In other words is the amount of protesting people proportional to the amount of dissatisfied people in general?

Let's say there are 1000 protesters, does it mean that there must let's say 100,000 people who have the same views, who didn't walk out. Or if there are 10,000 at a protest, does it mean that there may be 1,000,000 more people of the same kind?

  • potentially useful data : du.edu/korbel/sie/research/chenow_navco_data.html
    – Evargalo
    Sep 14, 2020 at 10:43
  • The problem is that there are two factors at play, the support of or opposition to a particular policy, and the strength of that opposition. E.g. you might have a small fraction who are so opposed to policy X that they take to the streets in protest, while a great majority are mildly in favor of X, but not strongly enough to do anything other than vote for those who support it.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 14, 2020 at 17:40

2 Answers 2


Historical sociologist Charles Tilly had a well-known mnemonic for the 4 sources of power used by mass popular movements since the early modern period: WUNC. It stands for "Worthiness, Unity, Numbers and Commitment". So numbers are important, but are moderated by these other variables. A very large but spontaneous and self-interested mob which is disorganized and disunified and lacks a cause that other people can sympathize with may be easier to suppress then a smaller group that has these other advantages and persists over time. For further reading see the article "What Makes Protest Powerful? Reintroducing and Elaborating Charles Tilly's WUNC Concept."

  • 1
    OK, this is interesting. But how can the WUNC model be used / not used to find a relationship between protest participation numbers and support in the general population?
    – Philipp
    Sep 14, 2020 at 13:14
  • 4
    The hypothesis is basically popular support = worthiness * unity * numbers * commitment. All of these variables are hard to put meaningful numbers on (even to some extent the number of participants) so I'm not sure if anyone has attempted a historical study to test it in a quantitative way.
    – Brian Z
    Sep 14, 2020 at 13:19

The purpose of a protest is two-fold:

  • To expand awareness of and public support for a particular problematic issue
  • To challenge the legitimacy of established institutions and undercut the authenticity of those who condone, support, or enforce those institutions

Since the nature of these points implies that a significant portion of the populations is (at least initially) unaware of the problem at hand and tacitly in support of the status quo, it is difficult to make generalizations to the public at large. All we can really say is that the (again, initially) the number of protesters is roughly proportional to the size of the population impacted by the problematic institutions, mediated by the magnitude, intensity, and moral valence of the issue. Public solidarity will increase or decrease — perhaps increasing or decreasing the number of participants in the protests — to the extent that the protesters can present their point as a legitimate, morally sound complaint.

It's best to see this as a contest for legitimacy, played out on moral, intellectual, and emotional grounds. For instance, that recent Black Lives Matter — despite some problematic behavior on the fringes (like looting and destruction of property) — has largely succeeded in legitimizing its core issue while delegitimizing police and federal authorities. In part this is because the impacted population — black Americans — is large, leading to a proportionally larger number of initial protesters. But mostly these protests have gained traction because they have been able to make a convincing moral and emotional case that blacks are disproportionately targeted by police, and that has resonated with a far larger segment of the US population. By contrast the various contemporaneous anti-shutdown protests were initially smaller — even though the impacted population is significantly larger — and failed to gain the same kind of traction as the BLM protests because their moral argument is intrinsically weaker (in that no one is singled out for harm by the shutdown, and 'common good' counter-arguments are readily accessible), and they lack the same emotional appeal. A demand to be allowed to go out in public simply doesn't compare with a demand to be free of institutional oppression.

We cannot think of this process in simple numerical terms, though increasing supporters is part of it. It only takes one man with a strong heart and a sound moral conscience to stand up to a society, because it is that sound moral conscience that will sway the hearts and minds of others.

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