James Jasper’s book Protest provides a valuable introduction to a type of activity around us all the time.
I recently read James M. Jasper’s book Protest: A Cultural Introduction to Social Movements. It is written to be used as a textbook, but in an engaging style. I found it a useful refresher covering issues I’ve studied for many years.
Reading about any topic can make you more likely to notice relevant examples, and so it was for me in reading about protest. On the day I finished reading Protest I received an email from Antoon De Baets of the Network of Concerned Historians: PEN International Writers in Prison Committee reported on the 30-month prison sentence received by a Paraguayan writer, Nelson Aguilera. His crime: alleged plagiarism! According to the PEN Committee, experts say no plagiarism was involved, so obviously there must be some other factor involved – a connection between the complainant and the prosecutor. Recipients of the appeal were invited to write to the president of Paraguay. It is a type of protest, along the lines of the efforts of Amnesty International.
Then there was an appeal from my union, the National Tertiary Education Union, to send letters to politicians to stop passage of legislation to deregulate fees at Australian universities. It is a typical pressure technique.
I also had just finished providing assessments concerning the Navco database of nonviolent challenges to governments. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan carried out a path-breaking study comparing nonviolent and violent challenges to repressive regimes (as well as secession and anti-occupation struggles). They compiled a database of 323 struggles between 1900 and 2006. In their 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works, they showed that anti-regime struggles were far more likely to be successful if they relied primarily on nonviolent methods such as rallies, strikes and boycotts. Furthermore, this conclusion held up regardless of how repressive the regime was: nonviolent action is just as effective against the most ruthless governments.
Erica is now updating and augmenting the database. She sent me and various others a list of over 100 additional nonviolent anti-regime struggles, some in the years since 2006 and some from earlier years that were not included in the original database. There were cases from Algeria and Armenia through to Western Sahara and Yemen.
I had to try to judge whether each struggle was maximalist (seeking to change the government), constituted a campaign, was nonviolent (rather than violent), was successful or unsuccessful, and warranted being in the database. This was a challenging exercise, because quite a few of the cases did not fit neatly into the target categories and because online information was less than ideal. The exercise certainly made me aware of the remarkable capacity of citizens to organise for major political change, using an eye-opening variety of techniques with amazing courage against brutal governments. And in many of the cases, these brutal governments lost the struggle.
Protest covers a standard set of topics: defining social movements, the role of meanings in their operation and presence, the wider social context, recruitment, maintaining operations and momentum, making decisions, interactions with other players, and winning/losing. Jasper’s cultural approach has a couple distinctive features. He emphasises the roles of meanings for participants, such as how they see themselves; these meanings draw on beliefs and images in the surrounding culture. Associated with this, he emphasises the role of emotions in social movement dynamics, an area in which he is a pioneering researcher.
Jasper also brings to his treatment his special interest in dilemmas: choices that movement activists need to make that involve difficult trade-offs. An example is the organisation dilemma:
Protesters face many choices about how much to formalize their operations through rules, fundraising, paid staff, and offices. Formalities like these help sustain activities over time, but they can also change those activities. The goal of sustaining and protecting the organization appears alongside its original mission, and more time is devoted to raising funds and expanding staffs. In some cases, the survival of the organization becomes the primary goal. Members may then grow cynical about staff salaries, the paid trips leaders take on official business, large and lavish offices. Laws governing the operation of officially incorporated organizations – especially their tax-exempt status – constrain their tactical choices. Organizations are like other strategic means: they always have the potential to become ends in themselves … (p. 82)
One thing that comes across strongly in the book is that activism isn’t all that easy. Movements don’t start or continue by accident: lots of committed people work to bring an issue to public attention, pressure governments or directly implement solutions.
Of special interest are social movement organisations (SMOs). Some well-known examples are Greenpeace and Amnesty International, and there are thousands of others. SMOs are not the same as social movements, which typically incorporate multiple SMOs, independent activists and supporters, and occasional participants. Movements are also more than people and organisations. They involve knowledge, beliefs, assumptions, symbols and many other intangibles.
Occasionally I read a letter to the editor saying, “Where are the protests about X?” where X might be street violence, discrimination or aggression in a foreign country. The letter writers are often decrying what they see as double standards: if environmentalists are protesting about whaling, why aren’t they protesting about land degradation? I assume few of these letter-writers have ever tried to organise a rally. If they had, they would realise how much effort it requires – especially the effort to convince people to attend – and even then a rally does not automatically translate into media coverage.
People who have been involved in social movements often have a deep understanding of how they operate and what they are up against. So what is there for them to learn from Jasper’s book? The advantage of a straightforward, well-written text is putting personal experiences in context. After all, there are hundreds of different social movements, with quite a few commonalities but also a number of differences.
Personally, I found it useful to go through Protest as a refresher about the basics, and an update concerning theoretical developments that might offer insight into movements.
On only one point would I differ significantly in emphasis. Jasper distinguishes between two categories of protest methods, calling them “nice” and “naughty.” Nice protest methods operate within the system and accepted by authorities, for example lobbying, voting and petitions. Naughty methods include wildcat strikes, massive rallies and assaulting police: they transgress norms about normal or proper political behaviour, and are seen as threatening.
What this distinction misses is the expanding body of research on nonviolent action, which refers to non-standard methods of social action that do not involve physical violence against opponents. (Nonviolent protesters often suffer violence from police and others.) Methods of nonviolent action include rallies, strikes, boycotts, fasts, sit-ins and setting up alternative political institutions, among others. The dynamics of nonviolent action have been studied in some depth, and diverge in significant ways from the dynamics of violence. For example, police violence against peaceful protesters is likely to generate public outrage, whereas police violence against violent protests is not – even if the police violence is much greater. The choice is not just between naughty and nice but also between violence and nonviolent action.
In the late 1970s, I was active in the Australian anti-uranium movement, and after a number of years started reading social analyses of the movement, and was most disappointed: there was nothing I felt I didn’t already know. This convinced me that there’s nothing quite like being in a movement to understand movement dynamics. However, that was a long time ago, and research into social movements was far less developed than it is today, and I don’t recollect any overview with many insights such as Protest.
Social movements are central to many of the advances that we take for granted today, including overcoming slavery, preventing nuclear war, and challenging racial discrimination and the subjugation of women. I recommend Jasper’s Protest both for movement participants to get a broader view of what they are part of and for outsiders who want a sense of what really goes on in movements.