Reform, Transformation, Emancipation

Conceptualizing Political Protest in Modern Democracies

in Democratic Theory
Christian VolkProfessor, Department of Social Sciences, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany

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This article outlines a theoretical framework for interpreting the meaning and function of political protest in modern democracies and develops normative criteria for assessing its democratic quality. To allow for a better understanding of how social structures, legal institutions, and political engagement interact in protest, I combine analytical perspectives from social theory and democratic theory. A useful first distinction, I argue, is between reformist and transformative forms of protest. While reformist protest does not challenge the given framework of the modern democratic order, transformative protest politicizes the basic principles of that order. Finally, I develop four criteria to identify emancipatory traits within protest movements: 1) expanding the circle of those who benefit from the fulfillment of democracy’s promises; 2) the establishment of discursive democratic spaces; 3) a balance between dramatization and exchange; and 4) a willingness to become someone else.

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