After the Eastern European democratic uprisings that brought down the Eastern Bloc, social scientists set upon explaining how such sudden mass political movements could arise. Timur Kuran (1989) modeled “unanticipated uprisings” in a manner that echoed Granovetter (1978). In Granovetter’s model, we assume that people vary in their tolerance of risk. Some people are fearless, and will take to the streets at any instigation irrespective of the potential costs. If they do so, and the police do not respond with repression, then those who are slightly less risk tolerant may update their beliefs about just how risky it is to take to the streets, learning that the risks are actually not so high, and thus join the action on the streets. So long as the police continue to hold off on repression, a “cascade” may be triggered of people updating their beliefs and taking to the streets, with ever more risk averse people deciding that it is okay for them to jump on the bandwagon. Granovetter clarified how the essential feature here is the distribution of risk tolerance and the feedback loop that occurs when people take action and consequences are withheld. Kuran contributed to this line of thinking by showing how an individual may underestimate the number of people who share his or her disdain for the incumbent regime because people are not willing to share their true feelings (perhaps because of fear of being ratted out). This may lead people to over estimate the risk of taking to the streets. Once such a person receives adequate reassurance that his or her beliefs are shared, a Granovetter-like cascade can be triggered. The belief updating that takes place to propel this mechanism was formalized by Lohmann (1994).
So far so good for a single “unanticipated” revolution, as with Tunisia. But what of the spill-over effects? With the Eastern European revolutions, there was a strand that tied the regimes together: the Soviet Union. Ever since the Hungarian revolution of 1956, it may have been reasonable for citizens of Soviet bloc countries to think that ultimately, incumbents had a guarantor in Moscow. But Moscow’s non-response in Poland in 1989 may have led citizens of other European bloc countries to update their beliefs about Moscow’s willingness and ability to serve as guarantor, inspiring the eventual cascade.
But to what extent does this logic apply to the current uprisings? One thing that seemed obvious to those of us to who watched the developments in Tunisia a few weeks ago was that these demonstrations would likely spread to other countries in the region—perhaps not with the same outcome, but spread nonetheless. Why did we share this intuition? It does not seem to me that a Soviet-style strand ties these countries together. That role, I suppose, would have to be played in this case by the US and European powers. But did Egyptians really think events in Tunisia to be informative of a likely US response to protests in their country? If so, it is not quite of same flavor of beliefs about a Soviet guarantor. Maybe some other relevant beliefs were updated. For example, perhaps the protesters in Tunisia established a new embodiment of dignity, causing certain in Egypt to reassess their own actions and decide that they had to live up to this model. Or maybe it was a more emotional mechanism. It begs to be theorized, and this may even have us revise our accounts of what happened 20 years ago.
Granovetter, Mark. 1978. “Threshold models of collective behavior.” The American Journal of Sociology. 83:1420-1443. (ungated link)
Kuran, Timur. 1989. “Sparks and prarie fires: A theory of unanticipated political revolution.” Public Choice. 61:41-74. (gated link)
Lohmann, Susanne. 1994. “The dynamics of informational cascades: The Monday demonstrations in Leipzig, East Germany, 1989-1991.” World Politics. 47:42-101. (ungated link)