What Others Think of Us

Social Esteem and Participation in Contentious Politics

Taking a look at recent episodes of social unrest, public protest, and other forms of contentious politics around the globe will tell you a lot about 2014. 

The year opened with violence in Kiev as thousands took to Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital to remove the Yanukovych government from power. Gay rights activists in St. Petersburg, Russia—but also throughout the world in a display of solidarity—protested the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in light of Russia’s controversial laws on “non-traditional” sexuality. Beginning in February, a wave of anti-government demonstrations—the largest in Venezuela in over a decade—demanded justice, protection, and economic changes from President Maduro. In August, Governor Jay Nixon declared a curfew and deployed the National Guard in response to growing unrest in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting of Michael Brown by a local police officer. In September, thousands took to the streets in Hong Kong to stand for election reform. And in December, the people of New York City shut down the Brooklyn Bridge chanting “I can’t breathe,” in remembrance of Eric Garner.

At the macro level, these movements—some carefully organized, others more decentralized; some more peaceful and others resulting in bloodshed—are about justice, equality, and political, economic, and personal freedoms. But what explains the decision, at the individual level, to join the struggle or to stay at home, to take a stand or to sit it out?

Harvard Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies Gwyneth McClendon believes one answer may be found in our own expectations about, and desires for, acceptance from others: the promise of social esteem.

In a study published recently in the American Journal of Political Science,1 McClendon builds on theories of collective action drawn from political science and psychology to explain incentives for participation in non-voting forms of contentious politics—the kinds of protests, rallies, marches, and social movements that 2014 will be remembered for. She reasons that studies of voter turnout linking participation to incentives for winning social esteem or avoiding shame in small communities could predict non-voting forms of political behavior. Furthermore, McClendon argues that participation in collective action on behalf of a group conveys compassion and competence—two factors found in social psychology research to correlate with winning admiration from others. This hypothesis leads her to question the relationship between promises of admiration from in-group members and the likelihood of participation.

But are the connections between social ties and participation (social “pull” factors) best understood through a social-esteem mechanism, or by looking at “grievances” or “access to information,” explanations also commonly found in social network theory? To answer this, McClendon uses data collected from members of an LGBT advocacy and support organization during a 2011 pride rally recognizing the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and promoting marriage equality. McClendon conducted the study in cooperation with the organization, which allowed her to observe intended participation, actual participation, and reported participation. Using a set of protocols “designed to protect subjects’ confidentiality and adhere to privacy statements on the organization’s website,” McClendon randomly assigned individuals to one of three groups that received email invitations from the organization to garner attendance for the pride rally. The first, a control group, only received information about the event. The second group’s email added the condition that attendance would be celebrated in the monthly newsletter. The email to the third group invited participants to post photos of the rally on the organization’s Facebook page. Her study also allowed for different ways of measuring participation—something particularly difficult to do in non-voting situations.

She found statistically significant results in favor of her hypothesis: those individuals who received emails promising recognition of their participation in newsletters, or by offering the opportunity to post pictures on the group’s Facebook page—rather than simply information about the event—were more likely to participate.

The study, “the first field experiment to examine participation in a rally, march, or other contentious political event,” according to McClendon, has important methodological as well as theoretical significance. Perhaps future research will consider the use of participatory fieldwork in the context of real-world, real-time contentious political events. Is it possible for McClendon’s methodology to illuminate the motivations behind students in Hong Kong ultimately deciding to take to the streets to support the Civic Party and Occupy Central? Could it explain the individual motivations behind the thousands that take to the streets in Ferguson?

While McClendon is optimistic about the methodology, she remains cautious about undertaking research where participants, organizers, and the scholars who research them might be placed in danger. While working with the LGBT organization, she was careful to provide accurate information, work with subjects that had already voluntarily signed up for listserv announcements, and keep all records anonymized, thus mitigating risk and eliminating other kinds of influence on the rally.

In an interview, she talked about deciding not to undertake research in parts of sub-Saharan Africa because it would have been ethically problematic due to the dangers of recording data on the political actions of individual participants. One could easily imagine the risk to participants if a list, even anonymous, fell into the hands of corrupt authorities or violent opposition groups.

“Researchers have to think carefully about the ethical implications of their studies, particularly when they are conducting experiments,” says McClendon. She notes having “made the decision not to pursue an experiment in a context in which participation in contentious politics could potentially place people at risk of physical harm,” and trying, “where possible, to work with organizations sponsoring these events so as not to stray too far from what they would do as part of their usual practice.”

But there is also room for research that uses alternative methodologies to investigate individual-level participation in contentious politics. Indeed, McClendon is already undertaking such research halfway around the world and more than forty years back in time to investigate women’s participation in early anti-apartheid movements in South Africa. While unable to leverage an experiment in real time, McClendon has instead searched the library archives to reconstruct physical evidence about the membership, communications, and context by which members of anti-apartheid organizations took to the streets, often at the expense of their own safety, to fight for gender and racial equality.

The archival research process itself reveals the challenges of studying individual-level variation in participation in contentious politics, according to McClendon. Women’s organizations that kept more detailed records of individual constituents and activities tended to be comprised of white, middle- and upper-class members who had less to fear from the state if they were identified. In contrast, organizations focused on mobilizing a multi-racial coalition of women, or only women of color, kept much less detailed individual records in order to protect their members.

McClendon’s research also brings up important questions about how and if technology can offer up new ways to test theories on participation. For example, in an age of hyperconnectivity might physical participation be less important? If so, studies focusing on social media networks might further illuminate the role of social esteem and participation.

The work could advance studies on the impact of new information communication technologies (ICTs) on participation in contentious politics that question whether free-riding and formal organizational structure are still relevant in understanding collective action problems in the twenty-first century.2 Using social media as both a causal mechanism and a measurement tool could focus research on the ways individuals seek social esteem through online networks as they leave digital footprints of their participation in the form of photos and videos, peer-to-peer tagging, and comments on social media. Such a focus could expand the relevant cases for which social esteem impacts participation: researchers can investigate rallies, marches, and protests that are decentralized, spontaneous, and also multi-locational—all linked together by a common digital thread. As information and communication technologies progress in the developing world3—the very same places where contentious politics are on the rise4—investigations of individual incentives behind large-scale group action will no doubt be critical.

Joseph GuayCommunications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.


  1. Gwyneth McClendon, “Social Esteem and Participation in Contentious Politics: A Field Experiment at an LGBT Rally,” American Journal of Political Science. Vol. 58, no. 2 (2014): 279–90.
  2. Bruce Bimber, Andrew J. Flanagin, and Cynthia Stohl, “Reconceptualizing Collective Action in the Contemporary Media Environment,” Communication Theory Vol. 15, no. 4 (2006): 365–88.
  3. International Telecommunication Union (ITU), The World in 2014: ICT Facts and Figures (August 2014), http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/facts/ICTFactsFigures2014-e.pdf.
  4. National Intelligence Council. Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds (2012), http://www.dni.gov/index.php/about/organization/global-trends-2030.

Image of Gwyneth McClendonGwyneth McClendon is a Faculty Associate of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and an assistant professor of government and social studies in the Departments of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University. Research interests: Comparative political behavior, political representation, ethnic politics and human rights, with regional foci on sub-Saharan Africa and the United States.