Situational Dynamics and the Emergence of Violence in Protests

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Objectives: This article investigates how situational dynamics influence the emergence of protest violence. Although common-sense explanations of violence focus on actors’ motivations and strategies, a situational turn is underway, emphasizing the relevance of the violent situation itself. This article assesses this situational approach, examining whether the emergence of violence can be explained by focusing on what occurs during a protest. Method: The article comparatively analyzes 30 protests occurring in the United States and Germany between 1960 and 2010. Using a triangulation of visual and document data, as well as participant observation, it analyzes over 1,000 data pieces, uses 2 samples, and conducts 3 steps of analysis: The article develops a situational approach using meticulous case reconstructions (employing Video Data Analysis), tests the approach by comparatively analyzing a random sample of violent and peaceful protests (employing Qualitative Comparative Analysis), and revisits cases to identify crucial dynamics and paths to protest violence. Results: The study identifies 5 behaviors by protesters and police during protests crucial for leading to violence if they occur in one of the following three combinations: a loss of control path, a missing information path, and an offense path. All 3 combinations trigger violence by changing actors’ situational interpretations and emotional dynamics. Conclusions: Findings suggest a purely situational approach—focusing on what happens during demonstrations—can provide a consistent and meaningful explanation for the emergence of violence. Alternative explanations are discussed, such as the relevance of background and context factors as risk factors to the emergence of violence.

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