Why do students mobilize and strike?

By Benjamin Giguère and Richard N. Lalonde*

Students are in the unique position of often being asked to reflect on the future challenges of their society. Through this process of questioning the current social structures and their functions, many students often recognize that they have shared grievances. These shared grievances can form the basis of the core ideas underlying their motivation for unity and social mobilization (see Simon and Klandermans, 2001). Some of our past and current work aims to understand how such shared grievances may motivate individuals to engage in collective action, such as participating in demonstrations. One context that has been exciting for us to examine is the student movements in the Canadian province of Québec. Our observations of some of these movements may offer insight into why students mobilize.

As social psychologists, our work targets the subjective experience of individuals, rather than the more objective factors surrounding their lived experiences. We are more concerned with the individual’s perception of their disadvantaged position, rather than with a more objective quantification of their social status. From this perspective, we focus on understanding how identities and perceived norms derived from social groups can shape group members’ perceptions of a shared grievance and their motivation to mobilize and engage in collective action.

Students from the francophone institutions in the Canadian province of Québec are in a unique position. The province is home to approximately 7 million individuals, of which about 6 million speak French as their first language (Marmen and Corbeil, 2007). Within Canada and North America, the francophone population of the province is a significant linguistic minority group, which is supported by language laws aimed at protecting this linguistic heritage. As a result, most French speaking Quebecers (Québécois) go about their daily lives without having to use the English language. To sustain this environment the province relies on a steady flow of French-speaking graduates to maintain its workforce every year. A disruption of this cycle is a difficult situation for the leaders of the province to reconcile. Such a power dynamic grants students an opportunity to mobilize in order to obtain particular concessions from the government.

The unique setting of Québec’s students may have facilitated a particular rhetoric when it comes to student movements in this province, where students do not just boycott their courses, they are “on strike!” As Québec superior court judge Jean-François Émond remarked, student associations are not included in laws governing union strikes (Boivert, 2012a). Even so, by collectively walking out of the classrooms students “on strike” may create an important problem for the province in managing its workforce. Over the last few decades three “strikes” have occurred (1996, 2005, and 2012) and all of them relate to grievances about potential changes impacting the cost for students to attend the province’s universities and colleges. This student activism is also concomitantly tied to a general level of social activism in the province. For example, 200,000 to 300,000 people gathered in Montréal last April to take part in an Earth Day march, which was the largest environmental protest in Canadian history (Beaudin, 2012).

We explored some of the key themes comprising the shared grievance of students on strike in Québec during the province wide student strike of 2005 by relying on snowball sampling (Giguère and Lalonde, 2010). The most commonly observed positive arguments regarding the strike were the preservation of equal access to education (46%), the maintenance of norms of social justice within the province of Québec (24%), and getting the government to listen to student claims (19%). The most commonly observed negative arguments were a perceived lack of negotiations prior to the strike (20%), a recognition that postsecondary education costs for students in the province were the lowest in North America (14%), and the creation of a negative image of students in the public eye (11%).

The preservation of access to education may take a unique form in the province because of its linguistic dynamics. The anticipation of threats to the future vitality of the French language and culture is a commonly observed theme across many of the mobilization efforts in the province (see Giles, Bourhis and Taylor, 1977; Wohl, Giguère, Branscombe, and McVicar, 2010). Thus, social movements typically become about more than the grievance directly targeted by the mobilization effort. Often, they broaden to other issues tied to the future linguistic and cultural vitality of Quebecers. For example, as we are writing this piece, thousands of Québec students are once again mobilizing against a proposed tuition increase, but other issues tied to the future vitality of the province have become intertwined with the students’ movements, such as whether the province should allow shale gas drilling or whether the province should become a sovereign nation (e.g., Boisvert, 2012b).

As they come to recognize their shared grievances some group members strive to gain power to address them (Simon and Klandermans, 2001). When such situation occurs with students their shared grievances may foster a common student activist identity (e.g., Giguère and Lalonde, 2010). Although subtle, the distinction between a regular student group identity and a more politicized activist identity is very important. Once group members become aware of a shared grievance related to their group membership their identification with the activist group becomes an important causal factor motivating them to engage in collective acts to improve the plight of their group (see Simon and Klandermans, 2001).

A shared politicized group identity may provide students with an opportunity to connect to other group members by facilitating the extent to which individuals care about the plight of others (e.g., Giguère and Lalonde, 2010). Through this process, politicized group members can more easily recognize and value the benefits for their group peers of engaging in collective actions. Our work with the 2005 student strike suggests that when these benefits outweigh the individual costs of mobilizing, students who identify as activists are more likely to engage in collective action, such as demonstrations and occupying government offices (Giguère and Lalonde, 2010).

Beyond changing the scale of the value of costs and benefits to mobilize, a shared politicized group identity may also help group members to subjectively estimate the potential efficacy and success of their mobilization efforts (Giguère and Lalonde, 2010). The efficacy and success of collective actions depend on the ability of the group to mobilize its resources. Essential to this mobilization is the connection between group members who must work collectively to improve the group’s conditions. As we discussed following our work with the 2005 student strike, experiencing a strong bond between group members may be one means through which student activists perceive the mobilization ability of their group and the possible success of collective actions (Giguère and Lalonde, 2010). As previous work in the area of collective action reveals, such perceptions are important causal determinants increasing the motivation of group members to mobilize and engage in collective actions (see Van Zomeren, Postmes, and Spears, 2008).

There are many situations of social injustice and group discrimination where the majority of group members who share grievances appear to passively accept their situation (e.g., Wright, Taylor, and Moghaddam, 1990). Why the shared grievance of students may be more amenable to mobilization efforts may be tied to the limited competing commitments they have. As we have discussed elsewhere (see Giguère and Lalonde, 2009), members of disadvantaged groups often face competing demands, such as taking care of their families, which limit the resources group members can place in the planning and organizing phases of mobilization effort. Moreover, as Nella Van Dyke discussed earlier this month on this blog, students are in a unique position because they face fewer barriers to their mobilizing efforts.

Ultimately, students mobilize in part because from their perspective, the group will benefit from their individual efforts to jointly mobilize. Such an approach to understanding the motivation of students to engage in collective actions contrasts with the common belief that such actions are the result of uninhibited impulses (Giguère and Lalonde, 2009). Although the desired outcomes may appear noble, from a psychological well-being perspective, interesting questions emerge when observing large-scale students strikes. It should be recognized that in the case of the 2005 Québec student strike, not all students were in agreement with the strike, even among those who actively engage in student protests. Because different experiences may emerge, some students may be intrinsically motivated by their shared grievances and a strong sense of identity as student activists, while others may be extrinsically motivated through social pressure. Would these different motivations be associated with different psychologically costs of the experience of student mobilization?

*Authors’ Note: We thank Megan Cooper and Frank Kachanoff for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this piece.


Beaudin, M. (2012). Follow Earth Day march with political change: organizer. Montreal Gazette Retrieved from: http://www.montrealgazette.com/life/life/6503975/story.html

Boisvert, Y. (2012a). La solution n’est pas judiciaire. La Presse. Retrieved from: http://www.lapresse.ca/debats/chroniques/yves-boisvert/201205/05/01-4522302-la-solution-nest-pas-judiciaire.php

Boisvert, Y. (2012b). Lucien Bouchard: le grand malaise à l’endroit des élus est inquiétant. La Presse. Retrieved from:  http://www.lapresse.ca/debats/chroniques/yves-boisvert/201205/02/01-4521358-lucien-bouchard-le-grand-malaise-a-lendroit-des-elus-est-inquietant.php

Giguère, B. and Lalonde, R. N. (2009). The effects of identity threat, resource depletion and social identification on the exertion of effort. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 12, 195-207.

Giguère, B. and Lalonde, R. N. (2010). Why do student strike? Direct and indirect determinants of participation in collective actions. Political Psychology, 31, 227-247.

Giles, H., Bourhis, R. Y., and Taylor, D. M. (1977) Towards a Theory of Language in Ethnic Group Relations. In: H. Giles (ed.) Language, Ethnicity and Intergroup Relations. London: Academic Press, p. 307-348.

Marmen, L. and Corbeil, J.-P. (2007). Languages in Canada 2001 Census. New Canadian Perspectives Series, Canadian Heritage, ISBN 0-662-68526-1

Simon, B. and Klandermans, B. (2001). Politicized collective identity: A social psychological analysis. American Psychologist, 56, 319-331.

Van Zomeren, M., Postmes, T., and Spears, R. (2008). Toward an integrative social identity model of collective action: A quantitative research synthesis of three socio-psychological perspectives. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 504-535.

Wohl, M. J. A., Giguère, B. Branscombe, N. R., and McVicar, D. N. (2011). One day we might be no more: Collective angst and protective action from potential distinctiveness loss. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41, 289-300.

Wright, S. C., Taylor , D. M., and Moghaddam, F. M. (1990). Responding to membership in a disadvantaged group: From acceptance to collective protest. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 994-1003.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Student Activism in Social Movements

One response to “Why do students mobilize and strike?

  1. Lynette

    Hi I am a novice researcher and is currently doing a study on experience of managers and studentnurses of strikes.I need someone to read my work and give me feedback.Thanx.Any professional in this field that can help?


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