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Sociology of Shock Protests


The attack on the Capitol was appalling.

It was new.

It was shocking.

You would not think sociology has anything to say about appalling, new, shocking things … because they are new. If supposedly sociology is a science, then it makes generalizations based on data – what has gone before. Something that is new should leave social scientists completely flat-footed.

Except that historical sociologists have been studying protests going all the way back to the French Revolution. We do not have complete coverage. (A lot more could be done with, say, the struggles in India for independence, organized action by American Indians to resist incursions by settlers, or right-to-life/right-to-abortion protests.) But we know a lot - particularly about strikes and mass demonstrations in Europe and the United States since 1789.

One thing we know that is highly relevant to the assault on our nation’s capitol:

When a New Form of Protest Emerges, It Comes as a Wave. The First Big Explosive Incident Generates a Subsequent Series of Me-Too Protests.

We also know that

What Stops the Wave is a Big Messy Defeat.

This is Particularly the Case If the Government Resists in Force, Leading to Arrests and Dramatic Casualties.

Charles Tilly, one of the leading analysts of historical protests, argued that whether or not protests occur depends on if the protesters were strong enough to win. Protesting always carries with it the risk of loss. In a tolerant society, it just means protesters risk wasting a day or a week of their time standing in a public square carrying a sign. In a less tolerant society, strikers and protesters get fired from their jobs. In even less tolerant societies, they can be shot by troops, tear-gassed, beaten in the streets, or taken to dark locations to be tortured. Because the dangers of protesting are very real, people only go out on the streets when the odds of getting what they want are pretty good.

(There is a special case, when peer pressure and strong social networks get reluctant people out to protest even when the odds of winning don’t look great. But even here, this happens more often when the risk is just an afternoon of accomplishing little while marching with your friends – and less often when you or your friends are going to die.)

For Tilly, a big factor facilitating protest was government friendliness to the protesters. He demonstrated in a long series of analyses of protests in historical France and England that government crackdowns reduced protest activity. Government officials allying with the protesters raised protest activity. Government chaos with different factions arguing among themselves really increased protest activity. Protesters thought that if they could make a big enough noise, they could get the government to fall.

Hmmm …. Government figures allying with protesters encourages protests. Government chaos with different factions arguing increases protest activity. Hope that a government is about to fall increases protest activity. Do you think there might be some relevance to the assault on the Capitol?

Tilly argued that protesters have a “repertoire”. They have a limited number of tactics that they go to again and again. In the Renaissance, there was a tactic called a “charivari”. This was used by young men, if some rich old guy wanted to marry a beautiful young girl from their cohort – taking her off the market for everyone else. All the young men would show up in front of the old guy’s house at night and bang pots and pans while singing raucous songs – keeping the old man awake and also disturbing the neighbors. The plan was for nobody to get any rest until the old guy found a bride more suitable for his age. There were no strikes. There were no demonstrations on political issues. Tilly argued that these tactics had to be “discovered”. Once they were discovered and shown to work, lots of people adopted them quickly.

Waves of protests often occur when someone makes an innovation that is found to work, and everyone else has to try it for themselves. An example from American history: In the 1930’s, a new form of strike tactic was developed – the sit-down strike. Previously strikes had been all about getting 100% of the workers to leave work. They then prevented anyone else from taking their place to do their jobs. When it worked, the employer would be starved for labor and would have to settle on the workers’ terms.

As long as the union could get 100% of the workers out, they could beat the boss. But as factories got bigger and bigger, it became harder to get 100% out when 100% meant having to organize 800, 3,000 or 8,000 workers.

But everything changed after the invention of the sitdown strike in the 1930’s. The new factories all had assembly lines. If you could have ten of twenty workers at the very end of the assembly line sit down and refuse to move, you could paralyze the entire assembly line. Everyone else would have to stop work because nothing was moving.

Sit-down strikes exploded through the United States in the 1930’s. Workers in automobiles, in steel factories, in rubber factories, in meatpacking plants, all had to try the new tactic. They all tried the tactic. They all won. There was a strike wave that lasted throughout the 1930’s. It only ended with World War II, when the government told the factories to pay workers superhigh wages in order to make sure that work stoppages would not disrupt the war effort.

I have done work on this topic myself with a partner, Carol Conell. We looked at coal mining strikes in France. Some of these could be radical affairs, demanding that all managers be fired, or that the French Government resign en masse, or that workers have their wages quintupled. Here the question was not “inventing the strike”. Coal miners knew how to strike. The question was “Is this a good time to strike now?”.

Strikes occurred in great big giant waves. Copycat-ism was the rule rather than the exception. For five or ten year periods, no one would do anything even mildly disruptive. Then one set of coal miners would go out on strike and win. Suddenly everyone else in the industry was going out on strike to get the same victory the first miners got.

What stopped the waves? A big loss. As soon as there was a major worker’s defeat, coal miners didn’t want to go on strike any more. There would be a long period of national quiescence until someone else would experiment with trying a strike and win. Then there would be another big strike wave.

Note that government use of force against protesters reduces protest. However, it is not a foolproof 100% guaranteed tactic. Most revolutions have an early phase where the government is arresting, beating and killing every protester they can find. When it doesn’t work, the old regime has a real problem.

Still, consider that Germany had a very high strike rate before the rise of the Nazis. Italy had a very high strike rate post World War I. The coming to power of Hitler and Mussolini reduced the strike rate in both countries to near zero.

There was a second reason strike rates were so high in the United States in the 1930’s. In earlier periods, conservative governors frequently brought out the National Guard against strikers. Under Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, official government policy was that unions were good, and that repression was not to be used against strikers. The strike rate soared.

So where does all this put the assault on the Capitol?

The assault on the Capitol was a new and innovative protest technique. All indicators are that the extreme conservatives who participated in the event, viewed the assault as a tremendous success. They did not prevent Biden from becoming President. However, nothing bad happened from the point of view of the invaders – save for one of their own who was killed. The overwhelming majority returned home comfortably, making the odds of having participated in a penalty-free protest fairly high.

To be sure, arrests and firings are occurring in the wake of the assault. This is likely to reduce future activity. But as of this writing there is substantial talk of me-too protests at various state capitols. The State of Washington has already seen such events.

Everything is going to depend on what happens in the next wave of mobilizations. Conspicuous failure and conspicuous repression can bring assaults on state capitols to an end. Being able to breach the perimeter, make mayhem and be praised by one’s political allies after one has gone home comfortably will not count as a conspicuous failure.

One is not going to be able to stop these protests with hostile public opinion. Many of the protesters are in tight social networks that are isolated from people whose opinion contradicts them. Reducing social media access is nuisance-some. However, social media channels rebuild quickly. Firing can be effective, because many of the protesters hold high-paying jobs that would be hard to replace. Arrests and legal sanctions are the strongest disincentive.

Note that the sociological literature on social movements has one additional argument that identifies a counter-dynamic to arrests eliminating protest activity.

Protests Can Survive State Repression If They Are Backed Up By Strong Organizations and Social Networks That Give Support To Protesters Under Conditions of Duress.

The obvious example of this is Black Lives Matter protesters – who enjoy significant support from their communities, from civil rights organizations, from local churches, from local Black politicians and from sympathetic allies on the left. So, the effect of police harassment has been blunted by legal support, favorable media attention, and personal assistance to particular protesters.

The same thing could occur among the “Redo the Stolen Election” crowd. If there is comparable support from their communities, from conservative organizations, from local churches, from local Republican politicians and from sympathetic allies on the right, then even arrested protesters could hold out for a while.

If this happens, America could be in for a long fight.

For More Information

Many of the arguments presented here are from the “Resource Mobilization” theory of social movements and mobilization. Charles Tilly is the most famous proponent of this position. His two most famous books on the subject are From Mobilization to Revolution. (Random House, 1988) and Strikes in France 1830-1968 written with Edward Shorter (Cambridge 1974).

Paul Almeida’s Social Movements: Structure of Collective Mobilization (California, 2019) covers an even broader range of theories.

My own work on French strike waves can be found in “Learning From Other People’s Actions: Environmental Variation and Diffusion in French Coal Mining Strikes 1890-1935” in the 1995 American Journal of Sociology.

Most American labor histories have good accounts of the sit-down strikes of the 1930’s. A perfectly good labor history is Nelson Lichtenstein’s State of the Union: Century of American Labor. (Princeton, 2003.)

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