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The diffusion of protests (1)

May 1, 2013

Excerpts from Koopmans, Ruud (2004) ‘Protest in time and space: the evolution of waves of contention’, in David A. Snow, Sarah A. Soule and Hanspeter Kriesi (eds), The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 19–46.

A simple repetition of past patterns of protest by dissidents is […] unlikely to lead to such an exposure of political opportunities. Regimes have established ways of dealing with known types of protest and elite controversies are unlikely to emerge over how to respond to them. The possibilities for exposing political opportunities are therefore greatly enhanced if there is a novel quality to protest. Such novelty can consist of new actors involved in protest or a redefinition of their collective identities, new tactics or organizational forms, or demands and interpretive frames that challenge the regime’s legitimacy in novel ways. It is significant in this respect that Eastern European communist regimes were not brought down by traditional dissident movements, but by a much more diffuse challenge that included ordinary workers – posing a particular ideological problem in these alleged “workers’ paradises” – and ethnic and linguistic minorities – whose leverage was greatest where a quasi-federal state structure made it difficult to deny such groups public legitimacy (Beissinger 1996). In the GDR, the linkage of traditional dissidents to the refugee crisis and advocates of free travel was of decisive importance (Joppke 1995).


Here we arrive at the crucial importance of diffusion processes in the expansion of contention. In the words of McAdam (1995: 231), “…initiator movements are nothing more than clusters of new cultural items – new cognitive frames, behavioral routines, organizational forms, tactical repertoires, etc. – subject to the same diffusion dynamics as other innovations.” Such diffusion processes have commanded considerable attention in the recent social movement literature and there is much we can learn here from more established diffusion theories in other fields. Since an entire chapter is devoted to this important problematic in this volume, I will here only highlight some of the most important characteristics of diffusion processes.

Diffusion is responsible for the emergent and eruptive character of protest waves that puzzled collective behaviorists and mass psychologists, and was subsequently neglected by the resource mobilization school, probably because this aspect of protest waves stood in uneasy tension with the idea of social movements as carefully planning, organized, rational actors. What epidemics, fads, contentious innovations, or any other diffusion process have in common is that they are socially embedded: they can only spread by way of communication from a source to an adopter, along established network links (Strang and Soule 1998; Myers 2000). Granovetter (1973) has argued that “weak ties” are particularly important in the diffusion of innovations because they link constituencies which have relatively few social relations in common, whereas communication along strong network ties is less likely to contain information that is novel to the recipient. In modern open societies, the mass media are the weak tie par excellence, and may communicate innovations between groups who share no social links at all – apart of course from their watching or reading the same news media. Therefore, the mass media play a crucial – but understudied – role in the diffusion of protest in modern democracies (Myers 2000).

A second important characteristic of social diffusion – and here the parallel with contagion and epidemics ends – is that adopters are not passive recipients, but actively choose to adopt a particular innovation or not. Innovations may be helpful for one group, but seen as useless or inapplicable to its circumstances by another. The process by which groups make such decisions about the applicability of innovations to their context is sometimes denoted as “attribution of similarity” (Strang and Meyer 1993) or, in a more objectifying sense, as “structural equivalence” (Burt 1987). Apart from internal characteristics of the adopting group, the similarity or equivalence of the political context will play an important role in such considerations. It is certainly no coincidence that the diffusion of contention that started in the autumn of 1989 respected clearly circumscribed geopolitical boundaries. All Eastern European countries whose regimes were directly existentially linked to the Soviet Union were affected by it, as were communist countries in immediate geographical and cultural proximity such as Yugoslavia and Albania. But the wave neither spread to the non-European communist world, nor to non-communist countries within Europe.

Such limits to the scope of diffusion depend strongly on the actual interlinkages of opportunity structures in different contexts. Protests could spread across Eastern Europe not just because these were structurally and culturally similar communist countries, but also because a weakening of one regime had immediate consequences for the strength of another. Earlier revolts in the Eastern Bloc had always been smothered in the threat or actual use of military force by the “brother countries”, first and foremost the Soviet Union. Starting with Gorbachev’s explicit indication that the Soviet Union would this time not intervene, every subsequent failure of a regime to contain or repress opposition made the position of remaining hard-liners more precarious until even those who did choose the road of repression such as Ceaucescu in Romania were no longer able to scare regime opponents from the streets. Such “opportunity cascades” may be an important mechanism for protest diffusion. They may, it should be noted, themselves be partly the result of diffusion processes. Innovations also spread within elite networks, subject to similar constraints as protest diffusion. Thus, glasnost and perestroika, Yeltsinite radical reformism, as well as the strategy of mobilizing ethno-nationalism as a means of elite survival, all diffused throughout Eastern Europe’s communist elites, and differential adoption of such strategic models often introduced conflicts within formerly consensual regimes.

The linkage between diffusion and political opportunities is reinforced by a third and final central characteristic of diffusion processes. Contrary to the assumption of irrational contagion that underlies the collective behavior approach, numerous studies have shown that adoption depends on the perceived success of innovations. For instance, in his study of the early history of airplane hijackings, Holden (1986) showed that only successful hijackings increased the subsequent rate of hijacking, whereas unsuccessful hijackings had no discernable impact. This is the main reason why protest innovations can only spread if political opportunities are conducive. Innovations that fail to help those who employ them to achieve their aims are unlikely to be adopted by others. However, success or failure may not always be so easy to determine, certainly if more long-term strategic aims are concerned. Especially in authoritarian contexts, the mere fact that mobilization is not repressed may be a sufficient indicator of success for that type of mobilization to spread.

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