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An Ethnographic Analysis of Iran’s Green Movement

The current issue of Mobilization (Volume 17, No. 4: December 2012) is devoted to special theme of “Understanding the Middle East Uprisings”. Along with articles on the Arab Spring, it includes an excellent article on Iran’s Green movement by Kevan Harris, titled The Brokered Exuberance of the Middle Class: An Ethnographic Analysis of Iran’s 2009 Green Movement [behind pay-wall].

Harris’ ethnographic analysis is based on his fieldwork and first-hand observations on the rise and decline of the Green movement’s protest wave during his research stay in Iran from June 2009 through May 2010. He argues that the Green protesters were mostly Iran’s rising, educated middle class, and although the movement showed signs of broad cross-class mobilizing force in its early momentum, it ultimately failed to cross class barriers:

During one demonstration in the period of the peak protests from June 15 to 19, 2009, I stood on the sidewalk as a group of hundreds of thousands of Iranians marched past me. The street was located slightly north of the Tehran central bazaar, lined with small shops that employed the informal workers who performed the difficult and menial tasks involved in retail and wholesale commerce. On the sidewalk with me were thousands of these workers and shop owners milling around and gawking at the march. This particular demonstration occurred before protest participation became more dangerous as a result of intensified crowd-control tactics by the police. One could cross the street and join without any apparent cost, just as I had seen hundreds of others spontaneously join in previous marches. Therefore it was as close as one could get to a “natural laboratory” for observing how social-class influences mobilization while it is taking place. Although only a small metal barricade separated the onlookers from the marchers, no one crossed the street to join in. The micro-interactional emotional energy generated by the marching protestors did not transfer over a class boundary that was deeply felt by those standing beside me. (p. 450)

Harris points out, however, that we should not describe Green protesters as small urban elite:

If the Green movement can best be described as protest by the middle class, then this class was not a small elite but an increasingly large and powerful class that was broadly embedded within social transformations that occurred under the Islamic Republic. (p. 451)

And he writes in conclusion:

The Green protests may have failed to overturn the 2009 election, but they did widen schisms within the Islamic Republic’s elite. Whether this matters in the future depends on numerous factors, including an external threat of war that allows Iran’s leadership to maintain a modicum of elite cohesion, and whether a new upsurge of unrest could broaden the opposition’s appeal and institutionalize its successes. (p. 451)

Kevan Harris is sociologist and Postdoctoral Research Associate at Princeton’s Near Eastern Studies Department. He has also recently published an essay on Iran’s welfare state in Middle East Authoritarianisms.

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