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Social Protest and Democracy 101: Defining the Idea of Social Protest


The issue of Social Protest and Democracy plays a central role in Political Science. This specific topic is a backbone of contemporary politics, as political and socio-economic aspects of the life of every nation revolve around the idea of the establishment of a democratic form of governance. Democracy, for the majority of people, is an end goal where prosperity and peace are guaranteed. Although the effectiveness and core idea of democracy in the contemporary politics is open to critical analyses, willigness to achieve prosperity and peace remains the priority for everyone. Therefore, it becomes necessary to challenge those who abuse their power and take an advantage of being the heads of the decision-making process. One of the most crucial set of continuous actions that serves as a mechanism of scrutiny for the legislators is resistance implemented through social protests. The following 101 series will attempt to identify if social protests are, indeed, a key towards the establishment of prosperity. The series will analyze the concept of social protest, its core meaning and significance, different forms and motives that shape social movements and the special link between democracy and social insurgence. These articles will critically assess the role of social protests and their true purposefulness in the contemporary world.

This 101 series is divided into seven articles including:

1. Social Protest and Democracy 101: Defining The Idea Of Social Protest.

2. Social Protest and Democracy 101: Conceptualization of the term ‘democracy’ in the context of contemporary politics

3. Social Protest and Democracy 101: The special linkage between social protests and democracy

4. Social Protest and Democracy 101: Motives behind the social protests - case studies

5. Social Protest and Democracy 101: Social Resistance through violence or peace

6. Social Protest and Democracy 101: Social Protests in the age of social media

7. Social Protest and Democracy 101: The impediments to a successful social resistance

8. Social Protest and Democracy 101: Is Social Protest an answer?

Social Protest and Democracy 101: Defining The Idea Of Social Protest

It was November of 1999 when the peasants irrigators of Cochabamba, one of the largest cities of Bolivia, unanimously with rugged determination initiated the long-lasting marches by staging a set of barricades in response to a newly passed legislation that possessed a threat to the livelihoods of ordinary people (Schultz, 2008). The importance of this scenario is not rooted in the historical or politico-societal evaluation of the case, although these factors serve as a premise for a broader analysis. The significance of this particular issue is the fact that it exemplifies an organized collective attitude toward the unwelcoming set of events. The deep analysis of this particular scenario from the Cochabamba Water Wars demonstrate the core meaning, as well as the characteristic of social movement theory, in contemporary politics. This case is one of the most vital occurrences of the 21st century as it serves as a significant example of the role that social protests play in people’s lives.

Before attempting to explore the main concepts of social protests in the political context, it is essential to delve into the conceptualization and the terminology of the term itself. Social protest has become a major part of the political culture in modern nation-states, especially in the western hemisphere. The Section 2(c) of the “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” (2017), for instance, unequivocally states that every individual has the right to assembly and the right of association (p.1), and these rights are fundamental to everyone and protected by the law. This is one example out of many in which the constitutions and the legal enactments of the countries, most of which identify themselves as democratic, impose the section on freedom of assembly or, simply speaking the freedom to social protest.

Figure 1: Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The term ‘social protest’ is highly complicated. It is impossible to neglect the essential role of social protests while observing, studying or even experiencing the political or socio-economic reforms and enactments. The main reason for it revolves around the fact that societal reaction is a non-negligible factor that to some extent has an underlying influence on the administrative institutions, as well as on the legislators. Charles Tilly (1994), for instance, defines the term social movement as a populous confrontation against certain jurisdictions that is implemented as a law for the population by the ruling class of the country n other words, social protest or social movement emerges as reactionary behaviour towards the sovereigns or a system of governance, such as the parliamentarian form of governance or dictatorial, who abuse their power by creating a threatening environment for the population. Social protest is a continuous struggle between those who are demanding structural change at the socio-political level and those who possess institutional power. As of critical observation, the protest of one group of people can be addressed not only towards the power holders but also to those who support the new initiative taken by the legislators, and in this case, the social movement of one collective grouping with its ideological stand and beliefs is a means to challenge another group of individuals who have a parallel set of values and morals. It becomes an indirect clash within the society itself.

The definition provided by Charles Tilly involves major factors that compose the concept of social movement. One of the important aspects of social movement, for instance, is the factor of the population as it is a factor that forms the idea of a society in the protest. The protest may simply involve individual demonstration and slowly develop into a social once the insurgence becomes collectivized. To note, it is not simply a collectivized grouping of people, but within an organized social movement there is the development of a link between the individuals which, according to Charles Tilly, takes a complex shape of social interaction (Tilly, 1993). The interpersonal relationship between the individuals becomes necessary as it dramatically impacts the structure of social protest itself as well as its process and consequently leads to national and world-level implications. The idea of interconnectedness between people could be witnessed, once again, in the scenario of the Cochabamba Water Wars, where the unified rebellions along with the peasant irrigators formed an organization called Coordinadora for achieving efficiency during the process of insurgence (Shultz, 2008).

Figure 2: Crowd Of Protestors. Cochabamba Water War.

Although it may seem that the definition of social movement is self-evident, this process is a highly complicated phenomenon that involves various striking points in its concept and has been an issue of study for a long time in the area of sociology and political science. Many scholars of sociology conceptualize the term ‘social protest’ as a collective action driven towards bringing social change. Herbert Blumer (1946), an American sociologist, defined the term as an agent of bringing a "new order of life" (p.199). Undoubtedly, social protest, generally speaking, refers to the idea of challenging the status quo, and its purpose is to bring about a fundamental change in society. It is also crucial to realize that social movements are not always reform-driven, as there are social insurgencies whose purpose is to challenge the change itself rather than facilitate it. This is one of the critical observations regarding the concept of social movements and the way it is defined and understood. Understanding social movement as a means of reform is partially true as it is a traditional interpretation of it. Many tend to ignore the crucial component of the social movement theory as there are more characteristics to it. The social movements can be directed towards the preservation of status quo. It was noticed by James Zanden (1959), who argued that sociologists do not include in the analyses of social movements the fact that social protest can operate as movements that oppose societal change, hence, the exclusion of one crucial factor in the conceptualization may jeopardize the whole analytical grip of the social protest theory. Therefore, it becomes crucial to examine the forms that social protest may evolve into.

Various Forms of Social Resistance

Even though all the social protests that have taken place in history and still do, as highlighted by Carothers and Young (2015), mirror one another in their basic elements, it is mistaken to assume that they carry the same idea. Every event of arousal of people, as a result of dissatisfaction in the socio-political or economic environment, resemble each other since they carry similar characteristics, such as collectivity in action or the general feeling of grievance itself. Yet the process of the social protest itself along with the motivation behind it, and the strategic planning of actions as well as the result or aftermath of the protest remarkably varies. The social protest theory is a complex phenomenon; hence, it requires a deep analysis of every single protest as they are diverse in their nature. The study of sociology classifies social protests into various types that are differentiated by their core idea and the scope of reform the protesters are determined to achieve (Barkan, 2011). Each social insurgencies that occur in the local, national or worldwide landscape carry a distinct purpose. Every social movement, in reality, demonstrates the institutional structure of the country. A reactionary protest, for instance, in comparison to ordinary liberal movements is a movement that seeks to reverse the innovative reforms and challenge the newly taken initiatives to protect the status quo. This type of social unrest is significantly distinct from a revolutionary protest. The revolutionary movement, in contrast, has a greater impact as the motivation behind it is to tackle the political system of governance to facilitate a totally “new way of life” (Barkan, 2011, p.880). If the purpose of the reactionary or liberal movements is to facilitate a new social reform or deter one within the existing political structure, then a revolution is meant to replace the political structure with a new one. The scope of social insurgencies, in fact, shows the level of grievances within the community and the level of determination that people possess. Each type of social protest indicates the extent to which individuals are willing to march.

Figure 3: French Revolution (1789-1799).

What derives a social protest?

The feeling of injustice or unfairness is one of the core justifications for the initiation of mass insurgencies. As it was discussed earlier, social protests occur for various reasons whether it is to facilitate the change in society or to impede the change itself. The main question regards understanding the specific element that expedites the unification of individuals in reaching the ultimate goal. The 1999-2001 Cochabamba protests which were driven towards the fight of people against the privatization of water supplies (Schultz, 2008) and the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 are clear examples of social protests. Although both of these cases occur in different timelines and are different in their socio-political background yet they have one major factor in common that makes these movements similar: a grievance. Social movements start to erupt once people discover themselves in a condition of destructive discomfort initiated by socio-political or economic instabilities. This relates to the idea of relative deprivation, and Barkan, for instance, in his book, highlighted the role of relative deprivation in the social movement process by arguing that it is, indeed, one of the major factors that have an impact on the formation of the social protests (Barkan, 2011, p.882). On the other side, relative deprivation is not the major button, which once pushed arouses a social movement. Although it is a step of realization that leads individuals to form a group, it is not the point that facilitates the action itself. The shared feelings of individuals about certain issues are, undoubtedly, an important indicator that reveals the motivation and purpose behind the social protest. The idea of emotional the factor is a complex component which is open to broader analyses. The emotional aspect contains subjectivity, as every individual is culturally, morally and religiously different. Even if the emotions of grievance can be based on the same issue yet the aftermath is different, as every individual, with his subjectivity, may see the process and the result differently from each other.

Figure 4: Democracy Is A Lie.

Similar envision of societal issues creates unity among people, which is a non-negligible prerequisite for the emergence and the continuous process of social movement. A simple idea, which is shared among a certain number of people, can serve as a motivation for specific collective action even though the whole set of values and beliefs of people do not coincide with each other. The aftermath of the social insurgence can become problematic as the differences in belief may initiate a great division during the reformations. DeFronzo and Gill (2019) defined the term ‘social protest’ in their book as a collective action of a large number of individuals to achieve what they believe is beneficial. This definition includes the idea of a common belief that unites large numbers of people in determination to achieve or bring societal change. Without the unified ideological stand, the social protest would not be social in the first place and would lose its efficiency as the organizational agent would become highly decentralized. The ideology remains one of the core factors in the organizational methods of social protest as without the similar belief there would not be a common denominator that would eventually shape the movement itself. Therefore, consideration of ideology in the topic of social protest is essential as Beck (2013) argued that ideology is a link that collectivizes people in their goals. In the example of the Winnipeg General Strike, many people who engaged in social protests despite their differences in religion and culture (Lewycky, 2019), pursued the same goal which was achieving rights and liberty by overthrowing the regime that led them to the poverty. Their understanding of a common goal was embedded in their ideological belief. Hence, the social protest theory cannot be fully grasped without discussing the importance of ideology, as it is the crucial denominator of the movement.

Moreover, ideology can be played as a strategic manoeuvre in creating a social movement. Once the social movement from the spontaneous becomes more organized, it becomes crucial not only to protest but to place all the individuals into one pot where they would share the same beliefs concerning the specific matter and will continuously act towards the triumphant of the insurgence. Hence, ideology becomes an organizational tool for the mobilization and construction of social movements. For instance, in the General Winnipeg Strike of 1919 many labour unions that were the voices of people during the demonstrations started to shatter as their ideological stands varied (Lewycky, 2008) . The division within an organization, as a result of discordant beliefs causes severe consequences to the process of social protest itself. In order to stabilize the organization of the protest and increase the probability of achieving the ultimate goal it becomes crucial to align the ideological stand of the participants. By contracting the institutional upheaval, people will possess access to a higher level of governance and have the chance of challenging it. Without an organizational and institutional agent, the purpose of social protest starts fading as the spontaneous uprisings do not possess the same threat to the status quo as the organized ones unless they carry revolutionary notions.

Figure 5: Pro-Life Protests. 2020

Once again, one of the major purposes of the social protests is to challenge the status quo by facilitating reform, as well as being an impediment to the implementation of new changes. In both cases, the social movement is an agent that is specifically purpose-driven. Eduardo Silva (2015), in his article “Social Movements, Protest, and Policy”, highlighted that social movements have political goals among which the most significant is an attempt to achieve the distribution of power and impact the policy-making apparatus. As mentioned earlier, all the definitions of social movements resemble one another and in contemporary politics, it became popular to associate the term social movement with a positive connotation as it is most often looked at as a weapon of ordinary people in fighting any kind of subjugation. This assumption facilitates two major points. First, the social movements that occur within society do not necessarily mean that all individuals are involved in the issue. There is an ongoing clash among a group of people. If one group wants to facilitate change via social movement, there is always another group who is opposing that change. Hence, it becomes complex as there is a dramatic division among the individuals. For instance, Roe v. Wade is more specific in that it is an example of the clash between people with different ideological stands. Anti-abortion law was met with furious social protest by the pro-abortion people by claiming that their freedom of choice is being restricted. As to oppose the overturn of Roe v. Wade, thousands of people joined the social protest and demonstration to express their disagreement with the administration. The issue intricates once there is an opposing force, such as a great number of people who stand on the opposite side - for pro-life and do not agree with pro-abortion activists. Therefore, it becomes complex how to act and who to satisfy. Hence, this generates the second point; what if the individual’s desire to achieve reform through social protest is, in reality, dreadful for society as a whole? The ultimate goal of pro-abortion activists is to grant women to have the right to abortion but what if that goal is immoral? Many would argue that according to embryology, at the moment of conception, a new human being is made with its own chromosomes and DNA and is that a crime then if a woman decides to make an abortion. According to Guttmacher Institute, in 1973 after the adoption of pro-abortion law, there have been 61.8 million surgical abortions (Potter, 2020), not to mention the harmful effects on women’s bodies. Therefore, if the social protest is directed towards the change of law that is detrimental to society as it possesses unhealthy side effects on people and society, then the social protest is not scrutiny against the power anymore but an irrational uprising. Yet, this leads to another question: on what grounds and who decides what is immoral and what is moral? Does it mean that to achieve a successful political and socio-economic life, peoples’ ideological stands, morals and beliefs should be the same and if yes, then does theology answer this question?

As of a critical observation, social insurgences can be used as a strategic tool and attract external actors whose presence might lead to the destabilization of the country. The reasons for external intervention in the countries may vary in reasons some of which is a political and economic gain and social mobilizations can play crucial role in it. Because direct military involvement may cause national and global resonance and require valid justification, the manipulative push through propoganda for the support of certain insurgent groups becomes the possible option for the perpetrators. According to Salehyan, Gleditsch and Cunningham (2011), a social insurgence can be used as a strategy to target the enemy country by "by delegating conflict to rebel groups" (p.712). It can be done through many ways, such as simple manipulation of the populous or an attempt of establishing new democratic or authoritarian order. For instance, for the establishment of political control over the oil in Iran, the CIA enforced a protest that evolved into a coup and led to the death of Mohammad Mossadegh who supported the nationalization of oil in Iran. There are many examples nevertheless the the main point revolves around the social protests being weaponized in the contemporary politics. This is a small fraction of the social protest theory that requires qualitative research and study. The study of social protest contains complexities that are necessary to analyze in-dept.

Figure 6: Fight Today For A Better Tomorrow.

All in all, social protest is a complex and challenging topic within political science and sociology studies. It is an interdisciplinary study that contains perplexing issues that have been crucial for investigation starting from the 17th century and are relevant up until these days. Social movements that emerge as a result of deprivation and stalemate are the means of bringing about a structural change on a national and global levels. Being an opposing force to the power holders, social movements serve as a political weapon for collectivized individuals who are seeking to achieve specific reformations (Tilly, 1999). Protests are specific purpose-driven and are, indeed, serve as a societal tool that bring change and upon which the new regulations and laws are designed and implemented. Apart from it, as was discussed earlier, social insurgence theory is open to an in-depth analysis as it takes different shapes strating from liberal movements and ending in revolutionary insurgencies, and has various socio-political implications on the society overall, as well as on the institutional apparatus of the government.

Social protest has been used as a method of struggle against the hegemonic powerholders, but it is mistaken to ignore the clash between different groups of people since people's beliefs are parallel to one another and diverse in many ways. Social movement of one group of people can be iderectly targeted at another group of people with significanlty different ideological stands. This is where comes the critical examination of the issue as it triggers the correlation of social protest theory and democracy, whether on a national level, or global.

Thought-Provoking Questions

The concept of social protests is complex, and it requires through analyses of the political, historical and philosophical stand of points. This brief introduction was meant to give a general understanding of what social protests represents and how they are shaped. Although social protests can be used as a helpful tool for achieving reform, the questions that must be addressed are what is the ultimate goal of the movement? And how do we understand if what people desire is good for them? Who defines what good and what bad are and according to what laws should the rulers rule?

Bibliographical References

Shultz, J. (2008). The Cochabamba Water Revolt and Its Aftermath. Dignity and Defiance. University of California Press, 9-42. Retrieved from

Canadian Heritage (Updated - 2017). The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 1-8. Retrieved from

Tilly, C. (1993-1994). Social Movements as Historically Specific Clusters of Political Performances. Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 38(1), 1-30. Retrieved from

Zanden Vander, J.W. (1959). Resistance and Social Movements. Social Forces. Oxford University Press, 37(4), 312-315. Retrieved from

Carothers, T. & Youngs, R. (2015). THE Complexities of Global Protests. Carnegie Endowment For International Peace. 1-44. Retrieved from

Barkan, S. (2011). Collective Behaviour and Social Movements. Sociology: Comprehensive Edition. Creative Commons, 861-892. Retrieved from

DeFronzo, J. & Gill, J. (2019). Social Problems and Social Movements. The Sociology of Social Movements. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 26-48. Retrieved from

Beck. Colin, J. (2013). Ideology. The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements. Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 1-5. Retrieved from

Silva, Eduardo G. (2015). Social Movements, Protest, and Policy. European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Centrum voor Studie en Documentatie van Latijns Amerika, 27-39. Retrieved from

Lewycky, D. (2019). MAGNIFICENT FIGHT. THE 1919 WINNIPEG GENERAL STRIKE. Fernwood Publishing Halifax & Winnipeg, 1-294.

Salehyan. I. & Gleditsch K.S. & Cunningham. D. (2011). Explaining External Support for Insurgent Groups. Cambridge University Press on behalf of the International Organization Foundation, 65(4), 709-744. Retrieved from

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Kanan Babazade

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