The Mismeasurement of Strikes and the Distortion of Protest Trends:
Evidence from Britain in the 1980s and 1990s
Sociology Working Papers, University of Oxford, no. 2013/03
The literature on political participation asserts that protest has increased over the last four decades, in most countries. The trend is derived from surveys asking about participation in various types of protest, including demonstrations, boycotts, and strikes. The latter question covers only 'unofficial' strikes, which made sense in the context in which it was formulated, Britain in the early 1970s, and with regard to the original theoretical aim, measuring 'protest potential'. The absence of a general question on strikes, however, distorts our understanding of participation in protest. This is shown using two sources of data on Britain in the 1980s and 1990s—surveys of individuals and catalogues of events—which comprehensively measure strikes. In both sources, participation in strikes greatly exceeds demonstrations. Adequately measuring strikes overturns two accepted findings about the characteristics of protesters, that they are highly educated and Postmaterialist. Official statistics show a dramatic decline of strikes in Britain, as in many other countries, since the 1980s. This decline offsets the increase in demonstrations and boycotts, making it implausible that the total volume of protest has increased. The episode illustrates how a set of survey questions, when widely replicated, can construct the phenomenon investigated by social scientists.
Michael Biggs, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford