Student Movements and the Power of Disruption

By Gabriela Gonzalez-Vaillant and Michael Schwartz 

Student movements have played a crucial role in many major social and political transformations, at least partially because of their unique social status. Students are young and relatively unencumbered; students as individuals inhabit a transitory identity that they will soon leave, usually without sticky stigma; students in aggregate occupy a dynamic status infused with an energetic new generation each year. These features help to explain why student movements emerge and re-emerge, but they also point to some of the reasons why student movements have so often failed to achieve their social change goals (Taylor and Van Dyke 2007: 277) . In this essay, we seek to understand why and when social movements do succeed in extracting concessions from dominant institutions. We begin by briefly theorizing the notion of disruption as central to social movement success. We then distinguish between two types of disruption that are often practiced by student movements and viewed as similar by sociologists. We argue that the radically different dynamics of these two forms of disruption very often affect the success of student movements in leveraging social change.[i]

Piven (2006) defines disruption as “withdrawing cooperation in social relations,” arguing that the fact or threat of disruption to large institutions (or to society as a whole) is the chief mechanism for coercing concessions from those in command. Working with this vision of how collective action achieves change, we observe that student movements have utilized two distinct forms of disruptive protest: structural disruption within educational institutions, centered around their refusal to perform their role as students; and invasive disruption of other institutions in which they do not have routinized role in their functioning. The difference between the two is exemplified by contrasting two tactics used by many social movements: sit-downs and sit-ins. Sit-down strikes are conducted by workers, who stop performing their appointed tasks and remain idly at their work stations (so they cannot be replaced) unless and until their demands are met. The disruption derives from the dependency of management on the workers to perform their appointed task and the leverage generated therefore emerges from the structure of the organization itself. Sit-ins, on the other hand, are usually conducted by outsiders, who enter an establishment and attempt to disrupt its functioning by interfering with the ongoing activities of those working there. The disruption derives from the invasion of spaces by individuals with no organic role in the organization. While both forms of disruption can successfully interfere with normal functioning and can therefore develop usable leverage, we believe that the fate of student movements often depends on whether they seek to create structural or invasive leverage.

Structural disruption derives from what labor theorists have called positional power (Schwartz 1976; Silver 2003; Perrone, 1984). In large structures, different categories of participants have differing roles and therefore have differing abilities to disrupt operations. In factories, assembly line workers almost immediately disrupt production by stopping work, while office employees slowly erode relationships with customers and suppliers, yielding less disruption, at least in the short term.

A similar contrast can be made in the education system. If university students stop attending class, they disrupt the education function of the university, but they might leave its research function intact; thus they occupy it. If the faculty strike, they disrupt both education and research. If elementary school teachers strike, they disrupt primary education, but also—because their students are not in school—disrupt substantial sectors of the economy because parents remain home to care for their children.

This contrast in positional power underscores the limited structural leverage possessed by students. Because they can only disrupt the educational function by failing to play their role they develop leverage only over the administration of their schools, and therefore must restrict their demands to those “grantable” by the leaders of the educational sector they are disrupting. This is in sharp contrast to elementary school teachers, whose ability to disrupt the wider economy generates leverage over political officials and the captains of the economy, allowing them to utilize their positional power to make broader demands.

If students wish to make demands that cannot be granted by the administration of their educational institutions, they must undertake invasive disruption capable of interfering with the functioning of the broader social system, a much more difficult enterprise. Experienced activists often recognize this limitation on student power; a Chilean student interviewed during the protests during the 2011-12 academic year commented:

School occupations and strikes are the two measures we have as students at our immediate disposition to exercise pressure. What do you have beyond that? Taking the streets massively and destabilizing everyday life; this takes a lot of efforts to sustain… Now in the university, a strike might work, not because politicians are concerned that students aren´t learning, but because you cut the flow of resources into the university and thus you exercise leverage on the administration.

Whereas the Chilean activist was pessimistic about mounting a broader protest to raise broader demands, an Argentine student activist was more optimistic about the prospect of mounting invasive protest outside the university to pressure the government around funds for education:

It always depends on the correlation of forces and your demands…. If you are fighting for educational budget and you occupy the university, no one gives a fuck, but if you combine that with street mobilizations then you begin to gain visibility.

It is apparent from these comments by experienced student activists that effective disruption outside the confines of the university involves a different equation of forces than activism on the campus, including differing tactics and organizational resources; a greater probability of repression; and amplified requirements for allies, especially those with positional power in the targeted structure.

We illustrate this contrast by comparing two antiwar tactics undertaken by U.S. students during the Vietnam War.

  • The campaign against Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), which trained about a third of the officers serving in the war, utilized structural disruption on campus to pressure university administrations to discontinue the program. After initial success at Harvard University in 1969, student activists targeted ROTC on hundreds of campuses, significantly reducing the size of the program and contributing to what became a chronic shortage of officers in the U.S. military.
  • The campaign against the military draft initially sought to use invasive disruption by entering army bases and disrupting the pre-induction processing of potential draftees. The effort foundered because it was so difficult for protestors to enter the bases where the pre-induction proceedings took place, and the ease with which the relatively few demonstrators who breached the barriers could be arrested.  These failures were reversed when the student activists began organizing the potential draftees themselves to disrupt the proceedings, thus transforming invasive disruption into structural disruption. This tactic substantially contributed to the dramatic decline in draftees reporting for duty during the last years of the war.

The varying fate of student-led Vietnam War protests point to critical distinctions between the dynamics of on-campus and off-campus activism. When attempting to leverage educational administrators, students can rely on their own structural power to force concessions; but against outside targets, students require alliances with other groups to overcome the resistance of these alien structures. The use of invasive disruption, therefore, depends on the creation of bridging organizations to collectivities with positional power in the target institutions.[ii]


Perrone, Luca. 1984. “Positional Power, Strikes and Wages.” American Sociological Review. 49 (3), June, 412-26.

Piven, Frances Fox. 2006. Challenging Authority. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Schwartz, Michael. 1976. Radical Protest and Social Structure: The Southern Farmers’ Alliance and Cotton Tenancy, 1880-1890. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Silver, Beverley. 2003. Forces of Labor: Workers movement and Globalization since 1870. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, V. and Van Dyke, N. 2007. “Get up, Stand up”: Tactical Repertoires of Social Movements, in The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements. Wiley-Blackwell.

[i]  The paper draws on an array of examples that the authors have encountered through experience or research.

[ii] Another illustration of the same alliance-building process occurred during 2011, when Chilean students formed an alliance with copper miners; the two-day strike in august thus threatened to disrupt one of Chile´s most important industries and extracted concessions from the national government. Here again, the alliance required the construction of bridging organizations and the involvement of allies with positional power over the target institution.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Student Activism in Social Movements

18 responses to “Student Movements and the Power of Disruption

  1. SuzanWalters

    I wonder what the authors might say about graduate student power. Since an increasing amount of labor is being distributed to graduate students who often serve as both employees and students, but still occupy the transitory student position, they may have positional power. Could the future of successful student movements lie in the hands of this unique population?


  2. Ines Pousadela

    I find the distinction between structural disruption and invasive disruption extremely useful for understanding the impact that the Chilean student movement has had during the past year. I wonder whether greater emphasis on the latter has had anything to do with the differential impact of the 2011 movement in comparison with previous ones…


  3. Although I cannot speak for the authors, I would imagine that graduate students who are both employees and students would have a slightly different positional place in the system, although I am not completely convinced that this necessarily translates to more power. Particularly since graduate students are usually assistants to other “workers” who are primarily in charge of the daily operations of the system.

    One thing I do find hopeful of student movements, as discussed by the authors, is in their cleverness to target key places that will in fact disrupt the institution in which they seek to change. In this sense, they are almost like good entrepreneurs finding the latest niche markets, which is probably why I was particularly impressed by the authors’ reference to student activists as “experienced.”


  4. Josh Murray

    I also find the distinction between structural and invasive disruption useful; not just for understanding student movements, but other movements as well. For example, I would think that this distinction would be incredibly useful when analyzing the Occupy movements.


  5. Ines Pousadela

    Most definitely! Invasive disruption is probably all that’s left in the hands of those who have been excluded from participation in sites -such as the workplace- where they could provoke a disruption in the smooth functioning of the system by refusing to perform their assigned roles.


  6. Josh Murray

    I wonder, though, if a current weakness of the Occupy movements is their reliance on invasive disruption almost exclusively. This would suggest that a factor in the success of Occupy will be the extent to which the movement(s) are able to create, as the authors write, “bridging organizations to collectivities with positional power in target institutions”?


    • Right! That´s exactly what I really love that this piece. I feel like it describes the sophistication of a movement. Are they able to disrupt the daily functions of the target institution? Does their unique characteristics play a key role, such as them being students, etc.

      There is an Occupy “Wall Street” here in Mexico City (Mexico City´s Wall Street), and if I had to apply this framework, I would been inclined to say that it does not have much effect. The protestors are largely made up of unemployed farmers from the countryside without connections to influential organizations in the capital city. What it seems to me, is that they are practicing “invasive disruption” but without the ability to draw further attention to their cause and find a power point that can disrupt the daily operations of the institution itself. (This isn´t to say that farmers here in Mexico have not been successful in other contexts).


      • Juhi Tyagi

        Staying with the OWS movement: I like the quote of the optimistic Argentine student activist who said it was important to combine invasive disruption within and outside the direct protest field. By occupying the streets- Occupy members have created the possibility of forging alliances. Without it, I doubt any serious workers union would care to join what they would perceive as “ just another protest.” I suppose students often face this problem of transitioning from invasive to positional disruption. Because they lack positions that can lead to excessive disruption, people with strong positional power might not see advantages to being associated with them.

        -I wonder if we need to talk about the advantages of having a section of the movement containing people who DO NOT having the ability to disrupt. What can that do to/for a movement? Is that only of advantage to underground movements that are always in need of people who are not constantly detected by the system?

        -Additionally– if students want to begin a movement and not only be a part of an existing one, what can they do to attract collectivities with positional power, such as bankers or worker unions? Is that only a matter of framing or related in any way to disruption?


  7. Josh Murray

    Interesting set of questions Juhi,

    I think that as far as your last question about attracting collectivities: It makes me think about network dynamics and the spread of information and behaviors through networks. I would think the key is to develop a network structure full of weak ties. If a protest group is insulated and everyone involved has strong ties to each other, then the protest will spread quickly in the group and then die out, leaving little chance of forging alliances. On the other hand, if the network structure formed results in many weak ties between solidified groups, then those bridges create the possibility of alliances.

    So, for example, if students have strong ties to other students, but that is it. Then that group can bring in students from all over the country, but if students are not in position to structurally disrupt it will be hard to do anything but invasive disruption. If on the other hand, some of the students involved also have weak ties to other groups (maybe GSEU membership gives ties to unions, or some students are in med school and have ties to people in the AMA, etc.), then those ties can be used to form alliances. In this way, then, I agree that occupying the streets was HUGE.

    My hunch is that the Occupiers have included people from a large swath of backgrounds, and that by spending time occupying, these different people formed social ties (even if weak ties) and these ties can be utilized to form strategic alliances with groups that do have positional power. So, to me, the Occupy the streets part of the movement does not just represent a mobilization and publicizing of an issue, but also the creation of a social network that can be used to coordinate and mobilize further strategic action.


    • Gianmarco

      Just to share my own opinions and experiences from OWS, I think Josh is absolutely right. The general sense of inclusivity within OWS–where the basic idea, especially within the deliberative spaces of the movement, has been “bring together as many people as possible, and then discuss what a common collective vision would look like”–may have invited the “no demands” criticism, but I also think the advantages have been numerous: in addition to helping forge weak ties across various sectors, as Josh points out, the insistence on having a “leader-ful” movement has allowed for people to develop and express themselves, and helped build commitment and collective identity. Many people in the movement also agree.
      On the other hand, I think that this brilliant distinction between invasive and structural disruption could be acknowledged a little more widely within certain parts of the movement, such as among students (see, for example, the “five theses on the student strike”) – as such, this is truly insightful and useful theory, for both movement scholars and activists alike.


  8. Pingback: Student Movements and the Power of Disruption « Learning Change

  9. Reblogged this on Graceful Education and commented:
    This article takes as its premise that ‘the notion of disruption [is] central to social movement success, and then goes on to look at student movements in the context of this premise. Now whilst I will not argue that premise here and now (although I do believe the reality to be more nuanced), it is certainly true that participants of social movements are often left feeling there to be no recourse but through disruption.
    In the case of secondary-school students, this ‘disruption for change’ attitude is particularly noticeable, albeit often on an individual level, and rarely organised. There are alternative ways of creating change on a local level without “withdrawing cooperation in social relations”, and it is these co-operative modes of institutional change that I believe we need to cultivate in our schools. By the time students reach university and learn political theory the ‘anti-establishment’ attitude is often ingrained, and disruption is an obvious result. Earlier in the educational process, I believe there to be more flexibility in handling institutional change, not least because of the unique role that teenagers hold within (or rather, without) our communities.
    The point still stands, however, that teenagers have very little ‘positional power’ in our communities, and this power dynamic desperately needs to be addressed both in and out of the classroom.


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