Beyond Protests: Using Computational Text Analysis to Explore a Greater Variety of Social Movement Activities

In Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change


Social movement scholars use protest events as a way to quantify social movements and have most often used large, national newspapers to identify those events. This has introduced known and unknown biases into our measurement of social movements. We know that national newspapers tend to cover larger and more contentious events and organizations. Protest events are furthermore a small part of what social movements actually do. Without other readily available options to quantify social movements, however, big-N studies have continued to focus on protest events via a few large newspapers. With advances in digitized data and computational methods, we now no longer have to rely on large newspapers or focus only on protests to quantify important aspects of social movements. In this paper, we use the environmental movement as a case study, analyzing data from a wide range of local, regional, and national newspapers in the United States to quantify multiple facets of social movements. We argue that the incorporation of more data and new methods to quantify information in text has the potential to transform the way we both conceive of and measure social movements in three ways: (1) the type of focal social movement organization included, (2) the type of tactics and issues covered, and (3) the ability to go beyond protest events as the primary unit of analysis. In addition to demonstrating ways that the focus on counting protest events has introduced specific biases in the type of tactics, issues, and organizations covered in social movement research, we argue that computational methods can help us extract and count meaningful aspects of social movements well beyond event counts. In short, the infusion of new data and methods into social movements, peace, and conflict studies could lead us to a substantial shift in the way we quantify social movements, from protest events to everything that occurs outside of them.

Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change
Laura K. Nelson
Laura K. Nelson
Assistant Professor of Sociology

I use computational methods to study social movements, culture, gender, institutions, and the history of feminism. I’m particularly interested in developing transparent and reproducible text analysis methods for sociology using open-source tools.