An insightful examination of how intersecting individual motivations and social structures mobilize spontaneous mass protests.
Between 15 and 26 million Americans participated in protests surrounding the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others as part of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, which is only one of the most recent examples of an immense mobilization of citizens around a cause. In The Rise of the Masses, sociologist Benjamin Abrams addresses why and how people spontaneously protest, riot, and revolt en masse. While most uprisings of such a scale require tremendous resources and organizing, this book focuses on cases where people with no connection to organized movements take to the streets, largely of their own accord. Looking to the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and the Black Lives Uprising, as well as the historical case of the French Revolution, Abrams lays out a theory of how and why massive mobilizations arise without the large-scale planning that usually goes into staging protests.
Analyzing a breadth of historical and regional cases that provide insight into mass collective behavior, Abrams draws on first-person interviews and archival sources to argue that people organically mobilize when a movement speaks to their pre-existing dispositions and when structural and social conditions make it easier to get involved—what Abrams terms affinity-convergence theory. Shedding a light on the drivers behind large spontaneous protests, The Rise of the Masses offers a significant theory that could help predict movements to come.
When we observe protest marches, striking workers on picket lines, and insurgent movements in the world today, a litany of objects routinely fill our field of vision. Some such objects are ubiquitous the world over, like flags, banners, and placards. Others are situationally unique: Who could have anticipated the historical importance of a flower placed in the barrel of a gun, a flaming torch, a sea of umbrellas, a motorist’s yellow vest, a feather headdress, an AK-47, or a knitted pink hat? This book explores the “stuff” at the heart of protests, revolutions, civil wars, and other contentious political events, with particular focus on those objects that have or acquire symbolic importance. In the context of “contentious politics” (disruptive political episodes where people try to change societies without going through institutions), certain objects can divide and unite social groups, tell stories, make declarations, spark controversy, and even trigger violent upheavals.
This book draws together scholars from a variety of fields to discuss symbolic objects in contentious politics: their meanings, uses, functions, and social responses. In bringing these phenomena together, this book offers a serious, distinctive, and cohesive theoretical contribution that draws upon diverse scholarly work in order to form the building blocks for future inquiry in the field. The aim is not merely to “close the gap” in the literature, but to create space in the field for further and more fruitful inquiry.