The Power of Protest: reimagining and rebuilding democracy through prefigurative politics

By David Clarke

First published on the ISPP blog.

Climate breakdown threatens our planetary home, regional conflicts and humanitarian crises are escalating, and authoritarian populism is surging around the world. These interconnected crises underscore the urgency of our current predicament. However, global trust in traditional political parties to navigate these challenges and map out alternative futures has sunk to historic lows (van de Sande, 2020).

At the same time, governments around the world are imposing stricter limits on the right to protest. In their yearly summary, World Report 2024, Human Rights Watch noted the increased use of preventative detention in Sweden, Uganda, and Turkey; the introduction of new legislation imposing restrictions on protests in India, Australia, and the UK; and the excessive use of force against protesters in countries including Belarus, Iran, and France.

In the UK, government discourse has painted recent climate and pro-Palestine protests as major threats to social harmony. Prime Minister Sunak has warned of the dangers of “mob rule” and “forces here at home trying to tear us apart”, and the former Home Secretary characterized pro-Palestinian demonstrations as “hate marches” and environmental protesters as “thugs”. Across university campuses in the US, police are cracking down on student protests against the mass killing of Palestinian civilians, arresting students, faculty, and journalists. Despite the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of these protests, a significant number of media platforms and political leaders have portrayed them as driven by hatred, bigotry, and extremism, rather than solidarity with Palestinians.

In response to these alarming trends, human rights groups such as Amnesty International have launched campaigns defending the right to protest and highlighting its integral nature to democratic life. The growing challenge to this civic right raises critical questions: Why is protest such a vital part of democracy, and what precisely is at stake with its suppression? In this blog, I explore the significance of protest in advancing social change, by drawing on my research on prefigurative collective action, where protesters enact a desired alternative future through their ongoing struggle.

History offers a wealth of examples underscoring collective action as a profound force for social justice. Notable victories, such as the independence of former colonies across the world or the fall of apartheid in South Africa, were made possible not by individuals acting in isolation or the goodwill of governments, but through collective struggle and resistance (Brown & Pehrson, 2020).

Research in the psychology of collective action highlights a consistent pattern: radical social change typically develops not from initial demands, but from escalating challenges between subordinate groups and powerful groups (Drury & Reicher, 2009). Through studies of the ‘No M11 link road’ campaign (Drury & Reicher, 2000) and a Swedish environmental campaign (Vestergren et al. 2018), researchers have linked this escalation to the experience of identity-based psychological changes through collective action. That is, what begins as a ‘single issue’ protest can sometimes escalate to broader aims and more advanced resistance, with participants coming to embrace new ideas about the self, politics, and the world through their ongoing struggle (Drury & Reicher, 2018). Thus, protest events, rather than instances of “mob rule”, can provide opportunities for the emergence of new empowering beliefs and capabilities.

‘Emergent prefigurative politics’

In line with this approach, my doctoral research explores prefigurative politics as an emergent process of struggle. In prefigurative politics, captured by the maxim ‘be the change you want to see’, individuals and groups embody the changes they aspire to see in the world, through their present social change practices. Although often linked to eco-villages and intentional communities1, prefiguration has been a significant feature of recent protest movements, such as the Arab Spring (2011), the Hong Kong Umbrella movement (2014), and the latest wave of Latin American uprisings (2017-23). Here, prefigurative understandings and practices did not stem from a pre-existing political programme, but rather emerged through the struggle. Throughout these movements, occupied spaces become arenas where political ideals are not only advocated for but enacted through everyday practices; by adopting horizontality, direct action, and self-organization, participants prefigure the society they aim to create.

From a psychological perspective, how can we explain the emergence of prefigurative politics through struggle? What are the psychological processes that facilitate the ‘spontaneous’ adoption of these practices in an ongoing movement?         

Our study (Clarke & Drury, 2024) reviewed the empirical literature on prefigurative politics within psychology, providing an overview of the research landscape while exploring the existing research evidence on emergent prefigurative politics. Our review identified ten studies offering insights into the emergence of prefiguration, exploring both community and social movement contexts. As with previous research emphasising the role of psychological change through collective action (e.g., Drury & Reicher, 2000), these studies all link the emergence of prefigurative practices to a psychologically transformative process involving an upward shift in collective aspirations. In everyday life, participants experience isolation, lack of agency, and a diminished sense of themselves as social actors; however, through their participation in collective action and community projects, they feel empowered, with an enhanced sense of community and a transformed sense of identity – in ways that facilitate the adoption of prefigurative practices.

Existing research establishes a strong link between psychological change and the emergence of prefiguration, yet limitations and gaps in the literature suggest promising directions for future work. Drawing on our review, we propose a research agenda on emergent prefigurative politics, providing methodological recommendations to guide these efforts. Given that the existing literature primarily offers descriptive insights and indirect examinations of the emergence process, we advocate for a shift towards developing detailed explanatory accounts or models, exploring the underlying mechanisms and processes. This would benefit from a greater focus on the ‘spontaneous’ adoption of prefigurative practices during uprisings or protest movements, which are underexplored in the existing work. Considering the finding that prefiguration is deeply tied to the specific context that social change actors navigate, we stress the need for ethnographically informed research. This would allow researchers to engage with participants’ own understandings and examine the role of social and cultural dynamics in which their actions are embedded. Furthermore, to better understand how and when prefiguration emerges through struggle, future research could benefit from longitudinal or case study methods that can explore prefiguration as an unfolding process.

Despite the need for more robust evidence about the emergence process, our review highlighted emergent prefigurative politics as a promising area of research. Popular discourse often reduces the value of protests to the mere expression of dissent or, more troubling, misrepresents them as fuelled by extremism. In contrast, existing research on prefiguration suggests that protests can, in fact, provide the groundwork for the formation of social change movements and the enactment of alternative social forms. In everyday life, we often view existing arrangements as fixed, natural, and legitimate. However, the reviewed studies show that under certain conditions, we may begin to perceive the status quo as contingent and malleable. Crucially, this shift can trigger or strengthen an understanding of alternative arrangements as not only desirable but feasible, empowering individuals and groups to pursue change. 

As we approach the ISPP annual meeting in Chile, aptly titled ‘Dismantling Democracy: Insecurity, emotions and authoritarian populism’, the focus on emergent prefigurative politics gains particular relevance. Faced with alarming political trends and a lack of compelling solutions in traditional politics, the need to pursue alternative avenues is more urgent than ever. The emergence of prefigurative politics through struggle suggests that protest, rather than a threat to social harmony or a mere expression of dissent, may instead play a decisive role in reimagining and rebuilding democracy. In this light, protest offers a vital contribution to our collective efforts to pursue alternative futures and steer us away from environmental catastrophe, unending regional conflicts, and the tightening grip of authoritarianism, towards a more sustainable, communal, and fairer world.

This research was presented at the EASP annual meeting in 2023 and has been accepted for presentation at the ISPP conference 2024. A pre-print is now available on QEIOS under the title Emergent prefigurative politics and social psychological processes: A systematic review and research agenda (Clarke & Drury, 2024)

About the author:

David Clarke is a PhD student at the School of Psychology, University of Sussex, where he collaborates with Prof. John Drury and Dr. Rim Saab on research exploring the emergence of prefigurative politics.


Brown, R., & Pehrson, S. (2020). Group processes : dynamics within and between groups (Third edition.). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2

Clarke, D., & Drury, J. (2024). Emergent Prefigurative Politics and Social Psychological Processes: A Systematic Review and Research Agenda. QEIOS.

Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2000). Collective action and psychological change: The emergence of new social identities. British Journal of Social Psychology, 39(4), 579–604.

Drury, J., & Reicher, S. (2009). Collective psychological empowerment as a model of social change: Researching crowds and power. Journal of social issues, 65(4), 707-725.

Drury, J., & Reicher, S. D. (2018). The conservative crowd? How participation in collective events transforms participants’ understandings of collective action. In The psychology of radical social change: From rage to revolution, 11-28.

Sargent, L. T. (2010). Utopianism: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

van de Sande, M. 2020. ‘They Don’t Represent Us? Synecdochal Representation and the Politics of Occupy Movements’. Constellations 27 (3): 397– 411.

Vestergren, S., Drury, J., & Chiriac, E. H. (2018). How collective action produces psychological change and how that change endures over time: A case study of an environmental campaign. British Journal of Social Psychology, 57(4), 855-877.

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