How Protest Works – A Sociologist view on the Impact of Protest and Social Movements


October 23, 2017

“Do protests and social movements matter? Do they really bring about change?”

Every day, we can see tens, maybe hundreds of individuals and groups, fighting for their different causes, everywhere around the world. Their effort is not focussed on the fight itself, but is pointed towards social impact. Activist want to make a difference; they want to cause change where they can! But measuring this change, or the influence a movement has, is a tricky challange. Sociological conceptions of measuring impact can help us to learn about the structures of change, to analyse the movements we see around us, and in setting up our own.

Kenneth T. Andrews, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, studies the impact of movements. “When social scientists do uncover evidence of a movement’s influence, we have tended to focus on three main pathways by which movements gain power: cultural, disruptive and organizational,” according to Andrews.

Cultural influence refers to the power of movements to “shape public opinion, language and everyday behavior.” If a movement is able to introduce a new lingo, or spark a debate around a new concept or idea, this is one way to conceptualize influence. Then, a movement is said to be disruptive, when it has the power “make it more costly for people to support the status quo.” Finally, organizational power makes it possible to make a long term player out of a movement, by sustaining participants and their short term efforts.

On their own, Andrews argues, cultural, disruptive, and organizational influence are limited in their effect. Where the Occupy movement was able to spark a new conversation about “the 99 percent”- concept, their organizational and disruptive capacities were not able to translate these cultural gains into other kinds of lasting institutional changes. Therefore, movements that have managed to combine all three factors, can be said to have had a more influential and lasting impact, Andrews concludes.

Can we think of other examples of cultural, disruptive and organizational power? And what are the risks every of these forms of influence incorporate? Read the full opinion-article by Kenneth Andrews in NY-Times via this link.

Photograph: Marion Fayolle – New York Times