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Moral Identity and Protest Cascades in Syria

  • Wendy Pearlman

Cascade models explain the roles of the intrepid few who initiate protest and the masses who join when the expected utility of dissent flips from negative to positive. Yet questions remain about what motivates participation between those points on the causal chain, or under any conditions of high risk. To explain these anomalies, this article employs theories of moral identity to explore the interdependence of a facet of decision making that rationalist models typically regard as fixed: individuals’ awareness of and need to express values central to their sense of self. Three mechanisms describe ways that individuals’ responses to early risers trigger moral identity-based motivations for protest. First, by conjuring normative ideals, first movers can activate bystanders’ urge to follow their example in order to earn their own self-respect. Secondly, by demonstrating the joy of agency, early risers can inspire bystanders’ desire to experience the same gratification. Thirdly, by absorbing punishments, early risers can activate onlookers’ sense of moral obligation to contribute to collective efforts. These mechanisms redouble bystanders’ sense of the inherent value of protest, apart from its instrumental utility, and intensify their acceptance of risks, independent of the actual risks anticipated. Original interviews with displaced Syrians about their participation in demonstrations illustrate these processes.

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Department of Political Science, Northwestern University (email: The interview data used in this article are not made fully available at this time because the author is still using them as the basis of a larger book project, currently in progress. However, an explanation of the methods by which this data was collected and analysed is available at: The author would like to thank Rana Sweis, Suha Ma’ayeh, the Awida family, Ghadban family and the Sarhan family for their invaluable help during fieldwork. She is very grateful for funding support for this research from the Program on Middle East Political Science and several programmes at Northwestern University, namely the Equality Development and Globalization Studies Program and the Keyman Modern Turkish Studies Program, both at the Buffett Institute for Global Studies, as well as the Crown Family Fund for Middle Eastern Studies and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities. She gratefully acknowledges valuable feedback from Salma al-Shami, Ana Arjona, Christian Davenport, Ehud Eiran, Peter Krause, Sean Lee, Marc Lynch, Jeremy Pressman, Rachel Riedl, Nadav Shelef, Jillian Schwedler, Mark Tessler and Yael Zeira, as well as others who attended presentations of this research at Northwestern University, Princeton University, the Program on Middle East Political Science, the University of Michigan, the International Studies Association annual conference and Middle East Studies Association annual conference. The author is indebted to the hundreds of Syrians who selflessly welcomed her into their lives, shared their stories and tirelessly introduced her to others who did the same. She will be forever humbled by their generosity, without which this research would not have been possible.

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16 September 2012: T.A. from Daraa; Amman, Jordan.
17 September 2012: I.M. from Daraa Governorate; Irbid, Jordan.
18 September 2012: E.K. from Golani Displaced Persons Camp, Daraa; Amman, Jordan.
20 September 2012: J.S. from Aleppo; Amman, Jordan.
6 October 2012: U.D. from Daraa; Ramtha, Jordan.
7 October 2012: B.J. from Swayda; Amman, Jordan.
9 October 2012: D.L. from Daraa; Amman Jordan.
11 October 2012: T.J. from Hama; Irbid, Jordan.
13 October 2012: Z.H. from Daraa; Irbid, Jordan.
20 October 2012: D.L. from Daraa; Amman, Jordan.
20 October 2012: J.I. from Damascus suburbs; Amman, Jordan.
17 August 2013: L.M. from Daraa; Amman, Jordan.
22 August 2013: Y.H. from Homs; Amman, Jordan.
2 September 2013: I.E. from Idlib; Antakya, Turkey.
3 September 2013: Z.H. from Qamishli; Antakya, Turkey.
5 September 2013: R.A. from Aleppo; Antakya, Turkey.
10 September 2013: N.C. from Aleppo; Antakya, Turkey.
25 September 2013: D.F. from Hama; Reyhanlı, Turkey.
26 September 2013: B.A. from Hama; Reyhanlı, Turkey.
30 October 2013: M.A. from Aleppo; Istanbul, Turkey.
15 November 2013: Second interview with L.M. from Daraa, via Skype.
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