Revolutionary Thresholds

Last week, my students read Timur Kuran’s 1991 World Politics piece “Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989” (gated ). I wanted the students to appreciate the unpredictability of revolutions using Kuran’s framework. To do so, I gave them to opportunity to protest my heavy-handed authoritarian reign in the classroom. I distributed index cards with each student’s revolutionary threshold on it (I used raw numbers instead of Kuran’s percentages for simplicity). Students were told that they would only protest if a certain number of students were already protesting (ranging from 0 to 13, the total number of students in class that day). Each index card had 4 rounds listed; some students had the same revolutionary threshold for all 4 rounds, while others changed slightly. In the first round, no student had “0”, so there was no protest. The second round, one student had “0” but no students had “1”, so only one person protested and I, as the authoritarian dictator, threw her in jail. Round 3 created a protest of two students (both sent to jail), while Round 4 produced a “revolutionary bandwagon”.

Here are the four sets of revolutionary sequences (with A, B, C, and D different rounds of the activity):

• A = {1, 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5, 5, 5, 8, 9, 12, 13}
• B = {0, 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 5, 5, 5, 8, 9, 12, 13}
• C= {0, 1, 3, 3, 3, 3, 5, 5, 5, 8, 9, 11, 13}
• D = {0, 1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 5, 5, 5, 8, 9, 11, 13}

The changes between each round were small, with most students seeing no change in their revolutionary threshold over time. This activity worked well to illustrate some key insights from the Kuran piece. First, you can have many very unhappy citizens and yet no (or very small) protests, as seen in rounds A, B, & C.   Second, it only takes a small change to create a revolutionary bandwagon: the only difference between round C & D is that the third person’s threshold changed from 3 to 2. Third, we had a good discussion of what determines a person’s revolutionary threshold and how it might change. Finally, this illustrated Kuran’s point that revolutions are usually a surprise and that the catalyst that sets off a revolutionary cascade is ex ante unpredictable (even if in hindsight it seems inevitable).

The activity itself is quick, adaptable to various class sizes (just modify revolutionary sequences as needed), and requires minimal prep.