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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.


Excerpts from the paper “Diffusion Models of Cycles of Protest as a Theory of Social Movements” n.d. by Pamela E. Oliver (University of Wisconsin) and Daniel J. Myers (University of Notre Dame),

This paper develops a theoretical framework for understanding social movements as interrelated sets of diffusion processes and explains why such a conception is broadly useful to scholars of social movements.

[...] We begin with the fundamental observation that in social movements, actions affect other actions: Actions are not just isolated, independent responses external economic or political conditions–rather, one action changes the likelihood of subsequent actions. That is, diffusion processes are involved. This inter-action influence has long been recognized. Tarrow’s work on cycles of protest (e.g. 1998) has long recognized these interrelations. McAdam’s work on “tactical diffusion” showed that the civil rights movement was not a steady stream, but a series of bursts of action each driven by a tactical innovation: bus boycotts, freedom rides, sit-ins, demonstrations, and riots (1983). Many scholars have also noted the many ways that protest actions cannot be understood in isolation, but rather need to be viewed as interactions with the police and other social control forces, particularly as the police learn more effective methods of repression over time. Protest actions obviously interact as well with social policy changes and political speech-making (what we often call “elite support”). And, of course, over time one social movement affects another, as tactics and frames diffuse and produce the effects that Meyer and Whittier (1994) call “movement spillover.” The civil rights demonstrations and marches of the early 1960s not only led to civil rights legislation, but indirectly fostered the increased militancy and anger of Blacks and the elite responsiveness which contributed to the wave of black urban riots. The Black movement, in turn, was a direct inspiration for activists who explicitly studied the histories and writings of Black movement activist, including for example the Chicanos who founded La Raza (García 1989) and early feminists (Evans 1980).

[...] In short, diffusion processes are critical to the evolution of social movements. Scholars are increasingly recognizing the theoretical importance of diffusion processes, and using diffusion language in discussing social movements. Until recently, however, these discussions have stayed at a fairly superficial level. The fact of the diffusion of action has been repeatedly demonstrated in quantitative data showing the dispersion of events across time or space, and in qualitative research documenting the direct connections between events. A wealth of new data has been and is being collected giving the time series of various kinds of violent and nonviolent events in a number of different nations (Hocke 1998; Jenkins and Eckert 1986; Kriesi et al. 1995; McAdam 1982; Olzak 1990; Olzak 1992; Olzak and Olivier 1994; Olzak, Shanahan and McEneaney 1996; Olzak, Shanahan and West 1994; Rucht, Koopmans and Neidhardt 1998; Rucht 1992). Careful analyses of these data are yielding great payoffs in our understanding of the dynamics of collective events and the interplay between different modes of action by different actors. The combination of these data and recent advances in the technology of modeling diffusion make it possible to give a much more detailed account of the mechanisms of diffusion and to integrate diffusion processes with the other processes known to be important in social movements.

Taking advantage of these data and technical advances requires reorientation of both social movement theory and traditional diffusion theory so that the two can be integrated. In this paper, we discuss the issues involved in integrating these theories, the steps that have been taken so far, and the tasks that remain. Although it is possible to imagine a full theoretical conception that is more complex than we are able to fully portray at present, we believe that the work accomplished so far indicates the tremendous advances that will be possible from completing the process of theoretical integration.

[...] The linchpin of the integration of social movement theory with diffusion concepts is to re-conceive the basic concept of a social movement. As we, among others, have written elsewhere, there has never been much clarity about just what kind of thing a social movement is. [...] If we are to gain the advantages of diffusion theory, we need to give up the conception of a social movement as some kind of coherent entity, and instead conceive a social movement as a distribution of events across a population. We use the term “event” here in a general sense to encompass the actions of the various actors in a population, as well as their beliefs. In this sense, specific protest actions are events, but so is a resource flow from one group to another. It is also an event when a certain proportion of the population comes to hold a particular belief. Under this conception, a social movement peaks when there are a lot of protest actions happening involving a large proportion of the population “at risk” for participating.

[...] An emphasis on the diffusion of action as the core process in a social movement is central to studies of waves of conflict and cycles of protest.  [...] For scholars not used to thinking this way, the transition is difficult, but it is very important if we are to achieve a real understanding of the protest phenomenon. The transition perhaps can be compared to that in the study of evolutionary biology, where it is recognized that a species is not a distinct entity which can make choices about how to adapt to an environment, but a statistical distribution of traits across individual organisms. Species evolve when the distribution of characteristics within a breeding population changes. Social movements rise when the overall frequency of protest events rises in a population, they become violent when they ratio of violent events to non-violent events rises, and so forth.

Originally posted John Postill Anthropolgy blog

John Postill is an anthropologist (PhD, UCL) specialising in the study of media. I live in Melbourne (Australia) where I am a Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow (2013-2016) at the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. I am also a Fellow of the Digital Anthropology Programme at UCL.

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