The dynamics of collective protest

Membership of the Knights of LaborMy research has examined the volatility of collective protest: why a mass movement can emerge suddenly, appear powerful, and yet collapse quickly. The strike wave which swept American cities in 1886 was the subject of my dissertation. Using historical evidence and quantitative data, it investigated the movement's trajectory in Chicago. This trajectory is not explained by conventional exogenous factors, like political opportunities. My contribution is to unravel the endogenous mechanisms which generated the upsurge in protest, through a process of positive feedback—and likewise the countervailing mechanisms which eventually caused the movement to collapse. From this project, Positive Feedback in Collective Mobilization (Theory and Society, vol. 32, 2003) explains why workers came to believe that concerted strikes could succeed. As each new group of workers became hopeful enough to organize, the fact of their organization inspired other groups to follow suit. Strikes as Sequences of Interaction (Social Science History, vol. 26, 2002) analyses the mass strikes of May 1886. It emphasizes how employers offered concessions only to revoke them some months later, forcing workers to either strike at an inopportune moment or surrender. Strikes as Forest Fires (American Journal of Sociology, vol. 111, 2005) draws on recent work by natural scientists, and applies a 'forest fire' model to collective protest. This predicts a power-law distribution of event sizes, which is confirmed for strikes in the 1880s. I am working on a book manuscript which provides a comprehensive explanation of this particular episode of collective protest, interwoven with a broader theoretical argument about processes of rapid change. (A Century of American Exceptionalism appears in Thesis 11, no. 68, 2002.)

To explore these processes in a different context, I have collaborated with Kenneth T. Andrews (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) to investigate the eruption of sit-ins against racial segregation in the American South in 1960. Sociologists have long argued over whether this wave was spontaneous or organized, relying on case studies of a handful of cities with sit-ins—thus selecting on the dependent variable. We compiled a dataset of every city in the South with at least a thousand blacks, most of which never had sit-ins. The Dynamics of Protest Diffusion (American Sociological Review, vol. 71, 2006) presents an event-history analysis of the diffusion of protest events. It demonstrates that movement organizations played an important role in orchestrating protest; what mattered was a cadre of activists rather than mass membership. In addition, news media were crucial for conveying information about protest events in other cities. In the course of this research I discovered an extraordinarily valuable sample survey of black students (from 1962), which has never been subjected to multivariate analysis. Who Joined the Sit-ins and Why (Mobilization, vol. 11, 2006) reanalyzes the correlates of protest participation. This undermines the conventional view that church congregations were loci for mobilization, and emphasizes the significance of misplaced optimism about white attitudes. In part, sit-ins occurred because black students underestimated the intransigence of their white opponents, a finding which replicates my argument about workers' optimism in 1886. Turning to the consequences of the sit-ins, From Protest to Organization (The Diffusion of Social Movements, Cambridge University Press, 2010) traces the effect on movement organizations in the South in the early 1960s. Surprisingly, we find that there was no great expansion of organization in the wake of the sit-ins (aside from the founding of SNCC). Controlling for prior organizational ecology and sociopolitical variables, cities with sit-ins did not recruit more members or form more local affiliates than cities without sit-ins.

Michael Biggs, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford