social movements, revolutions, narratives and positive feedback

Why does the emergence of a protest movement or revolutionary situation in one area seemingly lead to a domino effect in other countries or societies?

1. structuralist interpretations:
Traditional 'structuralist' social movement theories point to the central role of external circumstances and the break-down of structures [e.g. the state, the economy]. The 'political opportunities' thesis presumes that protesters are motivated to act because they interpret rationally the influence of these external structural factors. Their ability to resist is determined by these external forces too: e.g. the strength of the military or the weakness of the economy. [Goodwin and Jasper, 10]

2.  ruptures of structures as culture:
Other social movement theorists do not deny that structural dislocation is important in creating the conditions for protests to occur and for the potential of overturning or remodelling those structures. 'Ruptures spiral into transformative historical events when a sequence of interrelated ruptures disarticulates the previous structural network, makes repair difficult and makes an novel rearticulation possible'. [Sewell, 844] Structures, they argue, are influenced by culture, and can be constituted of culture. Historical events are cultural transformations. They are acts of signification that introduce new conceptions of what really exists, of what is good and what is possible. [Sewell, 861-2]

3. Narratives of success and optimism
Activists create and shape narratives about previous actions and successes to formulate potential supporters' ideas of what is possible. These narratives play an important part of this cultural transformation [Polletta].

4. emotion and positive feedback:
Sewell, Biggs and Polletta argue that participants in collective action need something else, other than a rational interpretation of external forces, to motivate them. Narratives are one influence. Another linked factor is 'positive feedback'.

Collective action often comes in waves, defined as a rapid increase in participation over days or weeks that takes not only the forces of authority but also the organisers of action by surprise. Optimism escalates with participation. What was unthinkable now seems inevitable. With the start of a wave of action, a threefold process of positive feedback occurs:
- the expected collective benefits increase;
- the expected individual and collective costs decrease;
- the moral obligation to participation increases.

Social movements catch on 'like a fever' or by emotions, a kind of contagious emotional excitement that Durkheim called 'collective effervescence' that lifts people out of their ordinary inhibitions and limitations [Sewell, 866]. A process of inspiration operates among and then between different groups:
- consideration of the possibility of collective action;
- the outcome is uncertain but raising expectation for success;
- success breeds higher hopes but failure lowers hopes.
 [Biggs, 224]

Revolutionary historical events therefore have these features [Sewell, 861-2]:
1. cultural transformations; [acts of signification; understood through narratives]
2. shaped by particular conditions;
3. characterised by heightened emotion [collective effervescence]
4. acts of collective creativity [ordinary routines of social life are overturned and power relations subverted]
5. punctuated by ritual [enables social constraints and hierarchies to momentarily evaporate and for celebrants to experience a profound sense of unity]
6. produce more events - a cascade of consequences;
7. rearticulations of structures gain authoritative sanction in the new regimes.

Francesca Polletta, It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics (Chicago, 2006)
J. Goodwin and J. M. Jasper, eds., Rethinking Social Movements: Structure, Meaning and Emotion (Oxford, 2004)
Michael Biggs, 'Positive Feedback in Collective Mobilisation: the American Strike Wave of 1866', Theory and Society, 32 (2003)
William Sewell, "Political Events as Structural Transformations: Inventing Revolution at the Bastille", Theory and Society, 25:6 (1996)


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