01/01/2012 02:45 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2012

Putting the Latest 'Year of the Protester' Into Historical Perspective

It was hardly a surprise when Time magazine announced in mid-December that "The Protester" was its 2011 Person of the Year. After all, outbursts of discontent had made headlines during each of the preceding months. Nor did stories of dramatic protest end when Time made its choice, for just as reports of the magazine's decision began to circulate, so did news of angry residents in the South China village of Wukan evicting the Communist Party's representatives from their community and stories of rallies in Moscow by Russians fed up with Putinism. In light of 2011's status as a year that will be remembered in part for its protests, the following question is worth asking. Have recent events, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, confirmed or contradicted standard ideas about the nature of collective action developed to make sense of earlier Years of the Protester, such as 1789, 1968, and 1989? As someone who has written a lot about Chinese social movements and is helping plan a team-taught course on global protest that UC Irvine's History Department will be offering in the spring, here are five points I think any full answer to this query should include:

1) 2011 Reminded Us of How Often Economic Issues Set the Stage for Protests

It is tempting to think that protests can be divided into those sparked by material concerns and those inspired by ideas, but the events of 2011 showed once again that economic and ideological factors are often intertwined. Anxiety over inflation as well as a desire for increased political freedoms and disgust with official nepotism brought people to Tahrir Square in January, just as they brought people to Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. And in 1789, the backdrop to the French Revolution was provided not just by Enlightenment ideas but also by a fiscal crisis.

2) We Saw Again That Those Doing Relatively Well Can Be Among the Most Militant

Another commonsensical idea about protest that history does not support is the notion that the most disadvantaged segments of a country's population will tend to be the ones to rise up against official policies and call for change. In 2011, as in past Years of the Protester, this was only sometimes the case. Wukan is in a relatively well off rather than relatively poor part of China, for example, and the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian that was rocked by big environmental rallies last summer is even more prosperous. In India, meanwhile, the most important demonstrations of the year were anti-corruption rallies involving members of the country's middle class. History is filled with examples (think 1968) of rising expectations and frustration among those at the fringes of a country's elite (a category that often includes university students) driving social movements forward.

3) 2011 Was Another Year When Economic Disaster Did Not Always Lead to Action

The global financial crisis and national economic downturns inspired protests in many places in 2011, from New York to Athens, but some countries doing very badly economically, such as Burma, did not see a dramatic uptick in social unrest. This is not unusual. In 1989, there were African countries worse off economically than Czechoslovakia and East Germany that did not experience popular upheavals, and in 1968 fairly affluent nations were often hotbeds of protest.

4) 2011 Showed That Oppression Isn't Always Enough to Get People onto the Streets

If economic problems alone do not give a clear guide to where protests will occur and where they won't, the same goes for degree of government repression. In 2011, as in previous Years of the Protester, there was unrest in some places where those in power treat the populace in particularly abhorrent ways (think Syria) but not in other places with equally harsh or harsher systems of rule (think North Korea). One reason for this is that, as everyone from Tocqueville to analysts of China's Tiananmen rising have stressed, authoritarian governments are most susceptible to large-scale protests when fissures open up within the elite due to ideological splits or factional divides, something that has not happened so far in North Korea.

5) We Learned Again that New Media Change Some Things, But Not Everything

In commentaries on this year's protests, much has been made, for good reason, of the role that "new media" played in mobilizing people for action and helping struggles such as the Arab Spring spread across national borders and the Occupy movement spread across the United States. Two things, though, are worth noting about this. First, very similar claims about the impact of the "new media" of the day were made in 1789 (when pamphlets and newspapers were among the recent innovations in communication) and in 1989 (when relatively novel technologies such as satellite television broadcast and fax transmission were credited with aiding activists and helping carry the anti-Communist tide of the year from country to country). Second, the events of 2011 underscored how effective and sometimes absolutely necessary it still can be, even in a thoroughly wired world, for groups of people to carry out time-honored kinds of actions, such as massing together in public squares and calling on those in power to do a better job of living up to their professed ideals.

In short, though 2011 was a precedent-setting and history-making year for protest in many, it was also one that conformed at many points to familiar patterns. From the Tunisian rising in January to the UC Davis sit-ins of the fall to the Moscow rallies near Christmas, digital devices and distinctively twenty-first-century issues were often important in 2011 protests. But this shouldn't blind us to the fact that many of the specific tactics and types of grievances that mattered throughout 2011 were ones that would have been instantly recognizable to participants in previous Years of the Protester.

* This post first appeared, with a different title, at the History News Network site.