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Protest types and protester profiles: testing meso−micro-associations between event characteristics and participant attitudes

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Can we infer individual characteristics of protest participants by examining the demonstrations they go to? Public debate and academic literature both tend to make such inferences from the meso- to the micro-level. This article tests whether this practice is empirically warranted. We first identify the expectations on individual protester characteristics in three prominent classifications of protest events: collective vs. connective, instrumental vs. expressive, and particularistic vs universalistic protests. We then use event-level information to classify eight major protest events, held in Germany between 2003 and 2020, on these three dimensions. Building on a unique sample of protesters at these events (N = 4310), we test whether these protest types are linked to individual-level differences in (1) participants’ involvement in social movement organizations, (2) their external efficacy, and (3) their degree of trust in political institutions and satisfaction with democracy. We find support for meso–micro-associations in all three dimensions. However, we also find that meso–micro-links are generally stronger for an issue-based classification into progressive and non-progressive events. Furthermore, we demonstrate that, among the three dimensions, only the collective-connective one can reliably be operationalized on the meso- and on the micro-level. The article contributes to the literature on the diversity of protest crowds, introduces empirical nuance to the practice of binary categorization of protest events, and challenges the explanatory performance of abstract versus more concrete, issue-based event classifications.

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  1. Turner and Killian (1987) propose three action orientations that can determine mobilization campaigns: value orientation—an orientation toward a movement’s ideology, power orientation—the desire to exert influence, and participation orientation—an orientation toward the benefits of participation itself.

  2. In his dissertation Verhulst (2011) proposes a two-dimensional differentiation between old, new and consensual issues and particularistic and universalistic issues.

  3. As discussed in the literature review authors have proposed other distinctions, such as the one between power and value-oriented campaigns, but this largely overlaps with the instrumental-expressive distinction and we thus decided to collapse the two.

  4. This practice groups together events like the right-wing anti-migration protest of PEGIDA and the Stuttgart 21 demonstrations against a major infrastructure project—two non-progressive but still very different issues. We acknowledge that it would be desirable to further differentiate the “non-progressive” set of events but must defer this to future research on a larger sample of protest events (see “Conclusion”).

  5. The indicator for universalistic events slightly departs form the definition discussed in the theoretical section (which focused on the legitimacy of the national government rather than on governing bodies more generally and/or on demands for systemic transformations). We consider this conceptual extension necessary as the empirical typology of our events points to certain conceptual weaknesses which hamper its empirical usability. We develop this point in more detail below.

  6. Our study follows an effects-of-causes design (Goertz and Mahoney 2012), as it is interested in whether a specific set of causes—meso-level event characteristics—have measurable effects on the outcome. As long as possible confounders are identified and included, it is therefore appropriate to work with a parsimonious model consisting of a limited set of independent variables, since it is not the goal to clear up a maximum of variance in the DV.

  7. The association of education with a lower likelihood of attending connective events might appear surprising, given that the early works on digital (and thus connective) mobilization and participation found education to be important for early adoption (Van Laer 2011). In line with evidence that the “digital divide” in activism is dissipating (Elliott and Earl 2018), our results suggest that digital mobilization has reached less educated parts of the population. Likewise, expressive motives were initially associated with progressive cultural new social movement events (Klandermans 2013) rather than with the right-wing or non-progressive events in our sample. Our findings suggest that conservative or populist protesters have adapted expressive forms. Both should be tested in a larger sample of events like the Caugh in the Act of Protest data (van Stekelenburg et al. 2012) (see “Conclusion”).


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Funding was provided by Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (Grant No. 01UG2050CY).

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Correspondence to Jan Matti Dollbaum.

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Dollbaum, J.M., Meier, L.D., Daphi, P. et al. Protest types and protester profiles: testing meso−micro-associations between event characteristics and participant attitudes. Acta Polit (2024).

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