Why Do People Protest?

Describing the anti-Nazi demonstrations by German communists in the early 1930s in his autobiography, the late historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, "Next to sex, the activity combining bodily experience and intense emotion to the highest degree is the participation in a mass demonstration at a time of great public exaltation. Unlike sex, which is essentially individual, it is by its nature collective, and unlike the sexual climax, at any rate for men, it can be prolonged for hours. On the other hand, like sex it implies some physical action -- marching chanting slogans, singing -- through which the merger of the individual in the mass, which is the essence of the collective experience, finds expression."

Obviously, not everyone experiences political action quite as viscerally as that, but with major demonstrations ongoing in Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, and elsewhere, it's worth considering the psychological experience of mass political protests. There has been a great deal of scholarship, some of which I've highlighted on this blog, looking at the factors that lead some groups to engage in nonviolent action to accomplish political goals, but obviously anybody who has ever participated in a march or rally knows that the motivations go beyond merely pushing a particular policy goal. There's an emotional charge to participating in such events separate from merely making one's voice heard.

In a 2010 survey of research on the social psychology of protests, Dutch psychologists Jacquelien van Stekelenburg and Bert Klandermans proposed a model for protest motivation that includes not just the grievances of the participants and their feelings about the political efficacy of the movement they're participating in, but also factors like emotional intensity and "social embeddedness."

"Anger is seen as the prototypical protest emotion," they write. "For those of us who have been part of protest events or watched reports on protest events in the news media, this is hardly surprising. Indeed, it is hard to conceive of protest detached from anger."

Beyond merely being angry about a set of political conditions, they write, people are likely drawn to protests as real-world manifestations of their political ideology or identity: "The decision to take part in protest is not taken in social isolation," they write. "On the contrary, individual grievances and feelings are transformed into group-based grievances and feelings within social networks.… Networks provide space for the creation and dissemination of discourse critical of authorities, and it provides a way for active opposition to these authorities to grow (Paxton, 2002). In other words, this is where people talk politics and thus where the factuality of the sociopolitical world is constructed and people are mobilized for protest."

In simpler terms, protests are a way for people to make political ideas, or at least political grievances, physically present in the world. As an expression of the collective experience, as Hobsbawm put it, it's far more emotionally powerful than voting in even the most democratic election.

This isn't to say that protest participants are not acting rationally to further their interests -- Stekelenburg and Klandermans see emotions and rational assessments of grievances and efficacy as mutually reinforcing factors in motivating people to demonstrate-- but when one looks at what brings people out onto the streets in Cairo, Istanbul, Rio, Madrid, or New York, it's important not to forget the emotional side of the equation.