April 7, 2003

· Sociology

Anti-war protestors are being criticized from various sources for continuing to turn out in large numbers to register their dissent. Reasons for criticism vary. Many want to tell the protestors what they ought to be doing instead, whether it be staying quietly at home or engaging in some other form of political action. Others just can’t stand the sight of them out there, chanting away. William Sjostrom cannot see them as anything other than “exercises in narcissism” that pose “serious risks” to public resources. Similarly, Timothy Burke sees the protests as “gimmicks” that are “anointing yourself a virtuous, righteous person and performing your virtue on the public stage.” He advises the “Prudence, patience and planning” of long-term organizing instead. Daniel Drezner’s memo to the anti-war movement suggests the protestors change their approach because “to be blunt, some of your arguments are just God awful.” (Well, tu quoque on the pro-war side, one might say.)

Much of this strikes me as pretty thin. It doesn’t explain why people are protesting in such numbers. One question I haven’t seen addressed is the size of the anti-war movement relative to past protest movements. My sense has been that it’s very large, and in some ways unprecedented (e.g., coming prior to the conflict rather than several years in), but I haven’t had any data to support my intuitions.

My friend and colleague Sarah Soule is an expert on Social Movement Organizations and for some time—together with Doug McAdam, Susan Olzak and John McCarthy—she has been working on an NSF-funded project on the dynamics of collective protest in the U.S. between 1950 and 1995. Part of the project involves the construction of a dataset of protest events. Sarah and her collaborators have worked from New York Times reports to build what will be (when it’s done) the most comprehensive dataset of U.S. protest events from 1960 to the 1980s. This week she kindly ran a couple of descriptive queries for me on the clean portion of the data, which covers 1960-75. Although not the full dataset, it does encompass the period between the peak of the civil rights movement and the end of the Vietnam war.

Sarah’s data presently includes 11,351 separate protest events that made the New York Times, coded by major and minor protest claims, by initiating group, form of protest, protest activities and other variables. They also code the size of the protest. Sometimes this is reported in the news article, other times it is inferred.

So, how do current anti-war protests match up in terms of participation? How big, in other words, is a really big protest? Let’s restrict ourselves to events where the number of participants was estimated in the news report. This gives us about 6,700 cases. Of these, a very large majority had less than a thousand participants. In fact, getting a turnout of more than a thousand is enough to put you in the 88th percentile of protests by size. This confirms the idea that it’s not a trivial task for a social movement to get even a few hundred people to show up to a protest.

A protest with ten thousand participants puts you right in the big leagues, up in the 98th percentile for the period. Only a very, very few events—less than forty out of 6,774—have reported estimates of more than fifty thousand participants. A good number of these are now-famous civil rights or anti-Vietnam war protests.

Based on news reports, quite a number of recent anti-war protests have had many more than 50,000 participants and several, notably in New York and San Francisco, have had more than 100,000. Only about 20 events in the dataset have a reported size greater than this. (If you can point to crowd estimates from media sources or the police, leave them in the comments.)

What does this suggest? The sheer size of a protest event is only one indicator of the vitality of a social movement and its capacity to effect social change. Timothy Burke and Dan Drezner are right to say that a successful social movement does things other than just protest in the streets. Nevertheless, getting people to turn out in large numbers remains a very useful index of popular discontent because it is so hard to do. Based on the size of the typical protest, it is just not plausible to say that there are very large numbers of people who choose to indulge their narcissism by showing up for protests. If there were, we’d see them out on the streets in large numbers far more often than we actually do—particularly given that the data considered here cover what we might think of as a “golden age” of public protest in the United States. When set in the context of the history of mobilization for protest, the anti-war movement has generated a turnout for protests on a scale rivalled by only a very few social movement organizations on a very tiny number of occasions. That’s worth bearing in mind the next time you’re tempted to dismiss it as a failure or write off its participants as out-of-touch peaceniks.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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