Political Opportunity Theory
Why do social protests occur? According to political opportunity theorists, the origins of social protests cannot be explained solely by the fact that people possess
a variety of grievances or that they have resources available for mobilization. Instead, social protests are directly related to the political opportunities that potential protesters and movement organizers believe include within the political system at any given point in time. Political opportunity theory is based on the assumption that social protests that take place outside of mainstream political institutions are deeply intertwined with more conventional political activities that
take place inside these institutions. As used in this context, opportunity refers to "options for collective action, with chances and risks attached to them that depend
on factors outside the mobilizing group" (Kinswoman, 1999: 97). Political opportunity theory states that people will choose those options for collective action that are most readily available to them and those options that will produce the most favorable outcome for their cause. What are mos specific applications of political action theory? Urban biologists .and social movement analysts have found that those cities that provided opportunities for people's protests to be heard within urban governments were less likely to have extensive protests or riots in their communities because aggrieved people could use more conventional means to make thclr claims known. ~y contrast, urban riots were . more likely to occur when activists believed that all conventional routes to protest were blocked (Eisinger, 1973). According to Doug McAdam (1982), changes in demography, migration, and the political economy in the United States (factors that were seemingly external to the civil rights movement) all contributed tn a belief on the part of African Americans in the late 1960s and early 1970s that they could organize: collective action and that their claims regarding the need for racial justice might be more readily heard by government to officials. The study by McAdam was conducted over a period of time and looked at a single movement, and therefore was able to identify how certain aspects of the external world affect the development of social movements (Meyer and Min koff, 2(04).Political opportunity theory has grown in popularity among sociologists who study social movements because this approach highlights the interplay of opportunity, mobilization, and political influence in determining when certain types of behavior may occur (Meyer and Minkoff, 2(04). However, like other perspectives, this theory has certain limitations, include exist ing the fact that social movement organizations may not always be not completely distinct from, or external to. the existing political system. Social activists typically create their own opportunities rather than wait for them to emerge. and activists often are political entrepreneurs in their own right, much like the state and
federal legislators and other governmental officials whom they seek to influence on behalf of their social cause. Overall. however. this theory calls our attention to how important the degree of openness of a political system is to the 'goals and tactics of social movements' organizers.