Outrage, Shock and the Fun Factor: What Motivates Protest?

The experiences motivating people to protest vary a great deal: outrage, feeling threatened – or just the fun factor, says Jan Matti Dollbaum.

“Protest is pointless. Especially in Russia. You can’t achieve anything with it, unless you enjoy getting hit in the face with a rubber truncheon or spending a few days in jail.” In addition to this widespread attitude, which speaks to the fear of what are, in fact, very real risks, a pragmatic consideration also often plays a role: even on the off chance that protest turns out to be effective – like the case of the park in Yekaterinburg that was saved, or the release of the journalist who had drugs planted on him by the police, – even then it would rarely be worth the effort on my part. Because I’ll still be able to reap the rewards even if I stay home on the couch. This argument seems persuasive, but it clearly doesn’t apply to everyone, since people do keep showing up on Russia’s streets and squares to protest for many different reasons.

In numerous interviews, researchers asked the question: what drives those people who take part in protests? Why do they defy the logic of rational action?

rom the individual perspective, taking part in a street protest is – strictly speaking – often irrational. More precisely: the costs (i.e. the personal risks, the investment of energy and time …) outweigh the benefits to the individual. Mancur Olsonexpand pointed out this problem in the 1960s, and it has become known in the social sciences as the problem of collective goods.

There are many cases in which coordinated “collective action”, of which protest is one form, would lead to better outcomes for all members of a group: workers can obtain wage increases through collective strikes, just as residents can stop their park from being bulldozed by a sustained campaign of protests.

In theory. 

Because even when everyone firmly believes that a collective strike or protest would be effective, it is nonetheless entirely rational for any one individual  – particularly when a large group is involved – not to do it. This is because the costs of such actions will always be borne by the individuals who take part (for instance, the risk of getting a truncheon in the face), while the benefits – e.g. the park to picnic at – will be equally available to those who did not protest.expand

Thus, the classic “free rider” problem. Furthermore, in Russia, the risks (potential costs, as economists would say) can be very high:

Protest “He Is Not Our Tsar” on 5 May 2017 in Moscow

Thus, if we assume that people act rationally, we should expect there to be no protests on behalf of public goods expandin Russia, or anywhere else for that matter. And yet, there they are, the thousands of people who take to the streets all over Russia to protest environmental pollution, corruption, the arbitrary use of power or cuts in social programmes or to demand participation in the political process. There may not always be tens of thousands of them, its format may not always be media-savvy, and it does not by any means always have a political agenda. Sometimes they are successful. Success, however, can mean all sorts of different things.

So, while the collective goods problem explains why one might see a low-level or even a complete absence of mobilisation in the face of flagrant injustices, it isn’t adequate to explain the cases where, despite the high costs, people do mobilise and prove willing to invest enormous effort even though they could sit back and enjoy a “free ride”.

The motivations and the impulses that drive protests are as varied as the people themselves. The three stories below are intended to serve as examples of different pathways leading to mobilisation:

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lavaexpand is a civil engineer from the Moscow area. He had always wanted to live at the edge of a forest. Finally, the day came when he was able to make this dream a reality: he bought some land and moved to a village. But then he found out that the forest near his property was about to be cleared, because a company wanted to build large houses there:

“This was a complete shock to me. They were getting ready to destroy the thing I came here for, my dream, so to speak”

First, he wrote to the regional governor, but the response he received was surprising: The forest was not a forest but a “giant marsh” and therefore not a protected area.

“At the time, I was a total numbskull on legal questions – a marsh cannot be someone’s private property. And this was exactly what the regional administration was literally saying to us: ‘Yes, it’s a marsh, we are going to build houses all over it.’” *expand

Here, Slava is describing a shock which came from the state’s intrusion into his own personal sphereexpand. This experience forced him to defend the living environment that he had come to take for grantedexpand, propelling him towards activism. He began to team up with other residents of his village to host journalists and organise protests. It has been a long time since his activities were restricted to trying to protect his own piece of woodland; he is now involved in a whole set of other local problems. He explains that many of these are rooted in corruption, particularly that of the governing party.

This is probably the most common path to activism – where an unintentional clash with the authorities forces people into a defensive position and thereby puts them on a path that leads toward protest. But it is also the path that is the least visible in the media: local stories of this kind are often ignored even in the regional newspapers.

Another example – from another region and relating to another issue – comes from Anatoli. Anatoli became an activist at the age of 50, after learning of plans to create a big landfill in Arkhangelsk, his hometown, in order to dump waste from Moscow:

Anatoly Bysov – Protest against the construction of a garbage dump in Shiyes (Arkhangelsk Oblast, 2019)

Neither Slava nor Anatoli see themselves as opposing the regime. Both try to avoid taking a political stance and both describe their protest as “apolitical” – although they are both de facto pursuing local and regional political goals. This sounds paradoxical, but it captures the ambivalent attitudes of many protesters towards politics.

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Protest camp in Shiyes (2019). Foto © Yulia Nevskaya

owever, there are other paths to protest that are indeed directly and explicitly political. One begins with what is called a moral shockexpand – an experience or something people observe that jars them unexpectedly, tearing them out of their familiar cognitive patterns and propelling them towards collective action – regardless of how improbable it is that their individual contribution will play a role in its success.

Irina from Nizhny Novgorod first became involved in protests in 2011, when Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, then the president and prime minister, respectively, announced their plan to swap offices: Putin would become the president again and Medvedev the prime minister:

“I remember 26 September 2011 very well, when they wanted to “castle”. And it was just like this “Hey guys, we switched places”, it somehow offended me to the depths of my soul. And at the same time I was like, I still didn’t even get it. But I felt that this was a historic moment.”

She took part in the subsequent protests and got training to act as an observer in the presidential elections in March 2012. When she did, despite resistance on her part, she was expelled from the polling station at the start of the ballot counting. Then she saw the official results.

“… and that’s when I understood very clearly that there were basically two options. Either go to the international airport or try to change something. And I guess it’s obvious I chose the second one.” [laughs]

Since then, Irina has stood for election several times at the local level and never misses a protest by the liberal opposition.

he introduction to protesting is not necessarily always an abrupt one, though – if, for instance, some groundwork has already been laid, say by a long period of socialization in the family. A background like that makes the entry to activism easier and the same mechanism then continues to operate during the protest – a self-reinforcing process in a sense. Anna from Omsk remembers that her parents always voted in elections and treated election day like a holiday:

“In 2011, a campaign started right before the elections to the Russian Duma that made clear how crucial it was to go to the polling stations as observers.

I made an effort at the station, I prepared well, studied all the laws, the instructions, I came ready… And it was horrific there. No falsification, but the members of the commission didn’t know the laws at all, how they did things was a disgrace. I yelled at them, now I understand that I was too emotional, but in the end I got them to follow procedure, according to the law. I liked that.

The first protests were the next day, the observers came together, and then there were protests all over the country and here in Omsk, and it was so cool, there were so many people, and you saw that there were so many like-minded people in Omsk, and some were famous people who you only read before, and now here they are standing next to you. It was all really cool.”

This example illustrates clearly how a combination of personal background and highly emotional events can trump the rational logic of the collective goods problem. Moreover, unlike the case with Slava and Irina, Anna’s story shows that political activism and protest do not necessarily have to come out of a sense of being threatened, either by a threat to one’s living environment or in the form of some abstract political threat. Curiosity, enjoying collective action, or wanting to take creative charge of one’s own future can also bring people out to the streets.  

The Russian research team from the Public Sociology Lab met many such people, who, after the Bolotnaya Square protests, founded small groups with the aim of carrying over their energizing experience at the protests into concrete “small deeds”expand – they hope that by doing so they can invigorate civil society locally and sustain a process of “politicization”.

he paths that led Slava, Anatoli and Anna to protest are not the only patterns of experiences that lead people to activism, but they are very typical patterns, and they open up a critical perspective on the collective goods problem: they teach us that it is nearly impossible to explain protest if one starts with the image of an inflexible, rational human being. Someone who only calculates the costs to him- or herself, the personal investment vs. personal benefits of a successful protest, is unlikely to conclude that it is worth carrying a banner down the street or chanting a slogan.

To explain the motivation to protest, one has to look for other driving forces. These might take the form of a moral shock, or a threat to one’s existence. In such cases, protest appears to be the last chance to escape an intolerable situation – whether it is the practical effects on one’s living conditions that are intolerable or the infringement of one’s moral convictions. At any rate, in the minds of those concerned, the possibilities to act are so severely limited that people are, in a way, forced to protest.

The driving force can also take the form of the pleasure of being part of a community: when protesting becomes fun, when it becomes an experience that one does not want to miss, and then the collective goods problem becomes moot. Because, in the language of economists, protest offers participants a selective incentive, it promises them personal benefits and gains beyond the success of the protest itself. Thus, the view of protest participants becomes: if you stay home on the couch it is your own fault.

There are other methods that can be used to answer the question “What motivates people to protest?” as well – specifically, by running polls or surveys.

Here you can see other people introducing themselves and talking about what makes them protest, and what they are demonstrating for or against:

Jan Matti Dollbaum studied political science and Slavonic studies in Heidelberg, St. Petersburg, Mainz and London. Since summer 2016 he has been a PhD student at the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. His dissertation, which is currently in its final phase, deals with the political and social conditions of protest development after large waves of mobilization – with a focus on local protest in Russia.