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Social Protest and Democracy 101: The Impediments to a Successful Social Resistance


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 majority of countries 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 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:

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: The Impediments to a Successful Social Resistance


A social movement is a significant strategic weapon for individuals who are determined to facilitate socio-political and economic changes or preserving a status quo. In any case, the individuals chose to implement the method of social mobilization to raise their voices in regards to certain issues that have a direct impact on their livelihoods. Social movement, per J.DeFronzo and J.Gill (2019) has become “the most important collective force’ with the motive of bringing about a significant change and leaving a mark on the country’s history. The study of social protest is highly complex as it involves various crucial subtopics and each of them is bound for a thorough examination from diverse perspectives. Aditi Bhonagiri (2016), a fellow at the Institute ofDevelopment Studies, highlighted that social protests emerged and developed once “people feel alienated or excluded from the world around them” (p.1). A collective reactionary movement is predominantly due to people’s growing sense of distrust, dissent and denial of existing socio-political institutions of governance. The ability to demonstrate dissent is one of the major mechanisms for scrutinizing the ruling administration of the state. Hence, it becomes apparent that an environment that permits individuals to exercise the right of association is highly significant for producing a growing and developing society.

Although social resistance is an important democratic feature, it is not always possible. The existence of certain limitations and impediments places a threat to the emergence, development and success of social movements. Hence, the opportunity to publicly express the accumulated dissent and transform the shared grievances into actions is not always given. To be more accurate, the opportunity is always there; however, taking an advantage of the given opportunity to participate in a social movement for the purpose of facilitating a substantial reform in a society becomes nearly impossible due to socio-political or financial-economic environment that is prevailing in the country. The impediments that limit the function of the social movements vary in nature as there are obstructions that revolve around the socio-political and economic factors as well as embedded in the individuals themselves. This paper will attempt to thoroughly analyze the impediments that place limitations on social movements. To be more precise, the article will draw examinations from various perspectives starting from political limitations and concluding with the personal limitations that are developed within a person himself. The paper will discuss specific topics, including how political regimes create obstacles to prevent social movements from development, the ways in which economic circumstances can impose restrictions on such movements, and the role of law enforcement agencies in suppressing social movements.

Figure 1: Ringing the changes ... what makes some social movements so successful? (World Economic Forum, 2022)

Political Limitation

One of the most significant, factors that serve as an impediment to implementing social protests as the method of raising a voice and demonstrating dissent with an anticipation of a dramatic change is the political organization of the state. The specific political structure of the state as an impediment to social movements, might not be seen as visible as the physical presence of law enforcement that serves as an obstacle to protesters, yet the oppressive polity is the major barricade in the roads of mobilizers. Brian Martin (2016), emphasized the point that he called oppression explaining it as a “systematic domination of subject groups through social arrangements” including political exclusion and other features (p.462).

One might argue that with the lack of accessibility to political participation due to a firmly established socio-political hierarchy in society, the individuals at the lower level of the social scale are most likely to transform their shared grievances and common identities into well-organized protests, hence, arguing that unfortunate socio-political structure of the country is a major cause for the emergence of the social mobilizations. S. Lauren Weldon, a Canadian and American political scientist, currently a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Simon Fraser University, in her book “When Protest Makes Policy. How Social Movements Represent Disadvantaged Groups” underlined the core motive and benefit of social movements by arguing that social mobilizations serve as crucial “avenues of political representation, especially for excluded and disadvantaged groups” (p.1). By this, it becomes apparent that once the individuals find themselves in a destitute position where the socio-political structure of the country deprives them of certain aspects of life, the victims use social movement as the only means of facilitating a change. However, the significant point that is necessary to overview is that the political structure of the country, despite the fact that it leads to the emergence of social movements as was discussed earlier, additionally serves as an obstacle in creating an impactful challenging force. In order to elaborate on the statement made above, the paper will provide a few examples of how the polity of certain countries is designed to demise the development of the significantly influential movements regardless of the ideological and political systems of the states.

Figure 2: When Social Movements Write Policy (New America, 2022)
Authoritarian States

Initially, it is important to examine the polity and its relation to social movements within the dictatorial, authoritarian or totalitarian forms of governance. A simple answer to why the status of social movements in authoritarian states is unique and always an issue of consideration in studies is due to the fact that any social movement that appears within the authoritarian regime is automatically observed as an attempt of a courageous cohort of people in challenging the existing polity controlled by the few. The politics of authoritarian countries is simple in regard to social control. Hilmi Ulas (2021), a fellow at the Department of Peace Studies, Chapman University, United States, in the article “The Dynamics of Social Movements in the Unrecognized States—A Comparative Study” underlined certain characteristics of authoritarian states that can be interpreted as a barrier towards the development of social mobilizations. Those obstacles, as he highlighted, are well-known for the majority of the audience as he describes the authoritarian form of government as a state where “individual freedoms, political rights, and civil liberties are heavily restricted and where the use of repression promotes high levels of obedience towards the state” (p.3). These generic yet central points explain the difficult path that individuals take in order to be able to publicly express their dissent. The capability to publicly express a social-political or economic point of view through mass mobilization is in nature a political and civil liberty of every individual; however, in authoritarian states, these liberties are highly restricted which becomes an impediment to organizing a protest.

Hilmi Ulas (2021) further elaborated by arguing that authoritarian states use various tactics on repressing social movements, such as manipulation of media and education, an idea of a national hero where "the authoritarian leaders are perceived as the heroes of a liberation struggle” or simply an implementation of military and police forces (p.3). All these factors are an integral part of the rulership of the few and their repressive politics toward social movements. The examination of the case of Tunisia vividly endorses the points made above. Christopher Alexander (1997) in the article “Back from the Democratic Brink Authoritarianism and Civil Society in Tunisia” provided an example of Ben Ali, a former Tunisian president, and his organized politics that first were an impediment to the opposition groups and then became the reason of the revolution. The most common politics of Ben Ali began with his false promises of the regarding establishment of a pluralistic form of governance with the opposition forces, the assurance of freedoms and rights, as well as the establishment of a free, democratic environment in the country. First declaring himself as a Tunisia hero, who “bent on establishing himself as the country's most dedicated reformer” including providing the rights of association, proved himself to be an authoritarian leader by “co-opting and manipulating the press, unions, and other organizations” (Alexander, 1997, p.35). All his methods, including the repression of associations, media and journalists hardened the path for people to organize social movements as Ben Ali’s repressive methods were addressed on multiple levels.

Figure 3: Tunisian people living in France burning a picture of their former president Ben Ali (Jean-Paul Pelissier, 2011)

Democratic States

It is popular to assume that authoritarian regimes are the ones that place restrictions towards the development of impactful social movements. In reality, democratic states entail striking features that are as much as restrictive on the individuals' uprisings as the autocratic regimes. Thomas Carothers, a co-director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, and Richard Youngs, a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe (2015), in the article “The Complexities of Global Protests,” argued that the social movements have become a part not only of authoritarian regimes “but many semi-authoritarian states and democracies as well” (p. 6). Thus, it becomes apparent that protests occur also within democratic states, which have become topics of careful and extensive analysis within democratically structured regimes. To answer the question of how democratically structured polity within the context of Western democracy can impede the emergence, development and successfulness of individuals’ collective reactionary movement, it is important to analyze the issue from multiple striking perspectives. It is important to note that the electoral-representative system, as a prevailing form of governance in the Western context, in reality, does not provide a satisfactory environment for social movements. Rather it demises and creates an invisible obstacle for the individuals who can produce a change only through the means of social mobilization. In terms of general conceptualization, a representative system refers to a form of governance where “political decision-makers are chosen by members of the public, typically through elections” (Martin, 2006, Chapter 2). Thus, the electoral representative mode of democracy is a regime that theoretically and practically provides an opportunity for the people to choose a person who would become their representative at the decision-making level. Brian Martin (2006) continued to argue that in a representative system, people possess the privilege of being able to vote for a preferred person who in turn will advocate and produce new laws and policies. This method is, as argued by many, a beneficial means for every individual who desires a change, especially those who are dramatically marginalized. S. Lauren Weldon, for instance, argued in her book that apart from the social movements, a descriptive representation is an important topic that has been understudied “in relation to their importance in securing policy change of significance for marginalized groups” (p. 2). However, the electoral-representative system has been under thorough analysis as it involves significant shortcomings and one of them is its negative impact on social mobilizations. In authoritarian regimes, individuals do not have an option for voting for a representative, as in most cases the country is under the rulership of a single administration or one head, or the cooperation of a few. Thus, once the social movement emerges, the individuals directly attack the ruling entity. In contrast, the representative system allows people to have a representative, chosen by people through the voting system, who would advocate for them in the decision-making realm. This creates various issues.

First of all, by having a representative, the state indirectly represses the method of social movement. There is no necessity for people in organizing a social protest as the state promises them the more efficient path of resolving an issue - a representative democracy. By granting people the ability to vote, the state, in reality, saves itself from the emergence of mobilization that can cause disruption in the country, awareness and attractiveness from the international community as well as the removal of the existing political party or a head of the country. Instead of raising a voice in a protest way, people place their reliance on the parties and the representatives. Second of all, one might raise a concern by arguing that having a representative is more beneficial than a direct social movement. However, it is crucial to understand that the representative system further alienates individuals from direct participation in decision-making policies. Andreas Kalyvas (2019), an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at The New School for Social Research, in his article “Democracy and the Poor: Prolegomena to a radical theory of Democracy”, argued that the modern concept of democracy is highly distorted with the adoption of an electoral-representative or liberal-representative mode of governance. He, as a supporter of a democratically structured polity that ideally grants freedoms and rights of full participation in the political realm of the country to the individuals at the lowest social scale, demonstrates his resonance with contemporary democracy by arguing that the modern representative system is predicated and accompanied by “the elimination of the poor from democratic politics” (p. 541). It becomes apparent that the repressive system further widens the gap between low-income and the few causing the exclusion of a certain group of people from politics. This exclusion; however, is not visible as it is obscured by the electoral democracy where the poor are given the opportunity to be ‘involved’ in politics. Bertrall L. Ross II and Terry Smith (2009) in the article “Minimum Responsiveness and the Political Exclusion of the Poor”argued that party and representative system in the United States overlooks the fact that those who are located at the bottom of the hierarchical structure become an ignored “ideologically peripheral group” and is affected by the "non-responsiveness” of political parties (p.201).

Figure 4: Democracy not found (Shutterstock, 2017)
Economic Limitation

One of the major impediments that remains a constant challenge in the lives of protesters is the deficiency of financial-economic resources. It is apparent that grievances in regards to economic and financial insufficiency and destitution are not simply the problem itself that is addressed in the social movements but it is an issue that is limiting the ability of individuals in emerging or participating in the social movements. Thomas Kurer and al., fellows at Harvard University and the University of Zurich, in the article “Economic Grievances and Political Protest”, provided both sides of the argument where they argue that in the first place, economic hardships that afflicted the individuals, in reality, bring about a psychological effect where the victims grow the sense of “dissatisfaction, frustration or even anger beneficial to political activity” (p.872). On the other hand, the authors provided a concept of ‘withdrawal hypothesis’ arguing that the economic destabilization and deprivation cause the demobilization and “lack their capacity to engage in politics” (p. 869). Although both of the proposed overviews play a crucial role in the relation between social movements and economic deprivation, the point in regards to economic disadvantage and the inability to participate in a social movement carries a distinct notion. As it was mentioned before, economic destitution may cause a psychological effect on individuals eventually pushing them towards mobilization politics; however, it is important to assess that the psychological effect can work in reverse, meaning that the economic strains may further deepen the crisis and alienate individuals from the protests as in their understanding it will further endanger their financial position. The gap of economic inequality in a society is wide, and due to socio-political and economic imbalances of power within the society, individuals, especially the working class, lose hope. The priority of the working-class people, including the farmers and unemployed people, as per Michael Yates, is to make ends meet as their livelihood solely depends on wage labour. Leaving a job for a protest is placing life at a high stake for working-class people despite the fact that they might lose a day or two, and may become unemployed. The capital belongs to those who have economic power over the workers and the workers are highly dependent on the job. People at the lowest social scale can win everything through a successful mobilization; however, can also lose everything. Thus, the economic disparity is the major barrier that drives apart individuals and collective political action in the form of social protests. The economic disadvantage does not necessarily affect the working class, but remains a barrier to those who are limited in resources. Social movements require sacrifices in terms of resources that can be in the form of time, energy and money.

Figure 5: "The poor need not always be with us" (Derek Speirs, 2007)

Law Enforcement Agencies

One of the major impediments or barriers imposed on the protesters during social movements is the implementation of law enforcement, or simply speaking, a police force of the country. Various reasons explain the unsuccessfulness or total demise of mobilizations. Those reasons, in most cases, are not simply visible and require a thorough methodological analysis as the problem is rooted in certain social-political and economic aspects of life, such as the established economic order of the country that limits the resources and capability of the individuals in either initiating the protest itself or being an active participant. This specific type of challenge to a social movement, according to Brian Martin (2016), a professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia is defined as oppressive method due to the fact that the participants of the social movements are the subjects of "systematic domination” (p.462). The imposition of law enforcement as the main force in confronting the protesters, on the other hand, is a different case as the physical presence of the police using tear gas and stun grenades on the individuals or arresting the protesters is palpable and highly observable. The usage of police in challenging the social movement, in specific circumstances, becomes repression - a direct, physical confrontation with the individuals. Sherry Cable (2019), a professor of sociology at the University of Tennessee, in her article “Social Movement and Social Control” highlighted the concept of policing protest, which she describes “most studied control tacit in the state’s arsenal”, a strategic maneuver of the state that entails deployment of law enforcement agencies in combating the protesters (p.124).

The tactic known as the placement of law enforcement officials as the challenging force to participants of the movements is an explicit, direct and well-organized obstacle to the individuals who had chosen as the method of their socio-political dissent, a collective mobilized action. In some instances and in certain socio-political environments, the police force is considered to be a barrier to social movements due to the fact that they use violence as a method of suppression of protests. Sherry Cable (2019) argued that violence is a “significant subset of policing protest” (p.124). Brain Martin (2016) further elaborated on the tactics that serve as a barrier to the social protest culture by categorizing the actions of police forces as a method of intimidation that includes physical threats and actions placing the livelihoods of individuals in danger (p. 464). One of the most visible examples of police brutality in the studies of social movements belongs to the situation in Egypt that occurred in 2011. Hundreds of individuals gathered in a peaceful protest in Tahrir Square expressing their dissent towards the interim military rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces that continued for a few days, and were met with Central Security Forces that resulted in the death of approximately 45 protesters and “hundreds injured, and hundreds more arrested” (Ennarah, 2013, p.27). It is critical to underline that police brutality serves as an impediment in the organizational sense of the movements as one of the most targeted personas before, during and after the mobilizations are the leaders of the movement itself. By capturing and demonstrating violence on a lead figure of the protests, the state is weakening the movement itself as the participants develop fear and uncertainty. Raghad Jaraisy (2013), an attorney and a contributor to a report “Repression and criminalization of protest around the world”, provided the example of Bassem Tamimi, an organizer and demonstrator, who was unlawfully arrested on five different charges due to the fact that he led a non-violent movement against unjustifiable and illegal settlement of Halamish in the occupied lands of Palestine. The author further highlighted that Tamimi’s family resided under constant threats from the Israeli police forces, who try to completely demise the peaceful marches. Moreover, the violent measures implemented by the state through law enforcement agencies produce fear in individuals that are eventually reflected in their actions and their determination in the social protest process.

Figure 6: Israeli security forces arrest a young Palestinian protester during confrontations (AHMAD GHARABLI, 2022)

It is important to underline that the term social movement, from the holistic perspective, is a generalized interdisciplinary study and the social movement itself is highly diverse in the way that it can be classified in several ways. Therefore, it is a mistaken approach to ignore the fact that every social movement involves a different level of attraction from the law enforcement structures of the country. In other words, a social protest that possesses a violent and disruptive nature is bound to be challenged and controlled by the police or military forces. The main idea behind the implementation of the policing activity is to maintain social order as the police force is one of the most recognized methods of “state social control” (Cable, 2019, p.123). Once the social movements that carry non-violent and peaceful tactics are repressed by the police, the common understanding is that the police use excessive force to demise the protests. However, protests are highly diverse and certain movements require the presence of law enforcement agencies in order to prevent the excessive violence, force and threats to livelihood movements used by the protesters. Undoubtedly, the relation of law enforcement agencies concerning social mobilization is a highly complex topic within the studies of social movements as it involves a variety of complications. The complexity of the relationship between the two entities gives an idea that police forces could be an existential threat to social movements; however, this type of conclusion is not rational. Besides the fact that the police are a necessary tool for maintaining social order in the case of violent protests that are to be considered as threatening to the livelihoods of non-involved individuals as well as to the country’s stability overall, law enforcements remain to be a source of equilibrium for the population.

Motivation and Determination

Another important aspect that has to be observed is the issue of a psychological stand of an individual prior, during and after of the social insurgence which is a substantial and integral part that dramatically impacts the success of social movements. In other words, the lack of motivation, willingness and determination can be the major cause of the failure in emerging an influential movement. Bert Klandermans and Dirk Oegema (1987), in the article “Potentials, Networks, Motivations, and Barriers: Steps Towards Participation in Social Movements” underlined that the sense of high levels of motivation can lead to overcoming certain barriers during the process of social mobilization. It becomes apparent that a lack of motivation, as well as a firmly established determination, can be an impediment to a collective movement. Bert Klandermans and Dirk Oegema (1987), conducted empirical and methodological analysis and concluded that certain major characteristics result in non-participation, including personal factors, such as dispassionate feeling towards the movement, lack of motivation as well as the presence of barriers. However, it is predominant to note that it is not the existence of barriers that affect the level of motivation and determination in individuals but the absence of these criteria that create the impediments. The study of social movements involves the framing theory which is a root part of the mobilizations. J. DeFronzo and J. Gill (2019), in the chapter “The Sociology of Social Movements” conceptualized the theory as a process that makes individuals “embrace the ideology of, and supports and participate in, a social movement” (p.39). Apart from the characteristic of making a social movement or even an idea behind it to be appealing to people for the purpose of recruitment, framing theory entails a motivational part that “why people need to act to deal with the problem” (DeFronzo&Gill, 2019, p.40). The concept of motivation and determination is crucial in social movements as the deficiency of these criteria can be an obstacle to the idea of mobilization in general.

Figure 7: African American woman with raised fist shouting through megaphone at anti-racism protest (Drazen, n.a)

Concluding Remarks

A social movement is a vital element of every society regardless of the political agenda of the polity. Through social movement, the world becomes aware of certain socio-political and economic issues. The phenomenon to raise a voice through mobilization is unique, special and highly necessary for establishing a growing, healthy and developing society. Although the importance of social movements is recognized worldwide, starting from average citizens and ending in high-level politicians, the implementation of radical changes is under big question. The paper briefly highlighted the major impediments that exist within the societies that place certain restrictions on people’s ability to perform a social protest. The barriers are diverse, for instance, it was discussed earlier, individuals might feel political pressure from the existing political institutions regardless if the country is democratic or authoritarian as well as economic constraints caused by the prevailing system of economic power imbalance. The paper concludes that the majority of the limitations derive from the socio-political and economic order that is prevailing in contemporary politics, and the source of these obstructions is the states. Moreover, the paper also provided an example of the concept of motivation and determination that serves as an impediment to social movements coming from the individuals themselves.

Bibliographical References:

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Kanan Babazade

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