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
Doug McLeod
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • 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. Protesters engage in 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 the individual protester). 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, whether mass or interpersonal, is a central element in the success of a protest group by facilitating information exchange, mobilization, coordination, integration, identity formation, and many other essential functions. Given the importance of protest to democracies and the importance of communication to protest groups, it is not surprising that social science researchers have become interested in the relationship between media and social protest. This research derives from the fields of communication, political science, and sociology, and a wide variety of journals publish this research. While researchers in these fields share many common interests, they don’t always do a great job of speaking or listening to each other. In fact, in looking at the literature and citation patterns, it would seem that researchers do a better job of communicating across international borders than across disciplinary boundaries. Indeed, research found in this bibliography was conducted in the United States, Britain, Australia, Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Spain. This research has 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. Research in this area reveals the limits of traditional mass media coverage but offers hope in the form of optimism regarding the benefits of new digital communication technologies. In fact, much of the most recent research on media and social protest focuses on the influence of new technologies.

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.

    E-mail Citation »

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

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

    E-mail Citation »

    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 62:1144–1158.

    DOI: 10.2307/1953909E-mail Citation »

    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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