Grievances and the Genesis of Rebellion: Why Governance Matters

In history and in the present, the quality of governance links grievance to rebellion.  Governance means the way that those in authority take action, conduct public administration, and enforce community norms and regulations.  Citizens expect government to promote their security and welfare. Throughout history, people have blamed political authorities for the plagues and natural disasters that befell their communities.  Usually, this was not because they saw the authorities as directly to blame for the natural calamity, but rather because they viewed their rulers as complacent, corrupt or incompetent in the face of it.  Poor governance offends not only because it is ineffective but also because it violates cultural standards, disregards or diminishes the status of its subjects, and fails to achieve collective goals.

Consider recent history.  In the spring of 2020, Americans confronted a calamitous situation.  The COVID-19 virus had sickened millions of Americans and had already killed more than 100,000 of them.  The United States had suffered far more deaths than any other country on earth, and more than would have resulted had there been a well-coordinated response to the pandemic.  At the same time, fear of the virus, as well as quarantine and lockdown measures, had conspired to drive the country’s economy into a deep recession, leaving tens of millions of American workers unemployed.  Overburdened health, unemployment insurance, and welfare agencies struggled to meet the demand for services. The closing of schools and universities initiated a hasty shift to online education to which instructional staff and millions of working families had to adapt.  The adverse effects of the crisis disproportionately fell on the elderly, the poor, and populations of color.  Worse still, the crisis inflicted these unprecedented burdens in the context of a longer-term erosion of the real incomes of many working people, rising income inequality, increasingly insistent calls for racial justice, and growing gaps in access to quality education, healthcare and housing.

Government did not create the virus, but it helped to make it a runaway pandemic. The evidence for the Trump administration’s poor governance of the COVID crisis is extensive. Crises like the COVID pandemic are supreme tests of governance with which any administration might struggle.  To investigate the link between governance, grievances and rebellion, we embarked on a research program that studied it in the context of one of the most interesting settings history provides: the microcosms of ships at sea.  People have been fascinated by mutiny – one of the most dangerous and difficult forms of rebellion – at least since the time of the uprising on the Bounty in 1789. Since then, writers like Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, and Herman Wouk have treated ships at sea as Petri dishes in which to explore larger themes of authority, conflict, and social order. We used narrative evidence and statistical analysis to trace the processes by which governance failed, social order decayed, and seamen mobilized. What we found sheds new light on these themes and has profound lessons for today.

Governance, Grievances and Rebellion

Late in 2020, we published the first systematic study of mutinies in Britain’s Royal Navy during the peak of the “Age of Sail”, which we treat as the period from 1740 through 1820.  Mutiny was a very high-risk form of collective action because the Navy implemented a host of legal measures and organizational practices to suppress it. The statutory punishment for any form of collective insubordination was hanging.   However, we found that full-fledged mutinies in the Navy were rare, in large part, not because of repression but because seamen ordinarily tolerated harsh lives and difficult conditions. Seamen regularly tolerated hardships that are shocking to modern readers, albeit with weary resignation and much grumbling. The famous English writer Samuel Johnson famously thought that life at sea would make a rational person “envy a gaol.”  After all, ships were cramped and overcrowded. The work was hard and pay was poor and irregular.  During wartime, seamen were impressed and periods of service were indefinite, with commanders – who ruled their vessels as absolute monarchs — usually confining seamen on their ships to prevent desertion.

We have called these factors structural grievances because seamen understood them as a routine part of life at sea. They were expected hardships.  Our statistical analysis follows hundreds of ships over the course of a year, including ships that did and did not experience mutiny.  We were able to measure a host of features of ships, including the composition of their crews, practices of discipline and punishment, the conditions of their voyages, and daily events found in captains’ logs and masters’ logs.  We expected that mutiny would most likely break out when sailors’ structural grievances – those negatively affecting their material circumstances – came to the fore. This would mean that ships having a high proportion of impressed sailors, declining real wages, crowding, long voyages and the like would be the most likely to erupt in rebellion.  Nevertheless, we found that structural grievances played a relatively small part in accounting for rebellion.

Why? Social psychology provides some answers.  Experimental and observational evidence instructs us that many individuals in disadvantaged statuses expect their lot to be a tough one, and they do not necessarily resort to rebellion on this account.  In addition, our in-depth investigation into the culture of seamen, their memoirs, and their voices from a documentary record that includes the verbatim transcripts of court-martial inquiries supported this understanding of grievances.  Seamen tolerated difficult lives at sea, low pay and strict discipline because they were guided by expectations, customs, and occupational norms that regularized the experience of these kinds of grievances.

“Saturday Night at Sea”

The Power of Incidental Grievances

To our surprise, the single greatest determinant of mutinies were not structural but incidental grievances. These arise from unanticipated situations – like accidental grounding, deadly accidents, rotten food, shortages, delay in being released from service, uncontrolled outbreaks of disease, and so on.  Incidents like these both threatened to decrease the safety and welfare of the crew and seamen attributed them to the negligence or incompetence of the commander.  Of these incidental grievances, the most important was the prevalence of sickness. If the ship had more than 10% of the crew infected, the odds of mutiny increased substantially.

Why were incidental grievances so much more likely to trigger rebellion? Seamen did not understand such injuries and insults to be inevitable parts of their job.  They expected commanders to shield them from threatening incidents like outbreaks of deadly illnesses, fatal accidents, navigational blunders, shortages of provisions, and spoiled food.  When long-standing structural grievances combined with shorter-term incidental grievances like these, the crews of ships crossed a threshold between tolerating adverse conditions and rebelling against them.

We discovered that seamen thought that the commander and his officers were obliged to provide for the security of the ship. This included an obligation to keep the men healthy and to manage outbreaks of disease. To the degree that sickness pervaded the vessel, it was evidence of what seamen called “ill usage”, that is, poor governance. As a result, the commander lost legitimacy in the eyes of the crew, and ringleaders emerged from the ranks of the highly skilled, experienced sailors and petty officers to demand redress, and, sometimes, ferment mutiny.

It is not that structural deprivation like the declining buying power of wages or excessive discipline did nothing to increase the odds of mutiny.  On the contrary, those grievances created a baseline level of discontent, but we show that incidental grievances played the greater role in triggering rebellion. Indignation was greatest where seamen perceived commanders as acting unfairly, and in ways that violated the customs of the sea.  All of that was further proof to them of their ill usage.

Beyond the wooden world we studied, the genesis of rebellion across times and places hinges on the degree to which people share grievances and consider them to be ameliorable. Discontent motivates rebellion when people believe that the authorities should be competent, effective, and willing to assist or protect them, but that they have fallen short.  We posit that the greater the dependence of people on rulers for their well-being, the more they will expect them to be at least minimally concerned with their security and welfare, to be responsive in times of crisis or emergency, and to govern in ways that are culturally appropriate.

The Press Gang Manning the Navy

Rebellion and the Problem of Governance in America Today

Do our findings from the Age of Sail produce insights into our current situation?  We think that the perception of poor governance is at the heart of recent unrest in the United States.  The recent movement for racial justice grew out of a combination of long-standing structural grievances related to poverty, discrimination, economic inequality and urban decline.

Generally, specific incidents of police brutality triggered them, however.  This combination of different kinds of grievances converging worked together to motivate massive protests in cities like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland in 2014 and 2015, and Minneapolis (and beyond) in 2020.  This pattern is not unique to the moment. The factors that triggered widespread urban unrest in American cities in the late 1960s also reveal that when incidental grievances combine with structural grievances, the odds of rebellion are much greater. Indeed, analyses of the occurrence of “race riots” in American cities in the 1960s show that unrest was not more likely to occur in the places most affected by poverty, unemployment and segregation.

Rather, the cause of rioting appears to lie in the relationship between long-standing grievances and poor governance in response to incidents that provoked conflicts between the authorities and minority communities. Although discussion of the causes of urban uprisings in America focused almost entirely on structural grievances, the 1968 Kerner Commission report actually noted that incidental grievances, especially those related to biased policing, provided the spark in most of the cities that had extensive unrest.

Our theory that links governance to rebellion may also help explain why President Trump lost his bid for re-election in November.  To the dismay of Trump and his most fervent supporters, his victory seemed almost assured in February 2020.  Trump retained core support, portrayed social justice protests as threats to law and order, and promoted the swift development of vaccines.  None of this could shake the sense that he could not address the COVID crisis successfully, however.  A recent campaign post-mortem found that Trump lost support among voting groups he desperately needed to win large shares of because of the perception that he could not handle the virus.  Although support for Trump among those who prioritized the economy was strong, he lost ground among those worried about the pandemic, which proved to be the top voting issue in several key states.  As a result, Trump lost ground among college-educated whites and senior citizens.  It is no exaggeration to say that the perception of poor governance cost Trump re-election.

This is why times of crisis pose such great challenges to governing authorities, and why they risk rebellion when incidents reveal them as uncaring or unprepared for the task. The grievances that matter most for rebellion are those that affect members of communities linked by shared norms of action and moral understanding.  Grievances like the Floyd killing motivate radical protest to the extent that they inspire indignation among group members and focus their diffuse discontents.  A government is legitimate insofar as rulers and ruled consider its actions to be effective and culturally appropriate. The authorities are more likely to gain compliance from their subordinates – probably the best indicator that a regime has achieved some degree of legitimacy – when they treat them fairly and allocate resources efficiently. Subordinates need to trust authorities to act in ways that do not endanger them or their basic interests.

Good governance can be assessed, in large part, by whether it meets the expectations of the governed; this means that measures of the objective conditions of those who are subject to rule are less important than their subjective evaluation of these conditions as fair and appropriate. This means, of course, that “poor governance” does not have a fully objective definition transportable across time and place. Context and subjective evaluations matter when people assess governance. Put simply, contemporary social science has recognized that it is not a matter of “real” material grievances versus “subjective” moral grievances – the two overlap and reinforce one another. We interpret material grievances through the feelings produced by our normative lenses. This was as true of seamen in the Age of Sail as it is of people today.  Understanding that may help to explain our own age – one of growing social unrest, of radical populist movements that reject the governing establishment, and of demands for justice and redress of long-standing grievances.


  • Steven Pfaff

    Steven Pfaff is Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington where teaches and conducts research on comparative and historical sociology, religion, and social change. He is the author of Exit-Voice Dynamics and the Collapse of East Germany (Duke, 2005), The Spiritual Virtuoso: Personal Faith and Social Transformation (Bloomsbury, 2017) (with Mimi Goldman), and The Genesis of Rebellion: Governance, Grievance and Mutiny in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, 2020) (with Michael Hechter).

  • Michael Hechter

    Michael Hechter is Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington. He has previously been on the faculties of the Universities of Arizona and Oxford. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Hechter is the author of Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536-1966 (1975; new edition, 1999), Principles of Group Solidarity (1987), and Containing Nationalism (2000). He is the editor of The Microfoundations of Macrosociology (1983), and co-editor of Social Institutions: Their Emergence, Maintenance and Effects (1990), The Origin of Values (1993), Social Norms (2001, 2005), and Theories of Social Order (2003). His current research focuses on nationalism, the politics of culture, the problem of social order, and the measurement of individual values.

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