top of page

Social Protest and Democracy 101: Is Social Protest an Answer?


The issue of Social Protest and Democracy plays a central role in Political Science. This specific topic is a backbone of contemporary politics, as social movements attempt to transform political and socio-economic aspects of the life towards democratization. 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 contemporary politics is open to critical analysis, willingness to achieve prosperity and peace remains the priority for everyone. Therefore, it becomes necessary to challenge those who abuse their power and take 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:

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

Social Protest and Democracy 101: Is Social Protest an Answer?

In order to answer the question if social movement is a necessary tool for populations, it is crucial to comprehend the idea of social movement and its general purpose. Like any other important themes in the studies of political science and sociology, social movements play an inseparable role in every society regardless of its socio-political structure. Whether the core ideological stand of the country is authoritarian or democratic, social movements occur in any given society. Thomas Carothers (2015), a senior fellow and co-director of Carnegie's Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, as well as an expert on international democracy support, democratization, and U.S. foreign policy along with Richard Young, a senior associate for Carnegie Europe who publishes short essays and policy papers at Carnegie Europe, in the article “The Complexities of Global Protests”, made a great emphasis on the fact that a social movement is not restricted to any nation-state or any part of a population. Rather, according to statistical and methodological analyses, they argue that social movements are the phenomena that are applicable in different types of regimes, and it might seem to be apparent that the frequency of social uprisings in authoritarian states is higher than in any other types of regimes; however, it is a mistaken assumption, as “many semi-authoritarian states and democracies as well” are also hit by a significant number of collective insurgencies (Carothers&Young, 2015, p. 6).

Paul Almeida (2019), a fellow at the University of California in the Department of Sociology and a doctor of philosophy, in his chapter “Social Movements: The Structure of Collective Mobilization”, underlined that according to empirical and theoretical developments and advances in the area of sociology, the world is experiencing an “upsurge in collective action in the United States and around the world” (p.1). He further highlighted that certain experts in the field of sociology claim today’s society to reshape into a “social movement society” or a “social movement world” (Almeida, 2019, p.1). In any case, the historical examples, such as Egyptian Tahrir Square protests or Occupy Wall Street, suggest that social movements continue to be the method of representation of the will of certain group of people with a particular ideological stand or serve as a mechanism of struggle against structural injustices born out of existing institutional arrangements.

Figure 1: Occupy Wall Street protest, two days after dismantling of Zuccotti Park camp (Christopher Smith, 2014)

The general conceptualization of the term "social movement" reflects similar patterns in its definition provided by various academics and scholars. For instance, Charles Tilly (1993-1994), a prominent sociologist, who is very well acknowledged in the field of social movement theory, underlined that a social protest is not simply a group but a “complex form of social interaction” (p.5). Tilly further argues that this social interaction is entangled in a coherent pattern where the individuals belonging to different social movements “compete, interact, and change relations with authorities” (p.6). It becomes apparent that social movement, from the generic perspective, is a method of struggle or a battle of a cohort of people against the socio-political system of governance in the face of individuals who possess a substantial degree of power regarding regulating the country’s internal and international affairs. A social movement is a representation of a social conflict between the challengers that are marginalized, excluded or underrepresented and the holders of authority. Andrea Carboni (2020), a fellow at the University of Sussex, in her paper “Essays on Political Elites and Violence in Changing Political Orders of Middle East and Africa” withdrew a valuable conclusion underlining that various forms of social mobilizations in the form of domestic and transnational armed groups or intensified popular insurgences entail one specific purpose which is to “challenge the legitimacy of incumbents to hold power over their citizens…” (p. 8). Hence, it is evident that social movements are the strategies of individuals in targeting those who abuse their political power by placing the livelihoods of people in a deprived position.

In a similar vein but with a slight divergence, S. Laurel Weldon (2011), a Canadian and American political scientist, currently a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Simon Fraser University, presents an alternative conceptualization of social protests in her chapter of the book "When Protest Makes Policy." Weldon highlights the significant role of uprisings as a means of proper representation for specific groups of people. Specifically, Weldon argued that a social movement is an arena for those who are in a socio-politically or economically disadvantaged position as a result of institutions that “disempower and exclude these groups” (2011, p.2). Although this particular point of view carries a similar pattern as explained by Tilly, Weldon makes a specific emphasis on the politics of minorities and underrepresented. The place of women in a society is one of the many examples that demonstrate the concept of underrepresentation and how social mobilization of one group of people can dramatically influence the set of events. There is a great emphasis made on the issue of marginalization as the minority groups within every society are not “equally reflected or considered in the policy process” even in the countries that follow so-called democratic politics. The idea of social movement comes as a rescue for those who are restricted by the structural composition of the political insertions of the society. Weldon (2011) provides an example of women organizing and engaging in protests, which led to significant amendments such as the enactment of rape shield laws and other important measures.

Figure 2: Protests in Sudan (Getty Images, 2019)

Social movements play a pivotal role in driving significant reforms, as they encompass two fundamental aspects that underscore their importance and the need for collective mobilization. One of the crucial functions of organized collective reactionary behaviour is that through the actions of mass uprisings, whether it is in an organized manner, such as involvement of tactical and strategical planning, or spontaneous walkout to the city-squares and streets, people are capable of fulfilling the set proposals that are highly influential to their livelihoods. The set proposals, in general understanding, refer to the fact that people remain the main actors in bringing about a substantial change to the socio-political or economic structure of the country. David Meyer (2003), in his article "How social movements matter", provided an example of global protests that was directed toward influencing the US’s institution of international affairs concerning the USA’s decision to intervene in Iraq. Organizers as well as the participants of the protests believed that they were capable of creating a change as “their efforts could make a difference” and “direct pressure might prevent war” (Meyer, 2003, p.31). A social movement is perceived as the most efficient solution for those who are determined to impose pressure on the power holders and transform the existing political structure of the ruling class. A similar pattern is seen in the movements against the government's actions to pursue nuclear weaponry politics where individuals see social uprising as “political opposition growing beyond conventional politics” (Meyer, 2003, p.31).

Social movements, apart from their traditional overview as a collective force directed towards the facilitation or creation of a change within the given society, are a key strategic manoeuver for certain cohorts of individuals who are seeking to counter-argue an occurring social change. In other words, a social movement is not simply a method of bringing about a reform, rather it becomes a necessary tool in challenging the policies that have already been imposed or are in the process of implementation. James W. Zanden, a sociologist and an author of various books on sociology, in his paper “Resistance and Social Movements” published at Duke University, highlighted that the topic of social movement as a contrary force to social change is highly overlooked in the studies of social movements. He continued to argue that a movement within a society “frequently begets countermovement”, meaning that in response to the social mobilization that is driven towards creating a change, individuals emerge into movements that “stimulate the rise of movements opposed to the change” (1959, p. 313). The world has witnessed various social movements and “The Battle of Seattle” is one of the main examples where individuals’ collective mobilization is directed towards resisting politico-economic legislation. The particular movement became a prominent example where a social change in the face of the implementation of neo-liberal policies became a threat to those who thought of it as a violation of “human and labour rights and environmental protection” and gave emergence of a “diverse base of opposition” (Smith, n.a., p.1). In addition, it is important to note that a social movement becomes a solution for a group of people in the battle not simply with authorities or state people. Rather, a protest organized by one group of people leads to the emergence of another group of individuals with a different set of values, beliefs and mindsets. This case can be seen in the scenario of individuals who identify their belonging to a certain ideological spectrum whether liberal, conservative or socio-democrat for instance. Hence, it becomes apparent to assume that the social movement is a necessary tool for the expression of one’s socio-political and economic views in a more traditional way than simply placing a ballot in the voting box.

Figure 3: Protesters march in Times Square to oppose US action against Iran (AP, 2020)

Furthermore, it is crucial to realize that social movements do not simply carry an instrumental role that revolves around a direct influence on socio-political or economic entities. Rather, the emergence of collective mobilizations, that are diverse and belong to different political spectrums representing various ideological stands, in reality, facilitate the production and development of knowledge. This point of view is highly neglected in the studies of social movements; however, it plays a significant role in understanding the key role that social movements play in society. Shirley Walters (2005), raised a crucial point in her article “Social Movements, class, and adult education” where she acknowledged that the social movement process is a learning or an adult education. She provided an example of two sociologists Eyerman and Jamison, who argued that social mobilizations or social action in general is a facilitator of “new knowledge including worldviews, ideologies, religions, and scientific theories” (Walters, 2005, p.3).

It is important to understand that a social movement is a “complex form of social interaction” (Tilly, 1993-1994, p.5). Apart from the continuous physical interaction, ideas, ideologies and values are in a tight interchange that substantially affects individuals on psychological and intellectual levels. The clash of ideas that the social movements produce entails in it continuous socio-political or economic debates, thorough analysis, tactics and strategies of implementation which consequently produces knowledge from different perspectives and as it was mentioned by Caitlin Schroering “ideas do not emerge out of nowhere”. Furthermore, the existing socio-political environment that functions as an ignite for the social uprisings in itself is a learning process since people's realization of the cause of destitution and deprivation suggests that individuals achieve an understanding of what needs to be done, what policies need to be implemented or what laws do not require any changes at all. Caitlin Shroering, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, USA, in her article “Resistance and Knowledge Production: Social Movements as Producers of Theory and Praxis” provided a valuable point arguing that social uprisings serve as “critical sites for the construction of knowledge” and she additionally recommends in her writing that it is an important issue in the study of sociology for the scholars to “learn from what movements are already producing” and withdraw significant conclusions (2011, p. 80). For instance, the case of Bolivia in the Bolivia Cochabamba Water Wars vividly demonstrated how a social mobilization can produce knowledge in people around the globe about a certain issue, in this scenario which is the politics of neoliberal politics. Hence, Caitlin Shroering (2011) underlined the importance of “engaging with and learning from movements on the ground-or social thought from the periphery” (p.79).

Figure 4:Reclaim and democratise science for social justice (Vlad Tchompalov, 2019)

Moreover, although a social uprising can be regarded as the most visible and impactful path for individuals in attempting to demonstrate a certain degree of resentment or endorsement, social protests, due to their political nature, can possess an existential threat to certain countries and societies. It is undoubtedly true that the nature of social movements is to bring about a change that can, as a consequence, become a movement that will substantially transform the whole structure of the country as history has demonstrated in the cases of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 or the Russian Revolution of 1917. However, the major point that needs to be noted is that social movement can be a strategic tool in the arsenal of one country with the purpose of creating destabilization in other regions of the world. In other words, social uprising can become a weapon through which one country is capable of harming another one.

Elizabeth J. Perry, an American scholar of Chinese politics and history at Harvard along with Gregortz Ekiet, a Professor of Government at Harvard University, in the article “Not So Grassroots: Social Movements Fueled by the State” argued that the state-led movements are a highly neglected topic within the study of social mobilizations. To grasp the idea of state-led movements, it becomes crucial to draw back analysis from history as, for instance, in Communist USSR or Mao’s China, the state-fueled movements were common as “party leaders and government agencies fomented mass passions, participation” (Perry&Ekiet, 2021). Although it is a widely circulating assumption that the state either fulfills the demands of the protesters or demises the movement meaning that the state operates as an autonomous body from the collective insurgency, the reality suggests that it is a mistaken perception. Elizabeth Perry and Gregortz Ekiet (2021) continued to argue that according to historical and contemporary evidence, social movements are organized by government officials “to advance state goals and interests”. It is important to note that state-led movements are not restricted to domestic politics and domestic elites. Rather, it can be a manipulative tool for one country to intervene in the affairs of another state. According to Salehyan, Gleditsch and Cunningham (2011), a social insurgence can be used as a strategy to target the enemy country by "delegating conflict to rebel groups" (p.712). This scenario is well visible in the case of the CIA and its politics against Mohammed Mossadegh, an Iranian leader who was forcefully dethroned because his interest did not match the interests of external actors.

Figure 5: Coup supporters celebrate victory in Tehran (Wikipedia, 1953)

All in all, the collective action of people regarding certain matters has always played a crucial role in the history of every society and served as a major engine in facilitating a significant socio-political and economic transformation throughout history. People’s capability to give birth to uprisings with the purpose of creating a change or resisting a change has become one of the most effective and widely recognized human resources that can be implemented under any circumstances. A social movement is an answer and a solution for those who are determined in climbing out from the socio-political environment that possess a direct threat to individuals’ physical and psychological well-being. Social uprising is key for those who are purposefully restricted in their abilities to have an impact through traditional means, such as voting or the party system, hence the individuals who are deprived of abilities to have political participation, the social movement becomes inevitable. However, it is also important to realize that the idea of social movement also carries negative connotations as mobilization can be used as a method of creating destabilization in certain countries with the purpose of opening doors for foreign interventions. Furthermore, it is crucial to analyze what is the purpose of a social movement and if it is something that benefits the citizens and the commute overall.

Bibliographical References

Almeida, P. (2019). Social Movements. The Structure of Collective Mobilization. University of California Press. 1-240. Retrieved from

Carboni, A. (2020). Essays on Political Elites and Violence in Changing Political Orders of Middle East and Africa. University of Sussex, 5-212. Retrieved from

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

Ekiert, G. & Perry, E. (2021). Not So Grassroots: Social Movements Fueled by the State. Harvard University. Retrieved from

Meyer, D. (2013). How Social Movements Matter. American Sociological Association. 2(4), 30-35. Retrieved from

Salehyan.I. & GleditschK.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

Schroering, C. (2019). Resistance and Knowledge Production: Social Movements as Producers of Theory and Praxis. University of Pittsburgh. 29(73), 75-102. Retrieved from

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

Weldon, L. (2011). When Protest Makes Policy: How Social Movements Represent Disadvantaged Groups. University of Michigan Press, 1-243. Retrieved from

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

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Kanan Babazade

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page