POL 4360 -- Contentions Politics: Protest, Revolution, & Terrorism


“Of course no single Tweet or Facebook group compelled these thousands of people to march.  But digital and social media facilitated communication between and within oppressed nations, and helped the dissatisfaction that had been building below the surface to become a collective struggle.”

Elizabeth Hunter, “The Arab Revolution and Social Media” 


Louix XVI to "C'est une révolte."  'Non, sire, c'est une révolution.'

Louis XVI and the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, on the night the Bastille was taken.


“We have slain a large dragon.  But we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering array of poisonous snakes.  And in many ways, the dragon was easier to keep track of.”

R. James Woolsey, as Director of the CIA 


There are few sights more formidable than an angry crowd.  Even peaceful protest marches are viewed warily by local police officer and shopkeeper alike, for when the mood of a crowd turns sour a violence of frightening ferocity can quickly result.  It is perhaps in anticipation of this unfortunate result that cable news networks are sure to have their cameras at the ready.  Yet protests are not simply about rallies and placards, repetitive chants and drumming—nor even the occasional window-smashing and running scuffles with riot police.  Protests are far more than random acts of anger or displeasure: they are a particular form of politics.  That is, they are simply another way to influence the decisions behind who in society gets what.  More particularly, protests are the reflection of certain grievances deemed unsolvable in light of existing political orders and structures.  There would, after all, be no ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement if the protesters were convinced ballot boxes were sufficient to ensure their preferences over society’s level of material equality were being met.  


This dissatisfaction is a remarkably potent force.  At the extreme, when displeasure with the status quo rises to a boiling point, calls for revolution can be the explosive outcome.  Treat a group too shabbily and they will revolt, trading mass marches and peaceful demonstrations for violence organized along military lines.  Revolutionaries are thus protesters of a higher order.  They seek to go beyond mere agenda-setting and instead capture the state entirely.  This way it can be transformed to meet their own purposes.  The coercive lengths revolutionaries are willing to go to achieve this should not be underestimated.  


Yet revolutionaries often fail.  The state is, after all, an incredibly hardy creature.  With the police, military, and other security forces at its disposal, many a rebellion has been crushed.  When faced with such difficulty, it is common for the most seriously committed to their cause to adopt more desperate tactics.  The use of terror aims not to capture the state—at least in the immediate term—but rather to use indiscriminate acts of violence to shape the political debate, thereby encouraging the attainment of political goals by indirect means.  Accordingly, our world today is incredibly paradoxical: we live amongst states with unquestionable power.  They are protected by militaries with unparalleled armed might, police services with well-honed skills of investigation, and surveillance technologies that make George Orwell’s 1984 seem to lack ambition.  But despite this remarkable potency, terrorists have never had more destructive means at their disposal.  This is a very strange condition for an extremely befuddling time.


To help make sense of this, POL 4360 will use the seminar format to critically evaluate the three main pillars of ‘dissatisfied’ popular mobilization: protest movements, revolutions, and terrorism.  While each subject offers a distinct literature, the aim here is to try and bridge the separate approaches under a common purpose: how and why do dissatisfied political actors behave as they do?  It is nonetheless useful to think of this course as divided into three (admittedly somewhat unequal) parts.  We will begin first with a discussion of contentious politics and the various ways and means social movements take to the streets in an effort to advance their members’ interests.  Second, we will look to examine not only some of the classic theories offering explanations for why individuals and groups feel revolution is their best means of achieving political success.  Lastly, we will examine not only the motivations of terrorists, but also the current means at their disposal, the implications that has on a modern liberal, democratic society, and what can be done to counteract such indiscriminate threats.  


Course work for undergraduates includes seminar participation, a paper outline, a 20-page finished product, and two 15-minute reading presentations—each accompanied by brief, 2 or 3-page synopses.  Opportunity will also be afforded roughly halfway through the course (Feb 14) to present paper outlines to the class, for those students who choose to do so.  Graduate students will complete these same basic requirements, with two exceptions.  First, the length of their final paper will be extended to 25-pages, with the stipulation that the additional 5 pages of material consists of a much more extensive literature review component.  To be clear, graduate students will be required to demonstrate a far more comprehensive grasp of the theories and debates that make up this field.  Second, graduate students will face higher expectations in terms of the quality and quantity of their seminar participation.  Masters and PhD students need to get comfortable with expressing their ideas in public fora, and then partaking in the debate that almost invariably follows.


As this is a seminar course, students will be required to sign up and present two readings per course—though the final number will ultimately depend on student numbers.  Readings will be selected by the students’ own choosing.  A sign-up sheet will be passed around during the first class, and a copy will be maintained online.  Selection of readings will occur on a first-come, first-served basis.  Once chosen, students may not change their selection.  


Keep in mind that seminar obligations are not limited to the presenters alone.  All students should arrive at class well prepared to discuss the material to be covered.  This includes completing the readings well ahead of time.  In particular, all students will be expected to be able to answer, by drawing on the course readings, each of the discussion questions outlined below.  These will generally be addressed directly during the instructor’s preliminary discussions of each topic—with each student being provided an equal opportunity to contribute their thoughts—and may be returned to during the class presentations.  In the case of lulls in the conversation, or where certain students are failing to participate in the class discussion, the instructor reserves the right to ask any student any of these questions at any time.  This necessitates a consideration of both the reading material (of which there will by 5-8 readings per week, though the length of the total pages read will vary) and the discussion questions well prior to the seminar itself.  Meanwhile, during class discussions, students should make their points succinctly and clearly, and must not unduly monopolize the time available for discussion.  It should go without saying that criticism should be constructive, rather than pejorative, ad hominem, or outside the course material.


Lastly, the core learning objectives of this class come in two forms.  The first and most obvious is the need to become confidently familiar with the theories and evidence contained within the class readings.  These pieces constitute the bedrock of our understanding of the causes and conduct of contentious political action.  An appreciation and mastery of this knowledge is therefore imperative before any further research can be completed, including a student’s written assignments.  The second set of objectives deal with the mechanics of theory, research, and both verbal and written communication.  In this light, a seminar setting aims to not only further the traditional skills of knowledge recitation and paper writing, but also to practice and develop competence in idea presentation and debate.  Such abilities are highly useful to topics and contexts far beyond this course.



Course Documents


Memorial - Pol 4360 - Contentious Politics - Winter 2012.docx


Readings Sign-up Sheet.xls