Successful Protests Require Diversity and Focus

Social movements draw strength from broad coalitions and clear goals.

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Based on research by Dan Wang

In terms of leading an organization, Professor Dan Wang does not see much of a difference between the leaders of protest movements and the leaders of any successful organization or company.

 “Successful protest leaders have exceptional capacities for coordination,” Wang says. “They are just as influential and effective as the best entrepreneurs and CEOs, and effective large-scale protests require planning, communication, consensus-building, resource mobilization, and ultimately, leadership.”

A major part of a protest leader’s job is to articulate a united and focused vision.  Wang’s research shows that focus on a single issue rather than a multitude of causes breeds success in social movements.  In a recent study with Alessandro Piazza, of Rice University, Wang demonstrates that anti-nuclear energy protests were most successful in gaining concessions from their targets when they vocalized a singular common grievance.

Wang, the David W. Zalaznick Associate Professor of Business, notes that while it is still too early to say definitively, the current worldwide movement against police brutality that has grown since the killing of George Floyd could have the potential to reform law enforcement.

“Demographically, there is a broad coalition on the streets,” Wang says. “But it is also specialized – the protesters are univocal in articulating one type of grievance.”

What’s been historically more typical for protest movements is splintering into factions, such as the ruptures that affected the Women’s March following President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 that continued in subsequent years.

For example, in a 2019 study with Hayagreeva Rao and Sarah Soule of Stanford University, Wang found that if social movements become too broad in their interests, groups tend to splinter and take on the causes that are far from their core pursuit, precipitating even further internal division.

Like the Floyd protests, the Women’s March consisted of groups representing various intersectional identities, which then gathered under a larger umbrella.

“There were a lot of different issues that arose as well,” Wang says. “There were issues that were squarely in the realm of women’s rights, but others that were tangential to the core claims of gender equality, such as climate activism.”

From there, fault lines developed, which Wang says contributed to the lack of political action after those protests. But Wang sees a difference with the current protests against police brutality. 

“These demonstrations are just as diverse as the Women’s March, arguably larger in number, but more focused on a single issue and a single message,” Wang explains. “It’s an anti-police brutality and anti-racism movement; nobody can deny that’s what it is about, and at least up until now, no one is trying to co-opt or ride the coattails of that message.”

Wang notes that the daily demonstrations since Floyd’s death have also highlighted the endemic problem of institutional racism as the root of the protesters’ grievances.

“They are related causes,” he says. “They are not causes such that different groups come in and represent their own interests, or worse, go against the focus of the protests. Here you have a focused set of issues with broad coalitional support – it makes for a powerful protest.”

Currently, Wang – with Rao and Soule of Stanford and CBS PhD student, Erica Bailey – is investigating the synergistic benefits of broad demographic support and singular issue focus in a new working paper on what makes protest messages effective and resonant. 

Wang’s research into effective outcomes of these diverse, but focused, protests also surfaces two key concepts – timing and institutionalization.

It sometimes seems that protests emerge at a point when governments become so entrenched in their views that the only way to draw attention to pressing issues is to demonstrate. But Wang notes that most research on social movements suggests that the opposite tends to be true.

“Decades of sociological research has found that actually when government structures are at their most vulnerable that protests ramp up,” he says. “This is especially true in election years when the incumbent is at risk of being voted out of office. These protests are strategic because they take advantage of that.”

Wang, drawing on the research of sociologist Suzanne Staggenbourg, noted that the other path for social movements is that they evolve into more formalized organizations, with some becoming enduring nonprofits that can mobilize resources through more institutionalized means to effect social and political change.

“You can see that happening with Black Lives Matter,” Wang says. “It started in 2013 as a hashtag movement, but it has been undergoing institutionalization for some time.”

In the case of Black Lives Matter, which was founded to protest the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin, leaders emerged to help make the once loosely structured organization more effective.

“The most committed individuals have to also be organizationally committed as well,” he says. “It’s a process we’ve seen with lots of successful movements, such as Greenpeace or the National Organization for Women.”

Wang says that in order for organizations born out of protests to remain relevant, they must be wary of internal dissent and should also understand that movements can enter what sociologist Verta Taylor calls “abeyance,” in which a goal is met and the motivating furor over an issue subsides.

“They declare mission accomplished,” Wang says. “But the issues don’t go away; although the momentum might slow, the spirt still lives.”

Another outcome for protest movements is to be coopted by a political establishment, which is what occurred after sustained demonstrations against the Iraq War in the early 2000s, as Fabio Rojas and Michael Heaney noted in their book Party in the Street.

“What happened there is that the Democrats happened,” Wang said. “The anti-war movement became a major part of the party’s platform in the 2008 election of Barack Obama.”

Wang is uncertain which path the George Floyd protests are on, but says there is the potential for them to lead to changes in policing, as already seen in the Minneapolis City Council’s efforts to dismantle its police department.

“This is the type of movement that could be channeled to an institutional voice,” Wang says. “You can already see the process unfolding.”

About the researcher

Dan Wang

Dan Wang is the David W. Zalaznick Associate Professor of Business and (by courtesy) Sociology at Columbia Business School.  He teaches the core...

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