Has Protest Increased Since the 1970s?
How a Survey Question Can Construct a Spurious Trend
Under review (earlier version Sociology Working Papers, University of Oxford, no. 2013/03)
The literature on political participation asserts that protest has increased over the last four decades, all over the world. This 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 protest. This is revealed by two sources of data on Britain in the 1980s and 1990s—population surveys and event compilations—which comprehensively measure strikes. In both sources, participation in strikes greatly exceeds demonstrations. Adequately measuring strikes overturns a key claim about the characteristics of protesters, that they are highly educated. Strikes in Britain, as in many countries, have dramatically declined 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 survey questions, when replicated without scrutiny, can misconstrue social trends.
Michael Biggs, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford