Contentious politics (CP) is a relatively new, interdisciplinary field of study born of an explicit critique of the various discipline-specific subfields that focus on different forms of non-routine or unconventional politics. These include work on widely-varying forms of contention such as terrorism, civil war, social movements, peasant rebellions and revolution as well as social movements and protest. Proponents of the CP framework call for a broader and more synthetic approach to theory and empirical research in this broad area. Perhaps the best way to get a sense of what is distinctive about the new field is to compare it to the subfield of social movements that has tended to dominate the study of non-routine politics in recent years.

  1. The study of social movements has focused primarily on contemporary reform movements in the democratic West, largely ignoring contention in different times and regime contexts. Only through broadly comparative work, can we understand both the similarities and differences in the dynamics of contention across these contexts.

  2. The study of social movements is “movement-centric” it its focus. In contrast, we encourage scholars to analyze the broader “episodes of contention” of which they are a part and at the interaction between challengers and polity members that drives contention.

  3. The study of social movements has privileged political movements or challenges to state authority. We think the CP approach can be adapted to the study of contention in any institutional setting, such as the study of challenges to established authority in firms (Davis et al. 2005), religious institutions (Katzenstein 1998), cultural fields (Rao 2001), schools or other educational settings (Binder 2002), among other institutional arenas.

  4. The study of social movements has been deeply rooted in sociology. This has meant that most movement scholars have been generally unaware of parallel work in political science, anthropology, and history on other forms of non-routine or contentious politics. We want to encourage a much broader, interdisciplinary understanding of contention.

  5. The social movement field has generally relied on static variable models to study conflict dynamics. While open to all techniques, we have stressed the need for methods that encourage a more dynamic, interactive understanding of contention and ideally allows for the identification of the mechanisms and processes that generally shape contentious episodes.

The workshops will encourage the participation of students from anthropology, history, political science and sociology, as well as from socially-engaged studies from the humanities. We hope to encourage participants to reach across disciplinary boundaries to consider how different forms of contention compare to, and shed light on, their own projects, thereby contributing to a broad, interdisciplinary field of contentious politics.


  • Marie E. Berry

    University of California / Los Angeles, Sociology

    Mass Violence and the Political Empowerment of Women: A Global Comparison
    Women comprise 25% more seats in parliament on average in countries that have experienced mass violence since 1955. This dissertation first explains this remarkable fact through a global quantitative analysis of women in parliament, and suggests that traditional explanations for women’s political representation are insufficient as they neglect the positive correlation between violence and women in power. Second, this dissertation explores this phenomenon through case studies on Rwanda and Bosnia. Rwanda experienced the fastest genocide in history merely 15 years ago, and today has the world’s highest percentage of women in Parliament. Bosnia also experienced widespread violence during the early 1990s, but today women comprise only 12% of the Parliament. This research project identifies the mechanisms that were triggered by the genocide in Rwanda and served to successfully link women to high positions of power, including: a demographic vacuum due to the high proportion of men being killed, displaced or imprisoned; the re-conceptualization of women as capable and benevolent in the wake of atrocities; and the collective mobilization of women through formal organizational structures. Furthermore, it explores the conditions present in Bosnia that prevented these mechanisms from operating, developing a theory of the relationship between violence and women’s political representation.
  • Quinlan Bernhard Bowman

    University of California / Berkeley, Political Science

    Participation as Cooperation or Contention?: The Case of Participatory Governance Councils in Venezuela
    When do attempts to incorporate citizens into state decision-making lead to effective cooperation among citizens and their officials, and when do such attempts lead to episodes of contentious action? My research addresses this question by examining participatory institutions in Venezuela. Participatory institutions are state-sponsored venues in which citizens discuss public policy and engage in problem solving regarding policy implementation. There has recently been a proliferation of participatory institutions in Venezuela. These institutions are funded by the national government but ostensibly politically autonomous from it. Venezuela has lately been the site of multiple episodes of large-scale national protest. Members of the opposition movement have mobilized to oust the current administration; government supporters have engaged in contentious action in support of it. My research explores how local participatory institutions are shaping the forms of political action that citizens engage in. In opposition strongholds, do these councils primarily act as sites for contention, or are new cooperative state-society relations being formed? Where supporters predominate, are the councils primarily sites for mobilization on behalf of administration priorities? Do councils receive uniform treatment by the state, regardless of their internal activities? Or are some punished and others rewarded, leading to new episodes of contention?
  • Erik Cleven

    Purdue University, Political Science

    Informal Networks and Formal Institutions: Understanding the Dynamic Role of Social Capital in Political Violence in Africa
    I will carry out research in Kenya to determine how informal networks interact with formal institutions in the production of ethnic violence. Theories of ethnic conflict that focus on conflicts over land resources or failed institutions cannot fully explain violence in Kenya. Recent research that focuses on the microfoundations of violence does not adequately illuminate how violence is mobilized. This research seeks to answer two main questions. First, does the mobilization of political violence depend on broad-based social capital and dense social networks, or is it mobilized by narrow, insular networks detached from broader patterns of civic engagement? Second, if narrow networks are behind the mobilization of political violence, this can occur in two ways. It could occur in spite of broad-based social capital that would otherwise impede violence. Alternatively, narrower networks may be organizing violence only in the absence of strong social capital. Resolving these questions will contribute to the literature on ethnic conflict by adding to our understanding of agency in ethnic violence, and why violence occurs in some places and not others, and why some identities and not others become politically salient. Finally, it will show how substantive issues interact with social structure to produce violence.
  • Elisabeth Sara Fink

    New York University (NYU), French Studies and History

    Elections and Empire: Voting in French West Africa, 1945-1960
    My project focuses on the meaning of elections in French West Africa following the Second World War. Connecting historical scholarship on empire to later work on democracy by political scientists, I will examine how citizenship and political culture in French West Africa were shaped by the act of voting. While a small number of people in Senegal’s four communes had been enfranchised since the nineteenth century, post-war reforms established universal citizenship and expanded the franchise throughout the colony. By 1956, all Africans in French West Africa over age twenty-one could vote. The expansion of voting rights took place in the context of enormous contestation among French and African actors over what empire should look like, how overseas citizens should participate in its governance, and what rights, duties, and benefits they should expect from the state. In the context of the expansion of the right to vote, how did Africans envision the possibilities and constraints of voting? Examining how Africans viewed voting helps us think about the idea of democratic institutions as universal: voting might mean something different in Paris than in Bamako. By the postwar era, elections were a key element of imperial citizenship.
  • Janice Kreinick Gallagher

    Cornell University, Government

    Legalization’s effect on the claims-making of non-state actors
    Why do governments comply with their international human rights commitments? Does international law’s status under domestic law matter for compliance? Prevailing literature on this topic has focused on whether or not a country ratifies an international treaty, arguing that such treaty commitments shape the way citizens make demands on their national governments. Such work, however, tells us little about how international law plays out in the domestic arena once ratified. Building on existing literature, I suggest that how both treaty commitments and customary law are situated in regard to national law define the space within which domestic claim-makers operate. Thus, where a state’s constitution explicitly privileges international law over domestic law, non-state actors pursue litigation in both the domestic and international arenas more vigorously than their counterparts in countries where international law is secondary to domestic law. In my dissertation, I seek to develop and investigate this hypothesis through a series of comparative case studies of NGOs in Colombia (where international law has precedence over domestic law) and Mexico (where domestic law trumps international law). Further, I seek to measure the extent to which the behavior of domestic claims-makers responds to the “opportunities” international treaty commitments present.
  • Beth Gharrity Gardner

    University of California / Irvine, Sociology

    “The Interrelations Among Social Movements: The Diffusion of Contention and Movement Emergence Stories”
    Studies examining relations among the constellation of political contenders in the public sphere have been unable to include more than a few social movements or years and often neglect the connections between movements and organizations or between structural and interpretive processes. To fill these gaps, two main questions will be explored using new data from the newspaper coverage of all major U.S. social movement organizations (SMOs) across the twentieth century. First, under what conditions – changing political, economic, and media environments – were the rates of SMO formation and their rates of emergence in national newspaper articles influenced by information-diffusion or organizational-diffusion processes? Through examining movements by issue I ascertain what inter-movement dynamics and historical contexts promote the spread of claims-making beyond a single movement. Secondly, I examine under what conditions do SMOs receive coverage legitimating their claims-making at emergence? These questions will be addressed by employing time-series and content-analyses on data from more than 1200 U.S. SMOs over a 100 years from four major newspapers: the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times.
  • Mimi Kim

    University of California / Berkeley, Social Welfare

    The Anti-Violence Movement and Demands for Justice: Examining the Paradoxes of Political Success
    The historical trajectory of the U.S. anti-violence movement as a sector of the contemporary feminist movement is notable in its increasing reliance on criminal legal remedies. The growing criminalization of gender-based violence marks both the movement’s success and its transition to a demobilized social service sector. How has criminalization become a naturalized response to gender-based violence? What political and organizational conditions facilitated this shift, and how has the increasing trend influenced movement dynamics and goals? To better understand the nature of changing historical conditions and its implications on movement dynamics, I will conduct: 1) semi-structured interviews of movement leaders instrumental in advancing criminal justice collaborations as well as key opponents; and 2) case studies of emerging anti-violence organizational challenges to criminalization. The objective of the research is to evaluate the causal significance of transformational historical moments on movement dynamics, including influential law suits challenging unresponsive law enforcement, the promotion of mandatory arrest policies, and the passage of the 1994 Violence against Women Act. It also aims to uncover the relationship of these moments to general patterns of mobilization, demobilization and the emergence of contemporary radical challenges represented by the prison abolitionist movement, communities-of-color and lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer (LGBTQ) communities.
  • Nicole C. List

    University of California / Berkeley, Geography

    Local Geographies of Contention: Comparing Struggles over Peri/urban Land Politics and Authority in Senegal
    Several scholars have noted that the field of contentious politics loosely integrates spatial analyses. My research thus brings to light historical and spatial patterns of mobilization by providing a multi-sited comparative study that analyses different repertoires of contention unfolding at the sub-national level. Specifically, I have chosen to compare two contentious episodes underway in two peri/urban communities in Senegal: Pikine and Sangalkam. I have bracketed my study of sub-national level politics within Senegal's current neoliberal moment. This historical moment has paired structural adjustment programs with rapid rates of urbanization. As more residents move to Pikine and Sangalkam, land traditionally used for farming purposes is sold to create housing developments. Recent decentralization reforms (in 1996) have opened a window by which local governments have been given -and taken- powers to allocate land, even though these powers are still coveted by central government administrators. My project thus focuses on the means by which various central government actors, local government officials, and local populations are negotiating contentious struggles over land and authority. I argue that locally based political dynamics have distinctive repertoires and mechanisms. I propose to develop this argument by researching secondary materials and conducting ethnographies in Pikine and Sangalkam, paying specific attention to how planning, laws and taxes influence socio-spatial patterns of contention.
  • Eric Lob

    Princeton University, Near Eastern Studies

    A Tale of Two Revolutions: Contentious Politics in Mid-Twentieth Century Syria and Iran
    In 1963, the Baathists mounted a successful coup, marking a new era in Syrian politics. At the same time, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran launched the White Revolution to transform Iranian society and turn the country into an economic power. During this pivotal juncture, both countries experienced contentious politics in the form of Islamist-led opposition movements that challenged the regime for supremacy. While the Baathists survived insurrection, the Shah was toppled during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Although the Syrian and Iranian regimes were equipped with effective security apparatuses, repression and coercion were inadequate to account for this disparity of outcomes. The focus of this project is the centerpiece of the Baathist Revolution of Syria and the White Revolution of Iran: land reform and nationalization. It describes how these policies’ successes and failures affected class politics and state-society relations in villages and cities in both countries. Through the use of secondary sources, archival material, interviews, fieldwork, and other qualitative research methods, it explains how the Syrian Baathists garnered the support of key social groups to overcome a mass opposition movement while the Iranian monarchy failed in this endeavor and was forced to abdicate the throne. In addition to shedding light on interactive episodes of contention during this crucial period in Syrian and Iranian history, this project seeks to address broader questions regarding social movement theory in the context of Islamic activism and the authoritarian Middle East.
  • Jill Rosenthal

    Emory University, History

    Aid and Political Identity: An Examination of the Relations between Humanitarian Aid and Ethnic Identities in the Kivu Provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
    Focusing on the Kivu Provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during the post-colonial era, my research explores the interactions between humanitarian interventions and antagonistic political identities. The Kivu Provinces experienced a post-colonial period marked by both violence and intermittent periods of humanitarian aid. Ethnic cleavages, which motivate popular participation in much of the recent violence in Kivu, are rooted in notions of ‘indigenous’ Kivu residents and ‘foreigners,’ or people of allegedly Rwandan backgrounds. Humanitarian discourse and policy in refugee camps, premised as it was on notions of national citizenship and displaced subjects, thus contributed to the politicization and mobilization of conflictual group identities. My research engages the post-colonial development of political categories of ‘self’ and ‘other’ through examining Kivu’s history of collective violence from the interactions between aid institutions and local political consciousness. Through life and oral histories of local residents, refugees, and humanitarian workers, I will explore the complex encounter between humanitarian aid and local popular conceptions of ethnicity. The project thus contributes an understanding of the effects of humanitarian aid on political identities in conflict zones. More broadly the project engages in scholarship that seeks to determine why areas which receive humanitarian aid remain impoverished, and in the case of Kivu, what relationship that aid has to violent conflict.
  • Elizabeth A. Sharrow

    University of Minnesota / Twin Cities, Political Science

    Policy Feedback as Contentious Politics: Title IX and the Political Construction of Gender
    When the U.S. Congress acted to outlaw sex discrimination in education, the institutionalization of some women’s movement demands instigated a dynamic series of political events. The 1972 amendment to the Civil Rights Act, so-called “Title IX”, concatenated a plethora of liberal feminist appeals for government action on sex equity. The formal legislation of movement entreaties is only one aspect of the importance of Title IX. My project attends to the political processes co-constituting public policy and gender in American politics. I utilize a policy feedback framework to study Title IX as contentious politics. This framework considers the dynamic political processes active in institutions and set in motion by policy beneficiaries, determining both its historical and emerging policy iterations. My work is attentive to how historical context shapes political action. To understand how citizens affect policy change, I ask how attentive political actors (both in institutions and at the mass level) shape the scope and objective of Title IX over time. Doing so, I argue, can aid scholars in understanding how policies both constrain and enable contentious politics. Fundamentally, this project uses the case of Title IX to analyze the construction of gender in American politics and educational culture. Insofar as monumental changes to access in athletics and education were enabled by Title IX, so was gender as both practice and concept re-written. This dissertation will illustrate how policy beneficiaries perform contentious politics within historical institutional context, seeking to construct a policy that enables their interests in American gender equity.
  • Elena Shih

    University of California / Los Angeles, Sociology

    Globalizing Morality and Justice: Sites of Contention Within Faith-Based and Rights-Based Organizations in the Transnational Anti-Trafficking Movement
    The recent global concern around human trafficking has provoked a transnational justice movement, whose actors have divergent understandings of what constitutes women’s work and labor exploitation. This dissertation project explores two different factions of the global anti-human trafficking movement—faith-based and secular rights-based organizations—in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Kingdom of Thailand. I employ a multi-sited ethnography, based off four organizational case studies: at a Christian vocational training center and a legal aid organization in each country. This dissertation seeks to understand how transnational movement goals, in particular, overarching ideals of morality (in the case of faith-based organizations) and justice (in the case of legal-rights organizations), get deployed in distinct localities. It looks specifically at sites of contention and hierarchies of power within a specific transnational movement, examining the subjective experiences of movement actors and subjects. The comparative case aims to reveal how these subjective experiences are framed by distinct political opportunity structures, and shapes how movement actors contest and commodify trafficked women’s work at the discursive, legal and labor process levels.