Global Protest Movements in 2019: Conclusion

From the Series: Global Protest Movements in 2019: What Do They Teach Us?

Photo by Jonathan van Smit, licensed under CC BY NC ND.

As the pieces in this series have shown, October 2019 saw the emergence of multiple protest movements across the globe. On October 17, a series of discrete events spontaneously led to massive protests in Beirut that marked the start of the October Revolution in Lebanon. Only one day later, protesters burned dozens of metro stations in Santiago, and gave way to what has also been dubbed, in Chile, as the October Revolution. The October Revolution is also a term used for the Iraqi protests covered in this series as well, which began on October 1, 2019. Only two days after this, nationwide protests erupted in Ecuador. November and December 2019 then saw the emergence of protest movements, similar in scale, in Colombia and India. These protest movements crowned what had already been a politically active year, especially in light of the globally publicized protests in Hong Kong. The year 2019 may thus join the ranks of other years when protest movements shook the globe: 2011, 1989, 1968, 1848, to name a few. For all their historical differences and for the disparate ways in which the 2019 protest movements covered in this series have developed, it is certainly the case that what is at stake in these distant but interconnected locations is the indictment of common and similar global economic and political structures. Transnational activist solidarities have doubtless played a role, too. True to the inductive experiment carried out in this series, however, in this conclusion we refrain from making large claims about the causes and consequences of the protests movements covered here. What we offer, instead, is a brief reflection on some commonalities or similarities of these movements as approached historically and ethnographically in this series, and specifically in relation to the questions that we laid out in the introduction.

Movements in Becoming: Ethnographic Engagement with Protest Movements

The first question that we asked in the introduction to this series concerned how ethnographically situated analysis might contribute to our understanding of, and how anthropological concepts might offer different perspectives on, the emergent global protest movements covered in this series. Typically, academic and media analyses of social movements or protest movements emphasize questions of causality and process—why and how social movements or protests emerge, what causes some to fail and others to succeed, and what the outcomes of particular movements are. While these questions are of course fundamental to ask, the manner in which these questions are posed often reifies movements as objectively definable and discrete units of analysis. Rather than use anthropological concepts to ground movements objectively, contributors to this series have shown that ethnographically sitting with the movements as dynamic, contradictory, and still unfinished projects may be more productive.

The pieces in this series did so in two ways. First, they resisted reducing the protagonists of the protest movements to concrete ideas of “new actors” and instead emphasized the heterogeneity and ambiguity of subjectivities that emerged in the process of the protest movements. In most of the cases studied here, the groups protesting involved novel coalitions of mostly young people who were only tangentially linked to historically important actors, including trade unions and political parties. In the cases of Lebanon, Iraq, and Hong Kong, these coalitions seemed to exceed classed, gendered, sectarian, and generational categories that have been used to analyze movements in the past. In the case of Ecuador, Indigenous organizations, which had previously gained national prominence, articulated unexpected coalitions with other groups. This seems relevant at a strategic level, for most protests have benefited from a wide degree of legitimacy partly as a result of this heterogeneity. At an analytical level, grounding contemporary protesters in strictly defined new subjectivities may inadvertently reduce the scope of protesters’ praxis. This, in turn, may also aid the state and other powerful actors who seek to identify, criminalize, and surveil protesters. In this sense, what is important for anthropologists to trace ethnographically is not only how protest movements develop objectively, but also how this development is constantly being interpreted by participants in these movements and how these interpretations then continuously shape the form of the movements.

Second, another way in which the pieces in this series have attempted to ethnographically sit with the movements as dynamic, contradictory, and still unfinished projects is by putting into question the ways in which the trajectory of these movements have been understood or periodized. All the movements studied in this series form parts of larger histories and political cultures in the geographies where they emerged. However, these larger histories and political cultures need not define the trajectories of these movements. In the case of Chile, Pablo Seward Delaporte argues, reducing the uprising to a revolt against neoliberalism and Pinochet’s 1980 constitution may inadvertently close the very possibilities for different futures in Chile opened up by the protest movement. Similarly, Jaime Landinez uses the analytics of cracks and contamination to explore the constitution and form of the protest movement in Colombia in the process of its making. Although the protest movement must be understood in the context of the peace process of Colombia, Landinez argues that the consequences of the movement cannot be known in advance.

Similarly, what seems to be strikingly new and spontaneous in protest scenes, be they lexicons, ideas, actions, or emotions, needs to be situated in a longer trajectory of the political cultures that we focus on. In doing so, we may assess more accurately what is really new, why it matters so much to understand the present situation, and where it comes from. As Yasemin Ipek notes, for example, Lebanon’s October Revolution witnessed a multifaceted expansion of protest culture. Urban middle class activists and their established methods of resistance are no longer the center of the protest scenes (the same occurred in India, too; see Sophia Abbas in this series). In this way, previously cynical or apathetic citizens, refugees, and migrant workers—whom Ipek terms “activists-in-becoming”—appear as new figures in the street protests. The protest movement has thus effectively shaken the cynicism of “nothing would change in Lebanon.” Yet, as Ipek points out, activists have different ideas about how the common dream for changing the sectarian system of Lebanon could be achieved, and the way in which these different ideas combine has made the trajectory of the movement difficult to predict. Likewise, in India, the first to protest against the Citizenship Act were Muslim women in ghettoized neighborhoods. Their protagonism was a remarkable contribution to the struggles of their community, but as Sophia Abbas writes, in their night-long sit-in and practices of belonging, they did not carry the banner of a “women-led revolution” or make any outright feminist claims. Yet, precisely because of such bold actions as presenting themselves as political subjects who care about the Muslim community and future generations, they challenged the figure of “oppressed Muslim women” in a more profound way.

Similar dynamics were also present in Iraq and Hong Kong. In Iraq, Kerem Ussakli captures the appearance of the Joker, which, as the “visual citation” of a fictive figure in popular culture, nonetheless reflects much of Iraq’s reality. Protesters’ self-identification with the Joker, he argues, has a revolutionary potential not only because of its remarkable power of revelation; it also has to do with their will to confront, if not refuse in advance, the mainstream media army’s hijacking of the protest by stigmatizing protesters as whatever the figure of the Joker connotes. He shows us, however, that this resolution to make fundamental changes in political institutions, especially the muhasasa system, needs to be grasped by attending to the failed attempts to reform the system from within in the past decade and beyond. Doing fieldwork in the midst of Hong Kong’s city-wide mobilization, Shan Huang, for his part, documents the emergence of the space of care for strangers vis-à-vis the warzone-like protest sites. He shows in an ethnographic vignette how a group of citizen-volunteers search the airport to rescue the life of a young man who is said to commit suicide for the sake of escalating protest. The meaning of this unprecedented form of collective action, he argues, needs to be unpacked against the backdrop of how Hong Kong is built and lived as a city that does not encourage this form of care.

The Limit of the Field: What Protest Movements Teach Anthropologists

Another realm of interest this series explores is how protest movements, as objects of observation, sites for intensive experience, and profoundly politicized domains that nonetheless demand intellectual engagement, teach anthropologists in ways that other phenomena that we engage ethnographically normally do not. This series suggests that one way of learning from protest movements and their actors is by thinking of the ways in which they expose the limit of the fieldsite(s) where we situate our ethnographic work. Here, the limit may refer to established political, economic, and cultural institutions that hold lifeworlds together based on the consensus of different sectors in society. As anthropologists, we may effectively learn about this limit by looking at the ways in which protesters diagnose problems, frame the cause of actions, and articulate their demands beyond our previous research and political agendas. In Chile, most noticeably, nationwide protests were triggered by a fare hike in the Santiago metro, but quickly escalated to demands that citizens be able to rewrite the 1980 constitution, violently imposed by General Pinochet as part of the neoliberal experiment in Chile. Pablo Seward Delaporte, however, argues that rather than take anti-neoliberal claims for a new constitution as the new limit, ethnographers sit with protesters as they push the limit beyond what is yet signifiable. He uses the example of rubble in the streets of Santiago to demonstrate this analytical stance ethnographically. Yet, as the extreme state violence in Chile shows, pushing the limit of the possible is not simply a movement of desire.

The limit of the fieldsite, then, points to the conditioned horizon of possibilities prompted by protest movements. Maka Suarez and Jorge Núñez’s piece recaps the discussion in a colloquium they helped to organize by Kaleidos: Center for Interdisciplinary Ethnography in Cuenca right after Ecuador’s protests in October 2019. Referencing women activists who spoke in the colloquium, they show us how the immediacy of street protests enabled the discussion of a wide range of topics beyond what initially triggered the unrest. Both Sophia Abbas and Shan Huang argue that in Delhi and Hong Kong, respectively, the specifics of the built urban environment are critical to understanding how innovative ways of mobilizing are made possible. Learning from protesters in this way, they have updated their understanding of urban geography as both an embodied spatial practice and a public knowledge pertaining to critical politics. Similarly, Jaime Landinez notes that in Colombia, the expansion of the movement’s locales and demands was importantly enacted by protesters bringing cacerolazo to neighborhoods.

Thinking with the metaphor of limit also urges us to ask how far a “movement” can go and what is left after those spotlighted moments of mobilization and confrontation are gone. In other words, anthropologists can learn not only from what protesters have done, but also what they failed to accomplish (Li 2019), and what they have not done but somehow foreshadowed. In Lebanon, as Yasemin Ipek shows, after the protesters’ initial demand for the government’s resignation was achieved in less than two weeks, the alliance built on the basis of this unifying goal soon dissolved into antagonisms within protesters. Not seeing this as a failure, she suggests that we attend to how various smaller groups carry on the agenda of the October Revolution by reaching out to other precarious Lebanese citizens. In this sense, while this series focused more on the eventful moments where hopes and promises flash, a protest movement’s effects can last very long. As Hong Kong’s 2019 protests have precipitated some fundamental changes in the city-state’s institutions, Shan Huang notes that to evaluate the movement’s gain, it is critical to look at the after-effects of the method of self-organizing and the spirit of mutual care among citizens. In fact, new practices of mutual care, aid, learning, and knowledge-making beyond existing institutions and the most dynamic movement scenes have emerged across cases covered in this series (see also Yasemin Ipek; Maka Suarez and Jorge Núñez). In deep frustration with police brutality and the established political institutions’ capacity to make actual changes, this new trend of self-organization, together with their methodological and political implications, is perhaps a common legacy of the protest movements in 2019.

How Protest Movements Change the Stakes of Doing Fieldwork

Thirdly, we asked in the introduction how these protest movements have changed the stakes of, and our engagements with, our ethnographic work. A few contributors to this series were doing their substantial fieldwork (Sophia Abbas; Shan Huang) or had the chance to revisit their field site (Pablo Seward Delaporte; Maka Suarez and Jorge Núñez; Jaime Landinez) during the protest movements. Engaging with their interlocutors as they participated in the protest movements, they could appreciate how these movements appeared in their field sites as total events that had panoramic effects. Sophia Abbas explores the ways in which Muslims stake belonging through spatial tactics, religious identity, and the terrain of law. Shan Huang documents how the hyper-dynamic protests infiltrate local neighborhoods and activate political participation there. Others who had completed their long-term fieldwork before the protest movements broke out, conversely, chose to offer a critical recent pre-history of the protests (Yasemin Ipek; Kerem Ussakli). Maka Suarez and Jorge Núñez’s piece stands out for their efforts in thinking Covid-19 in tandem with the protests in Ecuador in October 2019. Documenting how the government makes use of the pandemic to further repress protests, they have gained profound understanding of how state violence works. In addition, the experience of working with other activists in this challenging time has also reinforced their position that the collaborative and reflexive method of knowledge production in doing ethnography is precisely what is needed at this point.

Either doing fieldwork in the midst of protest movements or watching how political turmoil changes our field from afar could profoundly change the ways we relate to our fieldsites and informants. For those of us clearly standing in line with protesters, in particular, there are moments when we want to engage in the movement more directly, perhaps beyond what is conventionally expected for the “professional” anthropologist in the field. While the authors of this series found ethnographic writing can be one way of engagement, this practice is not without tension. We are trained to craft our ethnography so as to produce endurable insights that explain what is about and beyond the movement, yet this disciplinary temporality of writing may shut some doors for immediate participation through scholarship. Needless to say, it is also intellectually and emotionally challenging to sit down and write a piece in a relatively small window of time. In a way, the current series is an attempt to testify to the possibilities of making these difficult balances. By juxtaposing a variety of cases together, the contributors have also learned from each other through the moderate spectrum of protest movements we curate here. In doing so, we also hope to invite further conversation on anthropology’s role in understanding the social movements of our times and mobilizing solidarity and empathy across sites of resistance (Liu and Shange 2018).


As we draw this series to its conclusion, we hesitate to draw large claims about the global protest movements we have covered here. The cases at hand show that a wide range of issues are at stake in these movements. These include the unfulfilled promises and erosions of democratic governance, tactics of police brutality that have gained broad public scrutiny and condemnation, increasingly visible webs of corruption and economic inequalities, and persistent exclusions based on ethnicity, race, gender, and religion rooted in an imperialist world-system. Widely read works have theorized the transition from class-based to identity-based or “new” social movements throughout the twentieth century (Laclau and Mouffe 2013 [1985]) and the emergence of the “multitude” as a global revolutionary subject (Negri and Hardt 2004).

Rather than drawing grand theoretical conclusions, however, we suggest that anthropologists are uniquely posed to sit with this process of becoming through the methodological tools of ethnography. As sociologist and revolutionary Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar (2014, xxiii) puts it, “there are times in history when social conflicts, confrontations, and upheavals transcend the constrictive framework designed for their administration and control.” As the pieces in this series have shown, 2019 may be one of those times. For many of the protesters with whom pieces in this series engaged, it is clearer what they are against rather than for. Instead of necessarily seeing this as a symptom of a problematic “politics of the anti-” (Ferguson 2009), we may engage, through ethnography, with the horizon of possibilities that this transitional period in global politics brings with it.

What will happen as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic to the protest movements in Chile, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Iraq, India, Colombia, and Ecuador, as well as to other protest movements not covered in this series, is unpredictable. Whereas in some cases, the Covid-19 pandemic allowed the state and other powerful actors to neutralize the protest movements, in other contexts (as in the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests in the United States) protest movements may have been galvanized by the raw inequalities and abuses of power laid bare by the pandemic. The degree to which the horizons opened by these movements will lead to new hegemonies and new social syntheses is still to be seen. The present series has suggested some analytical approaches and questions concerning ethnographic learning and the public commitments of anthropology. There is much left that urgently needs addressing, including but not limited to new modes of transnational connection and solidarity, the forms that economic precariousness and political marginalization take in different locations, the role of non-protesters and counteractions, and state violence and police brutality. Amid an unprecedented sense of global uncertainty, where the very institutions that have sustained systems of power and that have made anthropology itself possible are put into question, the demand for anthropologists engaging protest movements has never been more urgent.


Ferguson, James. 2009. “The Uses of Neoliberalism.” Antipode 41, no. S1: 166–84.

Gutiérrez Aguilar, Raquel. 2014. Rhythms of the Packahuti: Indigenous Uprising and State Power in Bolivia. Translated by Stacey Alba D. Skar. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. 2013. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. New York: Verso. Originally published in 1985.

Li, Tania Murray. 2019. “Politics, Interrupted.” Anthropological Theory 19, no. 1: 29–53.

Liu, Roseann, and Savannah Shange. 2018. “Toward Thick Solidarity: Theorizing Empathy in Social Justice Movements.” Radical History Review 131: 189–98.

Negri, Antonio, and Michael Hardt. 2004. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin Press.