Image credit: Patricio Suazo

Pride and Protest

Emotional response in the aftermath of the Chilean social outburst

Image credit: Patricio Suazo

Pride and Protest

Emotional response in the aftermath of the Chilean social outburst

Following studies on the revival of emotions in the cultural analysis of social movements (Berezin, 2002; Goodwin, Jasper, & Polletta, 2000; Jasper, 1998, 2011, 2014;), these emotions have been isolated as causal mechanisms of willingness or actual engagement in social movements (eg. DeCelles, Sonenshein, & King, 2019; Thomas, Zubielevitch, Sibley, & Osborne, 2020; Weber, Mummendey, & Waldzus, 2002). In addition, they are also crucial for the effectiveness of movements as well as for generating potential long-term transformations. Although less studied, the emotional response of the general population to social movements is highly significant in the current context, where climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and widespread socio-political crises have given rise to uncertainties about the future directions of our value systems and traditional forms of culture. What effect do these events, as moral shocks, have on the way we think and feel? In this study, we attempt to examine the short-term effects of one of these shocks on affections toward citizens (reciprocal moral emotions) and sentiments toward the country (shared moral emotions) (Jasper, 1998, 2011).

Emotions are an aspect of culture. Culture delineates how emotions are constituted, managed, and experienced (Thoits, 1989). Emotions are shared among individuals and are socially influenced (Jasper, 2011, 2014). They are also part of the public culture as collective feelings (Berezin, 2002), and individuals can strategically use them to make sense of their actions (Swidler, 2001). Therefore, how individuals change their emotions toward certain objects is a question of cultural change. Using an interrupted public opinion poll, we analyze the impact of the first weeks of the 2019 “Chilean spring” (Somma, Bargsted, Disi Pavlic, & Medel, 2020) on the country’s sense of pride, economic development, and Chilean citizens themselves.

The Chilean social outburst is one case within a multicausal global wave of protests. Hong Kong, Lebanon, Catalonia, and, more recently, the United States have witnessed massive social movements. Discussing whether these movements are connected goes beyond the aims of this study, but we can affirm they are part of a widespread crisis of political institutions across the globe. The “Chilean spring” provides an opportunity to evaluate the changes in emotions of the general population after the first weeks of protest activities in one of these movements, which we refer to as the short-term consequences of the social movement. The case of the protests in Chile is significant because it was the first country to implement neo-liberal economic policies (Harvey, 2007), and this movement has highlighted the deficiencies of the model. Therefore, not only do the protests in Chile defy the country’s structural conditions, but also the legitimacy of the global economic system. As Fantasia and Hirsch (2004) argue, acute social struggles provide the bases for cultural transformation.

The Chilean social outburst initiated what cultural sociologists (Bail, 2012; Swidler, 1986) have called “unsettled times,” where the unprecedented, large-scale crisis challenges shared beliefs about how society should work and about the emotions people feel towards the social environment. As “moral holidays” (Ray, 2014), in these contexts collective feelings and worldviews could be redefined or resignified.

In early October 2019, secondary-school students initiated the practice of fare dodging on the subway in Santiago, the capital of Chile, as a protest against the increase in the fare from about USD 1.12 to USD 1.16, equivalent to 0.28 percent of the minimum wage (Gonzalez & Morán, 2020). Protests involving students have been commonplace in Chile’s political landscape, reaching one of its most critical moments with the so-called “penguin revolution” in 2006 (Donoso, 2013; Guzman-Concha, 2012). However, on October 18, protests escalated to the general population. Barricades were built, the entire subway system was shut down after attacks, and stations were set alight. On October 19, protests continued across the country with shops being looted, buses burned, and clashes between protestors and special police forces. The government declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew. Several international organizations have reported human rights violations during that time (eg. United Nations, 2019). Although the protests have been sporadic during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the entire spectrum of political parties has approved a referendum for a new political constitution, the case of Hong Kong (Wang, Ramzy, & May, 2020) suggests that the Chilean movement could also be resumed once the health emergency is under control.

As a shared feature of unsettled times and turning points (Abbott, 1997; Bail, 2012), social scientists and policymakers claim that the escalation of the events in Chile on October 18 was unexpected or “they did not see it coming” (eg. Sanhueza, 2019; Somma et al., 2020). However, its underlying causes are still a matter of debate. The low levels of political identification, distrust in political parties, unfulfilled expectations, cultural change, and market-based inequalities, among others, have been suggested (eg. Gonzalez & Morán, 2020; Somma et al., 2020). These structural conditions, in tandem with emotions, are a common ground for population’s violent actions (Ray, 2014).

Despite citizens’ demands for deep structural reforms (eg. changes in the pension system, reform of the police, a new political constitution), Chile has been long considered one of the most developed countries in Latin America. In the last three decades, Chile has undergone unprecedented changes: poverty reduction, increased GDP, and longer life expectancy (The World Bank, 2017). Hence, this article compares moral emotions before and after the unexpected events of the first weeks of the Chilean protest movement. Coincidentally, the social crisis interrupted the fieldwork of a public opinion survey designed to measure beliefs and attitudes toward the country (Fundación Imagen de Chile, 2019). This survey provides, then, a unique opportunity to examine the effects of the first weeks of the “Chilean spring” as a moral shock.

Following the literature on emotions and social movements, the Chilean social outburst could be conceptualized as a moral shock (Jasper, 1998, 2011, 2014) that provided information signaling that the country was not as successful as assumed by the citizens, leading to the re-articulation of emotions toward the country and citizens themselves. Our findings indicate that the protests negatively affected pride in the country, in official symbols, in economic development, and in Chile as a place to live. Nevertheless, the valorization of characteristics of Chileans was positively affected by the social outburst.

The contribution to the literature is threefold. First, this study is one of the first to provide robust evidence of the consequences of the “Chilean spring,” which is part of a larger and dynamic ongoing wave of protests in the world. Second, in recent decades, the literature on emotions has taught us much about why people protest (Stekelenburg & Klandermans, 2013; Ray, 2014). However, there are few studies considering its cultural impacts on citizens. Third, social and political psychologists have provided evidence of the role of emotions using lab experiments. Despite their internal validity, these studies lack ecological validity (Stekelenburg & Klandermans, 2013), and researchers are unsure as to whether the students in the lab are willing to take to the streets. Besides defining emotions as an outcome, we use a public opinion survey applied to the general population before and after the outburst of protests. Therefore, our findings are grounded in more realistic settings.


Cristán Ayala, DESUC, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

Alex Leyton, DESUC, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

Francisco Olivos
PhD candidate

My research interests include cultural sociology, social inequality, sociology of education and quantitative methods.