Who is protesting in Brazil?

The current developments in Brazil have caught all by surprise. Yearly increases in bus fares, notoriously bad public transportation, inflation and slow economic growth (weirdly combined with low unemployment rates) have been looming for some time now. The Free Fare Movement (MPL) has been actively voicing its demands for better public transportation since at least 2006 and other similar organizations and movements have also been mobilizing for better public services. In this context, therefore, it would not be accurate to state that the “the Giant is awake” on the streets (“o Gigante acordou”). Yet, it would also be cynical to say that the current mobilization is not unprecedented – at least since redemocratization.

The nature of the unfolding events, affected by almost daily incidents and bipolar swings in public opinion and in an editorialized media, makes it hard for most of us to answer simple questions: Who are these protesters? What do they want? Social media outlets, in particular Facebook, have been primary sources of information for protesters over the past few weeks. However, social media also works to bias our opinions on the basis of our own personal experiences and social groups: after all, birds of a feather tend to flock together, as research on social network has shown (McPherson, et. al, 2001).  In summary, it has been difficult to see the forest for the trees.

On Sunday, June 23rd, Ibope, a well-know survey company in Brazil, released the first (to my knowledge) systematic collection of data on the characteristics of the protesters. This data is illuminating and, importantly, allows us to answer further questions: how different are these protesters from the “average” Brazilian? Are these protesters different than those individuals who usually engage in politics?

The plots below show a comparison of the demographic profile of protesters and the broader Brazilian population. Protesters are much younger, and, as expected, students are over-represented compared to the population. Also, those who mobilize are clearly better off compared to the rest of the population: the discrepancies between income and education distributions of the protesters and the population are remarkable. For instance, about 10% of the population has a higher education degree, whereas about 43% of the protesters have at least a college degree.

age education



These differences might be due in part to the sampling process: Ibope surveyed protesters on Thursday, June 20th, a point at which the protests had already started to encompass a wider swath of society, distinct from the left-leaning individuals that mobilized early (who would be, presumably, less well-off than the protesters on June 20th).

There are other possible explanations: it is not uncommon for those who engage in political activity, in particular mass-based political action, to be better off than those who do not. This hypothesis has taken many shapes and forms and it is commonly referred to in political science literature as the socioeconomic status (SES) model and there has been systematic evidence supporting it in various places, including Brazil (Verba, 1995; Norris, 2002; Reis, 2000).  This model is known for not taking into account variation in mobilization over time, events that trigger mobilization, and the power of organizations, which are patently important in times of nation-wide mobilizations, but, despite all these pitfalls, it is interesting to see the predictions made by the SES model supported by these simple analyses.

However, support for this stripped-down version of SES model receives only very modest support even if one turns a blind eye to all methodological issues underlying this quick-and-dirty analysis of the Ibope data. According to the SES model, individual who engage in political activity also tend to be more active in “non-political” organizations. This does not seem to be the case among the protesters surveyed on June 20th in 7 cities in Brazil – they are no more likely to be engaged in non-political associations.

Rather, it was found that protesters are less likely to identify with a political party and less likely to be affiliated with a political party than the population overall. This is not surprising given the likely effect of social desirability bias when answering these questions in protests that block streets to make their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs heard – whatever this dissatisfaction means in more specific terms is still to be determined.

union party

In summary, students and young people do seem be the largest groups out on the streets, and those who are mobilizing have attended school for longer, and have higher incomes than most of the population. Also, they seem to feel less represented by a political party than most of the population – even though this is a tough comparison given the unstable nature of party “sympathy” in times like these.  Despite this interesting protester profile, however, we still do not have answers to all of our questions.

Are these protesters very different from the early joiners whose protests mostly focused on reducing bus fares? It is hard to say, even though the type of demand and the way in which they mobilized (mostly through civil society organizations) seems to indicate as much.

Protests continue to shake the country: mayors from all over the country have backed down on the increase of bus fares and are starting to rethink their public transportation contracts and policies, governors have started to become less supportive of police repression (at least publically), the federal government is starting to play a more active role in pushing laws and reforms, and the Congress is rushing to discuss and vote on some of the issues raised by protesters (such as committing all oil royalties to spending on education and health and repelling a controversial constitutional amendment on the investigative powers of the Public Ministry). Protesters are still shaking the trees, but the characteristics of the protesters will help determine on which side the fruit will fall.

[I used data from PNAD 2011 to make the plots about the demographic characteristics of the Brazilian population and I used the population from the states in which Ibope surveyed protesters. For the plots about questions on representation and population, I used data from ESEB 2010. Both of these datasets can be found in Centro de Estudos da Metrópole and Consórcio de Informações Sociais.]


4 thoughts on “Who is protesting in Brazil?

  1. Natalia,
    That’s an excellent early comment on the nature of the protesters sweeping through Brazilian streets. It’ll be interesting to see how this portrait changes as the government begins to respond and Brazilians “sober up” from the euphoria of the June 20th protests. The protests run the risk of going all over the place (even the inhabitants of the Rocinha favela in Rio have organized separate marches to protests against their living conditions) and getting nowhere. We defeated PEC37 in Congress, and it was a good victory, but let’s see what else this “awakening” can yield.
    Best wishes and keep writing such thoughtful entries!

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