Searching for blog posts tagged with 'collective action'

The social psychology of anti-road protests



Anti-roads protests have been in the news this month. In this blog post, Dr John Drury, an expert in crowd behaviour, describes his own research findings on these identity-changing events.

Anti-roads direct action – camps, tunnels, tree occupations – has recently been in the newsThe development of anti-roads camp near Hastings has led to speculation that there might emerge an anti-roads movement like that of the 1990s, in response to the government’s revival of the national roads programme.

In the 1990s, my PhD research was focused on the No M11 Link Road Campaign, in Wanstead and Leytonstone (east London), and identified a number of connections between the social issue of road protests and psychological issues.

The starting point of the research was an analysis of the participants’ own understandings – of themselves, their actions and their social worlds. This analysis revealed a number of contrasts with the understandings of those outside the anti-roads movement. First, there was the question of ‘politics’. At that time, many commentators were bemoaning the apparent indifference of young people to politics. Yet this pessimistic view was based on a narrow conception of what counts as ‘politics’; while many of the No M11 participants did not vote for the political parties, they certainly saw their activity as a form of politics; and they were deeply engaged, informed and passionate about it.

What was that ‘political’ activity? Whereas for most extra-parliamentary groups politicalaction consisted of ‘protest’ and demonstration marches, the No M11 participants rejected this model in favour of ‘direct action’. Unlike ‘protest’, ‘direct action’ did not mean simply asking the government to stop road-building, but actively preventing this road-building through their own activities, such as occupying construction sites.

protestThe third contrast was in terms of how this direct action was understood by those inside and outside the campaign. The campaign maintained an ethos of ‘non-violence’, and regarded any of those within the group who transgressed against this principle as the exception. But those policing the campaign understood the campaign as ‘violent’ because of damage caused to property (such as site fences), and they saw those in the campaign who they accused of physically assaulting police officers as representative of the whole group. 

This last contrast had a number of psychological consequences for campaign participants. Instead of being treated by the police as the respectable middle class residents they felt themselves to be, they found themselves being treated as an oppositional group. This led them to see themselves as oppositional. For them, the local anti-roads campaign had initially been essentially about ‘saving Wanstead’; but now it was about opposing the national roads programme, which they saw as being forced through by government, using the police as a ‘political’ battering ram.

The M11 link road was completed, but the government’s subsequent abandonment of the national roads programme was widely attributed to the disruption caused by the campaigns in Wanstead, Newbury, Fairmile and other places. In effect, campaign participants from the No M11 and other groups succeeded in translating their own understanding of road-building into ‘public opinion’. Road-building was now seen not just as a ‘technical’ matter, to be decided by highly controlled public enquiries, but as a deeply political and controversial issue that groups could affect outside the usual ‘political’ channels. Many participants’ newly political understanding of the government’s roads programme became extended to an opposition to ‘car culture’ and indeed to global environmental ‘injustice’. Hence the extension of their participation from the local campaign to the anti-car Reclaim the Streets, and from there to the worldwide anti-capitalist movement, made perfect sense.

As well as these changes in their participation in collective action, for many people there were changes in their personal lives. They made new friends, but fell out with other people that they used to regard as friends. They changed their consumer habits to become more ‘ethical’. They changed their views about the importance of a respectable appearance and lifestyle. And many no longer wanted anything to do with the police, even if their home was burgled.

The aim of my research was to understand these processes of change. The work led to the development of a new model of identity change in collective action. We argued that identity was the hinge between the psychological and the social, and helped explain the links between experiences in the campaign and various profound psychological changes. Specifically, we suggested that, through their identity-based action in the campaign ('defending Wanstead’, for example), many participants inadvertently changed the very context (their relationship with others, such as the police and government) that defined their identity. It was through construing the action by others (i.e. police) as representative of a wider category of ‘injustice’, and also in-group boundaries as much broader (‘all those affected by injustice’), that experiences in the No M11 anti-roads campaign led to wider social movement participation and indeed created the sense many had of being ‘a different (radicalized, empowered) person’.

One of the research projects I am currently supervising is looking more closely at similar psychological changes to those I observed at the No M11 campaign. The campaign we are studying is one in Scandinavia where ‘locals’ are coming to identify as ‘activists’. They are also reporting changes in their personal lives that, on the surface, are not obviously connected to the ‘environmental’ campaign they first got involved in. The research will examine their construals of the actions they are involved in. We will examine the extent to which the categories that participants use to conceptualize and talk about social relations in the campaign are changing and are being applied to other areas of their lives, leading to the observed changes in behaviour. What makes them define a phenomenon in the campaign as ‘the same’ as one in the home, for example? Judging by what we have seen in the anti-roads protests of the 1990s, this research is important not only for what it tells us about the profound phenomenological impact of participation in collective action, but also for the social and political significance of some of these psychological changes.


Drury, J., Reicher, S., & Stott, C. (2003). Transforming the boundaries of collective identity: From the ‘local’ anti-road campaign to ‘global’ resistance? Social Movement Studies, 2, 191-212.

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Psychological change in the miners’ strike 1984-85



On the 30th anniversary of the miners' strike, Dr John Drury describes his research on psychological changes among participants.



My research is concerned with the way that collective action can transform participants’ identities. To investigate this, I carried out interviews with a family who had been involved in the miners’ strike of 1984-85. The interviews uncovered some powerful personal stories – of people falling out with their strike-breaking neighbours and never speaking to them again, of ‘housewives’ who became new people with independent interests and careers, and more. I supplemented these interviews with an analysis of secondary sources. The 30th anniversary of the start of the miners’ strike in March is a good time to share some of the findings. The types of psychological changes found in accounts of the experiences of those involved in the strike are divided here into three areas: conceptions of the police; relations with other social groups; and the experiences of the women involved.


Relations with the police

The most salient change among the strikers and their families was the reversal from seeing the police as protecting their rights to seeing them as an antagonistic outgroup. Among the experiences that seemed to account for this change, there was the shock amongst strikers at the sheer numerical presence of the police at the pickets, to allow working miners to get into the collieries. Secondly, there was the violence of the police towards the striking miners, which came to be expected and seemed to have no limits. Many of the striking miners reported that police used violence and provocation as a tactic to produce arrests. For example, a police cordon pushed a picket-line towards a hawthorn hedge, and when the miners tried to protect themselves by pushing back they were arrested. Many miners also felt they had been arrested without even doing anything.

The arrests themselves were not seen by the striking miners as isolated acts of coercion; rather they were understood as part of a general strategy of reducing picket-line numbers. Stringent bail conditions imposed on arrested miners served as evidence for this perception. Many striking interviewees felt that their civil liberties - the rights they expected to have to strike and picket - had been curtailed by the police action. The curtailment of rights extended beyond violence, intimidation, provocation and arrest to the police's physical control of whole districts. The fact that police were seen to intervene by moving and excluding people from places that were nowhere near the collieries reinforced the perception that their actions were arbitrary abuses of power.

Miners' new evaluations of the police took the form of seeing them as a political agency out to impose the government's will rather than enforce a neutral system of law and order; most saw strike-breaking as the police's central function during the dispute. Hence also many refer to a ‘police state’. Despite all this - or perhaps because of it - many interviewees also reported feeling greater determination to continue the strike.


Relations with other groups

There was a shift among strikers and their families towards a more positive conception of or identification with previously differentiated or despised social groups. In the first place, this kind of change seems to have operated through the support such groups gave to the miners. Meeting members of these groups in the context whereby each supports the other’s opposition to the government enabled the strikers to see ‘them’ for the first time as ‘like us’. Secondly, the unexpected antagonism of the police toward the strikers as a category enabled them to see themselves as like other categories in conflict with the police; where before these groups might have been seen as ‘troublemakers’ now it became easy to regard them instead as ‘persecuted’, like the miners.


Women's experiences

Women married to miners changed not only in relation to the police and other groups in the same way as the men; they also changed in relation to the men. The break with old ideas was often more dramatic than the break experienced by the miners themselves.

For many of the women it was their first involvement in a strike and in politics. They got involved on two levels: firstly in giving moral support to their striking husbands (in fact, many of them insisted that their husbands take part in the strike, and were important in resisting returns to work); and second in providing practical support, including raising funds and participating on picket lines and demonstrations. Their involvement was crucial to the strike, but it also enabled them to create an identity for themselves different from the one given to them by society.

The women's support groups entailed a shift from the privatized home to a new, collective sphere. The way the servicing of the men was made a public and joint enterprise provided the means for women to look with a fresh perspective at their own roles as housewives. The support groups - as women-only groups, independent of both the men and the NUM - gave the women confidence in themselves as women. And in becoming ‘politically active’ through the strike, the women also extended their conception of ‘the political’. Again the support of groups they would not otherwise have had contact with and the ruthlessness of the government and its agents seem to have played a role in this.

In many cases, women’s psychological transformation was one of greater confidence. The support groups, as the main source of the women's new-found confidence, were something the women found they wanted to keep in place after the strike. They also wanted to apply the groups to other matters, in effect changing the functions of the structures they had created. The new confidence meant that new choices became available for the women. Since the confidence was bound up with their identity as women, rather than as just their husbands' wives, the new choices reflected this identity, leading many to understand their actions in terms of feminism, whether or not they endorsed this perspective entirely.

These kind of changes in identity sometimes meant conflict or at least divergence in relation to their husbands. Examples of change among miners’ wives included refusing to shave their legs, changing their styles of clothes, taking up careers and further education, leaving a husband and becoming a lesbian. In other words, out of the long dispute, as it played itself out in the relations between the police and the strikers and their supporters, and within the groups of strikers and supporters themselves, new ways of understanding self and other were being forged, and new modes of expressing selfhood were being developed



The hypotheses developed from this analysis of accounts from the miners’ strike was the basis of an ethnographic study I carried out later on psychological change in participants in the anti-roads movement, which showed the role of social identity processes in such change.



For my blog post on that research, go to:


For one of my published papers on that research go to:


A longer version of this blog post with a full reference list of sources is available at: