Uprisings in Turkey: Preliminary Thoughts & Questions from Social Movement Theories

Kıvanç Atak, European University Institute, Florence – June 18, 2013 – Research Turkey

Uprisings in Turkey: Preliminary Thoughts and Questions from Social Movement TheoriesTurkey has been loud for three weeks. The country is being shaken by one of the most sustained, massive, and diffused waves of protest in its recent past. To many observers inside and outside, the protests came as surprise.

A minor protest on the Gezi Park in Istanbul turned into a large-scale public resistance to the government. While I am drafting these sentences, the (uniformed) police who withdrew from the Taksim Square a while ago entered there again with gas bombs and water cannons. Citizens, journalists, intellectuals, activists, or let’s simply say people in general are having a hard time to take their eyes from what has been going on in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and several other cities in Turkey. Knowing that it is difficult to remain politically calm under these circumstances, here I briefly talk about some assumptions within the theories of social movements that could be useful to investigate the current uprisings in Turkey from different vantage points. I tentatively argue that the “why-now” question is daunting, and the answer may lie in sub-narratives of the uprisings. The use and exposure of state violence in such a massive scale looks like one of the most critical of these sub-narratives which couples with individual and collective experiences and emotions.

Theories of social movements try to capture several interrelated questions. Why do people protest? When and how do they mobilize? What kind of incentives do they have to participate? Who do participate? Different schools of thought offer different perspectives to address these questions. Early theorists of collective action in the late 19th century, and the succeeding breakdown theorists after the Second World War explained protests with reference to major processes of industrialization, urbanization, and modernization. They claimed that particularly when these processes couple with rapid societal transition they generate frustration, sense of loss, dissatisfaction, deprivation and grievances for several segments in the society. In the last fifty years, however, we have seen that for people to protest it is not a sufficient condition to be aggrieved or relatively deprived especially in material terms. In other words, this does not provide an answer to why some people protest while others do not, although they share the same sense of loss. Thus, social movement scholars started to develop alternative explanations. Some of them argued that the availability and extent of resources matter for mobilization. Others said that political opportunities might facilitate or else constrain protest behaviour. Still others claimed that on individual level protest participation is fostered by previous participation or personal contacts with activists. Social constructivists, on the other hand, emphasized the formation of identity and meaning, culture and framing particularly with the rise of new social movements in the Western world. In a nutshell, this field of research provides a rich repertoire of theoretical and conceptual tools depending on what we want to understand.

To be rather critical, it is one thing to analyse a particular phenomenon of protest retrospectively; yet it is another to explain why it emerges at a specific point in time and space, and why it evolves into mass mobilization. Indeed, one may observe non-mobilization under similar political and social conditions in different contexts. In-depth contextualization could be useful to delve into and establish the links between structural, organizational and individual factors and impediments for mobilization as well as non-mobilization. However, deep contextual knowledge does not necessarily translate into a strong analytical frame. Hence, I prefer to be rather cautious in offering causal frameworks to explain the eruption of protest as in the case of the uprisings in Turkey.

What would social movement theory say about the Gezi protests in Turkey? Many followers of Turkish politics were pointing to the political stability and economic “success story” in Turkey. Thus they wondered why the country did run into one of the most sustained, diffused, and massive protest waves in its recent past under these circumstances. Is it simply the authoritarian turn of the AKP government, their over-concentrated power, and Erdogan’s exclusionary political discourse which backfired as mass public reaction exploded as a result of a minor protest in the Gezi Park? We could start with interrogating political opportunities. Sidney Tarrow (2011) defines the concept as “consistent – but not necessarily formal or permanent – dimensions of the political environment or of change in that environment that provide incentives for collective action by affecting expectations for success or failure” (Tarrow 2011, 163). Opportunities are sometimes “perceived” rather than objective, they could be “discursive” and not only structural, and sometimes they are “created” and not just simply responded by the contentious actors. Nevertheless, Tarrow has reservations for broadening the conceptual scope of political opportunity since it would otherwise mean that anything could be regarded with some reference to opportunity. Here, I stick to his four-dimensional frame that juxtaposes the external factors, or what is also referred as “stable political opportunities” in the political environment:

–          Increasing political access? The argument posits that openings within a regime, notably in an authoritarian one, decrease the costs of protest as the political center becomes more responsive to the inputs from the civil society. It is hard to deny several openings in the political regime under the AKP rule in their successive terms in office. But it is equally hard to find evidence for a recent political measure which considerably facilitated or encouraged citizens’ engagement in unconventional forms of political participation. In fact, the opposite might be true.

– Shifting political alignments? This usually refers to electoral instability, changing coalitions, or governmental volatility that supposedly opens up opportunities for citizens to influence political decision-making through protest mobilization. But the case of AKP obviously looks like a counter-example with its consecutive electoral victories and popular support that does not seem to have contracted so far.

– Influential allies? The existence of strong allies in the regime is likely to nourish the expectation that by means of protest, people may achieve positive political outcomes; hence it would create an incentive to mobilize. The Gezi Park protesters are definitely surrounded by a variety of organizations, political actors and allies. This surely helps them in terms of the infrastructure of solidarity and survival. But the fact that the mainstream media literally ignored the incidences at the very beginning and eventually they are not all-supportive, that the demonstrators do not truly want a mainstream political actor (such as the main opposition party CHP) to dominate the resistance, and that the involving and supporting organizations are politically heterogeneous indicate scattered and plural, rather than a monopolized or singular, alliances assisting the protests at least on a moral ground.   

– Divided elites? It is argued that the division(s) among the political elites encourages challengers to protest and to exploit the division(s) in favour of potential political gains. If we narrow our conception of elites to “governing” elites, there are some fuzzy signs of division after the eruption of the Gezi protests. The relatively moderate speeches by the President Gül or by some leading figures of the AKP seem to contrast to Prime Minister Erdoğan’s aggressive fashion. Yet, it sounds more like an attitudinal difference than a substantial conflict among them, at least at the moment.

It seems that at first glimpse the structural, let alone the static conception of opportunities might not necessarily be the best analytical capture to grasp the recent uprisings in Turkey. Within this frame, we can hardly offer a convincing answer to why the uprisings erupted at this point in time as the “structural” conditions do not seem to transfer into “opportunities”. Like Tarrow, I also have doubts about stretching the term further to the “perceived” or “discursive” dimensions. This would risk alienating the concept from itself and undermining its analytical currency. Perhaps a “dynamic” and “mechanistic” approach with more emphasis on agency, as developed by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly (2001) later work better. Although we need more space and more time to assess the added value of their new frame, its rather complicated nature is a further caveat for consideration.

In addition to the abovementioned dimensions, scholars also consider the type of state reaction as an external factor. The form and degree of repression, threat, or concessions by the incumbents are relevant variables in explaining the trajectory of mass protest. However, previous research produced profoundly inconsistent findings on the relationship between repression/concession and mobilization. This is probably due to the multiplicity of intervening variables (type of regime and security forces, policing strategies etc.) that obscure a stable pattern to single out. In the case of Gezi protests, the police’s extremely violent reaction galvanized thousands of people on the streets. In some sense, it worked as a “flashpoint”, a term used in the literature on riots and public disorder. Bearing in mind the rich history of though policing of demonstrations in Turkey though, it is still curious why, in this case, police repression sparked off further mobilization on a large scale. In other words, the extreme use of force by the police indisputably escalated public resentment and created a backlash in the form of sustained action. But then, why did it not happen before? Obviously, one needs to take into account individual and collective experiences with the police violence, as well as emotional determination to further protest as by-products of these experiences.

To move to another dimension, the extensive use of social media certainly has been transforming the traditional paradigms of resource mobilization in social movement theory. In Turkey, the Gezi protests became an emblematic case for the role of social media in the organization of and the solidarity with the protests. The fact that the mainstream news media literally ignored the incidences in the first few days amplified the use of social media not only for sharing information but also for broadening to scope of public resentment from police violence to mass media and their business collaborators. In general, the regular users of social media universally have a comparative advantage in terms of economic and cultural capital. It thus tells us about the social background of the people who engage in what can be called as Internet activism. By and large, this is also true for Turkey. What is noteworthy is that the social media is a playground of strategies not only for mobilization but also for counter-mobilization. Besides state agents that try to sneak in this terrain for intelligence and surveillance purposes, counter-movements or counter-protesters are no less active in mobilizing themselves. The sympathizers of the AKP and Erdoğan, notably the party itself, proved almost equally fast in campaigning against the Gezi protests through Twitter. Overall, I am not entirely confident that the use of social media in the Turkish uprisings provides an answer to the big “why-now” question. Wary of my limited knowledge in this emergent field of research, on the other hand, social media as a resource by itself could tell us much more about the framing of the protests. The latter is definitely related to the next approach I shortly discuss below.

Last but not least, the social-constructivist approach would also have a say about the Gezi protests. Needless to say, the Gezi protests do not seem to be a typical example of an “old” social movement type of contention based on class conflict, economic grievances, or targeting the state as such. They act out growing resentment with the spatial expansion of power that breaks through the individual preferences, styles and sites of life. In fact, it is beyond dispute that certain social segments in Turkey have been from the outset allergic to the exclusive promotion of conservative and Sunni-religious values by the AKP government. They always felt threatened by them. However, the Gezi protests raise a number of questions to address: to what extent do the recent mobilizations and particularly the first-hand experience of those who did not partake in a protest before contribute to the formation of a collective identity, let alone to the sense of threat? What kind of identity would that be? What would be the generational differentiation of that identity considering the impressive engagement of the 90’s cohort? Examining these questions can inform us the configuration of political cleavages embedded in the uprisings. It would be further intriguing to see to what extent, if at all, they shift and challenge the existing political cleavages in the society.

At the end of the day, the why-now question is a tricky and perhaps not an imperative one. Anybody who is a close observer of contemporary Turkish politics may put forward a plausible explanation with some reference to Erdoğan’s political business. In retrospect, this is not a difficult task. Still, I seriously doubt that one can easily account for why the uprisings did not come before or later. If it is the accumulation of public resentment, why the mobilization is now? I am inclined to argue that it would be an endless effort to find a very precise answer. It seems more reasonable to address sub-questions and to bring together divided narratives at the end. Among others, the fact that people became exposed to state violence in the hands of the overly militarized police in such a massive scale needs to be elaborated further. Indeed, a phenomenon which used to be rather limited in regional scope (particularly in the southeast) revealed itself to a much larger population. That said, future analyses of the events should also try to avoid structural reductionisms, and to understand the agency of the protests. Emotions in the making and experiences in action motivated in an age of the presentation and representation of reality through social media are the key elements of this agency.

These are some preliminary questions to understand the Gezi protests through the lenses of social movement theories. Indeed, the latter provide a number of analytical instruments that do not confine to those mentioned above. Each of them could help us capture the different dimensions of the protests with a well-defined research agenda. At any rate, it is wiser to avoid and be cautious in drawing quick causal inferences from immediate observations. We need to devote ourselves to collect as much information as possible to make more and more sense out of the occurrences. It is surely curious to see how sustained the uprising will endure. The major caveat is; without grasping the emotions of the people who are probably traumatized by their constant exposure to gas bombs, tear gas, and water cannons any analysis would be dubious. Above all, this is not only a time to genuinely think, to reflect, and to contemplate. Beyond academic and scientific concerns, it is also a time to politically involve.

Kıvanç Atak, PhD. Candidate, Deparment of Political and Social Sciences, European University Institute, Florence

Please cite this publication as follows:

Atak, Kıvanç (June, 2013), “Uprisings in Turkey: Preliminary Thoughts and Questions from Social Movement Theories”, Vol. II, Issue 4, pp.49-54, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=3515)


Tarrow, Sidney. 2011. Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

McAdam, Doug, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly. 2001. Dynamics of Contention. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.