Published on April 17th, 20132
The J-curve – James C. Davies’ Theory of Revolutions
By Tor G. Jakobsen
In 1962, Davies presented his J-curve theory. He stated that revolutions are most likely to occur when periods of prolonged improvements concerning economic and social development are supplanted by a period of sharp reversal. He used evidence from the Dorr’s rebellion, the Russian revolution, and the Egyptian revolution to support his argument. According to Davies, the sharp reversal of development creates an intolerable gap between what people want and what they get.
After a reversal of fortunes, people will subjectively fear that what they have earned will be lost, and thus their mood becomes revolutionary. Davies claims that political stability and instability are dependent on the mood of the society. In other words, poor people who are satisfied will not revolt, and rich people who are dissatisfied may revolt. What is important is their state of mind rather than how much goods they possess.
Need satisfaction and revolution
Revolutions do not usually occur in impoverished societies. The reason is that when people are preoccupied with their physical survival, the community-sense and consensus on joint political actions goes down and thus also the likelihood for revolutions to occur. Even though physical deprivation is to some extent present at the onset of revolutions, it is seldom the primary cause.
The main factor is rather the fear that ground gained over a time period will be quickly lost. Davies found evidence for this when studying three revolutions using John Stuart Mill’s method of difference. When employing this method the researcher collects cases of a particular phenomenon in an attempt to find common factors in these cases that are otherwise quite different.
He thus chose three different cases, where revolts had occurred, and found the common explanatory variable to be the presence of a sharp reversal of fortunes after a period of prolonged growth.
The Dorr Rebellion (1841–1842)
The rapid industrial growth of the 19th century meant that the people of Rhode Island in the northeastern United States moved in large numbers from farms to cities. From 1807–15 the textile industry saw a period of great prosperity, followed by a period of decline from 1835–40. This, in combination with the state’s resistance to suffrage demands saw Thomas W. Dorr lead a band of militia men mostly composed of Catholics into a rebellion. Dorr was firmly defeated by the establishment in 1842.
The Russian Revolution (1917)
In 1861 Russia saw the emancipation of serfs and a process of urbanization began. Many became factory workers, thus earning larger salaries than they had as peasants. The period from 1861–1905 can be viewed as a period of rising expectations. Around 1905 began the general downturn; Russia lost the war with Japan, and censorship and confiscations soon followed. The country now saw a period of severe repression, followed by a short period of economic recovery. But then World War I broke out, inflation rose, and dis content spread throughout the country like a wildfire.
The Egyptian Revolution (1952)
The rising expectations of Egyptians began in 1922 when the British granted them limited independence. The country saw some industrialization, improving the opportunities for many. But with the economic growth came also the rising costs of living. In 1948 exports went down, and many manual laborers became unemployed. This was followed by the Arab (including Egypt) invasion of Israel, where Egypt suffered a humiliating defeat against this newly independent state. In addition, Egyptians suffered a shortage of wheat and oil. A series of peasant uprisings and strikes began, which culminated in the riots in Cairo in 1952.
Prosperity raises expectations, and depression frustrates people
The evidence from the Dorr Rebellion, the Russian Revolution, and the Egyptian Revolution, together with other civil disturbances provided the cases from which James C. Davies created his famous J-curve theory. What he claimed to be important was the gap between what people expect to get and what they actually get. As such, revolutions are likely to occur after a period of good times, followed by a sudden decline of fortunes.
Davies, James C. (1962) “Toward a Theory of Revolution” American Sociological Review, 27(1): 5–19.
*Cover photo by National Library of Scotland, description of events leading up to revolutions by Davies (1962).