Repression of Social Movements Essay

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The repression of social movements involves attempts by state or private actors to increase the costs of participating in social movements or otherwise limiting social movement activity (e.g., surveillance, arrest, or imprisonment; violence; counterintelligence programs).

Major distinctions have been made between forms of repression. First, is the repression easily observable (e.g., covert counterintelligence programs versus the use of military force against civilians)? Second, is it coercion (i.e., violence, harassment, and surveillance) or channeling, which includes laws, policies, or actions rewarding protest movements for certain kinds of tactics (typically, more institutional and/or nonviolent tactics) while discouraging others (typically, more radical, non-institutional, or violent tactics)? Third, who is doing” the repression: national governmental agents, more local governmental agents, or private actors?

All three of these distinctions bear on two fundamental questions about repression: (1) how can researchers explain the level and types of repressive actions taken against different activists and social movements? and (2) how can researchers explain the consequences, or effects, of repression on activists and social movements?

The vast majority of research that casts repression as a dependent variable has focused on explaining the level of particular types of repression without discussing trade-offs between different types of repression. Several causal explanations are featured in these models, including: (1) the threat model, which predicts that the more threatening a social movement, a social movement organization, or a protest activity is to the government and government elites, the more likely severe repressive action will be; (2) the weakness model, which predicts that states are interested in suppressing all challengers, but that weak/vulnerable challengers will quickly become targets of repressive action; and (3) police-centered models, or authority-centered models more generally, which predict that institutional and organizational imperatives of authorities independently influence repression.

In contrast, others have argued that such general theories are unhelpful because repression is situation-specific, resulting from the in situ interactions between insurgents and authorities. Still others focus on the relationships between authorities and insurgents over time, using predator-prey interaction models or other models of temporal feedback.

Repression has also been discussed by political process theorists as a type of political opportunity.” One of political process theory’s fundamental propositions is that favorable political opportunities have a direct (or curvilinear, according to some) relationship with movement emergence, mobilization, and success. The prevalence of state repression at a given moment is often referred to as being a component of overall political opportunities, but is also sometimes argued to be a consequence of other political opportunities, such as the openness of the ruling party to protest.

Research has also examined the effects of repression on activists and social movements. Political process theorists tend to argue that repression dampens social movement mobilization and may encourage the use of more institutional, and less violent, social movement tactics. Rational choice theorists of collective action have agreed.

While supportive evidence of this claim has been found, evidence has also been found suggesting that repression radicalizes social movement participants. Instead of diminishing protest or deterring the use of particularly aggressive tactics, many scholars have argued that repression encourages further protest and the use of non-institutional tactics.

Still other scholars have argued that repression has a curvilinear (or, alternatively, an inverted-U) relationship to movement participation and the use of confrontational tactics.

This dizzying array of theoretical arguments is matched by a similarly large array of discordant findings: empirical evidence exists for direct, inverse, curvilinear, inverted-U, and null effects of repression on movement mobilization and tactical deployment.


  1. Davenport, C. (ed.) (2000) Paths to State Repression: Human Rights Violations and Contentious Politics. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD.
  2. Earl, J., Soule, S. A., & McCarthy, J. D. (2003) Protests under  fire?  Explaining protest policing. American Sociological Review 69: 581-606.

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