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date: 30 March 2017

Protest and Contentious Action

Summary and Keywords

The field of protest and contentious action is massive. Numerous studies have focused on the determinants of such behavior, among which are grievances and deprivations, resources, political opportunities, and general contextual conditions. Others have examined the changes in political protest over time and across countries, or the consequences of contentious action. Moreover, research on protest politics is characterized by a multitude of methodological approaches, which are not easy to group according to the “qualitative–quantitative” divide. To navigate this literature, three units of analysis are examined: individuals; groups, organizations or social movements; and protest events. This perspective can guide researchers through the field, in particular through the main factors for protest studies cross-temporally and cross-nationally, about their effects, and through the various methodological approaches. This perspective also might suggest possible directions for future research to overcome some limitations of the current literature.

Keywords: political behavior, political protest, contentious action, social movements, unconventional participation, grievances, deprivation, political resources, political opportunity structures, consequences of protest, consequences of social movements, methodology for social moment research


Protest and contentious action represent recurrent elements of contemporary democracies (Rucht, 2007), so it is not surprising that this research has considerable breadth and complexity. It considers both general and very specific aspects of noninstitutional, unconventional, extrarepresentative, and collective forms of participation. One way to summarize this research is to use a cross-cutting dimension. I discuss the research literature according to “what” is studied, yielding to three main perspectives. First, some studies focus of the individual, often examining reported behavior. Second, other studies concentrate on groups or organizations, which might also be social movements, and often look at their strategies or characteristics. Third, there are studies on events, which is a popular unit of analysis for this field (Klandermans & Staggenborg, 2002). Therefore, I propose a general overview covering popular topics investigated in the field based on the unit of analysis studied, helping the reader to sort out its complexity.

I discuss the main determinants of protest and contentious action, the studies focusing on change in protest, the consequences of protest, and, eventually, the methodological approaches generally used. It should be clear, however, that these are not the only possible units of analysis. The literature also investigates claims, tactics, networks, discourses, or other aspects of contentious politics. Moreover, using the three units of analysis does not always allow drawing straight lines between the studies on protest. Still, this framework might be a useful tool to navigate the breadth of the field.

If we focus on individual political behavior, the driving questions will be: how active are individuals in contentious forms of action? What makes individuals get involved in protest politics? How has individual engagement in protest changed over time and space? What are the consequences of individual engagement in protest? How has individual engagement in protest been studied? If we swap this unit of analysis to the other units, we get new questions that address the same phenomenon from different angles. Thus, this article answers such questions accounting for each unit of analysis.

What is Protest?

Protest can be defined as a form of individual and collective action aimed at affecting cultural, political, and social processes, which therefore challenge the status quo or decisions that are seen as unfair, through a number of practices such as petitions, demonstration, boycotts, refusing to pay rent or tax, occupations, sit-ins, blocking traffic, and strikes, and riots (della Porta & Diani, 2006). Protest activities are often distinguished from conventional participation, such as voting or contacting a government official. The contrast between conventional and unconventional participation stems from the idea that the two are different in nature. Conventional action concerns forms of political behavior occurring within the constitutional process of interest aggregation and representation, mediated by political institutions, and which define the relationship between political authorities and citizens. Protest, or contentious, action is noninstitutionalized direct political action, occurring outside of the realm of institutional politics, with the goal of influencing decisions affecting the population or popular practices. The repertory of protest and contentious politics can therefore range from mild forms of action, such as petitions or boycotts, to more routinized forms, such as demonstrations, to even illegal or violent forms (Barnes & Kaase, 1979).

Tilly and Tarrow (2007, p. 4) argue that contentious politics lies at the intersection of three fields—contention, politics, and collective action—and “involves interactions in which actors make claims bearing on someone else’s interest, leading to coordinate efforts on behalf of shared interests or programs, in which governments are involved or targets, initiators of claims, or third parties.” Therefore, contention refers to the act of making claims involving a directionality, from a maker to a receiver. That is, one party makes a claim on another, be it an individual, a group, or an institution. Social interests might be achieved by coordinating the action of individuals, and in this sense contentious politics is a form of collective action. Eventually, contentious politics regards politics because the government is often a claimant, the object of a claim, or a third party in any case involved in this phenomenon. In fact, in one way or another, governments become part of this process, even when they are not objects or subjects of claims. Protest and contentious politics are also episodic and public phenomena. The first characteristic refers the fact that they do not occur on a regular basis and do not have a fixed schedule, like the elections do. The second refers to the fact that claims are not made within organizations, and therefore are manifest.

Once protest is defined, we can ask how it varies. Many studies investigate the factors explaining the occurrence of protest. In fact, it has been underlined that protest varies in space, e.g. it depends on cross-national variables; in time, e.g., how protest changes over time in one or multiple countries, regions, or even cities; in frequency, e.g., protest may occur seldom or often; or in size, e.g. protest may involve few or many individuals or actors.

To provide a general picture of how protest may vary across space, I plot protest events—the third unit of analysis presented in this article—defined as forms of civilian collective actions against some targets, occurred in the world between January 1, 2010 to December 31, 2014.1 Larger dots indicate higher frequency. During this period, protests occur more likely and frequently in European countries and the United States, in part because citizen groups and political norms have regularized protest as a form of political action. There are also frequent protests in North Africa, the Middle East, and India, in part reflecting the tumult of the Arab Spring and internal political conflicts in these regions. sub-Saharan countries and Latin America display lower levels of activity during this period. This illustrates that protest occurs in democracies as well less democratic or non-democratic states. Although the picture is very general, it illustrates some patterns that might be explained by the factors described in the following section.

Factors Predicting Protest

What contributes to the emergence of protest behaviors and contentious action is a central theme in the literature on protest and contentious action. The available explanations make use of a large number of factors, which cannot be summarized here. However, three can be considered the major sets of factors explaining protest: grievances and deprivation; resources; and political opportunities and contextual conditions. This section examines them by discussing their contribution for the explanation of protest from the perspective of individuals, groups or organizations, and events.

Grievances and Deprivation

One classic explanation for protest activity concerns the role of grievances and deprivation. People protest when they perceive a situation as unfair or illegitimate. They see action as a way of overturning it. When expectations are not met, mostly economic, frustration and discontent spread and become incentives for protest (Gurr, 1970). Protest is seen as an instrument that allows individuals or groups to affect the social or political systems (van Stekelemburg & Klandermans, 2013).

Researchers have often used this explanation. Nevertheless, studies investigating individual protest have not always reached clear conclusions. An early empirical study found only a weak association between perceptions of one’s economic situation, as a proxy for grievances, and protest (see Barnes & Kaase, 1979), and later research from this project similarly found a weak association between hardships and individual protest. Others showed that a bad housing and financial situation might facilitate engagement in protest (Opp, 2000).

Grievance and relative deprivation theory is also used to explain the protest mobilization of specific groups. For example, such feelings may stimulate protest by students or the unemployed. Lack of employment or social security can lead to discontent, which eventually stimulates protest. For example, one study on Latin America showed that relative deprivation is a factor for their protest participation (Almeida, 2007). Similarly, research has attributed British students’ protests in 2010–2011 to the rising prices in tuition fees and cuts in higher education, which aggravated feelings of grievance and injustice (Ibrahim, 2011). Protests by the unemployed can also be a product of a deprivation condition. A comparative study of France, Germany, and Italy showed that the unemployed are more likely to mobilize in some regions or in moments of high unemployment peaks, although mobilization also seems to depend on other conditions (Baglioni, Baumgarten, Chabanet, & Lahusen, 2008). In Argentina, movements of the unemployed protested the government’s neoliberal policies introducing new labor market policies and privatizations, and demanded reforms to improve their condition (Silva, 2009). In general, elements linked to deprivation and grievances can sometimes explain mobilization following government austerity measures or the government’s inability to cope with economic crisis (della Porta, 2015).

Grievances and deprivation can also explain the frequency of the occurrence of protest events. Kerbo and Shaffer (1992) find that unemployment, a sign of rising grievances among the population, increases the number of protests in the United States. Researchers argue that economic grievances resulting from market reforms in Latin America has a positive effect on protest in democratic nations that are more open to contentious politics, but a negative effect in nondemocratic states (Bellinger & Arce, 2011).

This deprivation approach has had a “renaissance” in the past years given the post-2008 economic recession that hit several countries, in Europe and in other areas. The recession-simulated protests across both Eastern and Western European countries (Beissinger, Sasse, & Straif, 2014; Quaranta, 2016a).

In summary, research has shown that feelings of grievance or deprivation can stimulate protest among the general public. Often these motivations apply to distinct subgroups that are most affected by social or economic conditions. In addition, it appears that the social and political context can affect which grievances lead to political action.


Research typically argues that protest and contentious action is more likely when resources are present, be they resources of the individuals, groups, or organizations. This approach argues that resources such as skills, money, or education are important in determining who can actually participate, and not just the presence of grievances or deprivation. These resources are not equally distributed across the population, creating differences in the chances actors have to protest.

Studies on individual participation in protest have shown that it might be the product of education, income, and other resources that provide individuals with civic skills (e.g., Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995). Although such approach based on individual resources was developed for explaining political participation in general and not protest in particular, studies show that citizens with more resources are more able to participate in protest activities. Education has a positive impact on noninstitutional and protest participation in Europe (Marien, Hooghe, & Quintelier, 2010; Quaranta, 2015). Similar results are found for other regions: in Latin America (Moseley, 2015) and in Egypt and Tunisia (Beissinger, Amaney, & Mazur, 2015).

According to the deprivation approach, low income and low education should more likely lead to more protest, since this would indicate a condition of hardship. Nevertheless, research shows quite the opposite. In general terms, it seems that protest is more common among the middle class because they possess the resources to be active (Peterson, Wahlström, & Wennerhag, 2015). Through participation the middle class can reinforce its position in society.

It is possible to identify specific forms of middle class contentious politics that generally result from this group’s educational and income resources. Researchers label these as “new social movements.” They put behind economic demands, and focus on cultural, environmental, or issues linked to individual autonomy (Kriesi, 1989). The movements mobilize around “post-materialist” issues, which become prominent among the middle class because income is no longer a preoccupation (Inglehart & Welzel, 2005). Therefore, the general increase in resources, material and cultural, may be linked to the emergence of such movements. The middle class is active in contentious politics both because of its higher resources, but also because of its specific issue interests.

There are various examples of mobilizations led by the middle class, such as the mobilizations for the defense of the environment (Rootes, 2003) or against globalization (della Porta, Andretta, Mosca, & Reiter, 2006). Given the emphasis on the availability of resources of the middle class and on post-materialist values, these protest movements are normally found in affluent democracies. However, similar movements can also be found in less developed nations, although they not always have “new social movements” characteristics (Dwivedi, 2001).

The resources of social movement organizations are often linked to the levels of protest events. The number of instances of nonviolent protest is found to be associated with the size of human rights organizations in terms of volunteers and members, as these link the population to issues they care about (Murdie & Bhasin, 2011). Women’s insider (institutional collective action) and outsider events (protest or grass-roots lobbying) are more likely when there are more women’s social movement organizations (Soule, McAdam, McCarthy, & Su, 1999). The same could likely be said for other social movements, such as environmental or human rights groups. Therefore, human resources may overlap with organizational resources (Edwards & McCarthy, 2004).

Protest events (and other political activities) are more likely when material resources—such as money, infrastructures, or equipment—are available to social movements. For example, studies demonstrate that the rate and the availability of government funding to organizations are correlated with homeless protest events (Snow, Soule, & Cress, 2005).

To summarize, research shows that various types of resources—such as material, organizational, or human—favor protest mobilization. The supply of specific resources also might change the objects, the targets, or the claims of protest, or the groups involved, not only the frequency of contentious action.

Political Opportunities and Contextual Conditions

The political opportunities approach maintains that protest is influenced by the context where it occurs. Tarrow (2011, p. 32) defines political opportunities as: “consistent—but not necessarily formal, permanent, or national—sets of clues that encourage people to engage in contentious politics.” Although the concept of political opportunities is widely applied, it is not always completely clear what it includes, but it generally indicates openness or closure of the political system; stability or instability of alignments; the presence or absence of allies; and the state’s capacity and propensity for repression (McAdam, 1996, p. 27).

Studies on individual protest participation have not stressed the role of political opportunities until recently. Some focus on the openness of the political system. These studies find that dispersion of power among states’ institutions or horizontal power-sharing institutions, territorial separation of power, decentralization, or vertical power dispersion are associated with protest or nonelectoral participation (Quaranta, 2015; Vráblíková, 2016). Others interpret openness as democratic development, finding a positive correlation with protest (Dalton, van Sickle, & Weldon, 2009). It is also argued that direct democracy stimulates protest, as it empowers citizens who prefer it as a means to voice preferences, yet research suggests that direct democracy represents a “safety valve” channeling protest (Fatke & Freitag, 2013). The structure of the political competition and alliances occurring in different contexts, such as party system characteristics, has also been linked to individual engagement (Quaranta, 2015; Vráblíková, 2016).

The political opportunities approach is more common in the study of social movements. I illustrate a few applications, with no claim of being exhaustive, trying to provide an overview of relevant studies. Antinuclear movements are more active where political structures are open and receptive (“input” structure), and where the state is less able to implement nuclear energy policies (“output” structures) (Kitschelt, 1986). Similarly, collective action, both in form and level, depends on the openness of the political systems (Kriesi, Ruud, Duyvendak, & Giugni, 1995). In addition, the presence of leftist parties seems to favor movements, especially when these are in power. In the case of women’s movements political opportunities are structured differently. This means that in some cases these political opportunities can be more advantageous for women than for men. In this respect, it has been argued that opportunities for women’s mobilization can appear, for instance, when men’s mobilization is impeded or riskier (Beckwith, 2000).

Studies focusing on protest events also apply the concept of political opportunities, and in some cases are tested against alternative approaches. For instance, Jenkins, Jacobs, and Agnone (2003) argue that contextual conditions—such as electoral competition, elite divisions, and strength of the left—in combination with grievances and organizational resources, that may stimulate African-American protests in the U.S. increased political representation and greater access to the political system. Elements of the political opportunity structure approach are found in the party system, and in particular the parliamentary arena, and in the cleavage structure. In fact, the number of effective number of political parties and electoral volatility are associated with the number of antigovernment demonstrations, riots, and strikes (Arce, 2010). Alliances are found to be relevant predictors of protest events. In fact, a study finds that the presence of female legislators in Congress is associated with an increase in women’s protest (Soule, McAdam, McCarthy, & Su, 1999).

Although the theory of political opportunities has been largely developed and applied to democratic settings, some research has applied the framework to less liberal or repressive settings (Alimi, 2009). This research suggests that political opportunities do not bring about contentious action, but rather the birth and growth of organizations.

In summary, the configuration of the political context can be an important influence on protest activities. It defines the opportunities individuals and organizations have to mobilize protest. Nevertheless, it is not only important that these opportunities are present, but also that they are perceived. Contextual features also operate in combination with grievances or resources.

Long-Term Developments

The study of contentious action and protest has explored whether the levels of activity have changed across time, space, and in form. An influential argument describes the emergence of a “social movement society” (Meyer & Tarrow, 1998).2 The basic point is that political protest has become a frequent element in contemporary democracies. Protest has diffused to constituents previously hesitant to use this form of engagement, and protest has become a professionalized and institutionalized activity. In other words, protest was once identified with the young and deprived, while it is now used by groups as diverse as environmental groups, school teachers, and senior citizens.

As an overview of such changes, Figure 2 shows the percentage of survey respondents who answered to have attended lawful demonstrations in selected (and unrepresentative) countries between 1981 and 2014.3 The plot indicates a variety of trends. In the group of advanced democracies, participation in demonstrations increases in France and Denmark, remains quite stable in the United States and Great Britain, and fluctuates in Germany, while it slightly decreases in Japan. In post-communist countries there is an overall declining trend. Participation rates are quite sustained in 1990, likely due to the mobilizations at the time of the collapse of the communist regimes, while dropping in the later years, with the exception of Slovenia. Diverse trends can also be found in Latin American countries, with no particular patterns. In these countries participation rates increase and then decrease, as in Mexico or Peru, are steady, as in Argentina or Brazil, or increase, as in Uruguay. Finally, in the last group of countries, trends are quite stable, as in Turkey, South Africa or Philippines. Where the trends are increasing, as in Nigeria or India, the change is not particularly significant. In South Korea, instead, there is an increase in participation in demonstration, with a following decrease. In sum, survey data presented in the figure do not provide a clear and general indication about the rise of protest. Indeed, what the figure does show is that participation in demonstrations greatly varies across countries, as partially seen in Figure 1.4

Various studies have investigated changes in protest politics from an individual perspective. There are two main research strands, which do not necessarily exclude one from another. The first shows that political protest has been increasing over time. These mainly use repeated cross-sectional surveys finding that people are more likely than in the past to engage in unconventional or non-institutional forms of participation. This evidence is most common for established democracies where there is a long record of opinion surveys and a climate of tolerance for protest. However, protest has spread across geographical areas.

Some scholars also argue that increasing protest activity comes at the expense of conventional, institutional forms of participation. However, this finding is not always confirmed or clear. The same people tend to engage in both confrontational and non-confrontational activities, challenging the idea that citizens have moved towards safer forms of action (Dodson, 2011; Quaranta, 2016b).

The second research strand investigates changes in the individual factors affecting protest. Traditionally relevant factors such as education, gender, age, or the mobilization context now appear to be weaker predictors of protest (van Aelst & Walgrave, 2001). However, these findings seem dependent on the context where the study is carried out. For instance, this process was not found in a recent study on the US (Caren, Ghoshal, & Ribas, 2010), and only partially by studies on Italy and Western Europe (Quaranta, 2014; 2016b).

Other researchers have focused on the institutionalization of social movements, taking a meso-level perspective. When this process occurs, collective action becomes routinized such that challengers and authorities follow a set of (unwritten) rules. Those who accept these rules are included in the political process, while those who do not are excluded. Challengers thus adapt their strategies to avoid disruptive practices (Meyer & Tarrow, 1998). Often scholars have examined changes in the organizational structures of social movements, following their trajectories from fluid and non-hierarchical organizations to structured, formalized ones. A recurring example of institutionalization is the environmental movements. In many advanced democracies these movements shifted from using confrontational forms of action to pressure authorities, to being non-radical organizations using conventional instruments of influence, getting access to hearings or committees, and gaining institutional recognition (Diani & Donati, 1999). Movements become institutionalized not only because their organizational structure changes, but also because they interact with other political actors differently, in particular with authorities. Studies in many established democracies have shown that the “policing of protest” has changed over time, moving from repressive strategies, to dialogic or preemptive practices that allow a form of negotiated control of contentious actions (della Porta & Reiter, 1998). Eventually, the institutionalization of organizations involved in contention represents a means of legitimation both among citizens and political institutions, especially in areas characterized by weak participation. On this matter, it has been noted that NGOs and third-sector organizations in Eastern Europe act as “challengers” of the authorities in support of small grassroots groups, in a context where citizens are not active, given their link with the elites at the national and supranational level (Petrova & Tarrow, 2007).

Research on protest events has also tested the social movement society argument. These studies find that, in advanced democracies, some of the claims of the argument are correct, albeit with some distinctions. The use of protests has increased over time in affluent democracies, and it seems to have gradually lost its violent aspects. The number of different claims has also increased, but across time there is not an increase of new claims, which would indicate that protest has spread among new constituencies. Moreover, fewer (but bigger) organizations appear to be present at protest events (Soule & Earl, 2005).

In summary, changes in the level and nature of protest are often influenced by the context of analysis. When taking into account different countries, it might be that the claims of the social movement society thesis could be confirmed in affluent democracies. But the situation is often different in democratizing or non-democratic states. In addition, also the choice of unit of analysis, and consequently the data used, plays a significant role in detecting changes.


Studying the consequences of protest raises questions linked to political, cultural, and personal/individual changes in societies (Amenta, Caren, Chiarello, & Su, 2010; Giugni, 2004). Studies on the political consequences of protest consider how it affects the policy-making process, actors such as political parties, and political institutions such as state bureaucracies. Studies on the cultural consequences look at the effects on values, beliefs, meanings, symbols, practices, and products. Research on the personal/individual consequences look at how protest affects attitudes, behaviors, socialization, individual structural factors, such as life course, and social networks.

Nevertheless, studying the consequences of protest and social movements is not at all trivial. Above all, it is very difficult to assess the “causal” impact, for example in terms of size and durability, of social movements or protest events on changes in society or politics (Giugni, 1998). Leaving aside these methodological problems,5 this section presents this area of research keeping the analytical scheme based on the unit of analysis.

Research on personal or biographical consequences of contentious action has taken the individual as its preferred unit of analysis. These studies examine how engagement affects the life course, and how it contributes to political socialization and further participation (Giugni, 2004). This strain of research generally finds that left-wing activism has a long-lasting effect on future activism and political values. American activists in the 1960s kept involved in contentious forms of engagement, retained their ideological orientations, and this had personal consequences such as lower incomes, higher divorce rates, or nontraditional work histories (McAdam, 1989).

Other studies have researched the consequences of less demanding forms of activism, trying to overcome some methodological issues of focusing on 1960s activists. Nevertheless, these yield to similar findings. Participation in anti-war, student, women’s, and civil rights movements is correlated with later political orientations and activism, higher educational attainments, the choice of careers, weaker religious orientations, and a delay in marriage and a lower probability of having children (Sherkat & Blocker, 1997).

Other studies have focused on movements and events as their objects of analysis. This strand of research examines the conditions under which protest effectively influences the state, taking into account that the state’s characteristics also influences the organization and the activities of movements. This research tests the general expectation that “circumstances that helped challengers mobilize would also aid them in their bids to effect political change” (Amenta, Caren, Chiarello, & Su, 2010, p. 3).

Organizational variables are often used to explain the consequences of social movements. Giugni (1998) recalls the case of Gamson’s (1990) systematic study of the effects of social movements in the United States. Single-issue movements or bureaucratized and structured movements have the highest rates of successful outcomes. Studies of protest events find that action on a specific issue can influence congressional hearings or legislation regarding the same issues, such as in the case of environmental protest (Olzak & Soule, 2009).

Other studies take the tactics and the strategies of movements into account. Such factors range from electoral activity, to threat and persuasion, disruptive and violent actions, or different framing strategies (Amenta, Caren, Chiarello, & Su, 2010; Giugni, 1998). In this perspective, a study finds that the outcomes of homeless movements—meant as improvements in representation, resources, rights, and living conditions—depend on a combination of several factors regarding these strategies and tactics (Cress & Snow, 2000).

Contextual characteristics, such as the division and centralization of powers, openness of the political system, electoral rules, or democratization levels, are also considered important for the outcomes of protest and movements (Amenta, Caren, Chiarello, & Su, 2010). However, these outcomes vary over time, while state characteristics change only rarely or slowly.

Thus, we can also study protest as influencing social and political outcomes, be they individual outcomes, actors, policies, or organizations. In the end, it seems natural that protest should have some consequences, as influencing society and politics is a distinctive element of this form of action.


It is argued that research on protest, unlike other sub-fields of the social sciences, seems to have dodged the often-harsh methodological debate between neo-positivist and interpretivist approaches (della Porta, 2014). We keep the three units of analysis—individuals, movements or organizations, and events—as a tool to identify the methodological approach that is more suited to each unit (Klandermans & Staggenborg, 2002). The reader should keep in mind that the available methodological choices are very numerous and go beyond those presented here.6

Two approaches are the most common when studying individual participation in contentious action: surveys and in-depth interviewing. On the one hand, surveys typically have a wider scope and aim to provide broader results. A conventional method is surveying the general population, asking about participation in a series of activities, such as protest, petitions, boycotts, strikes, and other non-conventional actions, along with items tapping other information such as socio-demographic factors, attitudes, orientations, and behaviors (Rucht, 2007). This approach has the clear advantage that the data are collected by international projects that make them available to the general public.7 Researchers have used this method to investigate the determinants of individual political action, and looked at the cross-national differences in the levels of protest.

However, using surveys of the general population is not a dominant approach in the field. An alternative, which is flourishing, is surveying protesters “on the spot.” Information provided by surveys on the general population is quite unspecific, with the resulting problem that is not possible to investigate reasons, contexts, issues, organizations, or type of action (Andretta & della Porta, 2004). Surveying protestors provides detailed information and allow framing the results in context. Nevertheless, this method is not problem-free. Some are typical of general survey research, such as response bias, missing values, or standardized and superficial responses, while other are specific of this approach, such as representativeness. Even when sampling techniques are sound, problems related to response bias and selection still remain, although they can be contained (Walgrave & Verhulst, 2007).

Alternatively, in-depth interviewing represents an opposite approach on an ideal continuum ranging from structured to unstructured interviewing. This avoids standardization and produces detailed descriptions of the dynamics behind participation in contentious politics, related to both protesters and other informed actors (Blee & Taylor, 2002). In-depth interviewing is particularly useful when the aim is studying processes, feelings, motives, values, norms, beliefs, practices, identities, or expectations regarding protest engagement. In general, it allows studying complex aspects of the participation in contentious politics, and in this sense is similar to the approach of life histories. Although these approaches produced nuanced images of the processes behind participation, they suffer from some issues, such as comparability of results, availability of interviewees, sampling, idiosyncrasy, or subjectivity.

To study organizations or groups, research has often relied on social network analysis. This has been found particularly suited for these objects as collective action can be seen as the product of networks of formal and informal organizations. Therefore, it allows emphasizing the meso-level of analysis. Mobilization is studied as a process linking several organizations, with the network being a factor for mobilization or the effect of it. An advantage of social network analysis is that it allows accounting simultaneously for different levels of analysis, such as the whole network, sub-groups, or single relations, studying, its flexibility allowing studying change and mechanisms. Social network analysis has also been criticized for problems related to the difficulty of defining the boundary of the networks, for the impossibility of testing the hypotheses statistically, or for the difficulty of linking the theory to the method (Caiani, 2014).

Participant observation or ethnographic approaches are also applied to the study of social movement organizations, with a variety of scopes. In general, these are applied to investigate aspects of contentious politics that other methodological approaches miss, such as the symbolic and nonpublic aspects of social movements, their practices, or their heterogeneity in types and forms of organizations (Balsinger & Lambelet, 2014).

Eventually, the field has relied on protest event analysis, which is an approach specifically emerged within it. It is prominent as it has allowed research to focus on the cross-national and over-time aspect of contentious politics, providing the possibility to test many claims, such as of the political process approach, to look at protest waves, and in general to link the context to protest (Hutter, 2004). As a form of content analysis, protest event analysis tries to assess the frequency, the size, and in general the characteristics of protest, relying on newspaper articles or other textual sources, such as reports or digital media. It is an approach allowing one to make inferences about protest from textual contents. Protest event analysis has expanded the possibilities for investigating a phenomenon that it is not always easy to compare across space and time. Slightly different but part of the same family is protest claim analysis by which instead of coding events it codes political claims (Koopmans & Statham, 1999). Although the advantages of protest event and claim analysis can be easily appreciated—i.e., it is unobtrusive, it allows managing large amount of data, it is flexible, and press as a source is widely available—it has been challenged for problems related to selection bias, which is the problem related to the fact that not all events are recorded, and description bias, which is the problem related to accuracy (Earl, Martin, McCarthy, & Soule, 2004).

In a nutshell, contentious politics has been studied taking a “problem-oriented” approach, applying methods suited to the research questions to be addressed, without preconceptions on epistemological choices (Klandermans & Staggenborg, 2002).

What is Next?

The vast literature on protest and contentious actions speaks to the importance of the topic. The field has produced an enormous amount of research looking at protest from different angles, using several explicative frameworks and applying diverse methods. In its complexity, this literature can be understood by looking at it through the unit of analysis of interest. This lens, however, reveals that studies generally examine only one of the three (or several) units at a time. Indeed, studying protest and contentious action from an individual perspective, a meso or organizational perspective, or from a protest event perspective, allows detecting specific aspects of the topic.

However, studies looking at one specific unit of analysis may miss important aspects of protest and contentious politics stemming from the interactions across levels. For example, research on individual protest is often unable to connect protesters to the events they engage in or to the organizations to which they belong. When research is indeed able to link events and protest or organizations, it might be unable to provide generalizable results because of selection issues. Research on protest events might miss individual motivations for protest, while it well accounts for contextual conditions favoring protest. Research focusing on organizations tends to focus on one or few movements providing very useful insights on them, even emphasizing the role of individuals and events for such movements, but are, unfortunately, limited to those organizations.

Nevertheless, the problem of focusing on one unit of analysis is not necessarily connected to a limited point of view of contentious politics. This is quite inevitable given the difficulty of accounting for multiple units in the same study. Yet, the problem could be the lack of reasoning around the consequences of choosing one or another unit of analysis. In fact, although the units of analysis discussed here are all attributes of political protest, they tell different stories when inquired.

One possible line of future research regards the development of a research program systematically studying the same object—protest and contentious politics—from different viewpoints. To be clear, protest is already studied from different positions, but it occurs very rarely because of the costs involved. It is not difficult to find studies analyzing, for example, environmental protests looking at individuals, organizations, or events. However, such research studies different instances of protests, often analyzed across varying time frames or contexts. A case for such research direction could be, for example, studying the same anti-austerity protests looking at individuals, organizations, and events at the same time. Future, possibly collaborative, research projects might consider the difficult, but promising, path of analyzing protest and contentious action from multiple points of view.

Indeed, a positive characteristic of the field studying protest and contentious politics is its diversity. There are plenty of studies analyzing one unit of analysis making use of theoretical approaches originated from studies focusing on different units. Therefore, cross-unit studies should not be a problem since the different perspectives are complementary and in continuous exchange. In fact, methodological triangulation seems to have been a driving force for the study of protest (Klandermans & Staggenborg, 2002), stimulating and empirically supporting theoretical developments.

Future research can also develop and apply new and cross-cutting methods. Big data methods, such as those used by the Global Dataset of Events, Language, and Tone project, expand the boundaries of our data collections (Dalton, 2016). Studies of online methods for protest, such as Twitter and Facebook posts, offer new potential to study protest communication networks. These are new tools for social movements and social movement research (Mosca, 2014). These developments provide further methods and evidence for theory testing, and should apply a “unit of analysis triangulation” to study the same phenomenon—protest—looking at different instances.


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(1.) Data come from the Global Dataset of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT), available at: The data are collected using a machine-coding procedure of multiple and publicly available news reports, which are classified according to a scheme able to identify actors and events.

(2.) Studies on the social movement society thesis are not the only ones focusing on change. An influential part of the protest literature focuses on “protest cycles or waves”. These waves are described as periods characterized by more intense conflict, diffusion, and innovation in forms of contention (Tarrow, 2011; see also della Porta and Diani, 2006).

(3.) Data come from the European Values Study, and the World Values Survey.

(4.) This might also be due to the timing of the survey and to data sources. See note number 7 for a list of comparative survey projects including indicators measuring participation in protest.

(5.) See on this point Earl (2000).

(6.) For more detailed assessments of methodological approaches in social movements and protest research see della Porta (2014) and Klandermans and Staggenborg (2002).

(7.) These are, for instance, the Afrobarometer, Americas Barometer, Arab Barometer, Asian Barometer, Comparative Study of Electoral Systems, Eurobarometer, European Social Survey, European Values Study, International Social Survey Programme, Latinobarometro, or the World Values Survey.