Changing Protest Networks at LSE30 minute read

1. Introduction and Research Aims

The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) is what Van Dyke (1998) would call a ‘hotbed of activism’. It stands out as a location of student protest through history; with activities ranging from rioting in the 1960s to boycotts in the present day (Dahrendorf, 1995). Past research tells us that universities with a history of activism are 441% more likely to host contemporary protest (Van Dyke, 1998). This is because activist subcultures endure on the campus over several generations, meaning that politically charged social networks manifest within the site and facilitate protestor meetings, discussion and mobilisation (Passy, 2001).

Yet despite this, ‘most existing studies of student protest are ahistorical… failing to recognise the influence of history and culture in fostering protest activity’ (Van Dyke, 1998). We know that ‘a sense of place’ acts as a link between individuals and the site, subsequently connecting them to each other in the aforementioned network (Nicholls, 2009). However, how these networks develop and change over time is seldom explored. By tracking changes in Student Union-related activism at LSE through palimpsest, this project seeks to provide insight into the intricacies of how activist subcultures can develop over time. Given the often intangible nature of place, it has been necessary to focus our study in such specificity to ascertain the subtle changes in place’s phemenology and how this is re-shaping of the networks (Davies, 2013).

No hypothesis was set for the project, in order to construct a grass-roots perspective of protest and how it is experienced through networks. This removes potential bias from seeking fit in a theory-down approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). We begin by going into a greater depth of explanation related to relevant literature, followed by a critical reflection on our methodology. Our analysis of how activism has evolved at the site is then portrayed through four case studies. Overall, we present networks as structures that can either strengthen or be destructed through an associated sense of place.

2. Literature Review Networks as a facilitator of protest

Social ties between a group of individuals form a network that underpins collective action (Marwell & Oliver, 1988). Empirically, it has been proven that individuals with social ties to those who engage in protest behaviour are more likely to participate themselves (Kenny, 1992). This is because discussions with politically engaged peers enable others in the network to learn about issues and share in their grievance if they feel a situation is substandard in some form (Major, 1994). Similarly, the network acts as a mobilisation device as spreading grievances act as a form of recruitment to the movement, and the network structure provides means for communicating and organising protest activity (Passy, 2001). The extent to which networks facilitate protests is contingent on the amount of political discussion in them, and thus the extent to which individuals can learn about and form perspectives on the socio-political world (McClurg, 2003).

Place as a facilitator of networks

Place can be viewed as the social tie within networks from both a territorial and relational perspective (Nicholls, 2009). From a territorial view, it’s argued that having mutual emotional connections to the same location develops a cohesiveness between the individuals who interact with it (Gould, 1993). This reduces the social distance between activists and gives rise to a notion of neighbourhood solidarity, binding protestors together to focus on common political projects (ibid). However, place can also be more of a polarising force. With Harvey (2001) highlighting the fine line between a ‘place in itself’; where cohesion acts as a driver of protest behaviour, and a ‘place for itself’, where the network becomes so cohesive that it forms a ‘clique’. In the latter, the movement’s growth is restricted as the network is so focussed on their own harmonious existence that it becomes harder to commonly identify with (ibid).

Massey, alternatively, disputes the general concept of territorial-framed networks within places, arguing that accelerating globalisation makes it increasingly difficult for political uniformity; as new people and ideas increasingly flow across a place’s physical space (2004). She argues that if territorial links appear to exist, then it’s more likely to represent a politics of nostalgia from within the activist subculture, rather than one driven by contemporary grievances. While this is perhaps overly reductionist in terms of the distinctive properties between space and place (Nicholls, 2009), one could propose a more relational perspective where place acts as a means for interaction between individuals (Amin & Thrift, 2002). It is argued this is conducive to a protest community as the connection to place facilitates a diverse group of people to debate and arrive at similar viewpoints through open discussion (Anderson, 2004).

The overall inference for our study is thus that the relationship between place and the formation of networks is complex. The highly contested nature of debate means there is not a ‘one-fits-all’ approach and each form of network development within the protest cycle (see Appendix A) requires individual attention.

3. Methodology and Critical Reflection

3.1 The Study Area

As marked in Figure 1, LSE is located in the centre of London; within the Holborn district. Our study focuses exclusively on the time period following the university’s colonisation of the site in 1902. Given the central location, it is necessary to note how the protest networks established at the site may be connected to others within London (Helsley & Zenou, 2014). This effect is supported by a city location, where the strength of transport networks and a high level of press and broadcast media further the possibilities for socialisation and mobilisation across the network (Awcock, 2015). The inference for our study is thus that sometimes the changes we note in LSE’s networks and activist subculture may be connected to wider shifts in London, rather than from a purely localised perspective.

LSE on map
Figure 1: LSE’s location within London (Google Maps, 2016)

3.2 Choice of Methods

As stated at the beginning of the study, our goal is to build a grass-roots perspective of protest and how it is facilitated through networks, explained by a sense of place. As our aim is centered around phemenology, a ‘naturalistic inquiry’ was employed to observe the relationships in their truest form (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). This means that we used wholly qualitative methods as they are more flexible in addressing multiple realities (Rhoads, 1998). A more positivist approach was deemed inappropriate for the purpose of the study, given the often intangible nature of place and social constructions. This means that even the smallest bit of reductionist pressure could bias the results (Ritzer, 2007).

We frame our study around four case studies, as this enables us to go into greater depth, meaning we are more likely to tease out intricacies within the changing network structures (Zainal, 2007). The selection of case studies was made in consultation with LSE Archivist Sue Donnelly to ensure the richest examples were selected. However, there is the possibility that separating our temporal focus in such a way would miss interesting transitions within the activist subculture (Reis, 2009). Unfortunately, it would have been impossible to present a such a detailed account within the scope of this report.

Case studies related to the past drew from archive material that contained photographs, letters, written accounts, diaries, articles from student newspapers and journals, as well as oral histories. A major challenge within this was the lack of (detailed) profiles about the author and/ or the circumstances in which these materials were produced (Ritchie & Lewis, 2003). This meant it was difficult to gain a full understanding as to extent to which their production could have been biased. However, by using such a wide range of sources should act to mitigate this.

In the case of contemporary protest, semi-structured interviews were conducted current activists. These were initially conducted with personal contacts of the researcher, but participants were subsequently asked to recommend others for interview; creating a ‘snowball effect’ (Martin & Flowerdew, 1997). One of the advantages of interviewing personal contacts was that the social distance between them and the researcher was immediately reduced, increasing the likelihood of obtaining more ‘authentic representations of their experience’ (Baxter & Eyles, 2007).

Before conducting the interviews, a ‘topic guide’ was devised with carefully phrased questions to ensure participants were not ‘led’ and establish a structure so that the conversation could flow (Smith, Todd, & Waldman, 2009). The guides were initially piloted with three relevant parties and subsequently revised to include more general questions at the start. In the pilot, it became clear the opening questions were too specific and more guidance was required from the participant to ensure the representations provided were ‘naturalistic’. The final guide is enclosed in Appendices B.

3.3 Limitations

We frame our study around Oliver and Myers’ concept of protest cycles (see Appendix A) where the various case studies are linked. By having an initial assumption that the case studies are connected, we risk presenting the changes in an overly teleological way. Thus it is key that we build each case-study individually and then seek the relevant connections. Similarly, the researcher has a personal connection to the site as a student of the university and the activity, having been involved in activism. This gives rise to a ‘bias blind spot’ where the researcher may fail to note personal bias based on their experiences, and to mitigate this case studies have been compared to the researcher’s personal experience, where appropriate, to highlight any potential opportunities for bias (Pronin et al., 2002)

4. Case Studies and Analysis

i. Alfred Milner Debate

The Students’ Union was established in 1899. Initially called the ‘Economic Students’ Union’, they were the ‘representative and campaigning body for students’ on the site, characterised by ‘vigorous political debates at its fortnightly meetings, referred to as the Clare Market Parliament’ (LSE History, 2014). We earlier noted how the level of political discussion is key in determining the level of protest behaviour, and here ‘vigorous political debates’ appear to be lifeblood of the organisation. In a written account, a student fondly recalled how it was common to ‘have a lot of fun and skip lectures in order to attend Union debates’ (Richardson, 1945). While this is an isolated version of events, for at least some students we can position the Union as a place of protest, where they would defy authority and ‘skip lectures in order to attend’. The place acted as a common connection for those of similar dispositions to interact and meet with each other. Thus, we can immediately understand how networks began to facilitate protest behaviours at the site.

Early speakers at the Union included Alfred Milner, who was the central figure alongside Joseph Chamberlain in incorporating the wealthy Transvaal provinces and Orange Free State into the British Empire; at a cost of £200m and over 70,000 lives (Dahrendorf, 1995). A contrast is drawn in the student journal that ‘at the School the staff was very largely imperialistic, and… the students, if polled, would have shown a handsome majority on the other side’ (Clare Market Review, 1907). This ‘handsome majority’ of thinking, facilitated through the Union as a network, can be viewed from either a territorial or relational perspective. It could be the case that the friendship facilitated by the Union led to a common solidarity, or that the debates in the union themselves gave rise to a level of similar thinking through negotiation. The evidence makes it difficult to conclusively establish which is the dominant effect, however it is important to make this distinction for future comparison.

Despite the difference in opinion, however, relations between the School and the Union appeared amicable. There is no record to suggest the Union actively campaigned against the School, and the minutes of a School Governors’ meeting in 1930 noted the Director’s ‘close and good relations with LSE students in general and the Students’ Union in particular’ (Dahrendorf, 1995). The variation in opinion in this example does suggest a difference in the networks between the school and the students (O’Brien, 2013). And it may be the case that the site’s overall network represents that of a village structure (see Appendix C), where the Union is a ‘place within a place’. This means that, while still linked to the site, tighter social links are established between the individuals who associate with the Union, resulting in divergent beliefs to the school (Smith T. , 2013). It may be the case that the overall connection between the Union and faculty through the site acts a mediator and mitigated the level of mobilisation/ protest in this example.

ii. Union Protests Against the School

Sir William Beveridge, then Director of School, prohibited the Marxist Society from using school premises to host meetings in 1934. The Union held ‘a full meeting’ to express discontempt at the decision, and was henceforth now using their network to mobilise against faculty. The Marxist Society was a body of the Union, so it may be argued that – unlike in the Alfred Milner example – the school were now directly attacking the place that members of the Union’s network connected to. This may be the difference as to why the network mobilised in this instance but not before, as it makes their grievance much more personal, which if true would frame connections to the Union as more territorial than relational.

Beveridge’s ruling created an atmosphere of tension between faculty and the then Student Union President, Frank Meyer. This is illustrated through Meyer’s derogatory descriptions as an ‘odious American Jew’ who was ‘a very red politician’ in the private diaries of faculty (Beveridge, 1934). Later that year, the growing resentment furthered as the Student Vanguard – a ‘left wing campus newsletter’ – published an article to suggest a member of staff was spying on Indian students (1934). Faculty immediately banned the sale of the paper on School property, but the Union continued its distribution on their premises, resulting in the expulsion of five students including Meyer (Dahrendorf, 1995). Again, it’s as though the school was directly attacking the Union’s ‘place’ by banning their publication and the network mobilised accordingly.

The students apologised and were subsequently re-admitted, with the exception of Meyer. In March 1934, a petition signed by over 400 students ‘express[ed] its grave concern and deplore[d] the extreme and unprecedented severity of the decision’ taken against him (Clare Market Review, 1934). If we compare this to the total number of students two years later – 1,446 – we see it represents a highly significant proportion of the student body and the network had significant mobilisation potential (Beveridge, 1936).

The contagion also spread beyond the school as it subsequently became a public scandal. ‘Prominent Labour peers, MPs, and intellectuals’ wrote to newspapers ‘to expose the injustice of expelling students who had apologized for what was after all not a capital offence’ (Dahrendorf, 1995). External bodies being involved in the protesting against Meyer’s expulsion implies that ‘a sense of place’ within the Union is not temporally constrained. While students have graduated and become more physically distant from the site, they still form part of its network (Hashemnezhad et al., 2013).

Meyer’s appearance as a figurehead, both in the Union mobilising significantly to support him and the school notably attacking him, suggests a more hierarchical structure within the Union’s network (see Appendix C). This is where figureheads like Meyer have a greater influence in determining the grievances shared by those connected. In this instance, the school didn’t just threaten the Union by banning publication of their newsletter, they also attacked a ‘kingpin’ in the network. This resulted in the largest protest to date, as subordinates below Meyer in the hierarchy rallied to protest in his defence.

Overall, we are beginning to construct student protest networks as territorial bodies whose membership extends beyond those in the student body at any one time. The network is structured in a hierarchial way with elected leaders, and direct attacks on central figures in the network or the place central to it appear to correlate with greater mobilisation.

iii. Riots of the 1960s

The 1960s were perhaps the most notorious era for student protest at the site. In 1966, the School appointed Sir Walter Adams as the new Director. Newspaper reports inform us that ‘students opposed him because of his links with Ian Smith’s racist regime in Rhodesia where he was director of the University College’ (BBC, 1967). A note in The Harvard Crimson – the student newspaper at Harvard – reported on the events, which began with a Union meeting on January 31st to discuss their opposition (Rosenblatt, 1967). The fact this garnered the attention of Harvard, an institution of a different continent, further points to the networks increasing size over time. The article references ‘a letter from London’ written by ‘a friend’ and takes a largely sympathetic tone towards the students. It would thus be reasonable to attribute the network expansion to be within that of the Union’s, rather than the school’s.

An hour before the meeting took place, Adams’ predecessor – Sir Sydney Caine – banned the discussion ‘as if it were a conspiracy to overthrow a School appointment’ (ibid). Porters were posted on the doors to refuse students entry, and light fuses for the Old Theatre (the location) were removed to bring the proposed meeting-point into darkness (Dahrendorf, 1995). In a predictable response, the Union mobilised against this with over 400 students gathering outside the ‘banned room’ in protest, which tragically led to the heart attack and death of one of the School’s elderly porters (ibid).

Union officials Marshall Bloom and David Adelstein were summoned in-front of the ‘Board of Discipline’ and subsequently suspended. Within days, the Union called an eight day sit-in of over 800 students that was described as ‘the first major student strike this country has known’ (Blackstone et al., 1970). Over the course, students escalated their sit-in to a hunger strike, began picketing and chanted songs such as ‘we shall not be moved’ in unison (National Archives). The suspensions began to escalate, with 103 students being suspended over the first three days (Rosenblatt, 1967). And students joined LSE from ‘Leeds, Manchester, Regent St. Polytechnic, and Cambridge (among others)’ in solidarity (ibid).

What’s remarkable about this case study is the parallels we can draw to the previous example. The mechanisms are incredibly similar – the students view the school as imposing on their freedom and oppressing elite figures in their hierarchy, and subsequently use the Union to mobilise in protest. The difference in this case was that the mobilisation was much larger, as made obvious from initial impressions from the photograph in Figure 2 overleaf. While this is from the vantage point of a protestor who would like to highlight the impact of the protest, the sheer number of people cannot be ignored. This implies a strengthening in the social ties within the Union and a heightened ‘sense of place’ over time. Similarly, in the Beveridge case, we saw networks exanding across London. In this instance the network reaches even further and crosses borders, being written about by peers at Harvard and attracting solidarity nationally.

LSE Protests 1960s
Figure 2: A photo of student protests at LSE during the 1960s (LSE Archives, 1967)

A potential explanation for the network strengthening could relate to the Students’ Union being given physical premises on the site in 1937 (Dahrendorf, 1995). Giving the place physicality formalises its existence as an abeyance structure (Taylor, 1989), where protestors had greater opportunity to interact informally during more quiescent political times. This would have helped provide organizational continuity between the Vanguard protests and the riots, as well as tighten the social ties between protestors as their sense of place in the Union was now tangible, resulting in the heightened protest behaviour (Jarvis, 2009).

The initial riot was not isolated, and students again caught national press attention in 1969 as they staged another sit-in and physically attacked a recent installation of ‘concentration camp’ gates. This is worth further consideration as evidence suggests growing divides within the student community (BBC, 1969). Students actually began assisting the school to mitigate the circumstances, with a spokesperson saying, ‘we feel something should be done to tell people they do not represent us. We do not want our grants stopped. The vast majority of us want to pass our exams’ (ibid).

This is particularly interesting in light of the reflexive comments made by an activist in an oral history that the motivation for the protest was ‘having found, to our horror, that [the school was no longer a radical hotbed], we resolved to make it one, or at least try to’ (Tomkinson, 2003). Harvey was cited in prior theory as noting how territorial networks can form a ‘clique’ as they bond tighter over time, as our analysis has indicated, making it harder for others to associate with them. Massey further noted that globalization restricts the suggested uniform thinking in territorial networks to a ‘politics of nostalgia’ and we see evidence of this is here, with Tomkinson reflecting that the motivation was simply ‘the school was no longer a radical hotbed’, rather than a truer political grievance.

Overall, we see the terrirorial network strengthening over time, potentially due to a new physicality but also as the networks have longer to endure on the site and manifest over time. What we also see, however, is growing divides as it the politics become more nostalgic and the place becomes more ‘for itself’ than one with wider appeal.

iv. Contemporary Activism at the Site

Figure 3 displays photographs of the Union General Meetings, the modern day version of Clare Market Parliament, that were shared exclusively with the researcher for this project. Oral histories describe meetings in the 1960s as ‘very noisy, very animated and very cramped’ (Rock, 2015). However, the images of today are disparate to this. The atmosphere is far from ‘cramped’ with space a common factor in each of the photos. While in the top two photos, the ‘very noisy, very animated’ speakers are reading off their mobile phones and appear to not be engaging with the audience.

UGMs in 2016 LSE
Figure 3: Photographs from Union General Meetings in 2016

This is potentially indicative of the network increasingly representing a ‘clique’ that fails to engage with the wider student body. The network and connections still exist, with The Independent national newspaper recently taking interest in one of the debates (Ali, 2016), and the meetings remain attended, albeit sparsely. However, there is a real sense that the network has thinned and its mobilisation potential has reduced. A notion that is heightened if we consider the recent Union organised protest against the university’s investment in fossil fuels. As pictured below in Figure 4, the number of people engaged pales in comparison to those in the riots of the 1960s in Figure 2.

LSE 2016 red lines protest
Figure 4: Photograph of a recent protest at the Union (LSESU, 2016)

LSE students have very specific priorities; studying over anything. It has been incredibly difficult to mobilise people… I suspect not because students did not agree with the cause, but simply because they did not want to spend time on it. This made me more reluctant to protest and definitely made me hesitant to even organise anything.

The above quote from a semi-structured interview with the leader of the protest pictured in Figure 4 supports this idea that the network has less mobilisation potential. In the past, people were ‘often skipping lectures to attend debates in the union’, but now it appears the Union has a reduced sense of place. Not only that, but the subject – speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to ascertain a more authentic representation of their experience – suggests the effect is self-reinforcing. The lack of mobilisation has made them ‘more reluctant to protest’, suggesting continued destruction of the network over time.

5. Conclusions

Past literature focuses on individual protests and the networks that facilitated them. However, this study has drawn out the ways in which these networks can transform between the previous forms identified. Over the course of our analysis, we have seen how networks can exhibit significant growth as a ‘sense of place’ is maintained even when people engage less regularly. We have further sought evidence for Massey and Harvey’s suggestions of how territorial networks can establish uniform thinking within groups, linked to a sense of nostalgia, that can ultimately make the network a ‘place for itself’ with more restricted mobilisation potential in the long-term.

Palimpsest has been a highly effective method for obtaining these changes as it enabled us to layer the development of protest networks and subsequent map its path of change. The biggest limitation of our project was the scope of our report. The LSE is such a rich example of activism that the researcher had to eliminate many interviews and findings in this presentation of results. As such, potential extensions could explore the specific network hierarchies and their connection to the opposition (faculty). Below are two quotes from discounted semi-structured interviews to give the reader an indication of how this could look.

I ran for General Secretary of the Students’ Union because my ego encouraged me to get involved. I enjoyed the glory of beating dreadful people in elections and feeling that members of the campus hung on my every word.

As faculty, we recognise student protest as a right of passage and a part of challenge to orthodoxy and the status quo. History tells us that not embracing this will not work.

From a policy perspective, this report noted a correlation between directly attacking the place networks build around or central figures in the network hierarchy as resulting in increased mobilisation in protest. The reduced form of the network over time should not be taken as an indication to underestimate the network’s protest capacity. Although in reduced form, the network still exists and protest cycle theory – as explained in Appendix C – demonstrates how you typically see continuing low levels of protest activity between waves of significant activism.

6. Bibliography

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7. Appendicies

A. Protest Cycle Theory

In our introduction, we noted how different protests have occurred at the site of LSE over time. Oliver and Meyer (1998) conceptualise this as a protest cycle, where you see wave-like motions of increases and decreases in activism over time. Using various datasets on the time-series of non-violent and violent protests across international territories, they frame how activist subcultures create contagion for individual feelings of grievance. This prompts a rise in protest that becomes self-reinforcing as individuals within the movement compete for influence and resort to increasingly radical measures. However, the level of protest activity inevitably falls back to a low level as resource availability is finite and becomes increasingly pressured as numbers increase.

While the mathematical model has been increasingly refined as new data emerged since its conception in 1998, the intuition has remained consistent (Kwon et al., 2014). Each of the waves are both connected through and facilitated by the site’s underlying networks. This is because they determine the extent to which individual feelings can be replicated at the group level, how effectively groups can be mobilised through socialisation and resource transfer, as well as shape the interactions that take place between the protestors and their opposition (Passy, 2001).

B. Topic Guide for Activist


  • Briefly introduce myself, the research and the purpose.
  • Say quotes will be used, but all anonymised and non-attributable.Background
  • About the activist
  • Have you ever been involved in activism?
  • What did that include in terms of practice?o Prompts: sit-ins, petitions, strikes?
  • Did you hold a specific position – such as in organisation or negotiations – within the protestinggroup?Research Questions
  • How did you hear of the protest(s) and how was it organised?
  • Did the Students’ Union building bear any significance in mobilising protestors?
  • Do you think the relatively high concentration of students at the site was influential?
  • What encouraged you to join the protest?
  • What specifically were you hoping to achieve? Did you think it was achievable?
  • How did your peers respond to your objectives and involvement in activism?
  • Did you feel any sense of belonging to a protest community?
  • Did you feel the approach of protestors was one that’s friendly and open to negotiation, or one thatwas more aggressive?
  • Did studying courses that are linked to policy have any impact?
  • Did you take any pride in the sense of history that the site has for activism?
  • Did you have any other commitments aside from your studies?
  • Did you feel that participating in protest would be constraining in any way?
  • How did the university’s faculty view protests in your opinion?
  • Were they supportive, neutral or against?
  • Did your understanding of their attitude change before/ after your protest(s)? Did this change yourwillingness to protest in any way?
  • Did you enjoy your protest experience(s)?Conclusion
  • Is there anything else you feel we haven’t covered regarding your protest experience and how historical and social foundations may be embedded in contemporary activism?
  • Thank for time and explain what will happen next.
  • Take email if they would like sending a copy of the report.

C. Network Structures

Siegel Networks
Figure 1: Types of Network (taken from Siegel, 2009)

There are four main types of networks; small world, village, opinion leader and hierarchy, as displayed in Figure 1 and explained below.

Small World: Corresponds to a densely populated environment where no-one protestor holds an inordinate amount of influence. These networks establish when a tightly regimented series of connections, such as university friendships, is perturbed, like when a student graduates and makes new friends, which expands the total of influence and is reflected by the tangled diagram (Watts, 1997).

Village: A similar framework, but one where you have multiple ‘small worlds’ (or cliques), reflected by the clusters in the diagram. Each of these are connected by a rare, singular person who acts a ‘social relay’ and spans multiple groups, enabling them to be commonly influenced (Ohlemacher, 1996).

Opinion Leader: Most people have a few connections but a small group of social elites possess many. Thus, the elites dominate the network’s influence and we see a concentration of connections around them in the centre but less on the outskirts of the diagram (Gould, 1993).

Hierarchical Network: A small number of elites have a privileged placement or position. Individuals are connected to one person above them and many more people below them, thus the Hierarchy is a series of levels expanding exponentially in width (Morris, 2000). Diagrammatically, there is a one elite – or a small group of elites – in the middle, but there are also those who hold relatively more privileged positions to others on the outskirts.

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