UMD-led team Calls for Innovation, Collaboration in Protest Data Collection, Analysis
From the Women’s March to the March for our Lives to the Youth Climate Strikes and many in between, the United States has seen a surge in street protests since the election of President Donald Trump nearly three years ago. Yet current methods for studying this form of social activism are struggling to keep pace, argues University of Maryland Sociology Professor Dana R. Fisher.
In a paper published October 23 in , Fisher and colleagues outline the challenges and limitations associated with studying protests scientifically on a large scale. For example, the frequency and widening geographic scope of recent protests throughout the country makes it difficult to gather event data and conduct crowd surveys for demonstrations happening simultaneously in different regions and cities.
“Participating in protests and demonstrations is an important form of political participation throughout the world,” Fisher said. “If scholars are to understand the meaning of these events for politics, greater collective effort is needed to scale-up and standardize the way we study them.”
In her book, “,” due out in November, Fisher examined seven of the largest protests in Washington, DC associated with opposition to President Trump. She and co-authors on the Science Advances paper say forming teams of scholars and developing a methodology for conducting crowd surveys across a range of protest sites would create a more robust dataset and more comprehensive answers to crucial questions, such as: Who is protesting? How often? What messages are they trying to send? How do protests connect, if at all, to other political activities?
The paper also advocates for adding in-depth interviews and ethnography to current forms of protest research in order to provide a more complete portrait of the state of protest and activism in America.
“In the middle of a period of heightened protest, collecting and analyzing high-quality data on protest and making it publicly available has special significance,” Fisher said. “Whether we see continued escalation of protest or demobilization in the coming years, rigorous and ongoing research on this wave of contention will be central to understanding protest mobilization and its broader consequences for generations to come.”
Fisher’s co-authors on the Science Advances paper include Kenneth Andrews and Neal Caren from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Erica Chenoweth from Harvard University; Michael Heaney from the University of Glasgow in Scotland; Jeremy Pressman from the University of Connecticut; and independent scholars Tommy Leung and Nathan Perkins.