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September 17, 2009

Profiling the protesters: Summit will provide local lab for research

To some observers, the upcoming G-20 Summit is a chance for Pittsburgh to shine before a worldwide audience. To others, it’s a logistical nightmare in the making given the unknown impact of the security measures associated with an influx of dignitaries and protesters as well.

For sociologists, it’s a research opportunity extraordinaire.

“It’s an incredible laboratory for us,” said sociology department chair Kathleen Blee, who has turned the department’s emphasis toward social movement research. “I’ve never had anything quite like this at our doorstep.”

If history is any indicator, thousands of protesters will be here for the G-20 Summit, championing a variety of causes.

“The protesters span a wide range of ideas, tactics and politics,” said Blee. “It’s a complex scene to watch unfold.”

In addition to research Pitt sociologists will conduct surrounding the G-20 events, the department will present a panel discussion at noon Sept. 23 in 2432 Posvar Hall featuring faculty members Suzanne Staggenborg, Rachel Kutz-Flamenbaum and Mohammed Bamyeh, as well as graduate student Tim Vining.

“A lot of people are not knowledgeable about protests,” Blee said, noting that such events can appear crazy and wild from a distance.

“We can help people contextualize what they’re likely to be seeing,” she said.

The study of grassroots protests and movements for social change encompasses a broad range of research interests among Pitt faculty and students. Blee currently is working on a book on Pittsburgh social movements; others are studying movements related to peace, democracy, animal rights, women’s issues, right-wing ideology and anarchism.

Staggenborg and Kutz-Flamenbaum, who conduct research on social movements, joined the department just last year. Staggenborg noted that the announcement in May that Pittsburgh would host the summit sent researchers scrambling to plan to make use of the opportunity. “When something like this comes to town, you should take advantage of it,” Staggenborg said.

Kutz-Flamenbaum said the choice to hold the summit in Pittsburgh “was a fascinating decision with a fascinating series of possibilities. It’s wonderful the world gets to think about the U.S. beyond cities like New York.”


Staggenborg and Kutz-Flamenbaum, with the help of graduate students, plan to survey protesters at several of the permitted events during the summit to develop a profile of who the demonstrators are and how they compare with those who’ve protested at other events.

“People like to tell their opinions. And protesters are explicitly interested in telling their opinions. They’re generally willing and eager to take five-10 minutes to take a survey,” said Kutz-Flamenbaum, whose study of social movements has put her in the midst of protests elsewhere.

“Typically it’s a friendly atmosphere,” she said, labeling clashes between police and protesters as “distinct aberrations.”

“Most protesters are just regular people who believe that protest is a fundamental component of democracy. People are going to the streets because they’re concerned,” she said, adding that the concerns are the same sort that get discussed at dinner parties and elsewhere. “In a practical sense, protesters are your doctor, your teacher, the mom of a child in your day care.”

Many of the people in the street do so to communicate with the people who have power over their lives but who also have responsibility toward them, she said.

And it can be effective.

“The agendas of protesters clearly get onto the agendas of the decision-makers,” she said, pointing out that the issue of climate change has surfaced on international agendas thanks to social movements.

Staggenborg said the G-20 Summit is fostering cooperation among activist groups in Pittsburgh and beyond. “There is a lot of concern that the protest needs to take place,” she said, as activists plan to bring the interests of groups such as the unemployed, refugees of war and the poor before the financial ministers and heads of state from countries who are the “haves” of the world. “I think protesters feel it’s important to bring those voices to the table.”


The sociology researchers hope to get 150-250 surveys completed at two or more of the permitted protest events.

“I’m interested in trying to understand who the protesters are and what are they thinking about when they’re here,” said Kutz-Flamenbaum.

She wants to ask what motivated protesters to come, whether they are attending individually or as part of a group, what issues they identify with and whether they are veteran protesters or first-timers drawn into the mix.

Will protesters be residents speaking out on local issues to a global audience, or will they be outsiders coming to talk about issues in a national and global context?

“I’m interested in the way they make sense of protesting in Pittsburgh at a global meeting on global issues,” she said.

“You always deal with the local context you’re in,” she said, pointing out that in past protests, for example in New York and London, many participants were local. However, New York and London both are global cities that frequently have a high percentage of non-local people in the city at any time, she said, noting that Pittsburgh is not so much like that.

“It’s not a major travel hub, nor is it as large,” she noted. “Might we find a difference in terms of people coming to a global city as opposed to a local city?”

Kutz-Flamenbaum also hopes to observe how the Pittsburgh protests may differ from those that took place during the Bush administration. Much of the protest in the United States during the past eight or nine years has been in response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, “and in many ways, anti-Bush,” she noted.

Once the surveys are collected, “We will have a pile of material that needs to be coded and analyzed,” she said, adding it will take weeks, even months, until researchers can summarize the data.

Not all the research will take place during summit-related events.

After the summit is over, Kutz-Flamenbaum and Staggenborg plan to interview active members of organized groups that participated.

“We want people to tell us what went well, what went wrong and why,” said Staggenborg.

She hopes to gain a better understanding of the impact such a large event has on the local movement community and on the activists themselves. Did they feel empowered by the experience or frustrated by it?

“It’s a good way to learn about the local activist community,” she said.

Blee also is observing how the local organizations she studies are dealing with the event as part of her study of how dramatic external events affect fragile grassroots groups.

She is watching how members of the local groups are planning for the event, studying which groups form alliances and observing how the process may invigorate or exhaust them.

“It confronts them with issues there may not be consensus on within the group,” she noted. Along with the possibility of stirring dissent within groups, such events present opportunities for coalitions and alliances among groups that might otherwise not connect.

Blee is curious to discover whether the experience will leave the groups revitalized, divided or perhaps even financially drained.

“In a way, it’ll be more interesting six months from now,” she predicted.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 42 Issue 2

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