Skip to main content

The Individual–Institutional Nexus of Protest Behaviour

  • Russell Dalton, Alix Van Sickle and Steven Weldon

Political protest is seemingly a ubiquitous aspect of politics in advanced industrial societies, and its use may be spreading to less developed nations as well. Our research tests several rival theories of protest activity for citizens across an exceptionally wide range of polities. With data from the 1999–2002 wave of the World Values Survey, we demonstrate that the macro-level context – levels of economic and political development – significantly influences the amount of popular protest. Furthermore, a multi-level model examines how national context interacts with the micro-level predictors of protest activity. The findings indicate that contemporary protest is expanding not because of increasing dissatisfaction with government, but because economic and political development provide the resources for those who have political demands.

Hide All

1 Norris, Pippa, Democratic Phoenix: Reinventing Political Activism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Inglehart, Ronald and Catterberg, Gabriela, ‘Trends in Political Action: The Developmental Trend and the Post-honeymoon Decline’, in Ronald Inglehart, ed., Islam, Gender, Culture and Democracy (Willowdale, Ont.: de Sitter Publications, 2003); Meyer, David and Tarrow, Sidney, The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998); McAdam, Doug, Tarrow, Sidney and Tilly, Charles, Dynamics of Contention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

2 Tarrow, Sidney, Power in Movement, 2nd edn (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Schock, Kurt, ‘People Power and Political Opportunities: Social Movement Mobilization and Outcomes in the Philippines and Burma’, Social Problems, 46 (1999), 355375; Kriesi, Hanspeter, Koopmans, Ruud, Duyvendak, J. and Giugni, M. G., The Politics of New Social Movements in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis (London: University College of London Press, 1995); Rootes, Christopher, ed., Environmental Protest in Western Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Foweraker, Joe and Landman, Todd, Citizenship Rights and Social Movements: A Comparative and Statistical Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Dalton, Russell and Rohrschneider, Robert, ‘Political Action and the Political Context: A Multi-level Model of Environmental Activism’, in Dieter Fuchs, Edeltraud Roller and Bernhard Wessels, eds., Citizen and Democracy in East and West: Studies in Political Culture and Political Process (Wiesbaden: Westdeutscher Verlag, 2002).

3 Some research claims that although protest may be more common in open political systems, it is also likely to be less contentious or violent. In contrast, protests in closed systems presumably are more likely to challenge the current regime violently. Revolutionary protest movements bring out more violent and contentious responses by both sides because so much is at stake. In open societies, where protest is permitted and indeed often facilitated by government, neither protesters nor the state are likely to resort to such violent tactics. We do not directly test this hypothesis, but there is little evidence of this pattern within the range of contentious actions we examine.

4 The inclusive scope of the POS concept is evident in Sidney Tarrow’s definition of POS. Tarrow states that structures of political opportunities are ‘consistent – but not necessarily formal or permanent – dimensions of the political environment that provide incentives for people to undertake collective action by affecting their expectations for success or failure’ ( Tarrow, , Power in Movement, p. 85). This definition leaves considerable discretion to the researcher to decide which aspects of the political environment are relevant for shaping actors’ behaviour.

5 Kitschelt, Herbert, ‘Political Opportunity Structures and Political Protests: Anti-nuclear Movements in Four Democracies’, British Journal of Political Science 16 (1986), 5785; Cuzan, Alfred, ‘Resource Mobilization and Political Opportunity in the Nicaraguan Revolution: The Praxis’, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 50 (1991), 7183; Brockett, Charles, ‘The Structure of Political Opportunities and Peasant Mobilization in Central America’, Comparative Politics, 23 (1991), 253274.

6 Kitschelt, , ‘Political Opportunity Structures and Political Protests’.

7 Eisinger, P., ‘The Conditions of Protest in American Cities’, American Political Science Review, 81 (1973), 1128.

8 Gurr, Ted Robert, ‘A Causal Model of Civil Strife: A Comparative Analysis Using New Indices’, American Political Science Review, 62 (1968), 11041124; Gurr, Ted Robert, Why Men Rebel (Princeton, Conn.: Princeton University Press, 1970).

9 Wilkes, Rima, ‘First Nation Politics: Deprivation, Resources, and Participation in Collective Action’, Sociological Inquiry, 74 (2004), 570589; Harris, Richard, ‘Resistance and Alternatives to Globalization in Latin America and the Caribbean’, Latin American Perspectives, 29 (2002), 136151; Barry, Tom, Roots of Rebellion: Land and Hunger in Central America (Boston, Mass.: South End Press, 1987); Brockett, Charles, Land, Power and Poverty: Agrarian Transformation and Political Conflict in Central America (Boston, Mass.: Unwin Hyman, 1988).

10 McCarthy, John and Zald, Mayer, ‘Resource Mobilization and Social Movements’, American Journal of Sociology, 82 (1977), 12121241; Tarrow, , Power in Movement.

11 Norris, , Democratic Phoenix; Inglehart and Catterberg, ‘Trends in Political Action’; Auvinen, Juha, ‘Political Conflict in Less Developed Countries, 1981–1989’, Journal of Peace Research, 34 (1997), 177195.

12 Meyer, David, ‘Protest and Political Opportunities’, Annual Review of Sociology, 30 (2004), 125145; Goldstone, Jack, ed. 2003. States, Parties, and Social Movements (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), chap. 1; Schock, , ‘People Power and Political Opportunities’.

13 Tarrow, Sidney, ‘Social Movements in Contentious Politics: A Review Article’, American Political Science Review, 90 (1996), 874883.

14 Much of the literature on opportunity structures examines Western democracies or different groups acting in democratic settings. The variation in opportunity structures between France and Britain, for example, is quite limited. Thus, our broader cross-national comparison should provide a more valid and reliable test of whether institutional context shapes protest activity.

15 Gurr, , Why Men Rebel; Lipsky, Michael, ‘Protest as a Political Resource’, American Political Science Review, 62 (1968), 11441158.

16 Keck, Margaret and Sikkink, Kathryn, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998); Kim, Quee-Young, ‘From Protest to Change of Regime: The 4–19 Revolt and the Fall of the Rhee Regime in South Korea’, Social Forces, 74 (1996), 11791208; Loveman, Mara, ‘High-risk Collective Action: Defending Human Rights in Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina’, American Journal of Sociology, 104 (1998), 477525.

17 Scott, James, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985).

18 Barnes, Samuel H., Farah, Barbara G. and Heunks, Felix, ‘Personal Dissatisfaction’, in Samuel Barnes, Max Kaase et al., eds, Political Action: Mass Participation in Five Western Democracies (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1979); Farah, Barbara et al. ‘Political Dissatisfaction’, in Barnes et al., Political Action; Finkel, Steven, Muller, Edward and Opp, Karl Dieter, ‘Personal Influence, Collective Rationality, and Mass Political Action’, American Political Science Review, 83 (1989), 885903.

19 Booth, John and Seligson, Mitchell A., The Legitimacy Puzzle: Democracy and Political Support in Eight Latin American Nations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Canache, Damarys, ‘Looking Out My Back Door: The Neighborhood Context and Perceptions of Relative Deprivation’, Political Research Quarterly, 49 (1996), 547571; Seligson, Mitchell, Muller, Edward and Jukam, Thomas, ‘Diffuse Political Support and Antisystem Political Behavior: A Comparative Analysis’, American Journal of Political Science, 26 (1982), 240264. In contrast, the Afrobarometer study finds that grievances are only weakly related to protest in most African nations; see Bratton, Michael, Mattes, Robert and Gyimah-Boadi, E., Public Opinion, Democracy, and Market Reform in Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

20 For instance, Solinger compares protests over unemployment in China and France (see Solinger, Dorothy, ‘Workers’ Reactions: Puzzles of Protest’ (unpublished, Department of Political Science, University of California, Irvine)). In the former, workers faced a potential loss of their livelihood that might threaten their subsistence because of the lack of social benefits in China. In France, unemployment created real hardships, but the liberal benefits of the French welfare state and high standards of living diminished the economic hardship that accompanied unemployment. Our findings below would nonetheless suggest higher levels of protest in France.

21 Inglehart, Ronald, Modernization and Postmodernization (Princeton, Conn.: Princeton University Press, 1997), chap. 10; also Dieter Rucht, ‘Distant Issue Movements in Germany’, in Guidry, John A., Kennedy, Michael D. and Zald, Mayer N., eds, Globalizations and Social Movements: Culture, Power, and the Transnational Public Sphere (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000); Norris, Pippa, Walgrave, Stefan and van Aelst, Peter, ‘Does Protest Signify Disaffection? Demonstrators in a Postindustrial Democracy’, in Mariano Torcal and José Ramón Montero, eds, Political Disaffection in Contemporary Democracies: Social Capital, Institutions and Politics (London: Routledge, 2006).

22 Meyer, , ‘Protest and Political Opportunities’.

23 Verba, Sidney, Schlozman, Kay and Brady, Henry, Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995).

24 Inglehart, Ronald, Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society (Princeton, Conn.: Princeton University Press, 1990), chap. 9; Pattie, Charles, Seyd, Patrick and Whiteley, Paul, Citizenship in Britain: Values, Participation and Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Kent Jennings, M. and van Deth, Jan, eds, Continuities in Political Action (Berlin: DeGruyter, 1989).

25 McDonough, Peter, Shin, Doh Chull and Moisés, José Álvaro, ‘Democratization and Participation: Comparing Spain, Brazil, and Korea’, Journal of Politics, 60 (1998), 919953; Bratton, , Mattes, and Gyimah-Boadi, , Public Opinion, Democracy, and Market Reform in Africa.

26 Norris, , Democratic Phoenix, chap. 10.

27 Canache, and Kulisheck, Michael, ‘Preserving Democracy’.

28 Resource mobilization theorists highlight the importance of social movement organizations, and resources for these organizations, as a base for contentious politics. The existence of social movement organizations to mobilize the public can be a crucial variable linking dissatisfaction to political action. The theory leads us to expect that there is a greater propensity to protest (and participate in other activities) where a rich civil society exists and where citizens engage in voluntary associations.

29 Schock, , ‘People Power and Political Opportunities’; Loveman, , ‘High-risk Collective Action’.

30 Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000); Verba, , Scholzman, and Brady, , Participation and Political Equality.

31 Hawkins, Kirk and Hansen, David, ‘Dependent Civil Society: The Circulos Bolivarianos in Venezuela’, Latin American Research Review, 40 (2006), 102132; Obadare, Ebenezer, ‘Second Thoughts on Civil Society: The State, Civic Associations and the Antinomies of the Public Sphere in Africa’, Journal of Civil Society, 1 (2005), 267281; Dalton, Russell J., ‘Civil Society, Social Capital, and Democracy’, in Russell Dalton and Doh Shin, eds, Citizens, Democracy and Markets around the Pacific Rim (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

32 Inglehart, , Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society, chap. 9; Inglehart, Ronald and Welzel, Christian, Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), chap. 9; Norris, , Democratic Phoenix, chap. 10.

33 Dalton, and Rohrschneider, Robert, ‘Political Action and the Political Context’.

34 In addition, ideological extremism – on either the left or the right – is generally related to protest activity. At the cross-national level, support for extremist parties or the percentage of ideological extremists was positively related to the incidence of protests once other national conditions are controlled See Powell, G. Bingham, Contemporary Democracies: Participation, Stability, and Violence (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982); Dalton, Russell J. and van Sickle, Alix, ‘The Resource, Structural, and Cultural Bases of Protest’ Center for the Study of Democracy. Paper 05-11 (August 8, 2005).

35 Bell, Daniel, ‘The Resumption of History in the New Century’, in Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology, revd edn (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000).

36 Barnes, , et al. , Political Action; Muller, Edward, Aggressive Political Participation (Princeton, Conn.: Princeton University Press, 1979).

37 We analysed the May 2004 release of the fourth wave of the World Values Survey, which includes about a dozen nations from the 1995–98 wave that were not surveyed in the 1999–2002 wave. The nations from the 1995–98 wave are denoted by the survey dates in Table 1.

38 We performed a principal components analysis for the 1999–2002 wave, combining all respondents. Only one factor emerged with an eigenvalue greater than 1.0 and all five variables loaded strongly on this factor: Signed a petition 0.70; Lawful demonstration 0.78; Unofficial strike 0.75; Occupied a building 0.62; Eigenvalue 2.62; %Variance 52.3%.

39 We counted those who had actually done each activity to construct a more robust protest index. Several of these items have low participation rates that would limit the potential for comparing different forms of protest. However, combining items with varying frequency into an index gives us variation across the thresholds of protest and a better summary measure of protest activity. In El Salvador, South Korea and Vietnam, the survey did not ask one of the more demanding forms of protest. In these cases, we double-counted a comparable protest item in order to estimate a roughly comparable cross-national value. Otherwise, we would have had to drop these nations from the analyses. To check the validity of the cross-national patterns from the World Values Survey, we compared national scores on the WVS protest index to a measure of civil domestic conflict from the new World Handbook database. The World Handbook coded events from the Reuters Business Briefs, which by the late 1990s had fairly wide international coverage. This textual material was analysed by the KEDS automated content analysis programme, with a dictionary designed to measure protest and political violence. We included all civil direct actions (crime incidents, violence attacks and assaults, as well as collective protest and demonstrations). We combined reports for 1995–99 to match the WVS data most closely. Despite the differing methodologies and only partially overlapping time frames, this comparison illustrates the basic validity of the cross-national patterns in the World Values Survey. There is a 0.51 correlation between national levels of protest for the five-item WVS index and the World Handbook data. We thank J. Craig Jenkins for access to these data. More extensive comparisons of the WVS and World Handbook measures are found in Dalton, and van Sickle, , ‘The Resource, Structural, and Cultural Bases of Protest’.

40 Inglehart, , Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society, chap. 9; Inglehart, and Welzel, , Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy, chap. 9; Norris, , Democratic Phoenix, chap. 10.

41 Some analysts have questioned including petitions in the protest index. Signing petitions is a basic democratic right and part of conventional democratic politics. In addition, the use of petitions may be related to literacy rates in a nation and thus spuriously influence protest levels. To explore these points we constructed a protest index with only the four other protest items and excluded petitions. The aggregate national scores on the four-item and five-item protest scales are correlated at 0.87 across these nations. In other analyses we show that the five-item and four-item indices yield comparable results in aggregate cross-national models: see Dalton, and van Sickle, , ‘The Resource, Structural, and Cultural Bases of Protest’. We also replicated the basic individual level model, and they yielded comparable results for variables such as education that would tap the effect of literacy. Therefore, we relied on the five-item measure as a broader indicator of contentious actions based on these correlations and the factor analyses in fn. 38.

42 See, for example, Gurr, Ted Robert and Duvall, Robert, ‘Civil Conflict in the 1960s’, Comparative Political Studies, 6 (1973), 135170; Londregen, John and Poole, Keith, ‘Poverty, the Coup Trap, and the Seizure of Executive Power’, World Politics, 42 (1990), 151183.

43 See the extensive aggregate level analyses in Dalton, and van Sickle, , ‘The Resource, Structural, and Cultural Bases of Protest’.

44 We removed Luxembourg from the figure because it is an outlier in terms of income level (GDP/capita was $47,740) and it is atypical because of its small size and large international population. Even with Luxembourg included, there is a 0.76 correlation.

45 See the Appendix for more information on this variable.

46 The correlation with the Freedom House scale is r = 0.62. Freedom House scores combine the seven-point scales for political and civil liberties in the year of the World Values Survey. This scale was reversed, so high values represent high levels of democracy. For additional discussion of these aggregate relationships, see Dalton, and van Sickle, , ‘The Resource, Structural, and Cultural Bases of Protest’. Several measures of ‘political openness’ display similar patterns. Protest is positively correlated with the World Bank’s ‘Voice and Accountability’ measure (r = 0.73) and the ‘Control of Corruption’ measure (r = 0.76). Repression, as measured by the Political Terror Scale, is negatively correlated with protest. In countries where there is a high level of repression, protest is less common (see Gibney, M., Cornett, L. and Wood, R., Political Terror Scale 1976–2006 (forthcoming, see Gibney uses two measures: the correlation of protest with the Amnesty International reports is −0.54; with the US State Department records, the correlation is −0.60. Regime durability is another way to gauge political openness. Under stable or consolidated regimes, citizens are more likely to understand how to utilize and exert influence through established institutional channels. The Polity measure of regime durability is positively correlated with protest (r = 0.64).

47 For example, for the pooled cross-national sample, the correlations between protest and life satisfaction (0.08) is stronger than for happiness (0.05). For additional analyses, see van Sickle, Alix and Dalton, Russell J., ‘The Roots of Political Protest: A Contextual Analysis of Protest Behavior’ (paper presented at the annual meetings of the International Studies Association, Honolulu, 2005); Dalton, and van Sickle, , ‘The Resource, Structural, and Cultural Bases of Protest’.

48 We use confidence in parliament as a measure of political trust or satisfaction based on previous analyses of trust in government using the WVS. See Klingemann, Hans-Dieter, ‘Mapping Political Support in the 1990s’, in Pippa Norris, ed., Critical Citizens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). In addition, this item is available for nearly all of the nations in Table 1, while other WVS questions on satisfaction with government or confidence in government are missing from over thirty of these nations.

49 We also fitted a standard and an over-dispersed Poisson hierarchical model as a check whether a count model was preferable to the linear HLM model. The standard Poisson performed best, most accurately predicting the distribution of the actual data and not underestimating the number of zeros. However, the Poisson model was less robust in dealing with the multiple interaction terms in our models; estimation would have required dropping some of these interactions, even if they appeared statistically significant in the linear HLM model and other analyses. Following diagnostic tests, reliability estimates of the random coefficients’ variation across countries, and consideration of the substantive estimated effects of the interactions, we decided to use the linear HLM model. The standard Poisson model is available from the authors on request. We estimated the models using HLM 6.06. See Raudenbush, Stephen and Bryk, Anthony S., Hierarchical Linear Models: Applications and Data Analysis Methods (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2002); Steenbergen, Marco and Bradford, S., ‘Modeling Multilevel Data Structures’, American Journal of Political Science, 46 (2002), 218237.

50 We created a group activity scale to measure an individual’s level of involvement in civil society as the number of organizations to which they belong. The WVS asks the following question: Please look carefully at the list of voluntary organizations and activities and say which, if any, do you belong to? Church or religious organization; social welfare for the elderly, handicapped or deprived organization; sport or recreational organization; art, music, or educational organization; labour union; political party; environmental organization; human rights organization; local community action on issues like poverty, employment, or housing; professional organization; youth group; health organization; other group.

51 For example, see Inglehart, , Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society, chap. 9; Norris, , Democratic Phoenix, chap. 10.

52 It is a standardized continuous variable with a theoretical mean of zero that in our dataset runs from −1.25 (Zimbabwe) to 2.08 (Switzerland).

53 These countries are: Armenia, Brazil, Columbia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Georgia, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, South Korea, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Switzerland, Egypt and Great Britain. Because HLM uses list-wise deletion, including this variable in the model means all data are lost for the respondents from the seventeen countries.

54 Some of the persuasive evidence comes from Norris et al., which demonstrates that even protesters in post-industrial societies do not express significantly higher levels of dissatisfaction (see Norris, , Walgrave, and van Aelst, , ‘Does Protest Signify Disaffection?’). In addition, grievances had little influence in models of protest activity even in very poor African nations; see Bratton, , Mattes, and Gyimah-Boadi, , Public Opinion, Democracy, and Market Reform in Africa.

* Dalton: Center for the Study of Democracy, University of California, Irvine (email: ); van Sickle: Department of Political Science, University of California, Irvine; Weldon: Department of Political Science, Simon Fraser University. The authors have appreciated the assistance and advice of Craig Jenkins, M. Kent Jennings, David Meyer, Dorothy Solinger and Chris Welzel.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

British Journal of Political Science
  • ISSN: 0007-1234
  • EISSN: 1469-2112
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-of-political-science
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 29
Total number of PDF views: 362 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1264 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 17th August 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.