Preferences for the Scope of Protests

Published date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(2) 288 –301
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912920905001
Research concerned with the political impact of protests
has mainly studied two core dimensions of protest: its
incidence/ size, and to a lesser extent, the use of peaceful
versus violent tactics. A dimension of protest largely
overlooked in the literature is protest scope, that is,
whether protests seek large, structural, changes for a large
share of the population (e.g., regime change) or focus on
small improvements for small groups (e.g., paving a
slum). Yet, this dimension is bound to be important for
protest impact. Protests targeting systemic change, such
as those toppling Arab autocrats in 2010/2011 or those
trying to bring independence to Catalonia in 2017, have
very different political consequences than localized, nar-
row protests focusing on the corruption of a ward coun-
cilor, bad health care in a specific district, or property
rights for shacks in a slum.
This paper focuses on the demand side of protest scope
and asks, what drives preferences for protest scope? The
scope of protests obviously depends on supply factors,
such as the calculations of movement elites and their
decisions on how to frame protest narratives. However,
the demand side is likely to be crucial as well: previous
research demonstrates that protest narratives offered by
elites have little impact unless they resonate with peo-
ple’s preferences and interpretations (Benford and Snow
2000). In the words of Klandermans (2008), effective
“mobilization brings a demand for political protest that
exists in a society together with a supply of opportunities
to take part in such protest.” Thus, understanding indi-
viduals’ preferences for narrow versus broad protests can
help us explain (1) why protest movements that advocate
for a similar scope of change sometimes succeed in mobi-
lizing the population and sometimes not or (2) why under
certain conditions social movements with broad (narrow)
demands are more successful in attracting followers than
movements with narrow (broad) demands.
We define protest scope with reference to previous lit-
erature along two dimensions, intensity (how much
change is sought) and extensiveness (how many people
would be affected by the change). We define a protest to
be of broad scope if the change sought is intense and
extensive. Building on previous research on protest
occurrence and strategies, we suggest a simple theoretical
framework for the analysis of protest scope. While we
acknowledge that the nature of underlying grievances or
the identity of protesters is likely to influence the demand
side of protest scope, we focus in this paper on the role of
people’s sense of efficacy. Specifically, we argue that
efficacy is a crucial determinant of the demand-side of
905001PRQXXX10.1177/1065912920905001Political Research QuarterlyPellicer et al.
1Maynooth University, Ireland
2University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany
3University College Dublin, Ireland
4Osnabrück University, Germany
Corresponding Author:
Eva Wegner, University College Dublin, Newman Building, F305,
Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
Preferences for the Scope of Protests
Miquel Pellicer1,2, Eva Wegner3,
and Alexander De Juan4
This paper studies a dimension of protest largely overlooked in the literature: protest scope, that is, whether protests
seek large, structural, changes for a large share of the population or focus on small-scale improvements for small
groups. We argue that this protest dimension is relevant for understanding the political consequences of protests.
We show empirically that protests vary substantially in scope and that scope is not collinear with other protest
dimensions, such as size, motive, or tactics. We explore drivers of individual preferences for protest scope with a
survey experiment in two South African townships. We find that respondents made to feel more efficacious tend to
support protests of broader scope. This effect operates via a social psychology channel whereby efficacy leads people
to assign blame for their problems to more systemic causes.
protest, efficacy, South Africa

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