The central research question of this Belgian research proposal is the role and importance of protest issues or themes in determining who will participate in protest, why they do so, and how they get to do so. In the context of non-conventional political participation, mobilizing issues, or issue contexts have a peculiar status. On macro- and meso-level, many studies have differentiated between different types of movements, most notably between old and new social movements, mobilizing different issue publics (see e.g. Kriesi et al 1995; Dalton et al 1999). Still, whereas we do know that these different issues, quite obviously, mobilize different issue publics, how this is the case, and to which degree they differently instigate individuals to become and stay involved is basically still a theoretical black box. In recent mainstream political science literature however, issues or policy themes gain increasing attention as an essential thematic links between parties and their electorates, or, in other words, between the supply and demand side of politics. If voters care a lot about an issue when they cast their ballot, chances are high that they will vote for the party they consider to be the “owner” of that issue, that is: the party that is best placed to tackle the issue that is on top of their mind (Petrocik 1996). By and large, in modern campaigning, issue ownership appears to be gradually replacing party identification and deep ideological affinity as drivers of votes (Dalton 1996). As people identify less with parties and since their ideological links with parties are withering, they increasingly rely on issues as electoral beacons (Walgrave and De Swert 2007).

Yet, as said, in the study of non-conventional politics, this role of ‘issue-specific opportunities is far less explored, although, as Meyer and Minkoff (2004: 1461) acknowledge, it is obvious that ‘[w]hat provokes mobilization for one movement or constituency may depress mobilization of another, and be completely irrelevant to a third’. Verba et al (1995) specify the peculiar importance of issues by referring to them as ‘theoretical wildcards’ in their renowned Civic Voluntarism model, arguing that: “as issues come and go, they mobilize to politics different issue publics” (Verba et al. 1995: 522). Mobilizing issues not only link micro-level participation to movement types (e.g. ‘old’ versus ‘new’ social movements), and to politics and society (e.g. are they political issues, partisan issues,…); they also shape the micro-level, or demand side of protest (e.g. are they reacted upon in an instrumental or ideological way, or do they appeal to moral sentiments or a sense of collective identity…).

The reason for this meager attention to the importance of mobilizing issues is in essence methodological. Non-conventional participation is studied either using case studies, or using large-scale survey data; the first do take into account issue-contexts, but mostly lack comparability; the second are the paragon of comparative research, but the importance of the concrete issues people are effectively participating for is not taken into account, leading to the leveling-out of the data to the largest mean. Using the protest survey dataset gathered by all national teams, which will contain about 70 demonstrations on a variety of issues, and including national context variables as controlling variables, we can not only clarify the way in which different issues attract different issue publics, in different ways, with different motivations, but also the way in which they are embedded within different organizational backgrounds of different strengths and political weight. In other words, we expect that different issues produce different logical constellations in the ‘who’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of protest participation. Accordingly, we can assess the relative importance of issues in attracting more or less experienced protesters, assuming that some issues (like e.g. peace, third world,…) are more universal and inherently more longer-term than more immediate and particularistic issues like for instance corporate closedowns. Also questions on protest issues’ capacity to mobilize more or less diverse publics, and the way in which they are able to produce bonding (in-group) or bridging (between-group) social capital can be tested (Putnam 2000). Finally, next to determining the discerning importance of issues on a range of variables, we can also test if, beyond or across issues, there do exist universal logics in and pathways to participation; if there, in other words exist some stable relations between the ‘who’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ of participation that are universally sound predictors of protest participation. In the figure below we situate the Belgian proposal within the general proposal.

Figure: Belgian research question

The Belgian project team, being a pioneer in protest surveying and associated techniques, has considerable experience with the use of protest surveys (Van Aelst and Walgrave 2001; Walgrave and Verhulst 2008), and initiated an 8-country demonstration data collection effort on the 2003 anti-war protest wave (Verhulst and Walgrave 2007; Walgrave and Verhulst 2009). Participating in this ESF project would mean a crucial step forward in maximizing not only country variation, but also in maximizing the variety of protest issues and the organizational contexts in which they occur, the crucial explaining variable in the individual project proposed by the Belgium team. This way, several theoretical issues which are (empirically) underdeveloped can be put to the empirical test.

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