What Causes Social Unrest? Apparently, Everything

What causes people in large numbers to step outside their daily routines and gather in public to voice demands on issues that affect a group much larger than themselves?

If we’re to believe a recent article in Time on the protests bursting across Brazil, then the answer is, well, a lot of things. Here’s a list of all the “causes” of the recent Brazilian protests identified in the space of just a few hundred words:

  • Social inequality
  • World Cup spending
  • Police violence
  • A nine-cent rise in bus fares
  • Corruption
  • A lack of return on high taxes
  • Inadequate government spending on infrastructure, education, and health care
  • “The country’s dramatic rise on the world stage”
  • “The incapacity of traditional political representation to deal with the new and unheard of demands of a changing society”
  • Youth
  • Inflation

I don’t mean to pick on Time, which does a lot of solid international reporting, or on the authors of that particular piece. As Christian Davenport observes in a recent post on the blog Political Violence @ a Glance, press coverage of social unrest often gives us “a blow-by-blow account of the street battles taking place” without carefully connecting those events or their alleged causes to prior theory or empirical research. When comparisons are made, it’s usually by analogy, with strong bias toward cases that are recent, geographically proximate, and emotionally salient. As a result, “It all just seems to be new and eventful without much rhyme or reason.”


I realize that journalism isn’t rigorous social science, and it’s not supposed to be. Still, one of the intellectual dangers of laundry-list explanations is that they make it even easier to succumb to confirmation bias—that is, to pick through the list and pull out the items that support our prior beliefs. In the Time piece on Brazil alone, for example, there’s “evidence” to support many different and potentially competing hypotheses about causes of mass protest, from neo-Marxist claims about the centrality of economic inequality to socio-demographic theories emphasizing youth bulges and an expanding middle class to “homo economicus” models focused on price hikes and public spending.

We can’t learn a whole lot about the causes of mass protest by simply cataloging the conditions and things participants tell us about their motivations in cases where they occur. That information is useful, but not so much on its own.

To make real headway on causal analysis, we have to engage in contrasts. To learn about the origins of mass protest, for example, we need to compare cases where uprisings occur with ones where they don’t. Yes, income inequality is high in Brazil, but the same can be said for many of its regional neighbors. If inequality foments uprisings, why aren’t we seeing waves of mass protest in Honduras or Bolivia or Colombia or Paraguay? Meanwhile, inequality was comparatively low in many countries touched by the “Arab awakening.” According to World Bank data, income inequality is lower in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria than in virtually every country in Latin America. Together, these contrasts imply that high inequality is neither necessary nor sufficient for mass protest, but that’s probably not what you’d expect if you saw the Time headline proclaiming that “Social Inequality and World Cup Spending Fuel Mass Unrest.”

In general, laundry lists of concerns and plausible causes like the one proffered in that Time article can be useful as fodder for what Alex George and Andrew Bennett call “heuristic case studies,” which “inductively identify new variables, hypotheses, causal mechanisms, and causal paths.” What they most certainly don’t do is test theory. These analyses are the social-science equivalent of ambulance chasing. When we hear the noise of the crowd, we rush toward it, ask the participants why they’re angry, read their signs and banners, and try to spin a coherent story from what we see and hear. That’s fine as far as it goes—which, it turns out, isn’t very far.

PS. If you’re interested in my thoughts on what does cause mass protest, see this later post.

Leave a comment


  1. It always boils down to a lack of satisfaction with your standard of living. All the reasons given for riots are just triggers. Asking why one group riots and another doesn’t is like trying to figure out why one of your kids gets the flu and the other doesn’t.

  2. The claim made by Fabio Rojas a few years ago is that grievances don’t predict protest — but what does is how people construct those grievances and turn them into a movement/protest (http://orgtheory.wordpress.com/2009/04/02/most-important-social-movement-research-findings/).

    In social movements research, grievances were pretty much cast aside for a long while and attention was then paid more towards resource mobilization, political opportunity structures, and framing (or grievance construction). But grievances, I don’t think, were given a fair shake. Grievances change, but there are always mediating factors (full disclosure, this is basically my dissertation work).

    • Thanks for the pointer toward Fabio Rojas’ post, which I hadn’t seen.

      As it happens, I’m with you on the idea that a good general theory of social-movement emergence requires some attention to motive as well as opportunity. My dissertation applied ideas from social movement theory to the ethno-nationalist uprisings that occurred in the Baltic republics of the USSR in the Gorbachev years. To explain where those movements came from, I referred both to long-term trends that produced a well of frustrations (Soviet annexation, Russian immigration and subordination) and short-term shifts in opportunity structures (glasnost’ and perestroika) that created new space for mobilization around those frustrations. Without the former, it’s hard to understand why the Baltic republics were “early risers” in the wave of popular unrest that swept the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, but without the latter it’s hard to see how those uprisings would have coalesced when they did.

  3. Joseph Palacios

     /  June 20, 2013

    Interestingly this analysis is good at pointing out a variety of variables that are part of the curent Brazilian protests. But the author himself offers no theoretical perspective.

    I like the theoretical idea of “opportunity structures” from political science coupled with cultural dynamics inside the structures (an idea modeled on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of ‘habitus’). In the Brazilian case the opportunity structure/habitus is related to socio-cultural expectations arising from the inter-relationship between Olympic/World Cup economic development and the opportunity or lack of opportunity associated with rising expectations. The May GSR protests in Brazil are associated with individuals and groups who have or perceive lack of opportunity in the Olympic/World Cup economic development: they do not see themselves as actors with agency.

    I see a parallel with the Mexico City Olympics of 1968. Students and the working classes did not see themselves in the hype of the Mexican government that Mexico was entering the modern world. The disillusionment led to the 1968 revolt that had longterm repurcussions in Mexican socio-political life. How the Brazilian government handles small things in daily for most Brazilians, such as bus fares, is extremely important because the small things matter for most people. It’s something tangible they see everyday regarding their lack of opportunity in the current hype of Brazil being a leading nation with the Olympics/World Cup being the icing on a cake that is really a facade. Agency, then develops outside the official structures through social protest.

    That’s my theoretical perspective!

    • If by “the author” you mean me, then guilty as charged. I decided to stick to criticism and not to turn toward theory-building in this post because, well, it’s a blog post, not a dissertation or even a paper. To do justice to the positive side of the story would have required at least as many more words as I’d already written, and I generally try to keep my blog posts under a thousand words. In any case, I’m glad to have you offer an explanation of your own.

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