Revolutions are Complicated

This 1962 paper on the origins of revolutions by the late sociologist James Chowning Davies is very difficult not to apply to today’s political environment in the US and extrapolate. Here’s how it begins:

Revolutions are most likely to occur when a prolonged period of objective economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal. People then subjectively fear that ground gained with great effort will be quite lost; their mood becomes revolutionary. The evidence from Dorr’s Rebellion, the Russian Revolution, and the Egyptian Revolution supports this notion; tentatively, so do data on other civil disturbances.

The social environment he describes sounds familiar. Does this imply that the current Republican regime in the US might soon go the way of the Tsars?

This paper and the hypothesis it presents (the “J-Curve Hypothesis”) turns out to be kind of famous, though I just discovered it yesterday via Gwern’s newsletter.

It also turns out to be too simplistic. Subsequent researchers have been unable to replicate its findings using more fine-grained data. Here’s a good summary of the various criticisms.

Collective action, it seems, is extremely rare, and most likely involves the dynamic interplay of a complicated set of social, psychological, and political variables. The attempt to explain group-based political rebellion solely (or even primarily) on the basis of an aggregation of individual-level processes such as violation of expectations has so far been tried and found wanting.

As you would imagine the literature about revolutions has come a long way since 1962 Here’s a good summary by Gizachew Tiruneh from 2014.

The allure of a simple model for complex, large-scale human behaviors is a kind of siren song for smart people. As with most things, Semper complexus.


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