Small Talk, Unobtrusive Protest, and Authoritarian Withdrawal


Wednesday, March 31, 2010, 4:10pm to 5:30pm


124 Mt. Auburn Street, Suite 200-North, Room 226, Cambridge, MA

Hank JohnstonHank Johnston, San Diego State University

About the Seminar
In this seminar, Professor Johnston suggests that unobtrusive forms of protest and small-scale resistance commonly occur in repressive states. He will trace the various forms of anti-regime activity to suggest that they play an important role in the process of authoritarian withdrawal and democratic transition. Drawing on a wide range of cases, he will describe a bottom-up, popular approach to regime liberalization in which the recursive effects of small, isolated protest actions lay claim to public spaces and take advantage of elite divisions. Beginning with the most microscopic level of political contention, which he will identify as oppositional speech situations, he will trace their clustering in intellectual circles, cultural and social groups, dissident groups, and some official organizations. These organizations can act duplicitously to nurture oppositional sentiments and provide forums where such sentiments can enter the public sphere. He will then discuss the effects of these actions on public opinion, civil society, and elite alignments. As protests become public, elite divisions create uneven application of repressive measures and, in some instances, even the facilitation of oppositional behaviors. This tends to push oppositional attitudes into yet more public arenas in the form of hit-and-run actions and symbolic protests. Symbolic protests are large mobilizations focusing on proxy issues that reflect indirect criticisms of the regime. The accumulating effect is to chip away at regime legitimacy in the long term. Elite responses in the form of piecemeal reforms tend to be inelastic in the sense that freedoms once conceded are rarely rolled back completely as popular pressure and elite reaction wax and wane over time. Authoritarian withdrawal must be understood, therefore, as partly driven by changing elite assessments, and partly driven by popular resistance reaching far back into the regime’s tenure and often falling below the analyst’s radar.

You can watch the seminar here.

About Hank Johnston
Dr. Hank Johnston is an associate professor in the Sociology department at San Diego State University. His research interests include social movements, theory, social psychology, and minorities. He is the editor or MOBILIZATION and teaches Soc Psychology Mind, Self, and Society; Social Change; and Protests, Reforms, and Revolution. Johnston holds a Ph.D. from the University of California in San Diego.

Democracy Seminar Series
The Democracy Seminar Series brings distinguished speakers to Harvard Kennedy School for the academic year to address critical challenges facing democratic governance.