Why some repertoires of contention are more effective than others

A critical analysis of different forms of protest and their effectiveness

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

This past week, we have witnessed angry Americans flocking to the streets to protest against COVID-19 lockdown measures. In a country that deeply treasures individual freedom, it came as no surprise that some citizens would feel attacked by state restrictions.

However, what did take the world by surprise was the President’s reaction to these protests. Those involved carried banners and chanted for liberation, claiming their freedoms had been unlawfully blocked.

In his typical manner, Trump took to Twitter to express his support for their claims by stating “They seem very responsible to me”. The President openly affirmed that Americans had the right to express their views and encouraged protestors with his “LIBERATE!” tweets.

As more anti-COVID protests began to break out across the globe, on the 20th of April Facebook started blocking anti-quarantine messages and events. Such a bold intersection from a social media platform forced me to reflect on my study of social movements and collective protest.

After extensive reading and analysis, I wanted to shed light on why some social movements have been successful. This article will focus predominantly on the repertoires of contention used by these social movements, and why some repertoires are more effective than others.

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels.com

What are repertoires of contention?

Charles Tilly was the first amongst scholars to introduce the concept of ‘repertoires’, to analyse important historical variations of protest. Since then, scholars have used the term ‘repertoires of contention’, to describe “the distinctive constellations of tactics and strategies developed over time and used by protest groups to act collectively to make claims on individuals and groups” (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 264). In this sense, we can think of social movements as the carpenters of social and political change, and ‘repertoires of contention’ as their toolkits.

Although these repertoires evolve over time, Tilly proposes that repetition is far more likely than adoption, and that adoption is far more likely than invention (Biggs 2013: 407). Typically, social movements will reflect on the history of successful social movements and replicate these repertoires. It’s very rare that they invent their own. This is why we often see similarities and patterns developing between social movements regardless of how different their aims may be. However, when it comes down to assessing how ‘effective’ these repertoires are, this is a much more difficult task.

In this article, I will outline four key characteristics of repertoires, which researchers have identified to be linked with effectiveness: size, militancy, cultural resonance and variety. These five characteristics have been argued to promote the likelihood of certain repertoires being more effective than others. To support this claim, I will refer to a range of different examples throughout, applying them to each category accordingly. However, before outlining these characteristics and testing them, it is important to define what is meant by the term ‘effective’.

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels.com

For the sake of this article, I will be using Michael Biggs’ definition of ‘effectiveness’. Biggs’ definition states that effectiveness is measured by “the probability that it will be successful, which depends on a myriad of factors – including the tactic’s legitimacy in the eyes of others” (2013: 408). Biggs maintains that effectiveness can be measured “only by putting the tactic into practice” (2013: 408). This is why all of my repertoire examples will be sampled from real social movements and historical events.

Nevertheless, it is important to establish that the measurement of success or effectiveness is always relative. When discussing the success of social movements, there are sometimes layers to success. A social movement may have many other smaller goals aside from its fundamental goal. Therefore, what will become clearer, is that although not every repertoire may have been ‘successful’, does not mean that it has not been effective.

As Alberto Melucci establishes, ‘success’ for some social movements may consist of creating a collective identity and media coverage, rather than achieving policy success (Tarrow 2011: 217). It is essential to keep in mind, that often social and political change are slow processes, which do not occur overnight. We would not typically expect social movements to achieve their ultimate goals overnight. Thus, some of the examples which I will count as ‘effective’, may not depict the social movement achieving its fundamental goals. However, they will depict successful steps towards it.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Characteristic 1: Size  

The first characteristic which has been argued to be an important factor in determining one repertoire to be more effective than the other is size. A key way for a social movement to exert influence is to demonstrate the sheer number of participants who support their message. Therefore, repertoires that visually depict such large-scale support, such as marches are more likely to be ‘effective’. This is because they are often televised or gain media coverage.

Even without gaining media attention, a large-scale march would visually attract the attention of those not involved. Whether you are walking your dog, diverted on your bus journey or in your office looking out the window, widespread mobilisation causes disruption and demands your attention. Living in our digital generation, it is highly likely that you would choose to take a photo/video, message a friend about it, or even refer to google to inform you about what is going on. Whatever you choose to do, you are indirectly engaging with the social movement. This means that the outreach of that social movement’s message has instantly expanded, by disrupting daily lives.

Amongst those who contend that size is a defining characteristic in a repertoires’ effectiveness is Jenny Morris. She maintains that the key ingredient to the success of the Civil Right’s Movement in Birmingham, Alabama was that it was mobilised with so many participants. As a result, it was televised (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 281). Through being televised, its scope of influence spread wider than those who were directly affected by the marches.

Also, it is noted that large-scale protests can evoke a sense of exhilaration and empowerment to those involved, which in turn mobilises individual commitment to the cause. Overall, this strengthens the organisation within the movement and confirms internal support (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 281).

Naturally, the size of a repertoire is strongly correlated to the amount of electoral or public support it has. Exemplary of how size has played a fundamental role in a repertoire being effective is the Egyptian 25th January Revolution. Neil Ketchley argues that a key factor in the success of this revolution was the use of the repertoire of ‘Fraternisation’. This can be described as “any method of winning sympathy, from direct argument and persuasion to the generation by one means or another of that subtle emotional sense of an underlying community of sentiment and interests between troops and people” (2014: 157).

Originating in Europe, ‘Fraternization’ entailed attempting to build alliances with those who had the power to oppress their movement, which was typically army officers (Ketchley 2014: 157). During the protests, the ‘Fraternization’ of the people with the army, and the black-uniformed CSF troops, epitomises how size is a key characteristic in allowing repertoires to be more effective. The creation of a polyvalent repertoire which symbolised the protestor-soldier solidarity (Ketchley 2014: 158), created an even bigger threat to the Mubarak government. The solidarity illustrated through Fraternization demonstrated not only symbolic support for this social movement but also the large-scale ‘actual’ support.

Accordingly, we can see how size has a strong influence in determining how effective a repertoire can be. Numerical strength boosts social movement’s disruptive potential by overburdening law enforcement’s capacity to repress the protest (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 281). Without being suppressed by law enforcement, the repertoire has a much greater opportunity to be successful. Hence, the social movement has a greater chance to get closer to its fundamental goal.

Photo by Ahmed akacha on Pexels.com

Characteristic 2: Militancy  

There is a large overlap between the characteristics of militancy and size. For a repertoire to exhibit ‘militancy’, it must create some form of organised confrontation. As Tilly concluded, these two characteristics are likely to create certain repertoires more successful than others, because they establish disruption and uncertainty (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 280).

Undoubtedly, the combination of the two increases the chances of the repertoire becoming even more disruptive and therefore, effective. This is because disruptive repertoires allow social movements to gain the attention of political and economic elites, who they often lack institutionalised relations with (Aminzade 1995: 40).

As Melucci highlights, what differentiates political parties from social movements is that although they seek to establish the attention and contact with those who can advocate social change. They do so through unconventional, sometimes illegal, or revolutionary methods of collective action (Aminzade 1995: 40). Hence, the repertoires which question the legitimacy of power, break the rules, or put forward non-negotiable objectives, are more likely to draw the attention of the government or regime to their cause (Aminzade 1995: 40).

It is important to remember, that the attention of political and economic elites is necessary for pushing forward with social and political change. The disruptive nature of certain repertoires is what leads us to discover and acknowledge social movements in society, usually via the media.

More specifically, research has shown that militant repertoires are most effective in cities (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 280). Blockades, sit-ins, unauthorised encampments and housing takeovers, can draw more participants in cities. The more participants, the more likely it will be disruptive to city life. Moreover, in a city, the militant repertoire is more likely to reach the internet, as there are more people present to witness and thus, record the scene.

Photo by Harrison Haines on Pexels.com

Characteristic 3: Non-Violence

Respectively, studies were conducted which have systematically explored the strategic effectiveness of violent and non-violent repertoires. The findings illuminated that major non-violent repertoires have been successful 53% of the time, compared to only 26% for violent repertoires (Chenoweth and Stephan 2008: 8). Based on this finding, we can then question if the characteristic of militancy is truly a key ingredient for making a repertoire more effective than another?

Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan advocate that non-violent repertoires are more effective for two main reasons. Firstly, they argue that a social movement’s commitment to non-violent repertoires, enhance both their domestic and international legitimacy (2008: 9). In this sense, Tilly argues that they are often taken more seriously by governments in modern capitalist societies, as through non-violent repertoires they are demonstrating their commitment to democratic values (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 264).

Further, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) who sympathise with the cause, are more likely to financially support these social movements, which will often aid in advancing their cause in the long-term (Chenoweth and Stephan 2008: 12). When a social movement actively commits to using only non-violent repertoires, the NGOs or private sponsors can trust that they have a much lower chance of being embarrassed or held accountable for wrongdoings. There is a much lower risk.

Secondly, Chenoweth and Stephan uphold that non-violent repertoires are more effective than violent ones, as it is far more difficult for governments to justify counterattacks against peaceful repertoires (Chenoweth and Stephan 2008: 9). In the case that the regime was to violently suppress the non-violent repertoire, it has been argued that there is potential that the social movement would gain public sympathy (Chenoweth and Stephan 2008: 9). The gaining of this public sympathy could be conceived as effective, as it could allow for more people to want to join and support the movement.

An eminent example of a disruptive, yet non-violent repertoire which proved to be effective was the civil rights movement’s ‘sit-ins’ in the 1960s (Tilly and Tarrow 2015: 52). Doug McAdams maintains that innovative repertoires of the civil rights movement, such as sit-ins, were so effective as they caught the authorities off-guard (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 279). Most of the discussion concerning how effective disruptive repertoires such as sit-ins were, is revolved around the debate: whether non-violent campaigns are more effective than violent ones.

Photo by Gotta Be Worth It on Pexels.com

Characteristic 4: Cultural Resonance  

In the same way that repertoires, which embody democratic values are argued to be more effective in modern capitalist societies, David Snow contends that repertoires, which resonate popular beliefs and values have a greater chance at being successful (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 282).

In this sense, we can see how a movement within the United States, which chooses to participate in repertoires, which depict a commitment to democratic practices and politics of persuasion is much more likely to be met with favourable government action (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 282). This is because the repertoire echoes the values of the government.

Sidney Tarrow draws attention to the repertoire of strikes and strike threats in democratic states. For example, employers within the United States in the mid-twentieth century and the 1990s in Poland both participated in democratic strikes. Tarrow asserts that these repertoires “were effective in gaining concessions from the government or employers” (Tarrow 2011: 217). Strikes and strike threats include clear demands quantified within a democratic framework, which resonates with democratic governments.

Moreover, the characteristic of cultural resonance can also be demonstrated by repertoires, which are driven by political opportunities. Tarrow refers to political opportunities as, “consistent – but not necessarily formal, permanent, or national – signals to social or political actors which either encourage or discourage them to use their internal resources to form social movements” (Buffonge 2001: 8). With this in mind, we can infer that those social movements, who ensure they stay informed of any political opportunities or threats are more likely to produce more effective repertoires.

As Herbert Kitschelt articulates, “political opportunity structures influence the choice of protest strategies and the impact of social movements on their environment” (Kriesi 2008: 69). If the public is of great disappointment or frustration with the political climate, we could expect to see effective repertoires playing upon these feelings. The most successful social movements will remain receptive to their environment, consider different repertoires and aptly choose which one suits that political climate best.

Additionally, it is noted that because the instability of political alignments creates an opportunity for successful mobilisation to take place, repertoires, which undermine established leaders are more likely to achieve mobilisation (Kriesi 2008: 75). However, it is essential to note that this can also result in negative consequences, dependent on the political context of the government or regime, whether it is tyrannical or not. Within a tyrannical leadership context, the risk of imprisonment is almost always on the cards.

One of the most poignant examples of a successful movement whose repertoires evoked cultural resonance was the Rastafarian movement. Gordon Buffonge points out that the pivotal characteristic within the effective repertoires of the Rastafarian movement was the cultural resonance it created through the emphasis on national identity (Buffonge 2001: 7).

The environment in which the 1930s Rastafarian movement blossomed, entailed a closed political system whereby Afro-Jamaican poor individuals had no avenue for representation (Buffonge 2001: 8). Appropriately, the movement began to support and alter mainstream discourse about the poverty of rural and urban Jamaicans, through implementing aspects of Jamaican myth, story, religion and music in an innovative manner (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 282).

Another effective set of repertoires, which also demonstrated a movement’s ability to tune into political and social opportunities was the civil rights movement. McAdam insists that the success of the civil rights movement was also grounded in “mediating between opportunity and action” (Kriesi 2008: 75).

As a result, the movement set up effective mobilising structures, which tailor-made different repertoires to different environments and political climates” (Kriesi 2008: 75). Hence, from these two examples, we can confer that most repertoires, which are more effective than others are the ones, which tune into the political threats and opportunities and adapt to them accordingly.

Context is a large determining factor in the success of different repertoires, in one city a march may be effective and in another, it may not be. Therefore, we can learn that it is vital for social movements to gain a sense of the political atmosphere, in deciphering which repertoire will be more effective in a specific mobilisation.

Photo by Vincent M.A. Janssen on Pexels.com

Characteristic 5: Variety  

The final and most important characteristic which has proven to be a running theme in the most effective repertoires is variety. Amongst the many academics who advocate this position, Aldon Morris claims that the crux of yielding the best results in terms of policy change is through using a mix of different repertoires (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 280).

One of the most notable successful social movements, which has embraced using a variety of repertoires is the women’s movement. Through exhibiting a range of repertoires, it has been argued that the women’s movement has even produced its own culture (Taylor and Whittier 1995: 164). As Mary Katzenstein depicts, this cultural resistance can be highlighted through a combination of two main repertoires. Firstly, the interest group strategies, which are designed to influence political elites and ensure social change through legislation and policy (Taylor and Whittier 1995: 182).

Secondly, discursive repertoires which are expressed primarily through speech and print, to “reinterpret, reformulate, rethink, and rewrite the androcentric masculine norms and practices of society and the state” (Taylor and Whittier 1995: 182). Subsequently, further repertoires have evolved within this culture of resistance, including the emergence of feminist media, art and literature (Taylor and Whittier 1995: 183).

As we can see this clear accumulation and evolvement of multiple repertoires has had an important impact in creating even more effective repertoires as the movement has progressed. Ergo, this variety has had a positive impact on the success of the women’s movement overall.

It is through this emergence of variety that repertoires of social movements have become more effective, as they gather wider support from a variety of people. For example, Tarrow confirms that through having repertoires characterised by variety, there is an option for everyone to become involved within a movement (2011: 29) and as it was established earlier in the category of size, the more people that can be reached or involved in that repertoire the more likely it is to be effective.

For the people who would like to be involved in a social movement. Yet, would rather stay at home or, who have no interest in militant or disruptive repertoires, by offering multiple types the social movement is allowing everyone to get involved. Also, it has been noted that the variety of repertoires used is much more likely to attract media coverage (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 279).

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

As a sub-section within the category of variety, researchers have determined that when social movements use a range of repertoires together, the most effective ones are characterised by their novelty (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 279). Tarrow claims that although it is more common for social movements to select repertoires, which they are familiar with, empirical studies have demonstrated that innovative repertoires are more effective in achieving policy changes (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 279).

Creating a culture is a difficult task for a social movement, yet with repertoires, which embrace novelty ideas, such as using music, theatre, art, poetry and street performances, the task becomes more attainable. As Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor have illuminated, the LGBTQ movement has been advocates of using novelty repertoires such as drag performances, intending to transform heterosexual audience members’ beliefs about gender and sexuality (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 279).

It is the fusion of entertainment and politics which has proven to reach those of a variety of identities and ideologies (Taylor and Van Dyke 2008: 279). In this sense, we see how like variety, a repertoire, which is characterised by novelty is more likely to be remembered and understandable for those who may not be so politically minded.

Withal, the most notable about novelty repertoires, is that they increase the chances of the repertoire to be publicised, discussed or spread across the internet. As discussed earlier in this essay, in turn, this exposure of the repertoire can be considered as a key factor in determining effectiveness or success for the movement, in that it promotes wider cognizance of the movement and its objectives.

One of the most evident examples of a novelty repertoire, which has been effective in bringing visibility to a cause was Quang Duc’s self-immolation. As Biggs notes, after Quang Duc’s suicide protest in 1963, many people joined the monks and nuns who were protesting on the streets of Saigon to support the Buddhist resistance against the government of President Diem (2013: 415).

Although this choice of repertoire may not have achieved the ‘ultimate goals’ of the movement and some Buddhists disapproved of it, the novelty element played a strong role in attracting media and public attention (Biggs 2013: 417). The symbolisation of the struggle evoked a committed response from the public who were not already involved, therefore exemplifying how the novelty led to this repertoire being more effective than the ones used before.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Concluding Remarks

After critically analysing several social movements and their use of different repertoires, we can see how the five characteristics outlined in this article all play a pivotal role in defining how effective a repertoire will be. The five characteristics being: size, militancy, non-violence, cultural resonance and variety.

Due to the context of social movements, political and social change has a narrative of being very slow. Accordingly, a social movement, which adopts a variety of repertoires will have a much higher likeliness of achieving success. In particular, the use of a variety of ‘non-violent’ repertoires. As mentioned, non-violent social movements are more likely to be respected and listened to by governmental figures. They are also more likely to gain sponsorship from NGOs. The wealthier the social movement is, the more opportunities it will have to use a variety of repertoires. In turn, increasing the probability of achieving its ultimate long-term goals.

By opting for a variety of ‘non-violent’ repertoires, the social movement can attract a variety of people from different backgrounds to engage. More people are willing to commit to non-violent methods of protest as it minimises the risk for themselves. By offering both physical and digital repertoires, those who would typically not want to join a march can still feel involved in the movement from the comfort of their home. The more actual support of the repertoire, the more effective it will be. There is power in numbers they say.

Tarrow discusses the idea that there has been an increasing emphasis on “collective goods” outcomes of repertoires rather than just achieving the fundamental objective (Tarrow 2011: 218). I concur with this statement and believe it is epitomised in social movement’s commitment to adopting the characteristic of variety within their repertoires. There needs to be active engagement in a variety of repertoires, but most important ones which are sensitive to political and social context. This is why cultural resonance also plays a significant role in how effective a repertoire of contention will be. The social movements which aptly tune into the current socio-political climate are typically more successful.

Finally, the role which the media and the internet have played in spreading awareness of certain movements and their goals is something, which must be acknowledged. This role has had a clear impact on the engagement with the five characteristics discussed, as all five seem to be magnets for such industries.

Nonetheless, what makes one repertoire effective is not necessarily the repertoire itself, but how it is applied and in what context. Just because a social movement opts for one of these characteristics in their repertoires does not instantly mean it will be effective. However, from a historical perspective, the five characteristics provide us with a basic skeleton for understanding why certain repertoires have been more effective than others.


Aminzade, Ronald. 1995. ‘Between Movement and Party: The Transformation of Mid-Nineteenth-Century French Republicanism’, in Politics of Social Protest: Comparative Perspectives on States and Social Movements, pp. 39-62.  

Biggs, Michael. 2013. ‘HOW REPERTOIRES EVOLVE: THE DIFFUSION OF SUICIDE PROTEST IN THE TWENTHIETH CENTURY’, in Mobilization: An International Quarterly, Vol. 18 (4), pp. 407-428. 

Buffonage, Gordon A. 2001. ‘Culture and Political Opportunity: Rastafarian Links to the Jamaican Poor’, in Political opportunities, social movements, and democratization, ed. By Patrick G Coy, pp. 3-36.  

Chenoweth, Erica; Stephan, Maria J. 2008. ‘Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict’, in International Security, Vol. 33 (1), pp. 7-44. 

Ketchley, Neil. 2014. ‘“The army and the people one hand!” Fraternization and the 25th January Egyptian Revolution’, in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 56 (1), pp. 155-186.  

Kriesi, Hanspeter. 2008. ‘Political Context and Opportunity’, in Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, pp. 67-90.  

Snow, David A. 2008. Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, Chichester: Wiley. 

Tarrow, Sidney. 2011. Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics, Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, Verta; Whittier, Nancy. 1995. ‘Analytical Approaches to Social Movement Culture: The Culture of the Women’s Movement’, in Social Movements and Culture, pp. 163-187.  

Taylor, Verta; Van Dyke, Nella. 2008. ‘“Get up, Stand up”: Tactical Repertoires of Social Movements’, in Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, pp. 262-293. 

Tilly, Charles; Tarrow, Sidney. 2015. Contentious Politics, New York: Oxford University Press.  

Published by Lucy Rowan

24-year-old Writer and Editor from South West London

One thought on “Why some repertoires of contention are more effective than others

  1. Reblogged this on Monique L. Desir and commented:
    This is an interesting and deliciously thought-provoking post. It got me thinking about the often insidious countermeasures and fatal actions that certain groups and/or individuals: “Although this choice of repertoire may not have achieved the ‘ultimate goals’ of the movement and some Buddhists disapproved of it, the novelty element played a strong role in attracting media and public attention (Biggs 2013: 417).” For example, the public assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the government-sanctioned murders of Black Panther Party members Mark Clark and Fred Hampton come to mind. The former assassination’s was made public for a reason: to send a disturbing message to the Black community that even if they peacefully protest for their human rights, didn’t protect them from injustice. You see, what matters is if both sides are playing fair. What can be done about that?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: