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European Sociological Review






DOI:10.1093/esr/jcp008, available online at

Online publication 9 March 2009

Karl-Dieter Opp and Bernhard Kittel

This article addresses three largely unsolved problems in theory and research on political
protest. The first problem concerns feedback effects. The common assumption is that
protest is determined by various factors and does not influence its determinants.
We propose and test hypotheses about feedback effects of protest on its determinants.
The second issue is the usual assumption that the determinants do not influence each
other. We propose and test hypotheses about their interdependence. The third issue
which is also rarely addressed in the literature is explaining different effects of individuallevel variables (i.e. coefficients) by changes of the political context. Since we test our
hypotheses with a four-wave panel survey, conducted in Leipzig between 1990 and
1998, we suggest propositions about differential effects of the variables across waves.
We find, among other things, that people having been engaged in protest activities
under communist rule in 1989 tend to exhibit a long-term decrease of political discontent.
Finally, we find that integration in protest-promoting networks is the most important
determinant of protest.

Why do individuals participate in protest activities?
A large number of explanatory factors have been
employed in theory and empirical research to explain
protest behaviour.1 There are still several unresolved
issues. This article elaborates three of them.
One issue is endogeneity: does a feedback effect
between the determinants of protest and protest
behaviour exist? Although it is commonly assumed
that there is a unidirectional effect of the determinants
of protest on protest behaviour, it is still possible that
protest activity promotes the factors usually considered

exogenous. In particular, we will argue that political

protest is dependent upon political discontent, perceived influence, social incentives, and normative
persuasions, and that these four explanatory factors
are also affected by participation in political protest.
For example, participation in a demonstration may
increase discontent via the reinforcement of this feeling
by confrontation with other protesters.
The next problem is the interdependence of
the determinants of protest behaviour. Standard
theory and empirical research on political protest and
political participation in general employ all independent variables as additive terms without exploring their

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The Dynamics of Political

Protest: Feedback Effects
and Interdependence in
the Explanation of
Protest Participation



Political Protest, Public Goods

Preferences, and Selective
The theory of collective action (Olson, 1965) and the
ensuing literature have yielded a set of factors that
seem to explain political protest rather well and are
widely used in the literature. This theory, however,
does not specify the motivational effects of protest and
interdependencies of incentives. In order to generate
such hypotheses we will use a wide version of rational
choice theory. It differs from a neo-classical economic
model in two respects. Firstly, it includes beliefs that
may be at odds with reality, and secondly, not only

material but any incentives such as social rewards are

included as possible costs and benefits.2

The IncentivesProtest Model

The original version of the theory of collective action
implies that political discontent does not lead to protest
in large groups because a single member cannot
influence the effect of protestthe provision of some
public good. Hence, why should an individual invest
resources such as time, effort or money to articulate
these preferences? If, nevertheless, individuals participate, then other factors, which Olson calls selective
incentives, must have been motivating forces for
participation. Olsons assumption is that individuals
perceive their political influence correctly. Hence,
individuals should appreciate their lack of influence
as a single actor and abstain from any political protest
Empirical research indicates, however, that perceived
influence in large groups is in general not zero and
varies across individuals (e.g. Klandermans, 1984;
Muller and Opp, 1986; Finkel, Muller and Opp,
1989; Opp, 1989). These findings suggest: the higher
perceived influence, the more likely discontented
individuals will participate in protest activities.
Beside public goods preferences and perceived
political influence, many empirical studies indicate
that individuals participation is driven by moral
and social incentives. Individuals contribute to the
common cause when they feel obliged to do so
(Opp, 1989; Chong, 1991, pp. 93100). Furthermore,
many studies have found that integration in protest
promoting groups or personal networks provides
important incentives to participate (Klandermans,
1984; McAdam and Paulsen, 1993; Opp and Gern,
1993; Kitts, 2000). In those groups or networks
rewards or punishmentsi.e. social incentivesfor
participation are exchanged. Moreover, threshold
models show how important the presence of likeminded people is for triggering activity (Granovetter,
1978; Marwell and Oliver, 1993; see also Hornsey et al.,
In testing the model with our panel we will examine,
among other things, whether the independent variables
of one wave affect the dependent variables in the
next wave. Due to the radically different situations
before and after unification we expect that incentives
at wave 1 (referring to the situation of 1989) do not
or only very weakly affect protest at wave 2 (1993).
For example, dissatisfaction with the situation under
communist rule (i.e. dissatisfaction at wave 1) will
not have an effect on protest at wave 2 because

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mutual causal relationships. This is not always a

plausible assumption. For example, according to the
wishful-thinking hypothesis an individuals perceived
efficacy may be enhanced by political discontent.
If feedback effects and interdependence are present,
then models which assume independence of protest
determinants and unidirectional causal effects from
incentives to protest are underspecified.
In this article we will test hypotheses about feedback
effects and the interdependence of incentives with a
unique data set: a four-wave panel study which was
conducted in Leipzig (East Germany) between 1990
and 1998. Using this setting, our analysis follows
a two-fold objective at the theoretical level. First, we
are interested in studying general propositions about
feedback and interdependence in the area of political
protest behaviour. But as a second step, and more
specifically, we wish to shed light on the specific issue
of changes in protest behaviour and its conditioning
factors in the course of a large-scale transition of
the political regime in one and the same sample of
Thirdly, between wave 1 (referring to the situation
of 1989) and the other waves (1993, 1996, and 1998),
the communist regime was replaced by a democratic
market order. These macro changes had effects on the
empirical distributions of the incentives and, thus,
must be visible in the direction and size of the
coefficients in multivariate analyses. We will suggest
hypotheses about the impact of these macro changes
and the relationships between the variables in our
The novelty of our contribution is to shed light on
the complex causal interrelationships between these
determinants and protest behaviour. Furthermore, we
explicitly address changes of coefficients over time.


rational actor model (e.g. Opp, 1999, and most

recently Elster, 2007).
Political discontent
Protesters invest time and other resources. If individuals receive some outcomeeven if it differs from
their expectationsthose whose investment was high
will be more satisfied with the outcome, because of the
basic human tendency to match investments with
outcomes. If the effort is relatively large, individuals
will be relatively satisfied with the outcome. In short,
people love what they suffer for (Eagly and Chaiken,
1993, p. 556). This matching proposition (Opp, 1998)
follows from the theory of cognitive dissonance
(Festinger, 1957) and is empirically well confirmed
(Milburn and Christie, 1990, p. 240; see also Eagly and
Chaiken, 1993, pp. 555556). This hypothesis seems
particularly plausible in normal times when protests
in general tend to be unsuccessful. But when protests
have contributed to fundamental societal changes,
we expect that those who have protested are especially
satisfied because they have achieved their goals. The
protest-discontent proposition thus has two independent variables: investment and gain.
Protestdiscontent proposition: the more individuals
invest in protest action and the higher the perceived
success of their protests, the lower is their political
Since we do not have a measure for perceived
success of protest activities, we will not further discuss
this part of the proposition.
Perceived political influence

The ProtestIncentives Model

The idea that protest may have feedback effects on
the incentives is often found in the social movements
literature (Kelloway et al., 2007). From a rational
choice perspective this is plausible because individuals
are not fully informed about the consequences of
their behaviour. Thus, the expectations about costs and
benefits may turn out to be wrong when the behaviour
is enacted. In that case, it is in the interest of the
individual to update his or her beliefs. Events that
happen during a protest action may further change
discontent or the attitudes of individuals. For
example, an unexpected brutal police action may
increase discontent with the government. In order to
derive hypotheses, we apply propositions from general
social theories that can be subsumed under a wide

It has been found that political participation leads

to a feeling of being politically important or efficacious
(Finkel, 1987; Oliver, 1989; Opp, 1989, pp. 229253).
We thus expect that for an individual who participated
in protest activities in 1989 it would be highly
dissonant to believe that protest is less efficacious
in a democratic system than under communist rule.
We would thus expect that political protest participation in 1989 raises perceived influence (Opp, 1998).
This is implausible for the time after unification.
Notwithstanding, dissonance would originate if people
protest and at the same time realize that the protest
was not efficacious. But if protest is seen as a minor
investment and if there are clear signals that the target
of the protest is not impressed, protest will not have
an effect on perceived influence. On the other hand,

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dissatisfaction after unification was radically different

from that in 1989.
An interesting question in a panel design is the
stability of the variables. At first sight it seems
plausible that there is no relationship between, e.g.
protest at wave 1 and wave 2. However, even in times
of radical change there is always some continuity.
For example, many social networks remain intact,
especially those with relatives and close friends.
Moral incentives change only over the long run because
they are internalized. However, given norms may
only be activated, if, for example, discontent is high
(as outlined above).
Since after German unification new grievances
arose, it is to be expected that there is some stability
of moral incentives. When we assume that perceived
influence is in part due to social position, it is plausible
that there is some stability of influence because many
of those employed in the educational and legal
system and in the administration were not dismissed
after unification. We further expect that some of
those who engaged in protest under the old regime
will protest after unification as well, but for other
reasons. We thus expect to find relatively small
positive relations of these variables between wave 1
and wave 2.
Turning to political discontent, those who had
various advantages before unification due to their
affiliation with the regime were the losers after
unification. Thus, those who were highly satisfied
before unification are more likely to be dissatisfied
thereafter. We will thus expect a negative correlation of
discontent between wave 1 and the other waves. In
contrast, discontent will show positive correlations
across waves 2, 3, and 4.




if protest activity is frequent we will expect a positive

effect on perceived influence:

restore cognitive consonance) than to change ones

goals. We would thus suspect:

Protestinfluence proposition: the more frequently an

individual participates in protest activities, the more
influential he or she regards himself or herself.

Wishful-thinking proposition: the higher an individuals

political discontent, the higher is his or her perceived

Social incentives

Protestsocial incentives proposition: the more frequently

individuals participate in protest activities, the
stronger are the social incentives for protest they are
exposed to.

The Interdependence of Incentives

Wishful thinking is consistent with cognitive dissonance theory: it would be highly dissonant if there
were an intense desire to achieve some goal but if it
is believed that ones actions to achieve the goal will
be or have been futile.5 This suggests that there is a
positive effect of political discontent on perceived
influence. This effect is the reverse of the well-known
sour grapes mechanism, which refers to the observation that people who realize that they cannot get what
they want tend to reduce their aspiration level. There
is thus no direct causal relationship between influence
and discontent. Influence is an elusive phenomenon,
and it is easier to misperceive ones influence (and

Rising-expectations proposition: the higher perceived

political influence, the higher is political discontent.
A widely accepted proposition to explain norms
is, that norms are second-order public goods and thus
instrumental to provide first-order public goods.6
A protest norm would help to mobilize others and
would thus be instrumental in achieving the protesters
political goals. One implication is that high political
discontent yields a strong interest in the emergence of
a protest norm. We further assume that this interest
is still greater if people think that they are politically
influential. In order to bring about a protest norm,
protesters will talk to each other, to friends and
acquaintances, and express their claims that it is a duty
to participate, and negative sanctions are dispensed
to those who refuse to participate.
Moreover, it has been shown that protest norms are
conditional: if political discontent is high and if people
think they are influential, they also think that there
is an obligation to protest (Opp, Voss and Gern, 1995;
Jasso and Opp, 1997). Thus:
Moral-incentives proposition: the higher political discontent and the higher perceived personal influence
and social incentives, the stronger are moral incentives.
As argued before, entering and sustaining protest
promoting social relationships is an instrumental act.
Individuals will assume that a group in which protest
is encouraged will help to realize their goals. Therefore,
we will expect:
Social-incentives proposition: The more politically dissatisfied individuals are and the higher their perceived
political influence is, the stronger will be the social

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The decision to enter or sustain a social relationship

depends on the costs and benefits of the relationship.
Relationships are often considered rewarding if the
partners have similar interests, values and resources
(Argyle, 1988, p. 229).4 Thus, it can be expected that
protesters in the long run associate with protesters
or at least with people who value their protest
positively. In general, we expect that people who
protest frequently are likely to join protest encouraging
The collapse of the communist regime had
profound effects on social networks and, thus, on
social incentives as well. Contrary to the stability of
close personal networks referred to above, many of the
(politically active) groups that were founded before
unification did not survive unification, because most
GDR citizens were involved in building a new life
and because their political goals were largely achieved.
We thus expect to find that protest participation in
1989 has no effect on social incentives after unification.
But those who participate in these activities after
unification will encounter social incentives.

Another relationship between influence and political

discontent seems plausible. If someone has reached a
goal or thinks he or she is able to achieve a goal,
the aspiration level will increase. This is the risingexpectations proposition (e.g. Davies, 1974). Thus,
if one believes that ones action can reduce his or
her discontent then people want more, i.e. political
discontent increases. We thus expect:




+ +




- +




Lagged relationships and interaction terms are

not depicted.
Figure 1 The theoretical model

Is it plausible that regime change has any influence

on the relationships between these variables? While the
values of the independent variables, i.e. discontent and
perceived influence, should change after unification, we
do not expect systematically different causal effects
between waves 1 and 2 and the other waves.
We summarize our propositions in the causal
diagram of Figure 1. This diagram does not yet refer
to the panel design. Therefore, lagged relationships are

Research Design and

Research Design
The propositions outlined above were tested with a
four-wave panel survey collected between 1990 and
1998 among a representative sample of inhabitants of
Leipzig in 1990. The first wave was administered in
the fall of 1990. Most of the questions referred to the
situation in 1989.7 Subsequent surveys were conducted
in 1993, 1996, and 1998. This is the only data set

we are aware of that enables us to compare various

individual characteristics related to protest behaviour
over almost 10 years and that includes data about the
situation under communist rule and after the collapse
of a communist regime.
From originally 1,300 respondents who were interviewed in 1990, 17 per cent (N 226) could be
interviewed in 1998. The attrition of the panel is thus
tremendous. The loss of cases was highest between
the first and the second wave. Such a high attrition
was not uncommon shortly after unification. Many
East Germans refused to be interviewed because they
were afraid of becoming a victim of crime or illegal
business practices. Often respondents could not be
interviewed because they moved to West Germany.
Is it justifiable to use such a data set for testing
the propositions discussed above? We have examined
whether the composition of the original sample
changed over time by analysing the extent to which
demographic characteristics of 1990 changed in later
waves. Our analyses show that there is a surprising
stability with the exception of two tendencies that
are often found in panel studies. First, there is a
middle class bias. In our sample, respondents with
high average years of schooling in 1989 and with high
average household income in 1989 are overrepresented
in later waves. However, the differences are rather
small. Secondly, younger people and, thus, unmarried
respondents are more likely to drop out. The reason
is that young and single people often moved to West
Germany. Again, however, the differences between the
waves are rather small. The bias of the total sample is
thus low.
We further compared those respondents of wave 1
who have and who have not participated in wave 4.
We correlated these dichotomous variables with the
theoretical variables of wave 1 (i.e. with political discontent, personal influence, moral, and social incentives) and with the demographic variables age,
household income, years of schooling, and being
marriedall variables referring to 1989. For the
theoretical variables, correlations varied between
0.05 and 0.05, and those for the demographic
variables are between 0.01 and 0.08. We therefore
conclude that despite the attrition rate, which to a
large extent is beyond control of the researcher, it is
sufficiently justified to use the data to test the
Our data constitute a very special case study because
they cover a historically unique situation. Since we
have formulated general propositions, the data set is
particularly appropriate to test them because it allows
studying protest behaviour of the same individuals in

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Table 1 The scales and their measurement, 19891998

Note: The expressions printed in bold are the names of the scales.

very different contexts. However, for replication it will

be difficult to collect data about the situation before
and after the collapse of a communist regime.
Nevertheless, waves 24 refer to a society where
regime changes did not take place and such data can
be collected and used to test our propositions.

It is common in panel analyses to construct scales such
as political discontent with the same items in each
wave. This is not always possibleand not meaningful
eitherwhen the data refer to extremely different
situations. For example, political discontent in 1989
under communist rule and in 1993 after communism
is radically different. Among the major issues of
discontent in 1989 were the travel restrictions to

western countries and the existence of a one-party

system. In post-communist Germany, there is freedom
to travel and there is a multi-party system. The item
Refusal to become a member of the SED (Socialist
Party in the GDR) is an act of protest in 1989; after
unification, the SED has been dissolved and there is no
comparable pressure to become a member of political
Even if it is possible to include the same items
in the questionnaires it is sometimes not meaningful
to do so. For example, Refusal to participate in an
election was a risky act of protest in 1989 when
elections were not secret, but an invisible act that had
no negative consequences for the voter in 1993. Thus,
the same item measures different phenomena. Hence,
for a valid measurement we have to include those
indicators in a scale that refer to discontent and

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Political protest 1989: Working for an opposition group, participating in peace prayers and other church
activities, refusal to vote, refusal to become member in the SED (the socialist party) or a similar organization (four
answer categories for each item: had not taken the action into account (Code 1), had thought about performing
the action but had not performed it (Code 2), had engaged in that action once (Code 3) or several times
(Code 4)). Frequency of participation in the Monday demonstrations before 9 October 1989 (value range 14).
Political protest 1993, 1996, 1998: Working with or founding a citizen initiative, organizing or participating in
demonstrations, collecting signatures or sign petitions, writing letters to newspapers or members of parliaments.
Answer categories as for political protest 1989 (value range 14, see before).
Political discontent 1989: Discontent (five categories, very satisfied with Code 1 to very dissatisfied with
Code 4) with: the environment, the existence of two German states, the possibility for free speech, the demands
of the socialist party SED, the surveillance by the secret police (Stasi), the possibilities of a fair political trial, the
possibilities of traveling to Western countries.
Political discontent 1993, 1996, 1998: Discontent with: the environment, the unification of GDR and former FRG,
possibility of free speech, policy of the federal government regarding asylum seekers, violence against foreigners by
rightist radicals, work of the Treuhand (privatization agency), adopting the laws of the former FRG for the new
Germany after unification (categories as before).
Perceived personal influence 1989: Respondents were asked to what extent it was likely [five categories, from very
unlikely (Code 1) to very likely (Code 5)] that they could have changed the situation in the former GDR by
working for an opposition group, participating in peace prayers and other church activities, refusal to vote, refusal
to become member in the SED or a similar organization.
Perceived personal influence 1993, 1996, 1998: Respondents were asked how they assessed their personal
possibilities to change the political or economic situation in the new states by performing the actions used in
the political protest scales (see above). Answer categories for each action from very unlikely (Code 1) to very
likely (Code 4).
Moral incentives 1989, 1993, 1996, 1998: Agreement to the following items (five categories, from fully disagree
to fully agree, Codes 15): Protest is a duty in case of high discontent, one should not only participate in case
of expected success, participation is a duty even if not enough others are ready to participate, politics should not
be left to politicians.
Social incentives 1989, 1993, 1996, 1998: Additive scale, consisting of the following items or subscales:
membership in protest encouraging groups, expectations of reference persons to protest; number of critical friends,
number of critical colleagues. Value range 14.


Modelling Strategy
The hypotheses outlined above imply that a change
in the independent variables at a certain point in time
brings about a change in the dependent variables later
on. Hence we include the lagged dependent variable
as a further independent variable. Thus, we test the
impact of independent variables on the conditional
change of the dependent variable (e.g. Finkel, 1995).
A problem of testing only lagged effects is that we
do not know how long it takes until a change in an
independent variable affects the dependent variable.
To the extent that the underlying social-psychological
mechanisms are realized at a faster rate than the
23-year intervals between the surveys, we might
nonetheless find simultaneous effects of the independent
variables (i.e. effects on the dependent variable at
the same wave). In order to control for this possibility,
we include both lagged and simultaneous effects.
Testing for simultaneous effects is not equivalent to
a cross-sectional design because of the inclusion of
the lagged dependent variable. This means that we test
the effects of an independent variable of a given wave
(such as discontent) on a dependent variable (such

as protest) of the same wave, holding constant the

respective lagged dependent variable (such as protest
of the previous wave). The possibility to use such a
model specification is one of the core advantages of
panel data compared to a cross-sectional design.
Our hypotheses constitute a multi-equation model.
All equations were simultaneously estimated with the
Lisrel program by maximum likelihood. Due to the
above-mentioned estimation problems, the following
procedure was chosen: in Step 1 we test a purely lagged
model, i.e. for a given dependent variable of a certain
wave, all independent variables of the previous wave
are included in the equation. Then non-significant
effects are eliminated. In a next step, we examine
simultaneous effects. Again, all variables that are not
significant at the 0.05 level (one-tailed tests) are
Due to the complexity of the model we will present
the findings (i.e. the results of the full model) in two
separate causal diagrams: we first look at the causes
and effects of protest in Figure 2 and then present the
findings for the interdependencies of the public goods
incentives (political discontent and influence) and the
selective incentives (moral and social incentives) in
Figure 4. In each figure, the variables that are the focus
of the discussion are framed.
To estimate the quality of the full model we present
the chi-squared statistic and the degrees of freedom
(df). A rule of thumb is that Chi-square should not
be larger than three times the df. We further present
the P-value which should be high (non-significant),
indicating that the difference between the model implications and the data is small. Finally, the RMSEA (root
mean square error of approximation) is reported. The
rule of thumb is that this measure should be smaller
than 0.05.

Protest as a Dependent Variable:
The IncentivesProtest Model
To test the baseline proposition that protest is determined by political discontent, influence, moral and
social incentives we first estimated a cross-sectional
model of wave 1. The reason is that the data of this
wave refer to the situation under communist rule in
1989 that was very different from the situation after
unification. As Figure 2 indicates, all incentives of wave
1 have relatively strong and significant effects on
protest in wave 1 and not on protest in later waves.
It is worth noting that this model has the highest

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protest in the specific situations. Since those problems

do not exist for the period from 1993 to 1998, the
respective scales consist of identical items.
Each of the incentive variables as well as the level
of protest was measured by several items. Table 1 gives
a summary of the items that were used to measure
the scales. As Table 1 shows, items differ for protest,
discontent and influence in 1989 (before unification)
and thereafter, whereas moral and social incentives
consist of identical items for all years. All items of a
scale were subjected to a factor analysis (Unweighted
Least Squares with Varimax Rotation). We used sets
of items that showed the most congruent loadings for
all waves. Each scale was constructed by computing
the average of the values of the items for each
respondent.8 One of the scales is a second-order
construct: social incentives consists of two items
(membership in protest encouraging groups and
expectations of reference persons to protest) and
two scales (number of critical friends and number
of critical colleagues). The items or subscales of a
given composite scale were transformed to the same
value range before they were added up.
Perceived influence is an action-specific measure:
respondents were asked to what extent they thought
that performing certain actions that were included in
the protest scales would enable them to contribute to
change the situation in East Germany.




Wave 1 (1990)

Wave 2 (1993)





R2 =.27**

. 16**









R = .36**


R 2 = .30**






Figure 2 Protest as a dependent and independent variable: confirmed relationships (standardized coefficients). Model
fit for all equations (Figures 2 and 4): Chi-square 170.34, df 130, P 0.01, RMSEA 0.038. significant at the
0.05 level, significant at the 0.01 level, one-tailed tests. (0.05 level: t between 1.65 and 2.35; 0.01 level: t greater
than 2.35.)
Note: This figure depicits only the causes and effects of protest. For the relationship between the incentives see Figure 4.

explained variance (R2 0.39) although there is no

lagged dependent variable that normally accounts for
a relatively large share of the variance.
Does this model hold for the other waves
as well? For the two public goods incentives
(i.e. discontent and influence), we find that they have
not only a simultaneous effect in wave 1 but also
in wave 4. Only discontent affects protest in wave 2.
The effect, however, is weak ( 0.10, t 1.62
which is just over the 0.05 level for a one-tailed test).
In wave 3, perceived influence is the only significant
determinant of protest. Thus, in each wave at least
one of the public goods incentives precipitates
protest. The effects of the selective incentives are also
different across waves: only social incentives have
an effect on protest in each wave. Moral incentives
affect protest only in waves 1 and 2. In sum, then,
we find the most consistent effects on protest for
influence (waves 1, 3, and 4) and social incentives
(each wave).
Turning to the question about the specific behavioural and attitudinal changes related to the transition
from the communist to the democratic regime, we first
note that there is indeed some continuity between
wave 1 and wave 2 because the correlations within
variables across periods are all statistically significant.
Also, our expectation of a positive relationship of

perceived influence and social incentives of wave 1

and wave 2 is corroborated by the finding that the
respective standardized coefficients are 0.14 and
0.13 (Figure 4). There is also some stability of moral
incentives ( 0.24) and protest ( 0.25)see again
Figure 4.
Our assumption that many of those who were
privileged in the communist regime were the losers
after unification led us to expect a negative relationship between political discontent of wave 1 and wave 2.
This expectation is confirmed as well ( 0.32)see
Figure 4. Furthermore, the correlations of discontent in
1989 with discontent in all later periods (i.e. of 1993,
1996, and 1998) are negative, whereas correlations
between discontent 1993, 1996, and 1998 are positive
(not shown in the figures). Figure 2 further shows that
the relationship between protest of wave 1 and wave 2
is positive as well ( 0.25).
All these coefficients are relatively small. We do
not know of any other panel studies that report
stabilities of protest behaviour and incentives over
time. A reason for the low stabilities of protest and
the incentives in our data may be related to the
circumstance that the values of these variables are
dependent on situational influences that change during
the periods between the waves. Although the change
of the situation was most profound between wave 1

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R2 = .39


Wave 4 (1998)





Wave 3 (1996)


and wave 2, the ongoing political process in a given

democratic order changes incentives as well, but to a
smaller extent.

Protest as an Independent Variable:

The ProtestIncentives Model

r = .21

Discontent 1993
(wave 2)

(31= -.08)
r = .32

r = .48
Discontent 1989
(wave 1) X2

31 = (r31r32r21)/(1r221)

Figure 3 Relationships between protest of wave 1 and

discontent of waves 1 and 2

influence as independent variables. The result is

(standardized coefficients):

0:10  INFLUENCE89; R2 0:04


These results confirm the protest-influence proposition: protest in 1989 has a statistically significant effect
on perceived influence in 1993 ( 0.14). The effect
of influence 1989 is not statistically significant. An
alternative proposition would be that not protest 1989
but protest 1993 explains perceived influence 1993
best. The results are:

0:14  INFLUENCE89; R2 0:19


Therefore, the simultaneous effect of protest 1993

is clearly larger than the effect of protest 1989.
Furthermore, the explained variance of the latter
equation is clearly higher. If we test an equation
including protest 1989 as well as protest 1993
simultaneously as independent variables (with influence 1989 as the lagged dependent variable), protest
1989 becomes insignificant. Thus, protest 1989 has
only an indirect effect on influence 1993via protest
1993. The protest-influence proposition is thus not
confirmed. As Figure 2 indicates, perceived influence
is a cause of protest most of the time and only once
an effect.
Turning to the protest-social incentives proposition
we did not find an effect of protest in wave 1 on social
incentives in wave 2. This conflicts with our hypothesis. However, we find, as expected, that protest in
wave 2 has a lagged effect on social incentives in wave
3; in addition, protest in wave 3 has a lagged effect on
social incentives in wave 4. There is thus a feedback
effect between protest and social incentives. As

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Figure 2 also displays the effects of protest on the

incentive variables (dashed arrows). The protestdiscontent proposition holds that protest reduces
discontent if the costs of protesting and its perceived
success are high. There can be no doubt that the costs
of protest in 1989 were relatively high, and that
the protesters considered their protests in 1989 highly
successful. As expected, we find negative correlations
of protest in 1989 with discontent 1993 (r 0.21),
1996 (r 0.20), and 1998 (r 0.23). However,
a multivariate analysis with protest of wave 1 and
discontent of wave 1 as independent variables on the
one hand and discontent of wave 2 as a dependent
variable on the other yields only an insignificant
coefficient of protest of wave 1 ( 0.08, t 1.03).
How can this be explained? Figure 3 shows that
the correlations of discontent and protest of wave 1
(r 0.48) and of discontent of wave 1 and discontent
of wave 2 (r 0.32) are relatively strong, compared
to the correlation of protest of wave 1 and discontent
of wave 2. Hence, the effect of protest of wave 1 on
discontent of wave 2 must be relatively low. This
means that the small effect of protest of wave 1 on
discontent of wave 2 is due to the fact that those
who were discontented in wave 1 (and, thus, protested
in wave 1) are no longer discontented in wave 2. We
thus attribute this negative correlation to the fundamentally different political situation before and after
the collapse of the communist regime.9
It is further interesting to note that discontent in
wave 1 has an effect on discontent in wave 2 but
not beyond. Hence, as far as discontent is concerned,
regime change has no long-term effects. This seems
plausible: after the unification new sources of discontent emerged that affect the level of discontent in
the next period.
We do not find any effect of protest after 1989 on
subsequent discontent. This is in line with the proposition because protest activity after unification was,
compared to protest in 1989, a low-cost activity and
probably in general not regarded as being successful.
Our hypothesis that protest in 1989 has a positive
effect on perceived influence in 1993the protestinfluence propositionwas first tested by estimating an
equation with perceived influence 1993 as the dependent and protest 1989 as well as lagged perceived

Protest 1989
(wave 1)




Wave 1 (1990)

Wave 2 (1993)


Wave 3 (1996)


R2 = .10**


R2 = .20**




R =








R2 = .17**
R2 = .19**





R2 = .23**

R2 = .26**


.20** Moral

R2 = .28**
R2 = .28**

Figure 4 Public goods and selective incentives as dependent and independent variables: confirmed relationships
(standardized coefficients). Model fit for all equations (Figures 2 and 4): Chi-Square 170.34, df 130, p .01,
RMSEA .38. significant at the .05 level, significant at the .01 level, one-tailed tests. (.05 level: t between 1.65 and 2.35;
.01 level: t greater than 2.35.)
Note: This figure does not depict the causes and effects of protest. See Figure 3.

Figure 2 indicates, social incentives have simultaneous

effects on protest. If individuals engage in protest
during a certain wave, social incentives increase later
on. This suggests that people who engage in protest
activities tend to enter social relationships that are
positive toward protest or critical of the political
The Interdependence of Incentives
We now present the results that refer to the
interdependence of the independent variables: public
goods incentives (i.e. political discontent and perceived
influence) and selective incentives (Figure 4). The
wishful-thinking hypothesis that implied a positive effect
of discontent on influence is clearly falsified: there is
no effect of discontent on influence at all. The risingexpectations hypothesis claiming that perceived influence has a positive effect on discontent is only
confirmed for wave 4 ( 0.28).
According to the moral-incentives proposition, political discontent, perceived personal influence and
social incentives are supposed to have positive effects
on moral incentives. We find that only two of

the independent variables of this proposition have

the expected effects: Political discontents as well as
social incentives have the expected positive (simultaneous) effects in waves 2, 3, and 4 on moral incentives.
Our interpretation is that strong discontent activates
a protest norm. Furthermore, people who are exposed
to strong social incentives are faced with moral
demands to participate in protest activity.
The part of the moral-incentives proposition positing an effect of influence on moral incentives is not
confirmed; instead we find the opposite effect in wave
3: moral incentives affect influence. Such an effect is
not implausible: it may cause dissonance if people feel
a strong moral obligation to protest but realize that
their influence on achieving their political goals is very
low. Since perceived influence is an elusive phenomenon that is not clearly rooted in real events this
finding suggests that there is some likelihood that
people change their perception of influence.
The social-incentives propositionpolitical discontent
and influence have a positive effect on social
incentivesis clearly confirmed for the discontent
variable: the data show that in waves 2, 3, and 4

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R2 = .24**




R2 = .21**






Wave 4 (1998)





Perceived +


political discontent has positive effects on social

incentives. Influence has the expected effect only
once in wave 2.
We finally tested a hypothesis about error correlations that seems plausible in panel analyses: residuals
of lagged variables such as protest of waves 14 might
correlate. Only two of nine possible error covariances
were significant: discontent 1996 and 1998 (r 0.14,
t 2.70), and social incentives 1993 and 1998 (r 0.15,
t 2.77). These were included in the model
Summary of the Findings
Figure 5 gives an overview of the confirmed hypotheses. Our theoretical propositions and empirical
findings indicate that political discontent, perceived
personal political influence, acceptance of a protest
norm (moral incentives) and integration in protestencouraging networks (social incentives) can explain
protest activity rather well. Thus, the panel analysis
not only confirms propositions that have been tested
so far mainly by cross-sectional studies but also
shows that protest is not only a dependent variable.
Most notably, we found negative effects of protest
in wave 1 on political discontent in waves 3 and 4.
Another finding is that those who protest tend to
expose themselves to protest-promoting social networks. However, several hypotheses that assumed other
effects of protest were falsified. Nevertheless, in future
research one should pay more attention to potential
feedback effects.
The panel allowed us to examine causal interrelationships between the determinants of protest as well.
We found three incentives to be interdependent: firstly,
political discontent has positive effects on social and
moral incentives, and secondly, social incentives have
positive effects on moral incentives. Thus, political

discontent can be considered an exogenous incentive

variable, though it is not exogenous to the model in
total because protest affects discontent.
Finally, our examination of causal effects indicates
that the model for political protest is recursive in the
statistical sense, i.e. there are no direct or indirect
feedback effects of the variables. Feedback effects
extend across at least two waves of the panel.

Conclusion and Discussion

In this article we focused on two aspects of the
relationship between protest activity and its incentives:
Firstly, we addressed feedback effects and interdependencies, and secondly, we studied the particular effects
of a regime change on individual-level protest activity
and its incentives.
Our analysis reveals feedback effects between protest
and incentives and interdependencies among the
incentives of protest. If people engage in protest
activities, social incentives increase, which, in turn,
reinforce protest. There is, however, also a dampening
effect of protest: it lowers political discontent. But
this holds only if the costs of protest are rather high.
In democratic states, protest is often a low-cost activity
so that this depressing effect does not appear.
It was unexpected that most effects of the incentives
on protest are simultaneous (Figure 2). A reason may
be that the time span between the waves23 years
was too long to identify such effects more clearly. But
how long would be appropriate? Further theoretical
elaboration of the dynamics of protest behaviour
and research is needed from which the best time
interval to be administered between waves might be
These findings have important consequences for the
free-rider problem. The standard theory of collective
action (Olson, 1965) implies that political discontent
in large groups does not instigate protest because
individuals have only a negligible influence. The traditional prediction is thus general abstention if there are
no selective incentives. In contrast, our datain line
with much previous researchindicate that perceived
influence matters. More specifically, perceived influence is often overestimated and varies across respondents, whereas collective action theory would predict
that perceived influence is in general zero in a large
group. Thus, public goods preferences become important because perceived influence matters.
Even if preferences for public goods have no direct
effect on participation, they are relevant: they raise
moral as well as social incentives and have thus

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Figure 5 Interdependence of incentives and protest:

confirmed relationships








For overviews, see Milbrath and Goel, 1977;

Leighley, 1995; Lofland, 1996, Ch. 8.
Such a wide model is meanwhile widely accepted.
See, e.g. Goldthorpe, 1998; Opp, 1999; Boudon,
2003; Hedstrom, 2005.
Moral and social incentives are selective incentives. In contrast to the standard theory of
collective action we focus on soft incentives.
There is extensive confirmation of the proposition
that similar people are attracted to each other.
See, e.g. Eagly and Chaiken, 1993, pp. 402403;
McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Cook, 2001.
This relationship between desires and beliefs has
been confirmed empirically. For example, individuals who were against the death penalty judged
the quality of empirical investigations that did not
find a deterrent effect of the death penalty more
positively than investigations that found such an
effect. See Fazio, 1990, pp. 8586.




See, e.g. Coleman, 1990, p. 242; Ellickson, 1991,

pp. 167, 170174; Kitts, 2006.
For details about this wave see Opp, Voss and
Gern, 1995; Opp and Gern, 1993. For information
about the first two waves see Opp, 1998.
For quantitative variables missing values were
replaced by arithmetic means if the number of
missing values was less than 5 per cent of the
sample size. This criterion was always satisfied.
Note that the direct negative effect of discontent
in wave 1 on discontent in wave 2 exists
independently of protest. Would the correlations
between discontent in wave 1 and protest in wave
1, on the one hand, and discontent in wave 1 and
discontent in wave 2, on the other hand, be
lower (e.g. half of the actual values), the effect of
protest in wave 1 on discontent in wave 2 would
be larger and significant.

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Authors Addresses
Karl-Dieter Opp (to whom correspondence should be
addressed), Sulkyweg 22, 22159 Hamburg,
Germany. E-mail:
Bernhard Kittel, Carl-von-Ossietzky Universitat
Oldenburg, Institut fur Sozialwissenschaften,
26111 Oldenburg, Germany, E-mail:

Manuscript received: October 2007

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