Crowd Cohesion and Protest Outcomes

The forthcoming article “Crowd Cohesion and Protest Outcomes” by Lisa Mueller is summarized by the author below. 

When do protesting crowds win concessions as opposed to coming up empty handed? This is a question that activists have asked themselves throughout history, and one that has long perplexed academics. Although researchers have identified several ingredients of effective protest—nonviolence, high turnout, international support, etc.—they have largely ignored the composition of the crowd itself. Typically, scholars and journalists assume that everyone who attends a protest wants more or less the same thing. We tend to describe a demonstration as “pro-democracy,” “anti-austerity,” or “environmentalist,” as if a single broad theme could capture the goals of everyone present. However, existing research shows that activists often have mixed reasons for attending the same event. My new article confirms this, and explores whether such diversity affects the chances of protesters getting what they nominally want. 

I hypothesize that cohesive crowds, in which most protesters express similar demands, are more likely to win concessions than crowds in which protesters voice a hodgepodge of demands. That’s because cohesive messages are cognitively easier for decision-makers to understand, and are hence more persuasive. 

Consider two twenty-first century examples from the UK. “Take Back Parliament” was a protest where Britons insisted that the government replace winner-take-all electoral rules with a more proportional system of representation. Activists’ message was clear and united, resulting in a landmark referendum (even though activists did not ultimately win proportional representation). In contrast, the “Occupy London” protests around the same time conveyed a jumble of demands for income redistribution, clean energy, health services, and a host of other concessions. Occupy London prompted no major response from decision-makers. Some members of Parliament remarked that they could not even comprehend what “Occupiers” wanted, let alone how to redress such a long wish list. 

To see whether my theory generalizes beyond these two cases, I conduct two additional analyses. 

First, I use computerized natural language processing to measure the cohesion of protesters’ self-reported motivations at 97 protests in Europe and Latin America. After controlling for other variables, I find that higher crowd cohesion corresponds with a higher probability that protesters win concessions within three years. 

Second, I conduct an experiment where I randomize the cohesion of messages depicted on signs at a hypothetical protest in South Africa. The more cohesive the messages in an image, the likelier survey respondents are to say they would vote for a tax increase to give the demonstrators what they want, such as access to education. 

Taken together, my results imply that protesters can enhance their odds of success by coordinating around a unified message. This strategy may clash with some activists’ preferences for “intersectional” messages that address the interests of multiple constituencies all at once. For example, Black Lives Matter spokespersons have sometimes argued that it is wrong to seek justice for Black Americans without simultaneously pursuing justice for women, trans people, and other marginalized communities. A compromise would be to voice specific demands sequentially, so that each protest event has a cohesive theme (and a decent shot at success) but every issue eventually has it moment in the spotlight. 

About the Author: Lisa Mueller is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Macalester College. Their research “Crowd Cohesion and Protest Outcomes” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.