Cultural Interplay and Social Movement Outcomes

By Erin Evans


Cherry, Elizabeth (2016) Culture and Activism: Animals Rights in France and the United States. Routledge: New York, NY.


Elizabeth Cherry’s first book, Culture and Activism: Animal Rights in France and the United States, reflects nearly a decade of in-depth ethnographic research in both countries. Cherry uses a comparative approach, grounded in cultural sociology, to explore why France’s animal advocacy movement is weaker than that in the U.S. both in size of the movement and gains made for animal protection. Unlike many cultural analyses, Cherry’s work focuses on how cultural and political structures are intertwined, and how culture should be conceptualized as structural, with opportunities and constraints for social movements. Scholars often focus on either culture or political structures to explain social movement processes and outcomes in a mutually exclusive way. Although Cherry focuses on cultural structures, she acknowledges that “as culture, structure, and agency are intertwined, so are culture, strategies, and outcomes… we must understand the myriad cultural structures in each country as well as their effects on activism and the public reception of activists’ claims.” (6)

The book is divided into two major parts, with a shorter third section on social movement outcomes. In the first part, Cherry uses a macro approach to explore how culture shapes the strategic and tactical choices available to activists in both countries. Second, Cherry uses a meso-level approach to explain why animal advocacy organizations choose specific strategic and tactical routes given the cultural opportunities available to them. As she mentions in her introduction, cross-national comparative research is dominated by macro-level analyses, neglecting the nuanced decision-making processes that are so important to understanding social movements. The strength of Cherry’s book lies in the research design and her rigorous analyses of organizational processes.

Cherry uses “cultural resources” and “institutional logics” as concepts to highlight the interplay between decision-making and cultural constraints. She lays out cultural resources that are available to activists in each country, like using religious arguments to encourage veganism, or health arguments. Although most scholars would use “frames” instead of “resources” to describe this meaning-making, this semantic distinction helps illuminate how cultural devices are resources for activists. “Institutional logics” refer to social movement culture, and how social movements also develop its own cultural foundations that are related to, but not completely the same as the larger societal culture. She argues that the interplay between cultural resources and institutional logics steer social movement outcomes. Based on her analysis of the dominant cultures in France and the U.S., Cherry clearly lays out the most effective strategic choices activists could make in each country. Then she spends a bulk of the book describing why activists chose certain strategic paths based on the institutional logics of the social movements in each country.

We know that the way activists frame their issues drives how the audience reacts to those issues (for a full review see Snow’s chapter ). Cherry starts by discussing six specific cultural resources, like health and religion, that she found were most relevant to animal advocacy in the U.S. and France. At first I was left feeling like she had neglected foundational cultural norms such as individualism in the U.S. For instance, Cherry discusses how health frames resonate more profoundly in the U.S., and my immediate thought was that this is related to our cultural commitment to the self (one’s health is most important) rather than, say, a collective commitment to traditional food, like foie gras. Then when she discusses mass media, I wanted more on why sensationalist events attract more attention in the U.S. than in France. PETA became known internationally for its sensationalist tactics, and this probably put PETA at a disadvantage in France, where celebrity endorsements and dramatic protests don’t elicit the same media attention. But Cherry seems to anticipate this reaction and goes into a deeper discussion of the foundational cultural norms that steer institutional logics. The organization of the book leads the reader to see how organizational interactions within social movement fields are central to understanding social movement processes cross-nationally.

The unique contribution of Cherry’s book is the meso-level analysis of social movement organizations to explain strategic choices. Social movement organizations do not function in a vacuum; rather SMO fields are dance floors, where organizations sometimes find dance partners of other organizations temporarily, sometimes permanently. And organizations look to other organizations for cues on where to move, which dances are popular, and how they might get other organizations and institutional targets on the dance floor to sync up. This dance influences how activists within each organization make strategic choices, and Cherry’s approach puts that dance at the analytic forefront.

The author describes how activists in the U.S adhere to the “institutional logic of pragmatism,” where activists may seemingly violate their commitment a pre end-goal by pursuing and accepting compromises. As opposed to this, she argues that in France they adhere to the “institutional logic of consistency,” where activists do not accept compromises in pursuit of a more substantive end-goal.

While broadly one might say that U.S. activists are pragmatic in their choices, I’m not sure that this is the most influential cause for the difference in outcomes. For instance, given that the population of the U.S. is so much larger than France (about 318 million in the U.S. versus 60 million in France) it seems likely that there are more diverse populations of people and therefore more opportunities to use multiple cultural resources in effective ways. I think it’s also important to think of the activists’ audience. Ideologically consistent strategies and frames, or the purist approach, is more effective for mobilizing activists rather than making political gains. Activists know this and often steer their campaigns based on what audience they are trying to reach. There are also organizations and activists in the U.S. who adhere to ideologically consistent strategies, and I think the pragmatism in the U.S. is linked both to the nature of our political system and constitutional design and also to the size and diversity of the movement here. The U.S. political system, not cultural structures, both constrains and encourages the small compromised gains Cherry describes. That said, I’m not an expert in French politics by far, and Cherry convinced me that understanding cultural differences in each country is integral to understanding the differential strength of the animal advocacy in each country.

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Filed under Great Books for Summer Reading 2016, Uncategorized

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