Contentious Politics outline for CRS Final and Comps
Comp questions on REVOLUTIONS


Using at least two theories of revolution that you have learned, is it likely that we will see more, fewer or the same number of revolutions in the future that we have seen in the past? (Fall 2004 and Spring 2006)

Although we touched upon all four ‘generations’ of scholarship on revolutions, we have only really discussed two different theories of revolution in any depth: Boix (economic/rational choice) and Goldstone (fourth generation: agency & objectives). Tilly & Tarrow also chime in with a focus on high stakes and extensive resources. They are placed in the fourth generation as well. I would start with Goldstone’s definition of revolution:
“An effort to transform the political institutions and the justifications for political authority in society, accompanied by formal or informal mass mobilization and non-institutionalized actions that undermine authorities (142).”
Boix’s perspective:
Carles Boix focuses on the material incentives necessary for people to choose violence as a strategy to redistribute wealth. He categorizes this as “motive and opportunity” (in direct contrast to the “greed and grievance” dictum of Collier and Hoeffler). Boix outlines possible scenarios in which the wealthy and poor engage in certain actions meant to decide political regime and wealth distribution. According to him, the decision of these actors to engage in political violence is a function of the pre-existing distribution of economic assets as well as the level of the actors’ capabilities to sustain and organize violence. Further, violence is also the product of uncertainty vis-à-vis the costs of repression and the ability of each side to win. This means that the decision to fight is a rational choice cost/benefit analysis. Boix believes that the wealthy initiate this process by establishing either a democratic or an authoritarian regime. They make this choice based on whether or not repression costs will be low or high. If high, there is greater incentive towards democracy. If low, then the upper class has the advantage in maintaining their wealth through strong measures of repression.
Boix sees democracy as peaceful and relatively unproblematic (assuming, I suppose, that elections are fair and that the government is not too corrupt). However, if the wealthy/ruling class chooses authoritarian power, the decision to revolt becomes that of the poor/lower classes. This decision is also based on a cost/benefit analysis: do they have enough resources to sustain successful rebellion? While the ruling class most likely believes they do not (hence why they chose authoritarianism in the first place), the element of uncertainty makes this decision less than clear.
Boix develops his thesis of motive and opportunity further by disaggregating violent conflict between interclass and intraclass. In interclass conflict, motives center on inequality while opportunity focuses on asset specificity. According to Boix, violence will not take place if both the motive (inequality) and the opportunity (assets) are measured to be low or medium. He states that if one or the other is sufficiently low, democracy is always the outcome, regardless of cost of repression. Further, even if motive and opportunity increase but repression costs are also high, democracy is the logical choice of the elite in order to preserve their wealth and status. If they choose to implement an authoritarian regime despite high repression costs, the poor will revolt if they experience high inequality and have enough asset specificity to mount an organized rebellion.
In intraclass conflict, the elite fight amongst themselves to gain a greater portion of the group’s total wealth. Boix sees this as happening in agrarian or abundant natural resource states with large immobile assets. In this scenario, elites will fight amongst themselves only when doing so doesn’t threaten the stability of the class in general as the dominant political force. This means that repression costs will be low. Furthermore, as asset specificity increases, the wealthy have a stronger incentive to fight each other because the proverbial pie is bigger.
Boix concludes that revolutions/civil wars are more likely in agrarian societies with unequal land distribution. These states typically are defined by high inequality (motive) and high asset specificity (opportunity). As states industrialize, moving away from agrarian economies, the probability of revolution decreases dramatically because assets become more mobile with greater capacity for distribution.
Based on this assessment of revolutions, Boix would probably believe that – all other things being equal – revolutions would decline in the future as more and more states industrialize and democratize. However, neither aspect fully accounts for the effects of corruption or the level of democracy: are weak fledgling democracies also free from the worry of revolution?

Skocpol’s perspective:
Theda Skocpol is best known as the representative of the third generation of revolution scholars. She starts from a Weberian premise that assumes the anarchic structure and focuses on the processes that lead to revolution. Her assertions are based on the premise that the natural order is one of equilibrium. From this, four processes must obtain for a great revolution to take place: 1) International pressure – most often a military conflict or international economic policy that goes bad and reveals the weakness of the regime; 2) From this, the state typically responds with some measure (usually tax increases) that causes a split in the elites; 3) The split in the elites weakens the state apparatus to such an extent that laws are no longer enforced, and class conflict spreads from the elites to the masses; 4) Finally, if an opposition group can put forth a viable blueprint (similar to Boix’s capacity/asset specificity argument), then revolutions may obtain.
Skocpol’s influential book, States and Social Revolutions, focuses primarily on the three major “Great” revolutions of France, China, and Russia, with minor attention paid to the “shadow” revolutions of England, Germany/Prussia, and Japan. She infuses her argument with a Marxist class approach, paying more attention to rural agrarian-state conflicts, state conflicts with autonomous elites, and the impact of interstate economic and military competition on domestic politics than previous second generation scholars. She defines revolution as “rapid, basic transformations of society’s state and class structures … accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below (4).”
However, her class approach does not account well for the revolutions of 1979 through the 1980s, where multi-class coalitions were able to topple powerful regimes through popular protest (Iran, the Philippines, Nicaragua). This created room for a fourth generation to take root that applied previous structural theories to revolutionary events outside Europe (and the “Great” revolutions), and that paid greater attention to the role of agency (through ideology and culture) in shaping revolutionary mobilization and objectives.
Goldstone’s perspective:
Jack Goldstone, part of the fourth generation, critiques Skocpol’s assumption that states are normally in equilibrium. He contends that the system is one of disequilibrium, or regime in-stability. Goldstone outlines further critiques of the third generation that point out its lack of depth regarding ideology and identity. Such structuralist analysis as Skocpol’s purposely ignores matters like revolutionary ideologies, ethnic and religious bases for mobilization, and the possibility of multi-class coalitions. Instead, the structuralist approach attempts to isolate a short list of conditions that undercut regime stability and leads to mobilization. Goldstone argues that this approach does not actually provide answers to when and where revolution will occur because such causal lists are long and various. In fact, he believes that fourth generation theorists should instead focus on those factors that “cement regime stability,” since they lead to the development of revolutionary leadership, ideology, and identification, in addition to the structural factors that Skocpol highlights such as international pressure and elite conflicts.
According to Goldstone, stability is elusive. It implies an “ongoing, successful process of reproducing social institutions and cultural expectations across time (173).” Goldstone asserts that it is the failure to sustain stability that leads to state crises, not any particular combination of factors or conditions. Once a regime loses its control of force (essential component of stability), then opposition groups begin to mobilize to claim lost power. This turn affects relationships and perceptions among political actors. In such an environment, Goldstone believes that the role of leadership, action/response patterns, and emergent perceptions and coalitions help shape the nature of revolutions. Although he states the predicting revolutions is problematic, assessing the probabilistic elements of revolution through proxy measures of regime stability has so far generated positive results. He also contends that focusing on conditions that maintain stability allows for the “fractalization” of analysis into smaller units such as provinces, cities, and other organizations. In this way, stability can be viewed as a scale that is easily transposed from the national (macro) level to the local (micro) level.
Therefore, because Goldstone believes that stability is constantly elusive, he would most likely contend that the frequency of revolutions would stay the same or increase. However, he would also offer a caveat that the future holds many surprises, and that just as the revolutions of the 1980s upended the theories of the third generation, so might future revolutions disregard his own hypotheses.
Comp questions on CONTENTIOUS POLITICS


The first and most prominent examples and analyses of "contentious politics" were almost exclusively centered on North Atlantic democracies. Is the concept of contentious politics a useful analytical lens when it is applied outside of its "home" region? Why/Why not? (Spring 2003 and Summer 2004)

I think this question was directed at different readings than the ones we were given, but if we do get anything like this question, here is a very brief response:
The idea that the analytic lens used by Tilly and Tarrow is Eurocentric might have some validity, yet it does not mean such a lens could not effectively be transplanted onto other areas of the world. Tilly and Tarrow explicitly contend that such is the purpose of their proposed methodology. Their shortcoming is not necessarily in their primary focus on the West, but rather in their lack of acknowledging the constructed nature of identity as an emotive tool in mobilizing against a regime. In fact, they apply their theory of contentious politics to regions around the world in an attempt to show that the repertoires of political actors change with the type of regime in place. However, such repertoires are assumed to follow a universal framework, when in fact cultural differences mitigate their overall general applicability. Tilly and Tarrow do not spend a lot of time investigating how such cultural attributes might affect claim-making. While they call attention to the role of identity claims and boundary-formations in the process of mobilization, they do not address the complexity of identity save in a cursory and institutional manner. In their discussion of ethnic and national conflict, for instance, they focus primarily on the classic political institutions that permit such conflict, not on the emotive or ideological components constructed into the various claims. They offer the example of Northern Ireland to refute the notion that ethnic or religious violence stems from atavistic and ancient hatred and instead paint a picture of shifting political opportunities, brokerage, mobilization, and polarization. While these explanatory concepts address some of what causes contention, they do not delve any further into contesting beliefs in the righteousness of each side’s claims, nor in each side’s fear of the other, both important elements in violent conflict.

McAdam, Tilly and Tarrow claim that a revolution is merely one form of "contentious politics." How do they justify this claim? Do you agree? To what extent is McAdam, Tilly and Tarrow's contention compatible with the work of either Jack Goldstone or Theda Skocpol? (Pick one). (Fall 2003 and Spring 2007)

Some scholars claim that civil disobedience, revolutions and strikes are all examples of a larger phenomenon that they call contentious politics. Others treat these as analytically separate forms of human social action. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of each? (Fall 2005 and Spring 2008)

These two questions are very similar, so I am combining them:
The concept of ‘contentious politics’ was developed in the 1990s and 2000s -- particularly by Charles Tilly, Sidney Tarrow, and Doug McAdam -- as an overarching research category meant to encompass all forms of group contention. Contentious Politics means using disruptive techniques in order to make a political point or to change existing government policy. Such techniques include demonstrations, strikes, riots, terrorism, civil disobedience, revolution, and insurrection. All of these examples involve disturbing the normal activities of society and are highlighted in contrast to other forms of contention that take place within existing social institutions – like interstate war, elections, and sports. Tilly defines contentious politics as, “Interactions in which actors make claims on someone else’s interest, in which governments appear either as targets, initiators of claims, or third parties (Tilly 2008, Contentious Performances, 5).” However, many scholars are still undecided about such an amalgamation and instead prefer to focus on just one of the different political phenomena, particularly social movements, revolutions, or strikes.
Justification of revolution as part of ‘contentious politics’
Tilly and Tarrow argue that revolutions are just one of many forms of contentious politics. They define revolutions as “a forcible transfer of power over a state in the course of which at least two distinct blocs of contenders make incompatible claims to control the state, and some significant portion of the population subject to the state’s jurisdiction acquiesces in the claims of each bloc (155).” Analyzing violent conflict on the level of mechanisms and processes, Tilly and Tarrow show that revolutions and other violent conflicts have similar causes and effects to other forms of contention. Further, they address the differences less as exclusive differences and more as a degree of existing opportunity structures and established repertoires, which then shape the forms and measures of contention.
Such conflicts use the same structure of claim-making as other relatively non-violent social movements, but they also combine a more radical use of armed force to back up those claims. Namely, political actors – government agents or popular challengers – compete for political power through the threat and implementation of physical violence. Armed violence becomes an acceptable means or repertoire from which actors draw to achieve their goals. Further, actors describing themselves as revolutionaries do so through combinations of the same processes of other contentious politics: mobilization, brokerage, diffusion, certification, and boundary activation. In such large-scale lethal conflict, regime split and power transfers are much more likely and pronounced than in nonviolent social movements. However, Tilly and Tarrow claim that while “Great” revolutions are the extreme case, any episode of contention has some element of split and transfer.
Moreover, Tilly and Tarrow believe that violent conflicts are more likely within certain political regimes. This fits in their overall contentious politics theory in that regime type is used to explain the general parameters of contention – the form used. They categorize revolutions as large-scale lethal conflicts most likely to occur in regimes with intermediate and low levels of governmental capacity. Therefore, contention is inextricably linked to political power and institutions. Yet, this connection is contingent on the degree of democracy and capacity of any regime. The two authors argue that high-capacity undemocratic regimes feature clandestine political actors as opposition, and that these confrontations usually end in repression. Whereas low-capacity democratic regimes attract more military coups and conflicts along ethnic or religious lines, high-capacity democratic regimes are the site of a majority of the world’s social movements (57).
Particularly in regard to revolutions, Tilly and Tarrow outline the necessary components to a revolutionary situation:
1. Contenders advance exclusive competing claims to control of the state or some part of it. This results from mobilization, which leads to brokerage and boundary activation and results in the constitution of a revolutionary coalition.
2. Commitment of those claims by a significant segment of the citizenry. This also requires mobilization, as well as diffusion, boundary activation, and external certification.
3. Incapacity or unwillingness of rulers to suppress the revolutionary coalition.
There are four components to a revolutionary outcome:
1. Defections of regime members – typically forming coalitions with the opposition
2. Acquisition of armed force by revolutionary opposition
3. Neutralization or defection of the regime’s armed force
4. Control of the state apparatus by members of the revolutionary opposition
Is this compatible with Jack Goldstone and/or Theda Skocpol?
Tilly and Tarrow do not focus on class, per se, the way Skocpol does. However, while her theory of revolution activation centers on a split between the elites and the poor, the rest of her outline is roughly complimentary to that of Tilly and Tarrow. Both generally argue that there are exclusive claims made from each side, and that the capacity to support those claims with violence is a major deciding factor. Where the two approaches differ centers on whether the state is inherently stable or rather in a constant state of disequilibrium. Here, Tilly and Tarrow more closely compliment Goldstone’s analysis that the causes of contentious politics can be drawn from regime type and its capacity to promote order. For example, Tilly and Tarrow outline six properties of “political opportunity structures” to include:
· The multiplicity of independent centers of power within it
· Its openness to new actors
· The instability of current political alignments
· The availability of influential allies or supporters for challengers
· The extent to which the regime represses or facilitates collective claim making
· Decisive changes in items 1 to 5 (57)”
These six factors more closely resemble Goldstone’s belief that states exist in disequilibrium, and that the way to study revolutions is by analyzing a state’s ability to promote stability and order.
What are the strengths of viewing all these processes as a single subject?
According to Tilly and Tarrow, “the contentious politics approach looks deliberately for similarities in cause-effect relationships across a wide range of political struggles without aiming for general laws that govern all of politics (xi).” They purposely set out to find a middle ground between creating general laws of human behavior and more specific laws regarding each individual type of contention. Their goal is to highlight the similarities, differences, and connections between traditional social movements and other forms of contentious politics. Specifically, they seek to answer why contentious repertoires change over time and differ between regimes. They answer this question by proposing a unifying theoretical framework of mechanisms like brokerage, diffusion, coordinated action, certification and identity shift; as well as processes like mobilization, demobilization, and scale shift. They also propose a typology of regimes as a way to further clarify contentious repertoires.
Viewed as a unitary concept, ‘contentious politics’ means that similar mechanisms and processes are at play in any area of contention, regardless of type. This has several benefits: it allows scholars to compare and contrast different events across time and space. For instance, why similar types of social movements have different outcomes. It also allows for analysis into why some situations develop along one path and others along another. Furthermore, by associating certain forms of contention to regime type, Tilly and Tarrow provide a framework for making broad categorizations and predictions based on existing institutions.
What are the weaknesses?
Although Tilly and Tarrow believe that their analytical and processural methodology can be transposed onto any area or episode of contention, amalgamating such different forms of contention under one rubric denies some of the specificity inherent to historical events. It also does not address the influence of culture on perceptions and motivations. While regimes might preclude certain forms of contention, religion or culture might also limit or in other ways distort or delimit political values and options to assert power. Furthermore, trying to prove such a large framework becomes empirically (impossible) difficult. Although Tilly and Tarrow draw from a broad array of examples, even here their choices betray certain biases that prevent definitive assertion of their methodology.

The “contentious politics” authors explicitly state that their work explains contentious politics, not “normal” parliamentary politics. Why do they impose this limitation on their analysis? What does it tell us about this school of thought? (Spring 2010)


Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow make a strong distinction between ‘contentious’ politics and ‘normal’ politics based on their notion of what types of claims people make against the government. Since the government makes rules regarding the legitimate means of contention, those forms that remain within parliamentary bounds are considered ‘normal,’ such as elections. Those means outside the state’s accepted repertoire, or those means that disrupt daily activity, are off limits and defined as ‘contentious politics.’ More precisely, contentious politics uses disruptive techniques in order to make a political point or to change existing government policy. Such techniques include demonstrations, strikes, riots, terrorism, civil disobedience, revolution, and insurrection. Tilly defines contentious politics as, “Interactions in which actors make claims on someone else’s interest, in which governments appear either as targets, initiators of claims, or third parties (Tilly 2008, Contentious Performances, 5).”
Limiting their analysis to contentious as opposed to general politics, Tilly and Tarrow seek to describe and explain the mechanisms at play when social-political actors make a claim outside of the traditional political framework of a given state. Further, they attempt to generalize across a spectrum of various forms of contention in order to create a sort of blueprint for scholars and practitioners to use in an analysis of any specific episode. By limiting themselves to collective processes outside the political norm, they provide insight into how excluded actors attempt to achieve inclusion. They clearly draw the distinction between contentious politics as a dialectic of inclusion/exclusion and traditional politics as a process limited to degrees of inclusion.
Contentious politics combines three major features of social life: conflict, collective action, and politics. The intersection of these three processes means that groups are able to coordinate action to make claims against another party, where one of these parties is the government. This contention is distinguished from normal politics in that its repertoire of actions and mechanisms lie outside government rules of legitimate contention. Namely, it disrupts daily activity. Tilly and Tarrow explain this as a sort of continuum from social movements to violent civil wars and revolutions. Each type threatens the existing power to some extent, thereby establishing a similar group of mechanisms and processes that recur in different combinations to allow for the breadth of outcomes. In this way, each form of contention can be seen as possessing similar attributes (ie, regularities) as well as variation. Further, Tilly and Tarrow argue that the regularities are sustained by two principle “theatrical” metaphors of performance and repertoires. The former standardizes ways of making claims, such as demonstrations, while the latter groups such performances into a stylized playbook for a given situation and political actor. This means that different circumstances provide different repertoires – there is no ‘one size fits all’ mold.
Underlining this point, Tilly and Tarrow explain that the form and content of contention changes with changing regime types, as well as with the relations, institutions, opportunities, and threats that go along with regimes. Therefore, contention is inextricably linked to political power and institutions. Yet, this connection is contingent on the degree of democracy and capacity of any regime. The two authors argue that high-capacity undemocratic regimes feature clandestine political actors as opposition, and that these confrontations usually end in repression. Whereas low-capacity democratic regimes attract more military coups and conflicts along ethnic or religious lines, high-capacity democratic regimes are the site of a majority of the world’s social movements (57).
Contenders of the existing power structure see themselves or their interests as threatened, which prompts them to act. However, they are also responding to the opportunities available in the existing regime for them to act. Tilly and Tarrow outline six properties of such “political opportunity structures” to include:
· “The multiplicity of independent centers of power within it
· Its openness to new actors
· The instability of current political alignments
· The availability of influential allies or supporters for challengers
· The extent to which the regime represses or facilitates collective claim making
· Decisive changes in items 1 to 5 (57)”
Because contentious politics is focused on the dialectic inclusion/exclusion, the focus on regime type illuminates the role the government plays in defining who gets to be included and who doesn’t. The regime also controls the types of institutions that are included in its own repertoire of actions. Such control establishes the site of contention: contained contention takes place within prescribed or tolerated institutional forms while transgressive contention promotes new and/or forbidden forms. In this way, contention helps shape institutions over time. For instance, forms of contention once taboo (the protest or march or sit-in) are now considered typical.