplored in social movement theory.



    August 27, 2011 at 12:29 pm

  14. I’m not sure that the failure of social movement theorists to predict the Arab Spring is particularly worth commenting on. In general, academics have done very poorly at predicting epochal shifts. In fact, the record is so bad that I think most academics just avoid doing it (except of course for Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, who is apparently right even more often than Nostradamus is claimed to be).

    In this case, Middle East experts failed to predict it and so did deeply embedded political observers and activists in the area. And, in fact, if some expert did predict it, the prediction wouldn’t have any particular meaning. If there is finally an economic crisis that capitalism can’t deal with, will that mean that David Harvey and Bob Brenner have been right for the past 40 years? If there is a world revolution, will that mean that your local Trotskyist group was right all along? Did the financial crisis really prove Nouriel Roubini right? It’s not just the timing of revolutions but the making of correct predictions that is fundamentally random. The activists in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria who predicted their revolutions or attempts thereof were simply doing the same thing that generations of activists who have made incorrect predictions of revolutions were doing.

    Actually, failure of ability to predict temporal evolution of complex systems does not necessarily imply a lack of understanding of the underlying dynamics. Physicists can do remarkably well predicting the evolution of the solar system for tens of millions of years, but have trouble predicting local weather for two weeks, yet in each case the underlying dynamics is very well understood, far better than is (I think) epistemically possible for social science.


    Rahul Mahajan

    August 27, 2011 at 3:04 pm

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