In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Protest

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Social Movement Theory
  • Media and Protest Overviews
  • Case Studies
  • Alternative Media

Communication Social Protest
Luis Loya, Doug McLeod
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0005


Social protest is a form of political expression that seeks to bring about social or political change by influencing the knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors of the public or the policies of an organization or institution. Protests often take the form of overt public displays, demonstrations, and civil disobedience, but may also include covert activities such as petitions, boycotts/buycotts, lobbying, and various online activities. Protest activities motivated by both individual rewards (including a variety of personal benefits and gratifications) and collective incentives (benefits that are realized by a large class of individuals that does not necessarily include all individual protesters). Most protests represent the collective interests and issues of activist groups, coalitions, or social movements that challenge mainstream institutions. In the process, they serve a number of important democratic functions, including providing opportunities for participation and expression for individuals, and as a potential engine of social change for communities and nations. Communication is central to the success of a protest group by facilitating information exchange, mobilization, coordination, integration, identity formation, and many other essential functions. Researchers from communication, political science, and sociology fields contributed to this literature and investigated a variety of types of protests—antiwar, environmental, racial, civil rights, and gender to name a few. Research examines the content of news coverage of social protest, as well as its antecedents and consequences. Research on protest news content is a lot more plentiful than research on the effects of such content. Such research not only has revealed the limits of traditional mass media coverage, but also offers hope in the form of optimism regarding the benefits of new digital communication technologies. In the ten years since this article was originally published, communication research continues to explore diverse social protest contexts and emphasizes the impact of social media even more than before. While researchers share common theoretical backgrounds in classic social movement research, the rapidly evolving media landscape invites discussion on the ability of classic theories to adequately explain highly mediated contemporary protests. For example, protest coverage may be shifting away from episodic framing to thematic framing as news analysis and opinion-laden journalism supplant traditional hard news forms. The ascendance of partisan media and the emergence of social media bots may be increasing public susceptibility to misinformation and manipulation. Finally, protests in the modern age are more chaotic, less predictable, and increasingly global. At the time of writing, protests are occurring all around the world in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the police killing of George Floyd, suggesting the potential for social protest to sway public perceptions and effect significant social change. Given the unprecedented frequency and scale of social protests around the globe and the rapid evolution of media systems in the digital age, theory and research on media and social protest may look very different over the course of the next decade.

General Overviews

Most of the theory and research on social protest comes from the field of sociology, which has a long tradition of interest in social conflict and social change that puts social movements and protest at the forefront of sociological research. Protests are the result of actions by individuals, groups, organizations, coalitions, and movements seeking to change or prevent change in institutional policy (including the policies of government, corporations, religious organizations, etc.). Gamson 1990, Klandermans 1997, and Lipsky 1968 are all classic books that provide theoretical frameworks for studying social protest and its impact on society.

  • Gamson, William A. 1990. The strategy of social protest. 2d ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    This classic book lays out a theory of factors related to the success of social protests. The nature of the protest group’s goals, its organizational structure, tactics, and the social context for the protest are among the key factors identified.

  • Klandermans, Bert. 1997. The social psychology of protest. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    This book provides a theoretical framework on how social movements form and generate a mobilized membership, ready to engage in acts of public protest. Its theoretical framework is illustrated with examples from the women’s movement and right-wing extremist groups.

  • Lipsky, Michael. 1968. Protest as a political resource. American Political Science Review 62.4: 1144–1158.

    DOI: 10.2307/1953909

    This article lays out a model for conceptualizing social protest as a political resource. It identifies several areas for research on social protest, including the nature of strategies (including media strategies) of protest groups to address four constituencies: movement members, the public, relevant third parties, and the organizations they are seeking to change.

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