A long-standing literature in the social sciences has discussed the occurrence and absence of social protest for decades and centuries. While it is understood that major social protest and revolutions will most often take us by surprise (Kuran 1993), even in the aftermath of events, explanations are not always straightforward. Most often, protest is supposed to be linked to economic and/or social inequalities. This premise, however, is challenged by recent experiences in different parts of the world: neither the Arab Spring countries nor Turkey, Brazil or Chile went through phases of increasing inequality before protests broke out – quite the contrary. In most Arab countries, for instance, income inequality has decreased, and populations in most Arabic countries have higher education levels than ever before (Campante and Chor 2012). Nevertheless, some groups and sometimes significant parts of the population are highly unsatisfied and have pronounced their dissatisfaction to a worldwide audience.
Against this background, this chapter seeks to contribute a particular persepective to the quest for explanations of social protest: it asks how the occurrence of social protest can be explained in situations in which inequality has decreased. More specifically, I take the empirical puzzle as point of departure for dicusssing the question of whether disappointed aspirations can be a motive and driver of social protests in societies where expectations and aspirations have been high for a while, but were then disappointed.