Transformation of the Far Right: What can protest event analysis tell us?

The far right today is a global and diverse phenomenon, that encompasses a wide range of different actors and organizations. Tamta Gelashvili argues that scholarship on the far right would benefit from the use of Protest Event Analysis (PEA) to analyze and compare far-right mobilization across cultural contexts and over time.

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Protest of the Identitarian Movement in Vienna, 2021. Image: Ivan Radic (Creative Commons)

This article was first published in The Sociological Review. 

The character of the far-right political family is changing, and scholarship seeking to understand these movements could benefit significantly from incorporating methods and methodologies from the field of social movement studies. A key method in social movement studies, protest event analysis (PEA), could help analyse far-right protest and its variation among countries and over time. Moreover, in facilitating comparative research, PEA can help to overcome the Western and Eurocentric bias of scholarship on the far right.

Over the past few decades, the far right has become one of the most studied phenomena in political science. As a result, we now know a lot more about the far right: for example, why people vote for the far right, why they join far-right parties, and how far-right parties communicate their ideology.

Scholarship on the far right started out by examining successful far-right parties, and early studies centred on (Western) European countries including Germany, France and the UK. Such research was focused on parties and electoral politics. This Western-centric and party-focused legacy persists in the literature to this day, even though some valuable recent studies have called for scholarship to extend to non-Western contexts and non-party actors to reflect the evolving nature of the far right itself.

In recent years, far-right politics have succeeded in multiple countries around the world beyond Europe, such as Brazil and India, among others. In addition, this political family has expanded beyond political parties: the contemporary far right also operates in the form of social movement organisations and small, informal groups. These actors mainly engage in street politics, and in the long run they and their initiatives may prove to be as important as – if not more important than – political parties.

To reflect this transformation, a number of scholars have called for a convergence of the literature on the far right with that on social movements. Social movement studies have a long tradition of examining movement mobilisation in the extra-parliamentary arena. This field has traditionally focused on leftwing and progressive movements, but it could offer valuable insights on mobilisation at the other end of the political spectrum as well.

Protest Event Analysis: capturing protest

Protest event analysis is a method of content analysis that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some of the most prominent research using this method explored the Civil Rights movement in the US, workers’ and students’ movements in Italy, and new social movements in Western Europe including women’s movements, squatters’ movements, peace movements and LGBT movements.

Specific strategies of engaging with PEA can vary, especially when it comes to data sources. Most studies using this method draw on newspaper data: for example, news coverage of protest events. Others use police records or data collected by specific movements, as well as a combination of these sources.

Despite this variety, PEA in general refers to gathering and analysing data on protest. By collecting data on the characteristics of specific protests, including location, size, participants, aim, targets, type of action, and degree of violence, PEA enables a detailed analysis of protest waves and how protest can vary from one point in time to another, and from one geographical area to another. Accordingly, PEA enabled empirical observation of phenomena whose analysis had previously been characterised by “informed speculation”.


Diversity and comparability

It is increasingly clear that PEA has great potential to contribute to comparative scholarship on the far right. First, PEA has the potential to produce comparable data across countries and over time. Comparability of data requires that one does not compare apples and oranges; and this comparability can be ensured if data sources are similar (eg, if data are gathered from quality newspapers with nationwide coverage) and if the data itself are similar (eg, if data collection focuses on hard aspects of protests, such as time, location, size, organisers, etc., and not on soft aspects, like the internal motivators of individual protesters and their goals).

Recent comparative studies have used PEA to examine far-right protests in Western Europe. An ongoing project of the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo, Comparative Far-Right Protest (CFP) aims to expand this method over time and across space, and to include countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

Exploring regions and countries beyond Europe is a promising avenue of research that could enable a better understanding of far-right protest across the globe and its variation among regions and contexts.

In merging the two strands of research, scholarship on the far right and social movement studies can expand our knowledge of far-right politics in two ways. First, in examining the street activities of far-right movements, social movement studies, and more specifically PEA, can help us understand the diversity of far-right politics, including different kinds of actors (parties and informal groups) and different kinds of actions (electoral campaigns and street protests).

Second, this convergence could help to address the Eurocentric and Western-centric bias of existing research on the far right and move beyond generalisations based on specific contexts and gain more insight into how the far-right is evolving, and how far-right protest varies among countries and over time.

Tags: far right, protest, Methodology By Tamta Gelashvili
Published Nov. 22, 2021 6:46 AM - Last modified Nov. 22, 2021 6:46 AM
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