"A (Moral) Logic of Protest?" Integrating the Bourdieusian Perspective and Moral Identity in Hong Kong Student Protests

「抗爭的(道德)邏輯?」─ 從香港的學生抗爭結合Bourdieusian的觀點與道德身分

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date11 Nov 2019


In recent decades, street protests have captivated attention on a global-scale. Young adults in society, especially those in universities, have been increasingly portrayed as the face behind the ‘new’ waves of mass protests and other forms of collective actions. Available models of collective action have, by and large, been able to account for various mechanisms that predict participation in such movements. However, as this study argues, the attention has largely neglected the role of moral identity (or selfhood) and its place in the identity-action praxis of protesters and non-protesters. As confrontational socio-political protests are not only social in nature, but also distinctly moral, this oversight hampers our understanding of the inter-relationships that exist between young peoples’ moral agency and possessed capital, held attitudes and moral convictions, and party identification in deciding whether and how to act (or not) in protest-related situations.

The present investigation attempts to address this void in the context of post-handover Hong Kong. The over-arching research question of this mixed methods study is: ‘Who participates, what factors explain variations in protest activity involvement, and what is the role of the moral identity in these dynamics?’ An explanatory sequential research design is adopted in the mixed methods study (survey sample: N = 839; in-depth interview sample: N = 30). Furthermore, the present study integrates Bourdieu’s (1977, 1986) theory of social action and Stets and Carter’s (2012) moral theory of action into a framework that assumes moral diversity among individuals in a society that is structured around differences in social, economic, cultural, and political forms of capital possessed.

Based on LCA/LPA hybrid modelling, a four-class model solution emerged as empirically robust in classifying the total survey sample: the ‘Non-protesters’ group (n = 511); ‘First-timers’ group (n = 187); ‘Veteran activists - Diverse action’ group (n = 82); and ‘Veteran activists - Direct action’ group (n = 59). The mixed methods findings showed that the groups differed in the extent to which they converged their possessed cultural, social, and economic capital to sustain their activism (i.e. absence of convergence, limited convergence, and strong convergence). In a similar way that the convergence scaled upward with frequent past protest activity experiences, moreover, so too did respondents’ moral consciousness resonate with controversial socio-political issues in Hong Kong based on their history of protest activity involvement. The mixed methods results further revealed that past protesters differed significantly from non-protesters in how they perceived, felt about, and would react to protest-related moral dilemmas. The most prominent exception to the differences in moral psychologies between past protesters and non-protesters, however, was negative feeling rules, which strongly influenced non-involvement and the negative moral emotions experienced when deciding to participate in protest activities.

All in all, the findings suggest that private morality is not only important for understanding protest activity involvement, but also non-involvement. These results offer a revision to Bourdieu’s theory of social action by way of introducing the private morality as a reflexive, dynamic principle which relates to the habitus in at least one of three ways: Passive, Inter-dependent, or Revolutionary.