Protest or emigrate: from idea to action


Protest or emigrate: from idea to action

Everybody is demonstrating, at least that appears to be the case. From Hong Kong to Bolivia, and closer at home in the Netherlands, the farmers on the Malieveld and nurses at the Binnenhof. What do these demonstrations have in common? And why is a new wave of protests taking place? We posed this question to Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, Professor of Social Change and Conflict at VU Amsterdam and a frequently asked expert.

Jacquelien van StekelenburgJacquelien van Stekelenburg

Demonstrations do not happen spontaneously. They arise on the fracture lines of society: there is always a political or social rift that leads to dissatisfaction. The protests in Catalonia are aimed against Madrid, the centre of power; in Hong Kong, it is the gap between the elephant (China) and the ant (Hong Kong) and in Chile, it is the inequality gap between poor and rich. In the case of the farmers’ protests in The Hague, it seems that the distinction between the Randstad urban region and the rest of the Netherlands is playing a role. In Iraq and Lebanon, the driving force is the large group of young people in countries where the level of education has risen and young people have ambitions that they cannot fulfil in their home country.

Did you know? Social media have a 'supersize effect': within a short space of time and for little money you can address a large group.

Seeing demonstrations leads to demonstrations

However, dissatisfaction alone does not immediately lead to a demonstration. A person who organises such a demonstration is also needed, explains Van Stekelenburg. ‘In the 1960s, it cost more effort to organise a protest than it does now. Take, for example, the many demonstrators against cruise missiles in the 1980s. That was an enormous organisation, a large platform that campaigned for seven years. The Dutch inter-church peace movement IKV played a large role in that.’ Since 2008, we have social media which has made it easier to organise protests. Van Stekelenburg talks about the “supersize effect”: ‘Within a short space of time and for little money you can address a large group. You can also transmit images that capture the imagination, such as the video clips from Hong Kong.’ Another example is the video clips of the flash mobs of Chilean women who no longer accept the machismo and violence against women. Their protests have an infectious effect: the flash mobs and dancing were taken over by women throughout Latin America and later by women in Spain and France too. Furthermore, there needs to be a community who shares those grievances. That can be organisations in the neighbourhood or in the city but also, of course, groups on internet and social media. However, the latter also bring uncertainty with them: everybody knows an organisation such as a trade union and that gives a sense of trust. But how reliable is an unknown person who makes an appeal on Facebook?

We think that networks are vitally important: in the network of family or friends, the balance can tip to emigrating or protesting
- Jacquelien van Stekelenburg

It is those networks or communities that Jacquelien van Stekelenburg is currently working on in her research project MOBILISE. This three-year international Open Research Area (ORA) research project will not just investigate protest but migration too. Researchers from the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom and France want to discover what actually causes people to migrate or protest: which drivers make them convert their intention into an act? ‘That has never previously been included in a single study in this manner’, says Van Stekelenburg. ‘Since 2016, young people have increasingly been protesting and migrating. We think that networks are vitally important for this: in the network of family or friends, the balance can tip to emigrating or protesting.’ Two researchers are involved in the Netherlands: Evelyn Ersanilli (University of Amsterdam) and a PhD student who did her Master of Arts in Middle Eastern Studies at Leiden University.

Building up relationships

This is exciting research, says Van Stekelenburg. ‘We are considering both protest and migration. These are like two bookcases next to each other. And because people from different cultures are working together, we always have to ask ourselves whether we are talking about the same thing. Miscommunications occur more easily. Therefore you have to invest a lot in the communication and building up a good relationship with each other. That costs time. The international and interdisciplinary character means that you really do have to think about the assumptions in your own discipline and your own culture. But that is exactly what makes the research so incredibly interesting and fun.’

More information

Determinants of ‘Mobilisation’ at Home and Abroad: Analysing the Micro-Foundations of Out-Migration & Mass Protest

Olga Onuch, University of Manchester (GB); Gwendolyn Sasse, Centre for East European and International Studies (D); Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, VU Amsterdam (NL); Sorana Toma, University of Paris-Saclay (F)

Disciplines: Political Science and Empirical Social Research

See also:

Text: Marianne ten Hoedt
Banner image: Pixabay