Michael Biggs

Associate Professor in Sociology and Fellow of St Cross College

Degree: B.A. Hons (Victoria University of Wellington), Ph.D. (Harvard)

College: St Cross College

Member of Research Streams

  • Political sociology and social movements

Email: Michael Biggs

Tel.: 01865 286174

Office: Manor Road Building

Website: Personal Website

Most sociology focuses on events of everyday life or on encompassing social structures. I'm interested in times when ordinary people choose extraordinary actions, in defiance of powerful structures. Their collective action occasionally transform those structures (e.g. French Revolution, Arab Spring), which of course lends it historical significance. But even when collective action fails, it is intrinsically interesting. Within the discipline, my research fits into the field of social movements, or more broadly political sociology. I have focused on two topics.

One is the volatility of collective protest. I have studied two waves of protest which erupted suddenly, surprising even the participants: strikes for the eight-hour day in the United States in 1886, and sit-ins in the American South in 1960 I argue that it's not adequate to deploy the conventional explanatory strategy, seeking causes in exogenous shifts in political or economic circumstances, is not adequate. Instead, I argue for an endogenous process of positive feedback: people protest because other people have done so.

The second topic is self-inflicted suffering as a form of protest. Strikes and sit-ins inflict a cost on the opponent, and thus can coerce the opponent into offering concessions--a straightforward logic of bargaining. Why would it make sense to harm oneself, without harming others: to go on hunger strike or to set oneself on fire?

Sociologists tend to study social movements which they find sympathetic, and my research on the labour movement and the Civil Rights movement fits this stereotype. For balance, I've also published on the extreme right in Britain and on the massacre of Muslims in India in 2002. The latter was orchestrated by the ruling political party and so departs from the definition above; Hindu mobs did not act in defiance of powerful social institutions. The violence was, however, an extraordinary outbreak which rent the fabric of everyday life.

Investigating turbulent events and extraordinary actions is a challenge. The staple of sociological research, the sample survey, is rarely suitable. (Indeed I argue that survey questions have led to misleading conclusions about protest trends.) Eventful data are needed. I have used comprehensive official statistics on strikes and unions, and have systematically searched newspapers to track acts of suicide protest (my student Raheel Dhattiwala used this method to investigate the 2002 killings). The leaked membership list of the British National Party inspired one article.

Most abstractly, I'm fascinated by processes of change and by spatial patternings of social life. Process is the thread that links my research on short-term protest waves and the long-term evolution of suicide protest, and my theoretical excursion into self-fulfilling prophecies. My article on the importance of cartography for European state formation illustrates my interest in space, as does my analysis of the geography of BNP membership.

I have supervised nine completed doctoral theses on social movements, collective action, and political conflict, ranging from China in the 1960s to contemporary Britain.

Link to my list:


 (with Neil F. Ketchley) 'The Educational Contexts of Islamist Activism: Elite Students and Religious Institutions in Egypt of 2011', Mobilizationvol. 22, no. 1, 2017, pp. 57–76; DOI 10.17813/1086-671X-22-1-57

'Size Matters: Quantifying Protest by Counting Participants', Sociological Methods and Research, online; DOI 10.1177/0049124116629166

(with Juta Kawalerowicz) 'Anarchy in the U.K.: Economic Deprivation, Social Disorganization, and Political Grievances in the London Riot of 2011', Social Forces, online; DOI 10.1093/sf/sov052

'Protest Campaigns and Movement Success: Desegregating the U.S. South in the Early 1960s' (with Kenneth T. Andrews), American Sociological Review, vol. 80, no. 2, 2015, pp. 416-43; DOI 10.1177/0003122415574328

'Has Protest Increased Since the 1970s? How a Survey Question Can Construct a Spurious Trend', British Journal of Sociology, vol. 66, no. 1, 2015, pp. 141-62; DOI 10.1111/1468-4446.12099

‘How Repertoires Evolve: The Diffusion of Suicide Protest in the Twentieth Century’, Mobilization, vol. 18, no. 4 (Frontiers in Social Movement Methodology), 2013, pp. 407-28

(with Raheel Dhattiwala) ‘The Political Logic of Ethnic Violence: The Anti-Muslim Pogrom in Gujarat, 2002’, Politics and Society, vol. 40, no. 4, 2012, pp. 481-514; DOI 10.1177/0032329212461125

‘Explaining Membership in the British National Party: A Multilevel Analysis of Contact and Threat’ (with Steven Knauss), European Sociological Review, vol. 28, no. 5, 2012, pp. 633-46; DOI 10.1093/esr/jcr031

‘From Protest to Organization: The Impact of the 1960 Sit-Ins on Movement Organizations in the American South’ (with Kenneth T. Andrews), The Diffusion of Social Movements: Actors, Frames, and Political Effects, ed. Rebecca Kolins Givan, Sarah A. Soule, and Kenneth M. Roberts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 187-203

‘Self-Fulfilling Prophecies’The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology, ed. Peter Bearman and Peter Hedstrˆm, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 294-314

‘Who Joined the Sit-ins and Why: Southern Black Students in the early 1960s’, Mobilization, vol. 11, no. 3, 2006, pp. 241-56

(with Kenneth T. Andrews) ‘The Dynamics of Protest Diffusion: Movement Organizations, Social Networks, and News Media in the 1960 Sit-Ins’, American Sociological Review, vol. 71, no. 5, 2006, pp. 752-77

‘Dying without Killing: Self-Immolations, 1963-2002’, Making Sense of Suicide Missions, ed. Diego Gambetta, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005 (revised paperback ed. 2006), pp. 173-208, 320-24; Spanish translation: ‘Morir sin matar: las autoinmolaciones, 1963-2002’, El sentido de las misiones suicidas, Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura EconÛmica, 2009

‘Strikes as Forest Fires: Chicago and Paris in the Late 19th Century’, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 110, no. 6, 2005, pp. 1684-1714

‘Positive Feedback in Collective Mobilization: The American Strike Wave of 1886’, Theory and Society, vol. 32, no. 2, 2003, pp. 217-54

‘Strikes as Sequences of Interaction: The American Strike Wave of 1886’, Social Science History, vol. 26, no. 3, 2002, pp. 583-617—awarded biennial prize for the best article by a graduate student published in Social Science History

‘Putting the State on the Map: Cartography, Territory, and European State Formation’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 41, no. 2, 1999, pp. 374-411