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Running Head: Why We Protest

Why We Protest: The Sociology behind Social Resistance Movements
Cydnie T Brown
Glen Allen High School

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Protesting has always been a large part of human existence. Some of the earliest humans
documented went against the grain and thought outside of the box. The French inhabitants grew
sick and tired of the power in France and decided to take it back. The Civil Rights Movement
fought for equal rights in America, and changed the course of American history. All of these
protests have a few things in common, but they all have one in particular. All of these
movements have the violence factor within them making them one of the most dangerous forms
of political participation. Even though there are so many different ways to change the
government, more and more millennials are finding the most effective way in protesting. What
would make these innocent young people want to risk everything for a cause they believe in?
Should citizens participate in political protests? Is protesting good or bad for the human psyche?
Emotional Connection
Politics—and especially politics of protest—are full of emotions. People are angry about
injustice, thrilled or fearful about the immigration into America, and indignant because they want
real democracy now. Emotions are filtered in two different ways within protesting. Protesters
have emotions connected to the issue and emotions connected to the group they identify with. In
2000, Yang Su studied the propensity for protest in the context of individuals’ alternative choices
in Urban China. Depending on the quality of social ties individuals may resort to one of two
alternatives: to engineer life-changing events through personal connections or to join others in

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labor protest. Yang (2000) found negative emotions, anger, outrage, shame and fear elicited by
interactions with opponents (in this case Chinese authorities), while positive emotions as joy,
compassion and pride were elicited in the interaction with other activists inside the movement
(600). Yang’s study provides evidence that emotions are connected in action of protesting and
that it is not just a snap decision. The study also exemplifies the group-based emotions, such as
anger or joy, consequently lead to collective behavior, which serves as the motivation to
participate in protest or even abstain from it.
Although people do not protest every day, protest activity can be quite a powerful
sometimes even transforming experience (Corrigall-Brown, 2012). Protest events offer a
possibility for social movements to create or strengthen emotional bonds between their adherents
and to establish or strengthen a collective identity (Eyerman, 2005) . Collective identities are
forged by solidarity. Solidarity forges bonds and a feeling of togetherness; together we are
stronger than the sum of our parts. Protesters who identify with others involved, share the feeling
of ‘we–ness’, ‘your problem, is my problem, is our problem’, thus evoking solidarity. Solidarity
is the bond between movement members that are likely to be strengthened by the shared
experiences leading to greater commitment to and solidarity within the group. For example,
hundreds of Ithaca College students walked out of class Wednesday April 6 th, 2016 to protest a
series of racially-charged incidents on campus. Caucasian student, Tyler Reighn said over the
megaphone, “Even though, I am not black, this is not about race… this is about justice and
respect. I may not know David, but this is my school and I can’t take this anymore.” Because of

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Reighn’s outcry this provides further evidence of the emotional connection Yang was alluding to.
Even though Reighn did not know the student his negative emotions connected with the school
as well as the wrongdoing of prejudice, encouraged him to reach out and take a stand. In terms of
action tendency, solidarity instigates a need to come together and stay close to each other . Social
movements aimed at affirmative action, foster feelings of solidarity amongst group members.
Social Identity Theory or SIT
In the 1970s, a social psychological identity perspective on protest emerged in the form
of social identity theory (Tajfel and Turner, 1979). The Social Identity Theory (SIT) suggests
that salient group memberships direct people’s attention to their collective (or social) as opposed
to their individual (or personal) identities, which then regulate their social behavior. Tajfel and
Turner (1979) showed that social categorization according to some trivial criterion such as the
‘blue’ or the ‘red’ group suffices to make people feel, think, and act as a group member. The most
common example of Tajfel and Turner’s theory is violence through gang activity. Gangs usually
express their collective identity through a name, language, and symbols unique to their gang
(Weiner, 1999). Members of a gang see themselves as a gang, and are proud of this identity and
anything they have to do to uphold this name (Maxson, Whitlock, and Klein, 1998). Weiner
(1999) asserts, “many gang members will shoot, rob, and kill to protect their ‘turf’, but will die
when it comes to protecting themselves.” Gang membership provides sufficient evidence to
suggest that collective action filters rebellious and dangerous behavior. Compared to this
‘minimal group paradigm’, real world intergroup conflicts with histories, high emotional
intensity attached to them and sociopolitical consequences can be seen as ‘maximal group

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paradigms’ that bring powerful group membership to mind (Van Stekelenburg et al., 2010). SIT
proposes that people generally strive for and benefit from positive social identities associated
with their groups. According to Tajfel (1979), the only way for participants in minimal group
studies to obtain a positive social identity is by identifying with the groups into which they are
categorized, and then ensuring that their group comes off best in the only available comparison
between the groups (i.e. giving more rewards to the in-group (us) than the out-group (them)).
Having a positive social group identification has been found to boost self- confidence as well as
the ability to make larger decisions. Carolyn Garcia, an original rider of the Magic Bus (a ride
that jump- started the Hippy Movement) commuted across the country full of LSD-fueled
teenagers, said “My parents didn’t like me much…no one really did… those people on that bus
gave me a home.” The activities that occurred on this bus, which included drugs and sex, was not
normal for teenagers in the 1960s. The bus was a huge caravan that revealed to all states what
these teenagers were about: freedom. Because of this bus ride more people became public about
their beliefs striking up the Hippie movement. These teenagers needed a home and needed a
place to belong since they were so different from their parents. This movement encouraged less
self and more group by the strong ideologies occurring in the group dynamic. The addition of the
Social Identity Theory can influence participation in protests in people who are searching for a
place of belonging and their purpose in life.
Level of Injustice
The level of injustice refers to the morality of the issue at hand whether it’s abortion,
women’s rights, or gun rights. In order for social movements to successfully mobilize
individuals, they must develop an injustice frame (Klandermans, 2004). Gamson’s (1992) work

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on political language suggests that for social movement to gain adherents, the actions of
individuals and social groups must be interpreted in such a way as to spur contention In
particular, Gamson argues, potential movement participants are more likely to mobilize if they
adopt and “injustice frame”. An injustice frame is a collection of ideas and symbols that illustrate
both how significant the problem is as well as what the movement can do. The crystallization of
an injustice frame “requires a consciousness of motivated human actors who carry some of the
onus for bringing about harm and suffering” (29). Based on peer-group interviews of members of
working class Boston communities, Gamson found evidence for the existence and effects of
injustice frames. First, he argued for a strong overall relationship between injustice frames in
media discourse and popular discourse, on issues ranging from affirmative action to nuclear
power (58). Second, participants in the peer group conversations who adopted an injustice frame
were more likely to adopt an “adversarial frame” specifying “a clearly defined them” who are
perpetrators of unjust social actions (112). Third, the adoption of an injustice frame was strongly
associated with support for remedial collective action. Thus this theoretical approach, and the
empirical evidence for the effects of the framing of social action, suggests that members of
collective action coalitions are more likely to violently participate when they have found
themselves in a group and found a common unjust action to stand up against.
In emphasizing the injustice frame, culture theory also addresses the free-rider problem.
The free-rider problem refers to the idea that people will not be motivated to participate in a
social movement that will use up their personal resources (e.g., time, money, etc.) if they can still
receive the benefits without participating. In other words, if person X knows that movement Y is
working to improve environmental conditions in his neighborhood, he is presented with a choice:
join or not join the movement (Ryan, 2006). If he believes the movement will succeed without

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him, he can avoid participation in the movement, save his resources, and still reap the benefits this is free-riding. A significant problem for social movement theory has been to explain why
people join movements if they believe the movement can/will succeed without their contribution.
Culture theory argues that, in conjunction with social networks being an important contact tool,
the injustice frame will provide the motivation for people to contribute to the movement (Ryan,
Identity Impacts of Protests
In exploring the impact of the uprising on bystanders’ identity formation, theoretical
constructs exploring the role of the individual identity in relation to regional or community
identity are particularly valuable. In this section, I will outline how theories of national unity,
stereotype threat, and communities of meaning can illuminate the complexity of identity
formation and contribute to understanding of how the uprising impacted bystanders. Etienne
Balibar persuasively posits that an “’imaginary unity’ has to be instituted in real [historical] time
against other possible unities” (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991, p. 46). A nation is composed of
both the institutional and the imaginary: the political that regulates the judicial and territorial
boundaries, and the cultural that defines origins and continuities, affiliations and belonging (Li,
1998, p. 7). Culture disseminates the sense of the nation as an “imagined community”
(Anderson, 1983), and the stakeholders engage in “cultural wars” (Graff, 1992) with their
activated identities. In addition to the role that national-level forces play in identity formation,
identities are also shaped by forces at the community level. In her illuminating study, Learning
from Experience, Moya defined identities as the non-essential and evolving products that emerge
from the dialectic between how subjects of consciousness identify themselves and how they are
identified by others (Moya, 2002). Identities are “socially significant and context-specific

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ideological constructs that nevertheless refer in non-arbitrary (if partial) ways to verifiable
aspects of the social world” (Moya, 2002, p. 86). Moya further argues that identities, which are
“indexed to a historical time, place, and situation” (Moya, 2009, p. 48) are both constructed and
real: Identities are constructed because they are based on interpreted experience and ways of
knowing that explain the ever-changing social world. They are also real because they refer
outward to causally significant features of the world. Moreover, because identities refer
(sometimes in partial and inaccurate ways) to the changing Identity 11 but relatively stable
contexts from which they emerge, they are neither self-evident and immutable nor radically
unstable and arbitrary. Identities, in sum, are causally significant ideological constructs and
become intelligible within specific historical and material contexts (Moya, 2009, p. 115,
emphasis original). Moya argues that identities are the intersection between inscriptive and
subjective identity where “learning from experience” occurs (Moya, 2009, p. 46). Thus, identities
are “ways of making sense of our experiences” (Mohanty, 1997, p. 216). Studies have also
documented the existence of “communities of meaning,” a shared element of knowledge-making
that congregates individuals into intellectual, identity-based affinity groups and provide sources
of identity for community members (Sanchez-Casal and Macdonald, 2009, p. 36). Sanchez,
Casal, and Macdonald note,
Communities of meaning are formed anytime a group of students generates common
perspectives about the world from similar social locations—perspectives that can be
either more or less accurate, thus communities of meaning have no intrinsic subversive
character. . . . Communities of meaning support students in exposing and critiquing
underlying assumptions (theories) about the world that exclude subjugated perspectives,
and in opposing hegemonic knowledge; in this way communities of meaning equip

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students with potentially subversive epistemic tools as they highlight not only the situated
character of knowledge-making, but the inherently collective process of determining the
truth (Sanchez-Casal & Macdonald, 2009, p. 25–27).
In this sense, communities of meaning represent the activation of collective thinking that
empowers the intellectual production by members of minority groups through engaging actively
in communal struggles for truth and justice, and opens a space for them to produce collective
knowledge about what the world is, and what it should be. Drawing from studies of the
multicultural and multiethnic United States, Sanchez-Casal and Macdonald (2009) praise
communities of meaning as democratizing and liberating:
The moral aspect of these intellectual affinity groups supports students of color as they
work collectively – based on an awareness of identity based experiences, knowledge and
interests – to establish normative claims about our shared social world; so in addition to
creating more reliable and inclusive knowledge about how our world is structured,
communities of meaning can simultaneously promote political coalition aimed at
constructing a racially democratic future. . . . Thus, communities of meaning function as
epistemic, moral, and political affinity groups that empower students of color to think
collectively about how to transform our unjust society (Sanchez-Casal & Macdonald, p.
However, negative social forces can also play a role in identity formation. Among the
many forces acting on identity formation is what Steel has defined as “stereotype threat.”
Specifically, Steel describes stereotype threat as a particular kind of identity contingency which
results from identities that are socially “stigmatized” in significant ways (Steel, 2004, pp. 38–40;
Steel, Spencer, & Aronson 2002, pp. 379–440). Steel and his colleagues argue, “When a negative

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stereotype about a group that one is part of becomes personally relevant, usually as an
interpretation of one’s behavior or an experience one is having, stereotype threat is the resulting
sense that one can then be judged or treated in terms of the stereotype or that one might do
something that would inadvertently confirm it” (Steel, Spencer, & Aronson 2002, p. 389).
Stereotypes thus have the effect of altering the course of an individual’s future by producing
anxiety and affecting performance. Five-eighteen was a moment of tremendous historical
significance for Korea and its citizens. During this moment, new identities were forged through
collective protest. At the same time, old identities forged in reaction to discrimination and
stereotypes were reaffirmed.

Should We Protest?
Some wouldn’t dare to risk their lives in order to participate in a protest. In order to
answer the essential question, of why most people protest, several historical movements and
participants will be used as examples. The emotional connection to an issue represents the ties
one feels to what the movement is about. According to Professor Brian Daugherity of Virginia
Commonwealth University (personal communication, Apr. 1, 2016), Martin Luther King Jr.
himself was a victim of racial discrimination as a child, and witnessed several occasions of his
family, because of the color of their skin, being discriminated against. Daugherity states that his
family, the love he had for them, and the unjust nature of discrimination ultimately caused Dr.
King Jr. to become involved in politics (Daugherity, 2016). Protesting because of other people,

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like Dr. King Jr., creates a community based society that could provide a greater nation filled
with camaraderie and brotherhood that can create a united front and help get more things done.
The Social Identity theory suggests that people should protest in order to get people to
that point of belonging that every human being needs to have a sense of fulfilment. Tajfel (1979)
proposed that the groups which people belonged to were an importance source of pride and selfesteem. Groups give people their feeling of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social
world. This is essential to the human confidence level that is directly depression. A sense of
belonging can lead to fulfilment which is the ultimate human goal to feel like they have done
everything in their power to do something and make their mark on the world. Tajfel’s (1979)
conclusion of the Social Identity Theory and its connection to protest has a positive view of
protesting and a negative one. One would like to protest because it is fulfilling to the person, but
diluting to another person. The in-group (us) and out-group (them) dynamic can cause
discrimination amongst groups like the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. The Hutus and Tutsis in
Rwanda have a negative in-group and out-group dynamic because even though they are in the
same place and are fighting for the same things, the discrimination that lies within the group
makes for a violent outcry of grouping. Even though this is a negative view of protests, the
bigger protests have this problem and are usually unsuccessful. The small, successful protests
don’t have this dynamic causing their protests to boost self-esteem which is good and should
encourage more people to protest.

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In conclusion, the urge to protest does not come from a place of impulse, but rather a
place of psychological weakness. People of different backgrounds and phases of life come
together in order to make the things they feel are wrong, right. They do this based upon their
connection to the people around them and the issue at hand, the way they feel about themselves
in a social manner (who they think they are and what people think about them), and how
wronged they feel they have been. Protesting has become one of the largest forms of political
action and it should be taken into consideration as the country’s leading danger as well; however,
through these protests self- confidence is boosted and so is American moral.
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