Theory of Provocation

In Light of Political Science

by Mirosław Karwat (Author)
©2022 Monographs 376 Pages
Open Access


The present volume discusses the subject of provocation and its various applications in the field of political science. Provocation itself combines the artificial induction of events, attitudes and human behavior, and the unilateral prejudging of issues, resulting in the interlocutor being surprised, trapped, manipulated or extorted. A political provocation manifests itself in various forms: productive or parasitic; pointed, collective or networked influence; initiative or reactive and reflexive; causal, deceptive or discrediting; constructive or destructive. The author brings forth real-world examples to illuminate the various intricacies of this concept, its applications, aims, and much more.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part One: What is Provocation?
  • I. Dictionary and Colloquial Definitions of Provocation
  • II. The Dualist Nature of Provocative Phenomena
  • III. The Manipulative Character of Provocation
  • IV. Challenge: The Easiest Form of Provocation
  • Part Two: The Subtlety and Complexity of Provocation Acts
  • V. The Morphology of Provocation Acts
  • VI. Productive vs. Parasitic Form of Provocation
  • VII. Provocation as a Game and Round
  • VIII. Examples of Multi-​Provocations
  • Part Three: Provocation as a Tool in Politics
  • IX. Characteristics and Typical Repertoire of Political Provocations
  • X. Functions and Purposes of Political Provocations
  • XI. Causative, Deceiving, and Discrediting Provocation
  • XII. Contact Causative Provocations
  • XIII. Seductive Causative Provocations
  • XIV. Ensnared by Bluff
  • Part Four: Syndromatic Brutal Provocations
  • XV. Premises for the Provocative Tactic of Faits Accomplis
  • XVI. The Faits Accomplis Policy
  • XVII. Faits Accomplis as a Tangle of Provocations
  • XVIII. Drastic Provocation
  • Postscriptum
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names

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An already pretty girl fixes her makeup and chooses a sexy outfit even though she is not in an erotic mood. She trembles before job interview, so she tries to “enhance her image” to make a good impression and distract attention from her nervousness, and maybe also from her weaknesses, or gaps in the required knowledge and experience.

At an exam, a student flatters a lecturer who is the author of a newly published book. He tries to turn the exam to the “right” direction and force a reward for his extensive interests – in fact, for tickling the professor’s vanity.

A seducer is pushily polite and even gallant. He falls to a lady’s feet, tries to make her laugh, endear or stun her with boldness. The most important thing is to draw attention, surprise, intrigue, and surround. The next step is to get her.

A traveling huckster tells me that I will get five pots “for free” if I buy a pan at an extremely low price. Of course, only today and immediately. In case I decide that I do not need any of these gadgets, he calculates how much will I save thanks to this unplanned expense.

Advertising calls me to get up, combust my gasoline and spend several hundred dollars more than I planned because there is a 50 cent cheaper sugar at some supermarket on the other side of town. And besides, there is a big sale and discount on clothing, furniture, and equipment, which is a unique opportunity. I must hurry because already there are only some oddments. If I do not make it in time, there will be nothing left. Maybe I even know that today’s special offer and opportunity is common every day, and there is no more such thing as selling. There are only special occasions and incredible opportunities everywhere. However, I submit to this psychosis of opportunity.

Another advertisement arouses or revives a man’s hidden craving to buy a car. An attractive model on the mask seduces him, although she is unfortunately not a part of the car’s equipment. But the sublimation of the drive, reinforced by intrusive repetitions, is enough for the man to become obsessed like with erotic fantasies: he must have it.

In yet another advertisement, a stupid line or kitschy and intrusive song annoys me. It will be in my head when I wake up the next day. It seems that only by turning off the television I am free from bothering and delete unnecessary information. In fact, this information is already stuck in my memory.

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In general, advertisements bend over backward to surprise me, stun me, urge me to shop faster or present something to outrage me. One way or another – to draw me in and tempt me.

A dealer puts an undecided, non-overly wealthy and a rather frugal customer under his thumb with a bundle, and thus ties agreement – “so many bonuses for such a low, and additionally reduced, price” – and a loan “without interest” with a deferred payment.

A colorful tabloid feeds me with ephemeral news from the “greater world.” It tries to make me an addicted rumor- and gossip-eater so I do not fall asleep until I am sure who divorced who, who got together with whom, who converted, how much money someone got for this or that role. Likewise, television sucks me into its moronic quiz games and series through the “idiotele” system of “Call and win. A Toyota already waits for you.” By stimulating and exploiting my greed, it forces me to know or immediately find out who plays the janitor, and who plays the broomstick in some movie. And then, counting the statistics, the television reports the numbers concerning the audience and informs me that it is my will that they will broadcast TV theater, concert, or reportage only around midnight because quiz games and sitcoms pushed them out.

A scandalous artist shocks, profanes, and blasphemies. He insists on changing our perspective when we look at his sculpture, painting, or installation. He wants us to start thinking and broaden our imagination. Another artist may have no creative ideas anymore but he always has an idea for a scandal and a crowd of journalists interested in it. A writer or filmmaker can do it too because one spicy scene drives the mass demand for a trivial work, which is sensational and forbidden. Stimulating protests among some activists, clergy, or parishioners works even better.

A journalist lurks with a hidden camera. Is he a peeper? Not only, because he also “fools” the people he filmed. Or, a journalist who pretends someone else to investigate something. Both he and some grave official imitate the ancient sultan, who sneaks out of his palace in disguise to learn how things really are, try the reliability and loyalty of his servants, and know the opinions and moods of the people.

A pickpocket charmingly addresses me or “accidentally” stumbles and leans on me. His people make a flash mob around me so that I can say goodbye to my wallet in a pleasant atmosphere of contact with polite people.

A broke poker player with unlucky cards outplays richer players with better cards by bluffing.

A police officer gives a bribe or buys drugs, and already has handcuffs in his other hand. A car or apartment is in fact a trap for a thief.

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A guardian of an exceptionally resistant and obstinate child camouflages a command in such a way that it does not seem like an order but a question or begging. Or, the guardian orders subversively so that the child meets his expectations defiantly.

A head of hypermarket security, burdened with an invidious task of taking away too many people greedy for the already sold out goods, announces that he got a message about a bomb deployment.

The commander of “The Dirty Dozen” turns a bunch of outcasts and degenerates into a solidary and efficient team. He succeeds because he begins with marking himself as an object of common hatred, which motivates all the renegades to desire revenge that is possible if they survive an almost suicidal action. This, in turn, requires them to learn to cooperate. Here lies the trap of camaraderie and team ambition.

A psychologist or sociologist wants to make sure that the declared principles and views are as rigorously followed as they are required from others. Thus, in surveys, the researcher asks tricky questions, and in observations, he arranges incidents, that is situational tests. Another scientist is curious to what extent we can convince people, or to what extent they are susceptible to someone’s self-confidence, domineering character, and nerve. Hence, he experimentally checks the reactions of the examined to behavior or statements of a provided individual with a strictly defined task, for instance to persist in a clearly erroneous statement.

A teacher or lecturer invigorates a dreary audience with spicy anecdotes or shocking theses. He transforms the bored and indifferent into amused or outraged, thus, into the interested.

A colleague, who is my rival in a competition, gives me wrong information about the date and place of the final competition due to emotional arousal.

Mr. Smith eagerly informs, and perhaps also disinforms, Mr. Johnson what Mr. Williams told Mr. Brown about him. He sweetens the sad news with his own compliments.

A driver, irritated by urges from a rushing man behind him, stubbornly slows down to the speed limit but does not go down the right lane, where others go slower too.

A store owner marks the entrance door with a clear inscription “Christian customers are welcome.” Another one puts information in capital letters, with an exclamation mark: “I do not speak German!”

An enemy puts cardboard tanks or planes in front of me to bomb.

A foreign intelligence spies my country and, at the same time, stimulates the mood of spy mania with the information it spreads. It encourages people to ←9 | 10→see spies everywhere and even indicates them. Just like a thief who constantly repeats “the thieves are all around!” or screams “catch the thief!” while getting ready to work.

Hitler provides Stalin with information about Marshal Tukhachevsky because of “losing papers” in Czechoslovakia.

An intelligence service or inventive confidants of a leader with a help of available or eager journalists arrange a strange “controlled leak” concerning some undesirable person.

At a rally, a demagogue like Harris or Kashpirovsky heals listeners’ beliefs, the economy, and the state with spells. With promises and encouragements like “you deserve it” and “I will help you with this,” the speaker evokes gratitude and spasms. Indeed, the demagogue’s wonderful prognoses and mirages seem like a dream, but they stir no less than movie special effects. The indication of the guilty ones wakes “the people’s wrath,” and mobilizes volunteers for lynching, so they can take care of their problems, which means settling accounts or repaying for a theft. This means the demagogue deals with own affairs with people’s hands.

Before an election, a few celebrities of the ruling party change their emploi. Overnight they transform into oppositionists, insightful critics, muckrakers, and accusers. They hastily change their social circle, identity cards, perfumes, and ties. They will not be disappointed. A sensation, new riddles, speculations, and calculations will follow. There will be a new distribution of positions. Other party members remain faithful but, on this occasion, they now appear “on a daily basis,” at a mass, in the Vatican itself, at a match, in philharmonic, and even in a library.

Is your competitor in elections too strong? Does he have too much support, authority, and competence? Does he not talk nonsense, and make embarrassing mistakes? It is fine, we will dig out some dirt, namely, we will discover something in the archives, ask his old friends for interesting stories, and, if necessary, prepare a spicy case file ourselves.

What do these so different and sometimes distant phenomena have in common? They belong to the category of deceitful activities, in which someone achieves his goal through having or gaining an advantage over others. The advantage is that the person using it becomes the director of the situation, the master of our feelings, desires, and imaginations, the inspirer of our illusions, hesitations, and decisions, or the pilot of our actions. This advantage makes us dependent on such a person, we lose control over the situation and ourselves. Briefly speaking, we talk about various forms of manipulation based either on a completely hidden influence or unclear smuggling of various suggestions. Forms of manipulation can also base on statements, gestures, and challenging actions, ←10 | 11→which provoke predictive reactions. Most manipulations are provocative in nature, which means they rely on evoking certain images, impressions, illusions, emotions, involuntary reactions, and creating faits accomplis and situations that limit someone’s ability to decide and think rationally and independently. They hinder freedom of action to force certain aspirations and behaviors.

Despite quite common prejudices, obtaining and using such manipulative, tactical advantage in provocative influences may serve not only particular and destructive purposes like harming, exploiting, and enslaving other people. This advantage may also serve the good of others as well as the common good. Not every provocation is a perfectly obvious “dirty job” because the goal of applying it can be sublime, and the methods can be sophisticated.

Moreover, we need to realize that provocation is not a sparse, marginal, or extraordinary and absolutely pathological phenomenon. Despite appearances, it is a common way of behaving for each of us. We use provocation every day in flirting, making advances, social games, caring and pedagogical behavior, marital and family arguments and accommodations, neighbor conflicts, drivers’ fiery discussions and meaningful gestures, professional work, social initiatives, habitants’ group protests. Every one of us uses provocation schemes and impact methods in our typical roles of citizen, voter, consumer, information and propaganda receiver, entertainment events participant, or in specialized roles of pedagogue, journalist, police officer, or criminal. Moreover, we all are subject to such influence.

Therefore, it is worth considering what is the essence of provocation, what is its accidental and changeable form, what is the use of this way of influencing people, how effective are the tactics and methods of provocation, and also how much does it cost the provocateurs and the provoked.

This is the purpose of the present book. This publication is supposed to be a compendium of knowledge on the possible repertoire of provocative interactions. Thus, first, we need to determine an adequate definition that would comprise various fields and forms of provocation. Second, we have to reevaluate stereotypes and prejudices against the word “provocation” itself. Third, we need to capture the typical structure of the phenomenon in its simplest, complex and sophisticated forms. Moreover, the analysis of various forms and manifestations of provocation provides the basis for systematizing its typical functions and repetitive forms.

Although the mechanism of provocation is a popular topic, it is so far studied in dispersion, that is only causally and peripherally when considering some fundamental issue regarded as sufficiently serious. Different cases of provocation are analyzed in mutual detachment, usually as examples themselves, and ←11 | 12→not as a representation of certain rules and patterns. Reflections on the methods and means of provocation are usually one-dimensional and narrowed down to specific areas of life and activity. For example, the reflections most often concern: the art of seduction, advertising or war, the methods of operating of the intelligence service, tactics in military conflicts or terrorist actions, avant-garde forms of contestation and challenging the accepted conventions and traditions of art, scandalous forms of promotion and self-promotion of goods, works, and persons or institutions, methods of fighting organized crime, etc. Therefore, perhaps it is time for an attempt of synthesis? Maybe also in this matter, we should not see everything separately, like Tuwim’s “terrible burghers?”

Let us try to systematize the knowledge about the mechanisms and schemes of provocative action. They should embrace universal, that is typical and repetitive in different historical situations, cultural circles, and political realities. We may assume that the repertoire of possible provocative methods understood “purely technically” is relatively independent of the ideological and political situation. However, of course, the climate of the epoch, political patterns, and the balance of political forces influence the preference of specific methods and lead to the recognition of admissibility or inadmissibility of specific measures.

We will base our typology and model interpretation of the provocative action schemes on historical and literary examples, taken from strictly academic literature, textbooks, and popular literature, for example fiction. We will also include feature films basing on sensational, investigative, and war themes in our considerations. Moreover, we can find rich empirical material like pieces of information, analyses, commentaries, official statements, and disclosed documents in documentary and para-documentary films, and press publications. However, in this reservoir, we will prioritize reports or reflections which can be clear and instructive only from a certain distance, apart from current references and emotions in which they are entangled. We can find inspiration for the theoretical synthesis not only in philosophical treatises but also in essays and columns.

The political scientist attempting to synthesize the provocation theory cannot speak fully authoritatively about issues requiring the competence of an art or literature historian, psychologist, criminologist, empirical research methodologist, or an expert in advertising and marketing because I am not certificated all-knowing genius. By necessity, I will restrict only to reviewing manifestations of provocation in various spheres of human life and activity, leaving the nuances to specialists. I hope that such an initial catalog of the omnipresent provocation will provoke professional researchers to produce precise, and sublime monographs. However, I can refer to the provocative methods in political actions with greater inquisitiveness and boldness. Therefore, I dedicate most of my work to this issue. ←12 | 13→The task of the present guide is also to answer two questions. First, what every humanist who encounters the phenomenon of provocation should know, or learn, and think. Second, what can a political scientist studying the methods of political action learn from a comparative analysis of provocative methods of pedagogical, artistic, commercial, police, or criminal influence.

In the present work, we understand the eponymous “theory” not in the sense typical for science methodology but in accordance with the established didactic tradition. For science methodology, a theory is a relatively coherent and exhaustive system of strictly general claims, meaning the laws of science, which explain the basis, origin, mechanism of functioning, or determinants of certain phenomena evolution. The theory also explains claims based on certain assumptions, which usually focus on a particular type of factors. In this sense, many alternative or complementary theories of the same phenomenon are possible. On the other hand, in didactics, especially in the teaching of separate scientific disciplines, a systematic lecture addressing key concepts, the phenomenon’s range and limits, which are often contractual or conditional, determining the specificity of a given phenomenon in comparison with others, especially related ones, is called a theory of a given object. We study textbooks of the theory of law, upbringing, politics, or literature according to this principle. Such textbooks serve similar purposes as popular tutorials and guides held in the convention of “what every girl should know.” Therefore, respectively: what every lawyer, sociologist, pedagogue, political scientist, literary historian, or literary critic should know to competently study specific and detailed phenomena in their field. In a way, these are the “preliminaries of theory.”

However, the author may admit without exaggerated assurance that the book also contains elements of the theory understood rigorously since it addresses particular topics. These topics are, for instance: reasons for using provocative methods, conditions and limits of their effectiveness, factors causing the addressees’ susceptibility to provocations, attempts to assess the effectiveness of provocative methods, and the problem of whether and to what extent we can prevent or resist provocations. Nevertheless, of course, such problems require in-depth research, and more complete and systematized responses.

Besides typical cognitive functions, that is presenting the essence and manifestations of the phenomenon, and the symptoms enabling to notice and qualify it, the present work also serves a practical purpose. Readers will find here not an instruction of “how to do it” type but a warning of “how the ill-willed people do it” type. The work will show how to recognize provocation and how to defend ourselves against it if it threatens our dignity, our rights, or our interests. If we want to prevent or oppose the already existing brutalization and primitivization ←13 | 14→of political struggle or style of governance, it is not enough to promote a culture of coexistence and models of reliable, substantive rivalry instead of the culture of aggression, war, and machination. Those who can use constructive forms of rhetorical, intellectual, pedagogical, artistic, literary, or detective provocation, which are thought-provoking, critical, exposing, and cease the arbitrariness of unreliable players, will oppose wicked provocations of criminals, terrorists, colonizers, spies, masters of negative campaigning, or dictators much more effectively.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2021 (November)
provocation manipulation challenge perpetrator deception seduction
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 376 pp., 5 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Mirosław Karwat (Author)

Mirosław Karwat is a professor at the Faculty of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Warsaw, Poland. He specializes in political theory and social engineering. His research focuses on political manipulation, participation mechanisms, patterns and styles of political action, including political pathology.


Title: Theory of Provocation
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378 pages