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Social Protest and Democracy 101: Motives Behind Social Protests - Case Studies


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 contemporary politics is open to critical analyses, 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:

3. Social Protest and Democracy 101:Motives Behind Social Protests - Case Studies

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

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

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

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

Social Protest And Democracy 101: Motives Behind Social Protests - Case Studies

Social movements are purpose-driven phenomena that are directed towards the facilitation of necessary reforms, or towards the preservation of the status quo. In any case, social movements entail a transformational and impactful function as people’s collective behaviour is a form of communication among one group of individuals with another, or, in most cases, social protests reflect the conflictual relation of individuals with institutions of governance and the political and socio-economic structure of the society within national boundaries and beyond the borders as well. The main motive behind social movements revolves around the fact that the individuals' attempt to mobilize is determined with the purpose of creating a social change or providing a political voice to the “disenfranchised” (Little&McGiven, 2014). The disenfranchised people, whose civil and fundamental rights are violated and taken away, resort to a social mobilization as the means of demonstrating their grievances and challenging the system. Glenda Lopez Rui (2010), in the article "Transnational Social Movement: Examining its Emergence, Organizational Form and Strategies, and Collective Identity", went beyond the mainstream definition of social movement and argued that due to the globalized world, the individuals’ attempt to influence the decision-making apparatus within the national borders needs to change the recourse and to be strategized towards tackling the politics on a global level because of the acceleration of world integration. Apart from the theoretical and generic conceptualization of the idea of social movement, the theorists and academics in the field of social protests continuously attempt to understand the origins of social movements and to identify the main ingredients that develop social uprisings (Sen&Avci, 2016). William Little and Ron McGivern (2014), an assistant professor in Sociology and a senior lecturer in Sociology and Associate Dean of Arts respectively, in the book "Introduction to Sociology – 1st Canadian Edition", defined social movements as “purposeful, organized groups striving to work toward a common goal”. The common goal is the crucial denominator that shapes the social movements, as with lack of realization and proposal of a common target, the social protest becomes fragile in terms of its organizational structure, which as a consequence, substantially impacts the efficiency and duration of the social movements.

Anindya Sen and Omer Avci (2016), fellow researchers in the field of economics and politics, in the article "Why Social Movements Occur: Theories of Social Movements", highlighted that one of the most debatable and arguable topics within the studies of social protests revolves around an attempt to identify what are the core elements within the society that gives birth to the social movements (p.125). In order to initiate a social protest, social mobilization requires a defining element that will ignite the uprisings and make individuals collectivize and strive towards the accomplishment of an ultimate goal. In the studies of social movements, the idea of motive or purpose, as an inseparable and core ingredient, plays an immense role in constructing a collective mindset in individuals leading to the emergence of social movements. In order to fully grasp the the complex structure of the collective behaviour in the form of social movements, it becomes necessary to further deepen the analyses and examine the certain subtopic that is given insufficient attention, even though it highly merits a consideration. It becomes necessary to fully comprehend the analytical grip of the social movements and recognize the perplex formation of the phenomena, hence, this paper will attempt to thoroughly explore the matter of motives. To be more precise, it will examine how different motives behind individuals’ actions build up to mass social mobilization and how the motives serve as a prelude to the emergence and development of various social movements with different purposes, goals and expected socio-political implications. The paper will qualitatively assess the nature of the idea of ‘motive’ by analyzing the significance of subtopics, such as grievance and deprivation theories and the importance of the ideological stand of the individuals in forming the motivation behind their collective reactionary behaviour. The article will ascertain the role of a motive through case studies.

Figure 1: The Rules Have Changed: How to Build a ‘Movement of Movements’ in the U.S (n.a.)

Initially, the purpose and motive behind social movements come into existence, as a result of individuals’ realization of the current surrounding environment and circumstances. The pre-existing set of events that shape the distressing and alarming environment in the society is the major cause of the social uprisings as it is a leading step towards the recognition of needed changes that are imminent to expedite. The study of social protest recognizes several essential and inseparable features that serve as an explanation to the preamble denominator that unites people under one common purpose and explains the main motive behind their uprisings. The theory of relative or absolute deprivation is the most prominent theory that explains the development of social movements. DeFronzo J (2019) - emeritus faculty of Sociology at the University of Connecticut and J. Gill - an associate professor of sociology at Stonehill College, in the chapter "The Sociology of Social Movements", explain that the theory of deprivation is one of the major types of explanation for the reactionary behaviour of people (p.32).

Deprivation theory is distinguished into two categories: absolute deprivation theory, which is the idea when fundamental needs, such as food or shelter are not accessible, and it leads to the development of social unrest; and relative deprivation theory, on the other hand, becomes the fuel of the social movements when the citizens come to an awareness of the fact that the established political and socio-economic limitations are intolerable once they see those limitations unacceptable compared to "their conception of the way things should be” (DeFronzo & Gill, 2019, p. 33). Heather Smith, Thomas Pettigrew et al., professors (2020) at the Sonoma State University of California and University of California, Santa Cruz extensively argued that the theory of relative deprivation is one of the leading factors in the studies of sociology and political science. According to their extensive research, the theory of deprivation explains the uprisings as people’s realization of the unjustifiable and inequitable detriment which is a step toward individuals’ willingness to participate in collective protests. The fundamental needs, that are expected to be a part of society and be accessible to the citizens at all levels, lead to a sense of deprivation. People’s inability to reach certain desirable goods leaves a sense of destitution. Relative deprivation theory, applied in the studies of social protests, is not simply an issue of sociology, but it involves a psychological factor. Heather Smith, Thomas Pettigrew et al. (2020) argued that relative deprivation is a social psychological concept that postulates a state that shapes emotions, cognitions, and behaviour (p. 3). Hence, the surrounding environment, in which individuals possess the feeling of deprivation, shapes their behaviour that eventually ignites the social movement.

Realization of the fact that the existing socio-political and economic conditions in the society deprive individuals of certain rights and freedoms, the feeling of deprivation transforms into a shared grievance. Although many authors on social protest theory argue that the grievances, such as employment insecurities or other economic-based grievances are threats that can ultimately lead to the demobilization of the individuals, Arce M. And Rice R (2019), a professor and Frederic A. Middlebush Chair in Political science and an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary, provided examples of prominent authors, such as Silva and Charles Tilly arguing that the grievances generate motivation for mobilization and various forms of “defensive collective action” (p.5). According to Sen and Avci (2016), the feeling of shared grievances does not necessarily lead to social mobilization as other factors are essential in developing the social movement. Individuals' decision to partake in collective civil disobedience emerges once people experience the moment of dislocation facilitated by a firm decision from the political or economic elites side. However, grievances play a crucial role on a psychological level. Because of the feeling of anger, resentment and destitution, individuals' willingness to organize a social movement becomes inevitable, even if it prolongs. Although both deprivation theory and analyses on grievances possess weakness, such as lack of proper examination of specific factors, including individuals’ lack of motivation or willingness to impact and make change within their own life, the feeling of envy of one group of individuals to the material possessions of another group of people, or simply its incapability to answer why in some cases the deprivation fails to instantly give birth to the social mobilizations, the theory itself is a useful explanatory concept that if examined and measured properly, it serves as an indicator of a "wide range of important outcome variables spanning collective action” (Smith, Pettigrew et al., 2020, p. 52).

Figure 2: A few hundred marchers take part in a Martin Luther King Day march and rally to the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., Monday, Jan. 15, 2007 (John Froschauer, 2007)

The deprivation and grievance factors are one of the leading steps towards the transformation of a theoretical perception of social movements into a practical one. As a result of the proper understanding of shared deprivation and experiencing the moment of dislocation, individuals are capable of turning common grievances into a weapon that can cause a substantial transformation in society.

Moreover, collective identity plays an immense role in the social movement theory. The main motive behind every social movement is born out of shared collective consciousness. The shared collective identity is a set of values, beliefs and aims that individuals possess as a group, and these cleavages form an ideological stand within a particular cohort of people. Without proper development of an ideological stand of a group and shared identity, social mobilization loses its motive and purpose as collective identity helps to “create meaning and mobilize values and beliefs” (Aiken, 2018, p.171). Collective behaviour in the form of social movements is formed as a result of an experienced problem which is induced by the set of events that is impinging upon some beliefs and values. The imposed laws, regulations or acts legislated by the politico-economic elites, for instance, may trigger individuals in regard to their values, beliefs, social position or material possessions, and attacking individuals in such a way, leads the victims in forming a reactionary group based upon a shared ideological stand that further develops the motive behind their reactionary behaviour. Theodore Abel (1937), an American sociology professor at Hunter College, in the article "The Pattern of A Successful Political Movement", underlined that the problem and ideology serve as fundamental conditions, or “the potential factors” which induce the protesters to act in a certain way (p.350). Therefore, ideology is a necessary component that develops a motive and a purpose behind the reactionary behaviour of individuals as the ideological ground is a motivator of collective behaviour and "rooted in politics" (Sen&Avci, 2016, p.128).

Figure 3: Image of a Social Movement in the USA against neoliberal ideology (ESDAW, n.a.)

Although social movements resemble each other as the core idea behind the uprisings, and to bring out a change or block any reforms that are detrimental in their nature to certain cohort of people, in reality, social protests substantially differ from each in their motive. Thomas Carothers and Richard Youngs (2015), senior fellows and co-director of Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program in the article "The Complexities of Global Protests", underlined that the social movements tend to have resemblance in certain ways; however, when it comes to a deep analyses of protests in a global context, the nature of protests dramatically varies as they have difference in motivations (p.3).

First of all, it is a matter of great importance to thoroughly examine the issue of democracy as a prevalent motive in the social movement studies. It is unquestionably apparent that the majority of the social movements are driven toward the idea of democratization. Thomas Carothers and Richard Youngs (2015) underlined that 1980s and 1990s, for instance, witnessed a wave of attempts towards transitioning to democratically structured governance through social insurgency. Although the term democratization is complex and equivocal and requires a great deal of quantitative analyses, the term itself, on a surface level, involves essential characteristics that are undeniably crucial for constructing a healthy developing society. In the contemporary period, the terms democracy and democratization are complicated as the conceptualization of the term is highly dependent on various factors, such as the way democracy is perceived or continuous critics of democracy from the perspectives of other political regimes. Yevuz Selim Alkan, a fellow in the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Studies at Akdeniz University, underlined in his paper "Representative Democracy and the Concept of Representation: Do They Have a Legitimizing or Checking Function" that democracy as a socio-political structure of governance is under a debate among divergent perspectives as there is a continuous disagreement over the “institutions and practical implementations” (Alkan, 2021, p.442). Because of the complexities in the conceptualization of the terms democracy and democratization, the studies of political science distinguish various types of democracy, such as direct, radical, representative, liberal or agonistic. Hence, the study of democracy becomes a topic of deep and thorough examination. Charles Tilly (1993 - 1994), a prominent American sociologist, political scientist, and historian in his writing "Social Movements as Historically Specific Clusters of Political Performances", underlined that despite the controversy within the definition of democracy, the term democratization entails in itself certain characteristics that lie between “purely institutional…and purely substantive (p.19). He highlighted that governance becomes democratic once it establishes rights and obligations of citizens that include broad and equal citizenship with “binding consultation and extensive protection” (p. 20). In other words, the democratization of society takes place once the government limits its power by guaranteeing protection for citizens from arbitrary action by the government agents, distribution of equality and providing binding consultation. Charles Tilly’s perception of the ingredients that make up democracy is one way of viewing the process of democratization. Democratization of a polity, as one of the main motives behind social mobilizations, involves various elements. In addition to the outlined criteria that makes the polity democratic, social movements that are purpose-driven towards the establishment of a democratic society, often serve as a reinforcement to political participation by “offering a measure of direct representation” (Arce & Rice, 2019, p.7). Direct representation, in this particular case, refers to the construction of a society where the individuals will possess the power of scrutiny of political elites by obtaining inclusiveness in the decision-making processes.

Figure 4: The future of democracy and rise of authoritarianism in Asia Power To The People. Social Movement (n.a).

One of the prominent examples of the protests driven towards democratization is the Jasmine Revolution, which is a set of massive protests that took place in Tunisia and lasted for 28 days. The main motive behind the massive and long-lasting protests was the change of the regime for the purpose of improvement of socio-economic conditions in the country by challenging the corrupted political leaders. As it was discussed earlier, the shared grievances and deprivation lead to the realization of the existing situation. Socio-economic deprivation in Tunisia was the main component that unified people from different sectors with the motive of changing the regime and establishing better functioning socio-political and economic institutions. Sarah Yerkes and Zeineb Ben Yahmed (2018), fellow researchers at Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, in the article"Tunisians’ Revolutionary Goals Remain Unfulfilled" , highlighted that the Jasmine Revolution was initiated as a collective uprising among the unemployed and underemployed youth and was joined by the rest of the population. The rise of unemployed students ignited the fire and people's motive behind the uprisings started to evolve, and if at first, the socio-economic factor was the major denominator, later on, the protests became the struggle towards the political freedom, inclusiveness, police brutality and equality. The lack of job opportunities and economic disparities led to further recognition of the country’s ill structures and apparatus of governance. As a result, the 28-day lasting massive protests turned into a collectivized force that demanded social justice along with tackling the systemic regional marginalization, and corruption, resulting from the neo-liberal policies, and police brutality. Although the result of the Jasmine Revolution did not bring substantial changes, the individuals reached a certain level of “political gains and significant improvement in freedom of the press and civil society” (Yerkes & Yahmed, 2018, p. 4). The Jasmine Revolution is one of the prominent examples in the studies of social protest theory. The Tunisian set of events, as one of the prominent case studies, demonstrates the individuals' determination in establishing a more democratically structured polity in the country by succeeding in a "transfer of power and holding free and fare elections" (Yerkes&Yahmed, 2018, p. 3). According to Sarah Yerkes and Zeineb Ben Yahmed (2018), the youths and the rest of the population with unified and collectivized minds became the main actors in the protests and the revolution.

Another example that involves a specific motive, opposite to democratically-driven rationale, which facilitates a mass movement is the continuous pro-life movements in the USA. Pro-life or anti-abortion movements from the theoretical analyses encompasses various striking factors that are necessary to examine in order to fully grasp what the social protests theory represents. First of all, pro-life social protest is a movement that is strongly ideologically driven as the movement organizations are constructed and driven by "imperatives to preserve basic morals" (Swank, 2020, p.366). The implementation of pro-abortion laws served as the main triggering element of participants’ beliefs, values and world views that, as a consequence, led to the emergence of a well-organized and motivated social movement as their shared identity and the common goal remains the fuel of the protests. According to Bridging Divides Initiative, a research initiative based at Princeton University, from May 2 to July 1, the USA experienced massive anti-abortion rallies that, in total, approximately made up 62 protests (BDI, 2022). Individuals’ justification for the social movements is the fact that the laws of abortion go against morality and ethics. Deana A. Rohlinger (2013), a researcher at Florida State University, highlighted that the pro-life movement opposes elective abortion on the grounds of moral and ethical reasoning and that an “unborn child has a right to life” (p. 2). The common understanding of the issue and the shared ideological stand places individuals at the same pot. Because of the same ideological standpoint, individuals are capable of uniting and acting as one force which, as a consequence, becomes highly influential. Because of the shared identity, protesters become able to establish a certain motive behind their actions and work towards achieving the ultimate goal. Furthermore, the case of pro-life movements plays a significant role within the studies of social movements as the motive behind the anti-abortion movements is not simply tackling the legislative and executive systems of the country, rather, the movements demonstrate the conflictual relationship between the supporters of abortion laws and the opposers, making the issue of motive a source of clashes between two groups of people within the society. Deana Rohlinger (2013) argued that the pro-life movements are in conflict with the pro-choice, and participants of pro-choice protests find themselves in a shielding and reactionary manner. Hence, the motive in the protests theory is not only used to challenge the legislative system, but also the groups within the society.

Figure 5: Mass demonstrations in Avenue Habib Bourguiba during the Tunisian revolution that overthrew the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011 (Wikipedia, 2011)

Moreover, due to a globalized world, the motive behind social movements has also evolved encompassing the struggle not simply against the local elites but against the multinational corporations and global politico-economic elites. The contemporary period has demonstrated the growth of social mobilizations around the globe, in particular, in the South American continent with the motive of challenging the prevailing economic order. According to Heather Curtis (2015), as a result of imposition of neo-liberal policies, as of 1989, Latin American countries experienced strong, continuous and widespread protests. The erupted protests in Latin America were followed by the emergence of social resistances in different parts of globe as well. Even if people belong to different societies and are separated from each other by borders, the impact of the global politico-economic order carries a similar impact on everyone. The core element of social protests in the contemporary world and in the global context revolves around the fact that even if social movements are directed towards facilitating a change or towards impeding the newly adopted reforms, the core problem that ignited the individuals’ movement, especially in the cases of South America, consisted of one major cause - prevailing neo-liberal politico-economic order. The rise of social movements with the motive of challenging the world order caused mainly by economic globalization as the economic integration has brought negative social effects, such as rising unemployment rates, weak national political regimes, private exploitation and expropriation, dispossession of minority groups within their homelands, etc. (Lopez Wui, 2010, p.6-7). These growing problems facilitated the development of globalized social movements. The Cochabamba Water War is one of the promising examples of people’s struggle against the inequalities and injustices brought by the neoliberal agenda of globalization. The motive behind the Cochabamba Water War was to eject the multinational private companies from Bolivia, making the political processes in the country transparent and removal of corrupt local leaders. The introduction of the Washington Consensus to the country, foreign direct investments, privatization of water resources and negligence of the population led to the political and economic destabilization in the country, where 70 percent of the population remained below the poverty line (Shultz, p.28). Slogans, such as "The Water Is Ours" or "Aguas Del Tunari - Go Home" during the social mobilization demonstrated people being overwhelmed by inequality, poverty and injustice. Heather Curtis (2015) underlined that protesters' slogans demonstrated government actions to be "arbitrary and irresponsive" (p.110). She highlighted that the motive behind the social mobilization consisted of overcoming socio-political inequality and oppression. The experienced dreadful environment in the society threatened the beliefs, values, material possessions and physical and mental health of people, and as consequence, individuals reached the conclusion to fight against the injustice and with that motive, they went on to the streets. Individuals transformed their grievances and deprivation into a mass social movement. As a result of a strong established motive preluded by the common ideological stand, the people’s movement became a well-organized weapon that questioned politico-economic globalization. Heather Curtis (2015), in the article"The Cochabamba Water War Social Movement: A Successful Challenge to Neoliberal Expansion in Bolivia", highlighted that because of the strongly motivated individuals with the firmly proposed purpose and aim, peoples' movement reached the cancellation of privatization politics in the country, transformed the water into a public usage and ejected the international companies from the politico-economic sphere of the country. She described Cochabamba Water War as a global symbol of opposition against the imposition of neoliberal globalization (Curtis, 2015, p. 108).

The scenario of Cochabamba Water War demonstrates how diverse the motives are behind every social movements. Even though every social protest organizationally and strategically resemble one another, the motive that drives the protesters significantly differentiates the movement. Despite the fact that the nature of the societal uprisings is embedded either in bringing or impeding the change; however, the motive is an element that further explains each social protests.

Figure 6: Cochabamba Water War (n.a., 1999)

Social movements, as a socio-political weapon of the people who have no other alternatives but to be heard through mass mobilization, play an imminent role in the contemporary world. The world has witnessed various social movements throughout history, such as Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, Civil Rights movements, pro-democratic movements in Asia as well as pro and anti-abortion protests in USA. Thomas Carothers and Richard Youngs (2015), in the non-partisan international think tank - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, concluded that the 21st century is a peak period of acceleration of social movements, and many of the social uprisings possess national and global-level implications. It is generic to assume that the social movements are similar in their nature even though the social movements are driven either to facilitate a change or impede one. In reality, in order to fully grasp the picture of social movements and identify their core and their implications, it is crucial to examine the main ingredient that constructs societal mobilizations. The major component that allows for thorough analyses of the social movement theory is the analysis of the motives behind every social movement. As was shown in the article, there are various motives behind every uprising that are coined up as a result of grievances, deprivations and ideological stands. The shared ideological stand and common identity within the people create a cohort of demanders who turn their destitutions and their desires into motives and targets to be reached through the means of mass mobilization. The topic of motive and purpose is essential when it comes to analysis of social movement theories.

Bibliographical References

Abel, T. (1937). The Pattern of a Successful Political Movement. American Sociological Association, 2(3), 347-352.

Aiken, M. (2018). Tales we tell, speaking out loud: understanding motivations of social movement activists through auto-biography and story. A Journal for and about Social Movements, 10, 170–195.

Arce, M., & Rice, R. (2019). Protest and Democracy. Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press, 23-44. 1880/110581/9781773850467_chapter_02.pdf? sequence=4&isAllowed=y

Bridges Divide Initiative. (2022). Issue Brief: Understanding Emerging Trends in Protests and Political Violence Around Abortion and Reproductive Rights in the United States. Bridges Divide Initiative, 1-6.

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

Curtis, H. (2015). The Cochabamba Water War Social Movement: A Successful Challenge to Neoliberal Expansion in Bolivia? Saint Mary’s University, 4-13.

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

Little, W., & McGivern, R. (2014). In Social Movements and Social Change. Introduction to Sociology (1st ed., pp. 477-493). BC campus.

Lopez Wui, G. (2010). Transnational Social Movement: Examining its Emergence, Organizational Form and Strategies, and Collective Identity.

Rohlinger, D. (2013). Pro‐Life/Pro‐Choice Movements. The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements, 1-8.

Sen, A., & Avci, O. (2016). Why Social Movements Occur: Theories of Social Movements. Bilgi Ekonomisi Ve Yönetimi Dergisi Cilt: XI Sayı, 125-130.

Smith, H., & Pettigrew, T. (2011). Relative Deprivation: A Theoretical and Meta-Analytic Review. Advances in Relative Deprivation Theory and Research. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(3), 203-232. A_Theoretical_and_Meta-Analytic_Review

Tilly, C. (1993). Social Movements as Historically Specific Clusters of Political Performances. Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 38, 1-30. stable/41035464

Yerkes, S., & Yahmed, Z. (2018). Tunisians’ Revolutionary Goals Remain Unfulfilled. Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, 1-12.

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