Examining the Unintended Consequences of Social Mobilization

August 9, 2017
Viterna Team

We tend to think of social movements as promoters of social change, but might they also be key agents in maintaining—and even reinforcing—the status quo? Harvard professor Jocelyn Viterna, with graduate student Bo Yun Park and undergraduate students Quinn Sluzenski, Enya Huang, and Bryant Park, are examining hundreds of press releases from 10 oppositional “pairs” of U.S. social movements (e.g., gun rights vs gun control, anti-abortion rights vs pro-abortion rights, etc) to examine this question. Building from existing social movement theory, our team hypothesizes that all social movements incorporate culturally resonant “tethers” into their calls for social change. We define a “tether” as a universally positive identity (like “mother”) or value (like “freedom”) to which social movements discursively attach their cause in hopes of benefitting from the positive emotions it inspires in their audience. Because social movements advocate for social change, they always run the risk of appearing too “radical” and scaring away potential movement supporters. We suggest that social movements aim to mitigate this risk by “tethering” their calls for change to a stable and positive identity, like “mother,” that makes them appear more wholesome, and less radical. By categorizing and analyzing the relatively standard set of tethers utilized by a wide range of very different, and even antagonistic, social movements, our team hopes to better understand whether and how social movements might inadvertently reinforce the essentialist concepts underlying a consistent set of discursive tethers, even while advocating for social change in other arenas.