Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 March 2021
The idea that we must look at political contexts to understand the emergence, dynamics and outcomes of contention dates back to the first developments of what is now known as political opportunity structure theory (Eisinger, 1973; Tilly, 1978). Since then, much scholarship has adopted the assumption that environments – those factors in the ‘world outside’ social movements – can explain mobilizing activities, demands, strategies, alliances and the influence of social protest (Meyer, 2004). Taking distance from the rather deterministic character of such an approach, more recent developments call into focus the interactions between institutions and protestors, focusing on the ways in which these interactions shape and influence each other (Goldstone, 2003; Jasper, 2015; Tilly and Tarrow, 2015). Most agree however that contexts matter for social movements. Yet the specific questions that scholars must specify are: how and to what extent do they do this, which aspects of the political environment are more relevant, and for what kind of outcomes? (Uba, 2009; Bosi et al., 2016a).
When studying the policy impacts of protest movements, we should distinguish the policy field from the broader political system. Policy fields configure the immediate structure of opportunity and constraints of social movements attempting to advance alternative policy proposals. These fields usually define the legitimate actors of the relevant policy discussions and the mechanisms through which these discussions take place. Policy fields are embedded in the broader political system, which in turn shapes the constraints and opportunities that protesters face (Kriesi et al., 1995).
Yet, this does not mean that the same opportunities and constraints at the level of the political system can be replicated in the specific policy field. Within the HE field, there might be variation in the opportunity structure at the level of campuses, as recent research has pointed out (cf Reger, 2018; Cini, 2019b). For instance, Reyes (2015) adopts the concept of academic opportunity structure to explain differences in activism across colleges. Specifying a structure of academic opportunity, Cini (2019b) argues that the type of university leadership affects the strategies and tactics that student activists adopt in their mobilizations on campuses. Although cross-campus variation in student activism is important, we focus here on cross-national differences in the capacity to produce policy outcomes.