Protest Movements

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Protest movements have been of high interest to sociological research since the inception of the discipline in the mid-nineteenth century, during the periods of great industrial and urban development in Europe and North America. In the context of massive changes in the economic structure and mass rural-to-urban and cross-national migration, a variety of protest movements developed. They caught the attention of Comte, Le Bon, Weber, and other early sociological analysts. In the United States, the first widely used introductory sociology textbook, developed by Chicago School sociologists Robert Park and Ernest Burgess in the 1920s, was organized around the concepts of collective behavior. Protest movements occupied a substantive part of the text.

Sociologists' interest in protest movements reflects the high interest of many who are not sociologists and are not research oriented. Such movements have the potential of affecting lives in substantial ways. This is particularly so when a protest touches on wide public concerns. In American society, the recognition of the potential impact of protest movements is encompassed within the framework of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

The language of the First Amendment, including the right to "peaceably" protest, is in recognition that protest movements can turn violent. Rebellion on taxes and other violent protest in the 1780s had strongly influenced the desire of those at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to expand democratic public expression while outlawing violent means of bringing about protest movement changes. The language of the First Amendment reflects the potential power of protest ideas. Any consideration of protest movements needs to include the effects of those, like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in the case of the amendment language, whose articulated ideas about grievances provide a key element in active protest emergence.

While most protest movements in the United States and in other democratically based societies have been mostly peaceful, there is a stream of protests which have not been peaceful. There are many examples of protest movements with no or little violence, including the multiple women's protests for more rights and opportunities throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; the food and drug protection movement in the early twentieth century; the early- and late-twentieth century environmental protest movements for cleaner air, water, and protection of endangered species and open spaces; and the protest marches of 1998 in many communities and in Washington, D.C., which resulted in new record public expenditures for cancer research at a time of budget cutbacks in most government programs. In contrast, examples of protest movements that generated periodic violence include the labor movement protests to nonresponsive corporations and legislatures from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s, the racial- and ethnic-led civil rights protest since the mid-twentieth century, and the anti–Vietnam War protest movement of the late 1960s and the early 1970s.

As not all protest movements succeed, or may succeed at a frustratingly slow pace for participants, protest activists in these protests went beyond democratically legitimate means of protest. When that occurs generally, the basis exists for violent protest episodes. Protest movements may also generate violence in opposition to a protest movement from those whose perceived vested interests and way of life are threatened. Such violence may occur to intimidate people and prevent them from engaging in protests, one clear aim of the hundreds of lynchings of black citizens in the first half of the twentieth century. Violence may occur in the context of a counterprotest movement to reverse a successful movement, as in the case of the bombings and physician killings at abortion clinics following the successful establishment of the legal right of women to seek and have an abortion.

Whether violent or nonviolent, protest movements have the potential of being an interim form of collective challenge to some aspect of the social status quo. The protest continuum ranges from localized groups and crowds that organize around specific and short-term delimited grievances to mass protest movements about social conditions and perceived injustices. These mass protests are designed to generate comprehensive and fundamental changes in a society and sometimes across societies. More so than localized acting crowds and less so than systemic social movements, protest movements encompass mass behavior that extends beyond a localized situation, and they have the potential of generating social movements when a variety of conducive conditions exists (Gusfield 1968; Smelser 1962; Tilly 1978).

The twentieth century has been characterized by a wide variety of protest movements. In the United States, industrial protests were common for the first third of the century, as were anti-immigration protests. The suffragette protest movement early in the century was a precursor to the women's movement for equal treatment and opportunity in the last third of the century. The civil rights movement, led by blacks in the 1950s and 1960s, precipitated countermovements—a common characteristic of protest movements—including the White Citizen's Council protests and the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan. Poor people in Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and other Latin American countries have protested the privileges of an elite economic class as vestiges of an unproductive and rigid class colonial structure. Such protest movements are evident globally, with protest occurrences in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

A common thread through the wide variety of protest movements is their political nature. In various ways governmental authority is challenged, changed, supported, or resisted in specific protest movements. To advance their prospects for success, protest movement leaders often engage in coalition politics with more powerful individuals and groups who, for their own interests and values, support the challenge raised by the movement. When protest movements succeed in generating sufficient public support to secure all or most of their goals, governments may offer policy legitimization of the movement as a means of adapting to, coopting, or modifying a movement's challenge to the state of premovement affairs.

Such political legitimation has taken a variety of forms. The labor protest movements culminated in the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which legitimized labor-management collective bargaining and negotiated agreements. The suffragette movement resulted in passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing that the right to vote in the United States could not be denied or abridged on account of sex. The civil rights movement attained support with passage of the comprehensive Civil Rights Act in 1964 and then the Economic Opportunity Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, both in 1965. All these system-modifying acts, which affect the lives of millions in American society, have continued in effect during relatively high and low periods of public support. This gives evidence of the long-term societal legitimation of these acts, which grew out of protest movements.

Success of these and other movements is often tempered by countermovements, participants in which perceive their relative positions and interests to be threatened. For instance, the women's movement experienced a series of challenges from religious groups, often fundamentalist, that adhered to a male-dominated patriarchy. As a consequence, women's progress was slowed in winning various forms of equal treatment and opportunity in educational, economic, political, and social areas of life, and in the 1970s and the 1980s Congress failed to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution, which was supported by the women's movement.

More generally, after passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s, a series of protest movements within the Democratic and, more extensively, the Republican parties resulted in growing administrative, legislative, and judicial resistance to equality in educational, occupational, and housing opportunities. The countermovement result has been a reentrenchment of a long-established economic structure of racism and low-income class rigidity that functions independently of personalized racist feelings and beliefs (Wilson 1987). A reflection of such countermovement pressure is the growth in perception among white males that affirmative action educational and occupational policies directed toward racial and ethnic minorities and women constitute a form of reverse, or affirmative, discrimination (Glazer 1989).

Countermovements have generated their own counterprotest movements. This countermovement variation of Hegelian dialectic does not result in a return to whatever constituted premovement normalcy. In conventional political terms the results are more conservative, reactionary, liberal, or radical than what existed before the protest movement. When protests and counterprotests result in social change, such change generally affects the participants in a specific protest movement as well as established authorities in ways often not fully anticipated. While a predominant orientation may exist among protest activists and another among established authorities, in complex, mass modern societies, a range of political orientations is usually contending among protestors and their supporters and among established authorities and their supporters, against whom the protest is directed.

The U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s can be viewed in historical terms, if not contemporary terms, as a primarily conservative movement. The predominant, although not allencompassing, aim of activists and organizations was to enable blacks and other minorities to break into the democratically value-based, but not fully practiced, political and economic system. Most protest leaders and participants did not aim to break the established system. In contrast, the late 1980s and early 1990s liberal to radical protest movements in Poland, Hungary, Rumania, and other eastern European countries did have as their goal the breakdown of the system of exclusive authoritarian political and economic domination.

In the United States, protest ideologies are largely reminiscent of established, liberal, democratic political ideals. This is evidenced in the way many protest groups adopt language from the Declaration of Independence to advance their aims. For example, the Black Panthers, popularly perceived as a radical group, adopted a statement of purpose that held, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all black and white [sic] men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights." Similarly, the National Organization for Women inserted into its declaration of purposes the wording that "men and women" are created equal.

Protest movements attain mixed and sometimes changed results. These results occur because of institutional inertia, in which certain things have been done certain ways over a long period of time, and because of countermovements within institutional centers such as schools; businesses; and local, state, and national government offices. In the United States, reactions to the civil rights movement have resulted in private and public attitudes and behavior that have combined to support inclusion of some minority members while disadvantaging more severely the lowest-income racial and ethnic minorities (Wilson 1987). The result is that the countermovement resistance to educational, economic, and political advances for minority status groups has adversely affected the poorest racial and ethnic minority members. At the same time, census bureau reports document a growing number and proportion of blacks, women, and other minority group members moving into educational institutions, occupational settings, and political positions from which they were formerly excluded de jure or de facto.

Examples from history and other cultures demonstrate the mixed potential and results of protest movements. The German Nazi protest movement in the 1920s illustrated that a movement could be radical and reactionary, in that case toward further destabilization of the Weimar Republic's democratic government, which was perceived as being decreasingly effective and legitimate by growing sectors of the German public (Shirer 1960). After the Nazis succeeded in countering various democratic and communist protest movements, Germany saw a more comprehensive institutionalization of Nazi ideological and authoritarian control during the 1930s. An historic, more recent example is the 1989 Chinese student democratic movement in Tianenmen Square that resulted in a government-sponsored countermovement that physically shattered the student protest and created a system of political, economic, and educational controls that were more comprehensively rigid than those that existed before the protest movement. Yet, the underlying educational, economic, and political forces that generated the Chinese student activists continued to affect the dynamics of Chinese society, with the potential for further protest activation.

In these and other protest movements, there is a wide range of participants and of protest methods employed. Along with the nature of the social context and historical influences, the characteristics of protest participants and the methods they employ are consequential and have been central concerns of research on such movements.


If protest participants could alleviate their grievances or sense of injustice individually, there would be no likely motivation for them to become active in a protest movement. Protest participants thus have two central characteristics: (1) they have insufficient influence to gain a desired change in their circumstances, and (2) they seek active association with relatively like-minded persons to gain relief from their aggrieved state.

These two characteristics can be seen among protest participants over time and in different locales. In the 1960s civil rights movements in the United States, leading activists—including blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and women—expressed a strong sense of unequal treatment and opportunity while associating with and supporting activists to achieve equal opportunities in schools, jobs, elected offices, and other social settings. College students, the most active participants in the civil rights movement, could not generally be characterized in these minority status terms. Yet, they were not yet an established part of the economic and political order being challenged and were in a position to be critical of that order (Lipset 1971). Other participant supporters, such as labor unions, selected corporate leaders, and religiously motivated persons, often saw protest-related change needed in terms of their own long-term interests and worked either to help the civil rights movement succeed or to preempt or coopt it (Gamson 1990, pp. 28–31). The broad political support base for the comprehensive 1964 Civil Rights Act had all these protest movement participant elements.

The individuals who are most likely to initiate and support a protest movement tend to be those with long-developed grievances within a society. A case in point is Solidarity, the labor group that precipitated the successful 1980s protest movement against communist rule in Poland and that helped precipitate other successful eastern European protest movements. The initial work stoppage, instrumental in offering a political challenge to Polish and Soviet authority, occurred at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, a center of Cassubian ethnic residence. For generations Cassubians have held a minority status in Polish society (Lorentz 1935). As the protest movement proceeded to secure broad-based support among Polish citizens, it was no accident that Cassubians, who have experienced prejudice and discrimination beyond communist rule in Poland, would be at the fore-front. It is not surprising that Solidarity was led by a Cassub, Lech Walesa. It is also noteworthy that the protest movement received strong support from another Cassub, Pope John Paul II, whose original name of Karol Wojtyla ends with a Cassubian "a" rather than the more typical Polish "ski."

In the United States, the civil rights movement was manifestly initiated and led by blacks. Jews, who have experienced more prejudice and discrimination than most other whites in American society, where they constitute less than 2 percent of the population, composed the largest group of whites in the movement. In the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of the leading mass civil rights protest organizations, almost one-half of the white participants identified themselves as Jewish or as secularists whose parents were Jewish (Bell 1968).

The methods employed by protest participants and leaders tend to reflect a lack of institutionalized power. When such institutionalized power is available, it can be exercised to redress grievances without resorting to mass protests. Within democratic political processes in the United States and in other democratic societies much organized protest on such issues as trade policies, road construction and placement, and taxation can be viewed in more normative, adaptive terms.

When such normative activities do not result in a resolution of grievances, the potential for a protest movement increases. In such a context, legitimized guarantees of the right to protest, as embedded in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of the right to assemble and petition for redress of grievances, do not preclude protest strategies that go beyond legal or normative boundaries of protest behavior.

Methods of protest are related to prospects of success and levels of frustration. When a protest movement or a countermovement has broad public support and is likely to receive a positive response from targeted authorities, protest activities are likely to be peaceful and accepted by such authorities. Such is the case with pro-choice protest on the abortion issue; protest for clean air; and protest in support of Christian, Jewish, and other minority religious status groups in the Soviet Union. All these protest activities have relatively broad American support, even when they experience a minority activist opposition.

A variety of nonlegitimate strategies are used when protest movements address issues and involve participants with relatively little initial public support and active opposition. One such nonlegitimate strategy is Ghandi's nonviolent protest confrontation with British authorities in India. Adapted by Martin Luther King, Jr., and most other black civil rights protest leaders in the 1950s and early 1960s, the strategy of nonviolence was designed to call general public attention in a nonthreatening manner to perceived injustices experienced by blacks. With such techniques as sitins at racially segregated lunch counters and boycotts of segregated public buses, this nonviolent method generated conflict by breaking down established social practices. The aim of such nonviolent methods is to advance conflict resolution by negotiating a change in practices that produced the protest. A particularly famous case is the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, which was one of several major precipitants of the national black-led civil rights movement.

Other, violent forms of protest include both planned strategies and unplanned spontaneous crowd action. In either case such activity tends to be perceived by authorities and their supporters as disorderly and lawless mob behavior. Masses of protest participants are likely to be drawn to violent action when the general perception, or emerging norm (Turner and Killian 1986, pp. 21–25), develops that redress of felt grievances is believed to be unattainable either in normal conditions before protest activation or by peaceful means. The history of violent protest is extensive in many societies, as exemplified by the forcible occupation of farms and fields by landless French peasants in the eighteenth century, American attacks on British possessions and military posts prior to the Declaration of Independence, and bread riots by Russian urban dwellers in World War I. The particular centuries-long history of violent protest movements in American society was documented in context of the urban race riots and anti–Vietnam War protest in the 1960s by the presidentially appointed National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence in the United States (Graham and Gurr 1969).

Violent protests usually concern specific issues such as taxes, conscription into the military, and food shortages, issues that are confined to particular situations and times. Although these types of protest do not evolve into major social movements, they may have severe and immediate consequences. In 1863, for instance, during the Civil War, Irish Catholics protested what they perceived as the unfair nature of the military draft in New York City. This protest left several hundred dead. Likewise, many college students in the late 1960s and the early 1970s revolted against the draft during the unpopular Vietnam War, and the results included loss of student lives at Kent State University.

Unplanned violence may also be a form of protest. As reported by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders and other research on over two dozen urban racial riots in the 1960s in the United States, these riots, which resulted in over a hundred deaths and over $100 million in property damage, were disorganized extensions of the black civil rights movement. These violent events closely fit Davie's J-curve thesis (1974), which argues that rising expectations, such as those generated by legal successes in mid-1960s by the black civil rights movement, were frustrated by the declining urban ghetto environments and growing Vietnam War tensions, both of which were related to the fact that large numbers of blacks were being drafted while most white college students were exempted.

Overall, protest movements are more frequent in societies that legitimize the right of protest. In such societies, social conflict generated by protest movements is often functional in resolving conflict over issues between challenging and target groups (Coser 1956). Still, urban and campus riots of the 1960s illustrate that formal rights of protest do not deter democratic authorities and their public supporters from responding with police force or from beginning a countermovement. Authoritarian societies may experience fewer protest movements, but when they do occur, such movements are far more likely to be intense and to have the potential for massive social movements designed to transform the society. This could be seen in widely disparate societies, including most eastern European nations and the Soviet Union, El Salvador, Nicaragua, South Africa, Iran, and mainland China.


Given the long and continuing history of protest movements, there has been growing interest in the long-term consequences of such movements. Some assessments concentrate on historical, comparative analysis such as Snyder and Tilly's analysis (1972) of French collective violence in response to government-sponsored repression between 1830 and 1968, or Bohstedt and Williams's analysis (1988) of the diffusion of riotous protests in Devonshire, England, between 1766 and 1801. Other studies of long-term consequences make empirical assessments of the aftermath of more contemporary protest movements. Examples include Gordon's community-based assessment (1983) of black and white leadership accommodations in the decade following the Detroit race riots of 1967 and Morris's assessment (1980) of the decade-long impact on national public values of the environmental movement of the late 1960s.

The need for more short- and long-term assessment of the consequences of protest movements is evident in reviews of past movements. William Gamson's consideration of fifty-three protest movements in the United States between the 1830s and 1930s illustrates the need. Gamson categorized each movement's own specific goals in one of four ways: coopted, preempted, full response success, and collapsed failure (Gamson 1990, pp. 145–453). Gamson assessed each protest movement's success in achieving its goals during its own period of organized activity. For instance, Gamson assessed such groups as the German American Fund (1936–1943), the American Proportional Representation League (1893–1932), and the Dairyman's League (1907–1920).

Of the fifty-three identified protest movements, twenty-two, the largest single proportion, were categorized as being collapsed failures, twenty as achieving full response success, six as being preempted, and five as being coopted. Protest movements categorized as collapsed failures and full response successes demonstrate the need for assessment of protest movements long beyond their activist periods. Listed under collapsed failures were major long-term successful movements including the abolitionist North Carolina Manumission Society (1816–1834) and the American Anti-Slavery Society (1833–1840). In contrast, among full response success movements was the American Committee for the Outlawry of War (1921–1929), a major force in the achievement of the international Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which outlawed war between nations, a short-lived success that for at least most of the rest of the twentieth century proved a grand failure.

Successful or unsuccessful in the short or the long term, protest movements are periodically a part of social change at local, national, and global levels and in situational, institutional, and cross-cultural contexts. In the United States and other modern mass urban societies, the long-term trend has been for protest movements to become more professionalized with increased mobilization of resources to more effectively challenge entrenched interests (Tilly 1978). Modern communication systems, global economic interdependence, and economical movement of masses of people over great distances assures that protest movements of the future will increasingly be characterized by a combination of ideas, people, and organization across all these areas of social life.

In contemporary terms, the historical end of the global Cold War at the end of the twentieth century with the collapse of the Soviet Union generated a basis for increased localized protest movements. This was initially evident in the former Soviet Union's sphere of influence in eastern European societies and within Russia itself. On the eve of the twenty-first century, evidence of this broadening localized protest activism was to be seen in many societies as exemplified by student-led protests in Indonesia, Chiapas Indian revitalization protests in Mexico, the Quebec separatist movement in Canada, the Queens' Borough protest to separate from New York City in the United States, and many others. In this context, the supply of localized protest issues is likely to proliferate. At the same time, some issues—such as protests associated with such transnational issues involving the environment and health—may touch upon many localized issues that coalesce into becoming national and global protest activities. Given massive economic, political, and social change forces in modern society and the potential for protest movements to directly affect the lives of many people, the concern of research specialists and publics with such movements can be expected to continue and to increase.

(see also: Segregation and Desegregation; Social Movements; Student Movements)


Bell, Inge Powell 1968 CORE and the Strategy of NonViolence. New York: Random House.

Bohstedt, John, and Dale E. Williams 1988 "The Diffusion of Riots: The Patterns of 1966, 1795, and 1801 in Devonshire." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 19(1):1–24.

Coser, Lewis 1956 The Functions of Social Conflict. New York: Free Press.

Davies, James C. 1974 "The J-Curve and Power Struggle Theories of Collective Violence." American Sociological Review 39:607–612.

Fogelson, Robert 1971 Violence as Protest: A Study of Riots. New York: Anchor.

Gamson, William A. 1990 The Strategy of Social Protest. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey.

Glazer, Nathan 1989 Affirmative Discrimination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Gordon, Leonard 1983 "Aftermath of a Race Riot: The Emergent Norm Process among Black and White Community Leaders." Sociological Perspectives 26:115–135.

Graham, Hugh D., and Ted Gurr (eds.) 1969 The Historyof Violence in America: Report of the National Commission on the Causes and Preventions of Violence. New York: Bantam.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1971 Rebellion in the University. Boston: Little, Brown.

Lorentz, Friedrich 1935 The Cassubian Civilization. London: Faber and Faber.

Morris, Aldon D. 1984 The Origins of the Civil RightsMovement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York: Free Press.

Morris, Denton 1980 "The Soft Cutting Edge of Environmentalism: Why and How the Appropriate Technology Notion Is Changing the Movement." Natural Resources Journal 20:275–298.

Mueller, Carol, and Charles Judd 1981 "Belief Consequences and Belief Constraint." Social Forces 60:182–187.

Shirer, William 1960 The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Smelser, Neil J. 1962 Theory of Collective Behavior. New York: Free Press.

Snyder, David, and Charles Tilly 1972 "Hardship and Collective Violence in France: 1830 to 1960." American Sociological Review 37:520–532.

Tilly, Charles 1978 From Mobilization to Rebellion. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Turner, Ralph, and Lewis M. Killian 1986 CollectiveBehavior. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Wilson, William J. 1987 The Truly Disadvantaged: TheInner City, The Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

recommended readings

Gamson, William A. 1990 The Strategy of Social Protest. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey.

Tilly, Charles 1978 From Mobilization to Rebellion. New York: McGraw Hill.

Leonard Gordon