Authoritarian Regimes and Contentious Politics

Course content

The course explores the relationship between authoritarianism and contentious politics. Authoritarian regimes remain ubiquitous in our modern global world. This class asks why some authoritarian regimes are so successful at preserving stability and avoiding a transition into democracy, often despite a rise in contentious politics. Theoretically, we should not see a lot of protest or contentious politics under authoritarianism for several reasons, including a lack of recognition of basic rights, a lack of institutional mechanisms used to seek redress, the minimization or elimination of civil society, the exclusion of workers and citizens from formal politics, and the threat of serious repression for participating in contentious politics.  The seminar explores why and how this challenges our understanding of the dynamics between authoritarianism and contentious politics.


The course reviews contemporary understandings of authoritarian regimes, different variants and explores associated mechanisms of repression and control. It also reviews what constitutes "contentious politics" and how the concept is operationalized in the context of authoritarian regimes.  Here we look at how the dominant theoretical frameworks of contentious politics including grievance-centered analysis, resource mobilization theory and political process theory, have been used or modified to shed light on dynamics of contentious politics under authoritarianism and regime change.  The second section of the course uses China as a case study to engage existing theories and debates in the literature. In China, a stable authoritarian regime has persisted in spite of increasing contentious politics, creating a  puzzles theorists. The class purviews the landscape of contentious politics in China, looking at both the structure and form. It also examines regime responses and resilience, raises questions about the relationship between contentious politics and regime change.



MA Theory and Methodology (MSc Curriculum 2015)

Course package:
Knowledge, organisation and politics

BA-Undergraduates from foreign countries (exchange students) can sign up for this course

Learning outcome


  • provide an understanding of the form and nature of authoritarian regimes and related mechanisms of control and repression.

  • define contentious politics and describe the different forms that it takes in the context of authoritarian regimes.

  • describe how authoritarian legacies shape politics after regime change.


  • Identify and discuss and compare different types of authoritarianism.

  • Use theoretical explanations of authoritarian resilience and regime change to understand variance of regime outcomes across place and time.

  • use theories to explain the dynamics operating between contentious politics and authoritarianism.


  • enter current debates in the field about the dynamics between authoritarianism and contentious politics that.

  • explain specific authoritarian regime outcomes using specialized theoretical knowledge

  • categorize different types of authoritarian regimes and types of contentious actions.

theorize changes in form and substance of contentious action occurring under contemporary regimes.

This seminar will focus on lectures accompanied by classroom discussions which are facilitated by short written exercises prepared by students. These written exercises will engage the readings by highlighting main points, raising questions and engaging the literature that has been assigned. Classroom discussion requires student engagement and contributions. This will happen by working with others to reconstitute the debates, raise questions, and bring empirical examples into the classroom to test the theories and constructs. There will be a final paper in which students will apply learned theories to explore a specific case or comparison of authoritarian regimes or aspect of the regime (s).

Linz, Juan J. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. Addison-Wesley, 1985.


Tarrow, Sidney G. Power in movement: Social movements and contentious politics. Cambridge University Press, 2011.


Caraway, Teri L., Maria Lorena Cook, and Stephen Crowley, eds. Working Through the Past: Labor and Authoritarian Legacies in Comparative Perspective. Cornell University Press, 2015.


Lynch, Marc. "After Egypt: The limits and promise of online challenges to the authoritarian Arab state." Perspectives on politics 9.02 (2011): 301-310.


Slater, Dan. Ordering power: Contentious politics and authoritarian leviathans in Southeast Asia. Cambridge University Press, 2010.


O’donnell, G., Schmitter, P. C., Whitehead, L., Arnson, C. J., & Lowenthal, A. F. (2013). Transitions from authoritarian rule: Tentative conclusions about uncertain democracies. JHU Press.


Chen, Xi. Social protest and contentious authoritarianism in China. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Peer feedback (Students give each other feedback)

Classroom discussion will be structured so that students are not only engaging the instructor but also other students.  They will work to answer questions put forth by both the instructor and their peers and use the theories and ideas presented in class to debate among each other.

7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written assignment
Free written take-home essays are assignments for which students define and formulate a problem within the parameters of the course and based on an individual exam syllabus. The free written take-home essay must be no longer than 10 pages. For group assignments, an extra 5 pages is added per additional student. Further details for this exam form can be found in the Curriculum and in the General Guide to Examinations at KUnet.
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship
Criteria for exam assessment

Please see the learning outcome.

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Lectures
  • 28
  • Preparation
  • 91
  • Exercises
  • 50
  • Exam Preparation
  • 37
  • English
  • 206