A Strange Yet Promising Progression: Unearthing the Relational Foundations of Political Threat

By Eitan Alimi

It would be fair to say that the notion of threat was never a stranger to scholars of collective behavior and social movements. The idea that aggrieved groups respond to developments or events that put them at risk economically, socially or even existentially, by rioting, protesting, or raising arms, was voiced early on by scholars working in different strands of the classical tradition. Still, it would be just as fair to say that as a useful analytical concept, threat suffered from chronic under-specification and under-theorization. And while a much needed address was offered by scholars working in the political process tradition through the concept of the Structure of Political Opportunity and Threat (SPOT), two persisting issues ensued, which are: (1) the structural bias of SPOT, and (2) the political bias of SPOT. Focusing primarily on political threat, I suggest that the structural bias of the concept was more a reflection of scholarly research preferences, terminologies and practices than an inherent conceptual quality, and that the constructivist attempt to remedy this structural bias has stopped short in fully acknowledging and appreciating the original relational foundations of SPOT. I address the second issue—the political bias of political threat—as part of discussing several promises of such relational re-reading of the concept of SPOT and, more particularly, political threat.

A careful read of works where SPOT was formulated most centrally and comprehensively (e.g. McAdam 1982; Tarrow 1994) would reveal the more interactive-relational features and aspects that exist next to the more structural ones. Here I am referring to McAdam’s explicit reliance on the Marxist’s interpretation of power as essentially a structure of relationship; his postulation that broad, macro-level processes promote (or impede for our purposes) insurgency indirectly through a restructuring of existing power relations; Tarrow’s insistence on specifying those not necessarily consistent and formal dimensions of the political struggle, alongside those permanent and formal ones, in his proposed definition; and, of course, those dimensions of SPOT that are inherently relational (e.g. united/divided elites, non/influential allies) along those more structural ones, be they volatile or stable (e.g., and respectively, de/increasing access, and state strength). And yet, for reasons relating, for example, to the contemporaneous popularity of structuralism and the wide-spread reliance on Western-based, liberal-democracy cases with their fairly formalized political process, those interactive-relational features of the model gave way to those (arguably) objective, structural features of opportunity, threat, and contention. The resolute nature of such a shift was matched only by the equally firm constructivist challenge that soon followed, and which convinced many (including this author) to probe how political threats are constructed and framed (Goodwin and Jasper 1999). Alas, so passionate was the constructivist challenge that it failed to give adequate analytical attention to the relational contexts of processes of meaning-making and framing (for exceptions see, e.g., Gamson and Meyer 1996; Steinberg 1998; Mische 2011).

A relational reading of political threat, as conceptualized and laid out in various recent works (e.g., Goldstone 2004; Alimi et al. 2015; McAdam and Kloos 2015), would first depict the arena of interaction between social movement member organizations and the political environment in dynamic, sequential, and processual terms. Interactions in this arena essentially reflect practices and patterns of contacts, ties, coordination, mediation and bargaining among multiplicity of actors, unfolding between established political actors and institutions, as well as between established political actors and other political forces inside and outside the state. Second, a relational reading of political threat would focus on changes in the movement’s political environment—changes that are the result of sequences of actions taken or decisions made by all actors involved—that alter the overall ratio of possibilities and constraints the movement faces unfavorably. And, thirdly, while these unfavorable changes may include cognitive aspects (e.g., perception of current or anticipated threat), they are essentially about an overall constellation of relational patterns that reflect a weakening of the strategic, bargaining position of the movement, hence a decrease in its political leverage with respect to attainment of its goals.

Finally, I believe that a relational reading of political threat promises to contribute to three research domains that have been developing during the last ten years or so. A less structural and formal reading of political threat encourages greater attention to other arenas of interactions that involve relational dynamics between the movement and other actors over issues that are not necessarily political in the institutional sense, and yet may have, or develop to have, detrimental consequences for the movement. These types of threat can be economic (Almeida 2008), demographical (McVeigh 2009) or even existential (Einwohner and Maher 2011), or a combination of some. Analyzing the relational patterns and practices between the actors involved before and during contention may provide important insights as to the influence of the politicization or de-politicization of threat (and opportunity) on the scope, duration and intensity of the conflict.

Relatedly, a relational reading of threat promises to contribute to the recent research on the shift from predominantly nonviolent mode of contention to a predominantly violent one, and back—processes commonly labeled radicalization and de-radicalization (Della Porta 2013; Alimi, Demetriou, and Bosi 2015). Here I have in mind, most particularly, the variable relationship between perceptual and relational threats, such that a shared perception of anticipated threat as a result of pending governmental decision does not get translated into violent tactics by movement activists given that the movement’s strategic, bargaining position and political leverage remains strong.

The third research domain to which a relational reading of political threat may contribute regards the increasing attention to the interplay between institutional/routine and non-institutional/contentious politics. In the context of decades of boundary work between the two fields, and yet a slowly brewing research by social movement scholars on the ways movements play in the political arena and partycize, a more recent strand of research has begun exploring the other way, such as the movementization process of the U.S. Republican Party that culminated in the rise of Trump (Meyer and Tarrow 2018). A relational reading of political threat (and opportunity) not only helps us account for such border blurring, but it also, reconnecting with the above promises, helps us make sense of some of the consequences and repercussions of those and other developments.


Alimi, Eitan. Y., Demetriou, Chares, and Bosi, Lorenzo. 2015. The Dynamics of Radicalization: a Relational and Comparative Perspective. Oxford University Press.

Almeida, Paul D. 2008. Waves of Protest: Popular Struggle in El Salvador, 1925–2005. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Della Porta, Donatella. 2013. Clandestine Political Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Einwohner, Rachel, and Maher, Thomas. 2011. “Threat Assessment and Collective-Action Emergence: Death-Camp and Ghetto Resistance During the Holocaust,” Mobilization: An International Quarterly, 16(2): 127-146.

Goldstone, Jack. 2004. “More Social movements or Fewer? Beyond Political Opportunity Structures to Relational Fields,” Theory and Society, 33 (3-4): 333–365.

Goodwin, Jeff, and Jasper, James. M. 1999. “Caught in A Winding, Snarling Vine: The Structural Bias of Political Process Theory,” Sociological Forum, 14 (1): 27-54.

McAdam, Doug. 1982. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McAdam, Doug and Kloos, Karina. 2015. Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Post-War America. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McVeigh, Rory. 2009. The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan: Right-Wing Movements and National Politics. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Meyer, David, and Sidney Tarrow (Eds.) 2018. Introduction. In: The Resistance – The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement, edited by David Meyer and Sidney Tarrow, pp. 1-25, New York: Oxford University Press.

Mische, Ann. 2011. “Relational Sociology, Culture, and Agency,” in John Scott and Peter Carrington (eds.), Sage Handbook of Social Network Analysis. London: SAGE, Ch. 7.

Steinberg, Marc. W. 1999. “The Talk and Back Talk of Collective Action: A Dialogic Analysis of Repertoires of Discourse among Nineteenth-Century English Cotton Spinners. American Journal of Sociology105(3): 736-780.

Tarrow, Sidney. 1994. Power in Movement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





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