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.

What a China Corruption Story Says About the Perils of Authoritarian Corruption in the Modern Global Economy

Yesterday, the New York Times dropped a bombshell of investigative journalism on the Chinese Communist Party, reporting that the family of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has amassed something like $2.7 billion in wealth in recent years, mostly through insider dealings. That a top Party official has profited from his position of authority is hardly surprising—“Man who is shocked at Wen Jiabao family fortune discovered in Chinese village,” the Onion-style China Daily Show headline blared—but the scale of the family’s fortune and the speed of its accumulation is breathtaking.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government promptly blocked access to English- and Chinese-language versions of the New York Times web site and mention of the newspaper on Sina Weibo, China’s über-popular micro-blogging service. The article happened to drop in the middle of delicate transition period in China’s political leadership, and what it suggests about the state of that country’s political economy isn’t pretty. As the Times piece dryly noted,

Untangling [the Wen family’s] financial holdings provides an unusually detailed look at how politically connected people have profited from being at the intersection of government and business as state influence and private wealth converge in China’s fast-growing economy.

I’m not a China pro, but I am interested in forces that drive the persistence and collapse of authoritarian regimes. For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of this story is what it suggests about change over time in the difficulty of concealing the patronage and rent-seeking that typically underpin the political economy of authoritarian rule. NYT reporter David Barboza was able to piece together this remarkable picture of the Wen family’s wealth by reviewing corporate and regulatory records in the public domain. I’m sure the trail wasn’t easy to follow, but it was at least possible because the entities involved operate in a global marketplace that demands a certain degree of transparency. These wheelings and dealings are the currency that buys loyalty in many autocracies, but they are rarely laid so bare.

What Barboza’s story underscores for me is the Faustian bargain the Chinese Communist Party has made with the global economy. In exchange for foreign capital and hungry markets and safe harbors for Chinese wealth, China would play by rules that could gradually erode the opacity on which the authority of its political class depends. Among other things, it would produce and file the kinds of records that made the story on the Wen family’s wealth possible.

Importantly, Barboza’s story is not unique. We’ve seen similar stories from other authoritarian regimes in recent years. In May, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Khadija Ismayilova described how Azerbaijan’s “first family” had profited handsomely from a $134-million construction project related to the Eurovision contest that country hosted this summer—revelations made possible, in part, because of anti-corruption law Azerbaijan adopted in 2004 to help attract badly needed foreign capital. The 2011 revolution in Tunisia that marked the start of the so-called Arab Spring was apparently sparked, in part, by public furor over U.S. government cables detailing the craven corruption of President Ben Ali’s family—cables that were pushed into the public domain by Wikileaks.

I don’t mean to suggest that globalization and the Internet and all things new and shiny have made it impossible to sustain authoritarian rule. The roster of dictatorships that persist in the face of revelations like these—Azerbaijan, Zimbabwe, and Equatorial Guinea, to name just a few of the most obvious cases—proves otherwise. I do think, however, that these entanglements are marginally increasing pressures on these regimes that can hasten their demise. As Barboza’s story about the Wen family illustrates, this Faustian bargain has worked out quite nicely for many authoritarian elites so far, but Mephistopheles’ powers of concealment do seem to be weakening. And this, among many other things, may help to explain the recent acceleration of the long global trend toward more democratic government.

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