An Institutional Base for the Culture of Protest Radim Marada

Although the cultural form of public protest implicates a mental topography, in no way does this mean that a protest is a mere state of mind. Similarly, the possibility of some figurative passage through various meanings of social contexts—entering and exiting them—does not mean that a protest is merely a passing event. On the contrary, a certain measure of stability of social actors, demonstrated for example in conflicts of individual identities, is made possible only through a certain level of stability of differentiated behavioral contexts. And such stability must be institutionally supported.

The protest culture, however, is not made visible just by certain signs that are available to social actors such as clothing, physical appearance, or language. It also includes a set of institutional forms of organization the description of a public protest not only in cultural terms but also as a sphere of social interaction where mutual expectations and specific roles are organized. It is here that an interpretation, thus far led from the positions of Simmel’s concept on cultural forms, can be completed by the more explicit inspiration of Luhmann’s theory on social systems.

Several organizational forms currently institutionalize and represent the culture of protests. A protest can be expressed and put into practice in a number of ways: demonstrations, petitions, boycotts, happenings, artistic events, hunger strikes, public seminars, and gatherings, etc. There also exist, however, more permanent institutional forms that can represent protest cultures in certain ways: different kinds of nonprofit organizations and specifically focused social movements, one-time civic initiatives, guerilla organizations, variously oriented think tanks, intellectual or artistic groups, discussion clubs or Internet chat groups, free networks, and informally organized groups with similarly oriented or like-minded people (i.e., hackers), various periodicals, magazines, manifestos, etc.

Certainly, the above organizational forms are barely new. At the same time they are representative in various measures of current protest movements and they are far from being tied to the protest culture only. They can serve, and they do, simultaneously for a number of other socially defined purposes. Nevertheless, they are more compatible with a public protest expression than for instance organizational forms such as political parties, unions, family, sports clubs, universities, TV channels, business firms, traditional churches, or ministries. It is true that some of the organization forms listed above can also play a certain role in the process of institutionalization of the protest and they play this role often—i.e., universities. Generally it is suitable to choose dealing with one of the above organizational contexts for publicly visible and preferably transparent expressions of the process, unless confusion of the public is part of the intent. The above organizational forms not only make the protest socially visible, but they provide a supporting structure for maintaining a protest identity.1

However, the important thing is that the cultural form of the protest alone, as an agent creating significance, helps the social actors to distinguish the cultural and political status of certain organizations. It classifies organizational forms, for example, not only according to their material focus but also according to the measure in which these forms represent the power system and how near or distant they are to it. The cultural protest form differentiates not only social actors but also the organizational contexts they act in and through which they reach their goals.

Organizational protest forms, whether one-time or permanent, represent, at least potentially, an admissible repertoire of institutionalized conduct that actors have available to monitor their various goals in multiple ways. The diversity of organizational forms of public protest shows that in addition to ideological diversification, organizational diversification also exists inside a protest movement. Organizational diversity is not only a matter of style, however. It enables many types of actors—actors with various motivations, abilities, specializations, possibilities, personal tastes, and measures of loyalty or courage—to play all sorts of roles or perform various functions and continue to be a part of the protest movement or represent a protest culture. While some take care of public relations and speak with the media, others can look for ways to financially secure their organization, take care of lobbying and drawing up petitions, sign them or fight the police in the streets, organize demonstrations, participate in them, discuss various topics during seminars, collect and spread information, perhaps crash the Pentagon Internet pages, popularize general ideas or just subscribe to anarchist manifestos. Organizational diversity is the fundamental condition for individual social actors who take part in public protests and help reproduce the protest culture, enabling them to perform at least some of the listed and many more unlisted roles and functions and combine them in various ways.

According to Luhmann’s theory, the internal differentiation of roles and functions is one of the important signs of a viable social system.2 Another important trait of social interaction systems according to this theory is the establishment of various communication channels with other social systems or subsystems. This development logically follows the internal differentiation of the system, which enables the specialization of some roles and functions in communication with other systems or contexts of social conduct. Different segments of movements have their legitimate spokesmen, some activists organize press conferences, and others know how to capture the media’s attention and how to talk to them.

In the case of a protest movement, the establishment of media channels of communication with the wider public makes it possible, among other things, to establish an acceptable relationship with the state or public administration, perhaps even with the business sector. Petitions and demonstrations represent two examples of many different ways the government or the public administration can be addressed and influenced on various levels. Nowadays, members of different protest groups and civil initiatives participate in all sorts of government projects and they sit in a number of diverse commissions without necessarily having the feeling that they are betraying their own concerns. Sometimes they can even find people they can dialogue with among the members of political parties.

I will not further elaborate on the two aforementioned points—the internal organizational and functional differentiation of the public protest sphere and the establishment of channels of communication with the social surroundings. The description is meant to serve purely as an illustration of a more fundamental general phenomenon: the rich institutional base that the culture of public protest deals with today and that helps to maintain and stabilize the corresponding types of identity. Certainly, countless discussions take place within the protest movement about which organizational forms and their corresponding strategies are still acceptable, without, for example, morally compromising of the whole movement or a part of it or which direction and how far to go in establishing communication and cooperative structures with governments, political parties, or businesses. And in these discussions, a considerable range disagreement between different types of activists generally comes to surface. That does not oppose the claim, however, that something like a protest culture exists—a constant and loud monitoring of the borders of authentic protest that cultivates sensitivity toward cultural differences between various spheres of conduct and ways of communicating.

Disputes over the measure and ways of integration into a system for the purpose of achieving partial goals only confirm the cultural strength of protest forms as sources of personal identity, comprehensibility and the trustworthiness of conduct itself. If protest movements and protest culture are to maintain their attractive character, the instrumentalization of the conduct of their representatives should never outweigh the expressive part of the protest. It is certainly possible to sit on two or more chairs: in the morning at the committee of the Government Council for Minorities and in the afternoon that of a demonstrator against the system. Should the authenticity of such forms of protest be maintained, then it is necessary to try to make the Government Council for Minorities be something culturally completely different than perhaps a Committee for Stocks and Bonds or a Consolidation Agency.

Discursive attention paid to the borders of authentic protest basically makes cultural difference felt internally, socially effective, and at the same time contributes in this way to the articulation of the social identities of the respective actors. It drives those ask what side they are really on and who they are.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to always remember the difference between a protest as a cultural form or medium of communication on the one hand and the institutional and organizational support of protest movements and groups on the other hand. There does not exist any immediate mutual correspondence or identity between the two. It is rather a relationship of mutual balance and support. Organizational structures enable the drainage of a protest, association of the protest actors, or even the focus of a protest on a concrete target. Institutionalized forms of conduct and interaction (organizations) stabilize the environment in which a protest can be cultivated as a shared cultural representation. This requires that the expressions of the protest mentality must not collide with the organizations’ agenda and weaken its effectiveness regarding the goals that the organization is defined by. On the other hand, the mentality of the protest represents a controlling authority against an exceeding strategic instrumentalization of organized activities—an instrumentalization that could easily drag the protesters into the logic of the system, against which it has a negative stand. It is here that we find a significant source of tension which places a challenge of protest authenticity in front of the protest participants.


1 / Bert Klandermans, for example, deals with the issue of the role of a “multi-organizational” field in forming the collective identity of protestors. See Bert Klandermans, “The Social Construction of Protest and Multi-organizational Fields,” Frontiers in Social Movement Theory, ed. Morris, A. D., Mueller, Yale University Press, New Haven 1992; Bert Klanderman, The Social Psychology of Protest, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford 1997.

2 / Here we give preference to the term system of social interaction rather than the term social system used by Luhmann which in a way loses the figure of the participating actor. Nevertheless, Luhmann devotes enough attention to the question of interaction between social actors in his treatises on social systems.


Radim Marada, “Systémová kooptace občanského hnutí, součást opětovné legitimizace moci či ekologická modernizace,” Demokracie, veřejnost a občanská společnost, Filosofia, Prague 2004, p. 184–189.