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Social protest is collective action that uses unconventional means to press claims on institutional authorities to alter conditions and address collective grievances. From suicide bombings, to peaceful street marches, to religious ceremonies ordaining women as Catholic priests or acts of sabotage and passive resistance, social protests make claims on the state and other institutional authorities to correct perceived injustices, alter practices and understandings, and redistribute access to social goods. In the process, these protests also construct new collective identities and forge new meanings that inform politics and everyday life and bring about changes in popular culture, social practices, and institutional structures. While all protests are political in the minimal sense that securing desired changes typically requires gaining the cooperation and approval of political authorities, many protests are explicitly political in that they attempt to change public policies, the personnel in the government, and the structure of the state.
Protests vary in their visibility and methods. Everyday resistance is the most covert, involving acts of noncooperation, such as military desertion and foot-dragging by peasants, to more proactive acts, such as using symbols and gestures of authority to highlight discrepancies between how authorities act and their claims about what is fair and equitable (Scott 1985). Popular songs about exploitative bosses, as well as poetry highlighting the evils of landlords and heralding the heroism of the common people, put authority into question and prepare the way for more concerted protests. In Poland during the 1980s, for example, workers, artists, and intellectuals used the symbolism of the socialist state to question the extent to which the state actually represented worker interests, thereby paving the way for the demonstrations, vigils, and marches of the Solidarity movement (Osa 2003).
By questioning authority, everyday resistance may open the way to institutional protests that are overt, entail collective mobilization, and are legal or at least recognized by authorities as a legitimate form of expression. Initially, these protests are often illegal, but, through a process of accommodation with authorities and public acceptance, they become legitimized. By “striking their sails,” eighteenth-century sailors forced ship captains to pay back wages, distribute the “grog ration,” or put into shore. Later, the strike became a legally regulated form of protest, with government agencies responsible for certifying strikes and court regulation of picketing, marches, and the use of strike funds. In the 1770s early American colonists burned effigies and dumped tea into Boston Harbor, and organized widespread boycotts by refusing to pay new taxes imposed by the British Crown. Later, boycotts became legally regulated, and were split into primary boycotts (directed against the primary target) and secondary boycotts (directed against a third party, such as a grocery store that sells boycotted products).
Historically, forms of institutional protest were forged by excluded groups, such as industrial workers and racial minorities, who turned to protest when the conventional politics of voting and lobbying were unavailable or ineffective. Francis Piven and Richard Cloward (1977) argue that protests retain their leverage so long as they are illegitimate, but lose potency as they become regulated. In contemporary Western democracies, protest marches and demonstrations are mobilized by all types of groups, including corporations, churches, professional societies, and trade associations. Such protests have become legally regulated events, leading to the conclusion that Western democracies have become social movement societies (Meyer and Tarrow 1998). Sidney Tarrow (1998) argues that, by the early twentieth century, such institutional protests had become “modular” in that they are readily understood and available for most literate and mediaconscious populations as a vehicle for expressing their interests.
Illegal or illegitimate protests that violate institutional rules and understandings are more disruptive and require more commitment. In such cases, protestors directly disrupt ongoing institutions by blocking access to them or impeding their routine operation and by directly defying authority. Nonviolent resistance or civil disobedience is one form of this category of protest. Drawing on Mohandas Gandhi’s (1869–1948) theory of passive resistance (Sharp 1973), in the early 1960s black college students organized lunch counter sit-ins across the American South, refusing to move until they were served and challenging authorities to arrest them until their demands for racial desegregation were recognized (Orum 1972; McAdam 1999). In the early 1970s in Northern Ireland, Irish Republican Army supporters staged hunger strikes in the prisons, refusing to cooperate with authorities and ultimately bringing into question the legitimacy of British policies and rule in the region (White 1993). Nonviolent resistance is typically framed in terms of a universal moral claim, such as “God’s law” or the “natural order,” that supersedes existing institutions.
All these forms of protest attempt to exert influence directly by imposing negative sanctions and creating uncertainty in the eyes of targets, and indirectly by mobilizing third-party bystanders to support demands for change. Protestors engaging in collective violence attempt to exert influence by imposing physical injury or harm on targets, forcing targets to comply or destroying their will to resist change. Violence creates clarity and polarization by forcing potential allies and bystanders to choose sides. This makes violence a risky strategy, especially for weak and poorly organized groups. Violent protest is almost certain to provoke repression or counterviolence as authorities claim the need to protect “law and order,” leading to arrests or destruction. Except where the state is already weak or has already collapsed, political authorities typically hold the advantage and respond with police and military force, as well as less obtrusive forms of social control (Davenport 2005). Groups that resort to violence typically have to go underground, using “safe houses” and secret codes, imposing iron discipline on their members, and resocializing activists to become “true believers” whose world is reduced to a single cultlike movement or group.
Protest has multiple causes. First are collective grievances, typically stemming from abrupt and widely experienced social strains or discontinuities that disrupt everyday life. Mass unemployment, political flight due to war and civil violence, and widespread hunger due to famine and political chaos are often critical. Second are resources, especially leadership and collective organization, that facilitate mobilization. More-cohesive groups that share collective identities and networks of solidarity, as well as experienced local leaders, are much more likely to protest. Black ministers and church leaders in the United States, for example, were central to organizing many of the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s (Morris 1984). Third are cultural resources in terms of collective identities and understandings that can be used to frame and justify protest. Framing defines conditions as unjust and subject to change, thereby allowing groups to protest (Snow and Benford 1988). Fourth are political opportunities, that is, “the probability that social protest actions will lead to success in achieving a desired outcome” (Goldstone and Tilly 2001, p. 182). Electoral candidates faced with closely divided government and close elections make appeals to political outsiders in the hope that these groups might provide the votes needed for victory. In the United States, the closely fought national elections in the late 1950s and early 1960s made the black vote an appealing resource for both Republicans and Democrats, which encouraged civil rights protests by creating signals of governmental responsiveness (McAdam 1999). Similarly, these electoral contests helped trigger the farmworker movement of the 1960s, as well as a wave of student, women’s, disabled, and other minority protests (Jenkins 1985).
Does protest create social change? Most protests fail in their broader objectives, especially as envisioned by critical intellectuals and activists (Rochon 1998). But protests nonetheless set in motion processes that often result in improvements for aggrieved groups. The labor protests of the 1930s helped create industrial unions, which became an important device for providing better wages, benefits, and job security for workers. Civil rights protests helped abolish Jim Crow laws and legal racial segregation, which characterized the United States through the 1960s, paving the way for black elected officials to introduce improved urban services in many southern communities (Button 1989). Anti–Vietnam War protests, especially the more violent and disruptive protests, helped push the U.S. Congress to adopt legislation limiting the war effort and eventually contributed to a reversal of U.S. foreign policy (Burstein and Freudenberg 1978; McAdam and Su 2002). These changes were not due simply to protests, but protests contributed to a broader set of political processes that have often generated policy and broader institutional and cultural changes. By initiating and stimulating these changes, protest can be seen as a rational and effective method of gaining political and social influence.
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