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Putting on a Show Can Be Revolutionary—Here’s Why

October 06, 2022
John Gledhill, Allard Duursma, and Christopher Shay


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, John Gledhill, an associate professor at Oxford University, Allard Duursma, a senior researcher at ETH Zurich, and Christopher Shay, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Connecticut, analyze the effects of including music and stage performances in nonviolent protest, and apply their research to Sri Lanka.

Here’s a quiz question: What do Miley CyrusLin-Manuel Miranda, REMJon Batiste, and Eurovision winner Ruslana have in common? If your answer is that they’ve all had chart-topping records, then you’re right. But if your answer is that they—like a host of other musicians over the years—have helped draw big crowds to protest rallies by performing at those events, then you get a bonus point. (There were clues in the hyperlinks.)

Here’s another one: What is common to the 2011 Tahrir Square protests in Cairo, the Estonian/Baltic Singing Revolution, the anti-apartheid struggle, and the US Civil Rights Movement? If you answered that they were all large-scale nonviolent campaigns that contributed to major social and/or political change, then you get one point. And you get a bonus point here if you answered that all of these movements featured communal performative events, such as choral singing, at campaign rallies.

How did you score? If you happen to have experience in organizing nonviolent campaigns (and a fair knowledge of pop, rock, and jazz), you probably did pretty well. After all, activists and scholars have long known—or assumed—that incorporating staged performances and shared cultural experiences into nonviolent campaigns can help mobilize support for, and participation in, those campaigns. While this idea may not be new, it has not previously been tested. Thus, in a study recently published in the Journal of Global Security Studies, we did just that by investigating whether nonviolent campaigns that feature staged events (which we call “spectacles”) and/or communal performances (“participatory performative acts”) are more likely to be large-scale campaigns. We find that they are.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance