Political Science Cycles of Protest
Paul Almeida
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0086


Cycles of protest occur when multiple social movements or social groups engage in sustained protest clustered in time and span across a wide geographical boundary (e.g., national scale) During cycles of protest, many sectors of society participate (e.g., students, public employees, industrial workers, farmers, etc.) and employ increasingly confrontational tactics. Thus a cycle of protest is a rapid expansion of social movement action in geographical scale, diversity of social groups participating, and amount of disruptive activity. Scholars also interchange the concept of a cycle of protest with “protest cycles” and “protest waves.” Such waves are examined in a variety of contexts including advanced capitalist industrialized democracies, repressive regimes, lesser developed countries, and earlier historical settings. Protest cycle research focuses on the emergence of protest waves, internal dynamics and diffusion within a cycle, and the political and cultural outcomes left in the aftermath of such large-scale contention.

Seminal Works

Tarrow 1989 states, “Protest becomes a protest cycle when it is diffused to several sectors of the population, is highly organized, and is widely used as the instrument to put forward demands” (pp. 14–15). Examples of such cycles range from peasant protest in 18th- and 19th-century Asia (Hung 2011); to protest waves between the 1960s and 1980s in Japan (Broadbent 1998), Italy (Tarrow 1989), and the United States (McAdam 1995); to nationalist dissent in the former Soviet Union (Beissinger 2001), eastern Europe from 1989 to 1991, Latin American anti-neoliberalism in the early 2000s (Silva 2009), and the Arab Spring of 2011–2012. The leading theoretician of protest cycles, Sidney Tarrow, hypothesizes that cycles of protest have a parabolic pattern. That is, political institutions open and resources expand in such a way that encourage protest activity to increase for one or a few social movements, such as student movements in universities, and quickly spread to other groups (such as industrial workers, the church, and public employees) by providing them with new occasions to act and highlighting the vulnerability of particular state and economic agencies and political elites. The scale of protest peaks with new interpretive frames, tactical innovation, and diffusion to new groups. Over time, protest eventually descends through a mixture of institutionalization, government reform, state repression, and/or participant exhaustion. More recent research examines situations in which a protest cycle radicalizes into a revolutionary movement as well as sophisticated network (Osa 2003) and quantitative analyses (Beissinger 2001) of protest events and organizations within the cycle of contention. This annotated bibliography considers the literature on the theory of protest cycles, case studies of a variety of democratic and nondemocratic contexts in the global North and South, and methods for studying cycles of protest.

  • Beissinger, Mark. Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State: A Tidal Approach to the Study of Nationalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    A sophisticated quantitative study of nearly two dozen mobilized ethnic groups in the final years of the Soviet Union. The book incorporates cultural variables as well as precise indicators of the timing of repression and its impact on nationalist mobilization.

  • Broadbent, Jeffrey. Environmental Politics in Japan: Networks of Power and Protest. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511571060

    Analysis of the environmental protest wave in Japan between the 1960s and 1980s—the largest wave of pollution-based collective action in advanced industrialized democracies.

  • Hung, Ho-Fung. Protest with Chinese Characteristics: Demonstrations, Riots, and Petitions in the Mid-Qing Dynasty. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

    Hung finds that the dominant pattern of economic and political modernization replacing local-reactive protest with national and proactive protest has taken a different shape in China. He focuses analytical attention on three subperiods within the mid-Qing Dynasty (1740–1839) whereby the emperors face varying levels of economic growth, state centralization, and moral legitimacy. These subperiods are then associated with three distinct protest waves in terms of the repertoires employed by the popular classes.

  • McAdam, Doug. “‘Initiator’ and ‘Spinoff Movements’: Diffusion Processes in Protest Cycles.” In Repertoires and Cycles of Collective Action. Edited by M. Traugott, 217–239. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.

    The chapter offers an explanation of diffusion processes between movements within a protest cycle with examples from the 1960s wave of protest in the United States. Successful initiator movements occurring early in the protest cycle are emulated by other challengers later in the cycle that share network ties and attribute similar conditions.

  • Osa, Maryjane. Solidarity and Contention: Networks of Polish Opposition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

    A sophisticated network analysis of how a protest cycle builds up over decades by connecting key groups of oppositional forces and organizations. A first-rate analysis of the development of the Polish Solidarity worker movement from a unique database of individual activist and organizational network ties and protest events.

  • Silva, Eduardo. Challenging Neoliberalism in Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511803222

    The premier work on the South American cycle of protest against neoliberalism between the 1990s and mid-2000s. Silva provides a neo-Polanyian model to interpret multisectoral contention in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. An excellent overview of the cross-national variation in reform outcomes in response to the protest waves.

  • Tarrow, Sidney. Democracy and Disorder: Protest and Politics in Italy, 1965–1975. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

    The monograph offers the first systematic empirical and conceptual account of protest cycles. This canonical work outlines the emergence of the protest wave to its spreading to multiple groups to decline via radicalization, satisfaction of demands, exhaustion, and repression. Tarrow collected a database of nearly 5,000 protest events in Italy and provided a coding protocol modeled by a new generation of protest cycle scholars following his path-breaking study.

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