Towards a Cultural Approach to Understanding Protest: A Review

By Fei Yan


In this collected volume, the editors develop a cultural approach to examine dimensions of protest beyond the political and sociological aspects. According to the editors, protest culture is defined as “a multilayered phenomenon that emerges in the interplay between different social, communicative, and historical actors, processes, and semiotic forms” (p. 1). More specifically, by studying cultural elements, protest is presented as “a form of contesting communication by the use of different media and strategies and in the broad context of different social and cultural institutions and actors” (p. 1).

The volume is divided into 8 Parts with 57 Chapters, with each chapter briefly addressing a specific research topic related to the main theme. The first Part provides an overview of the general perspectives in the research of protest cultures in various disciplines. Part 2 to 5 discuss the morphology of protest communication, focusing on reality construction, media, domains of actions, and representations of protest. Part 6 to 8 analyze the pragmatics of protest culture, focusing on culturally-shaped performative protest practices, reactions to protest actions, and long-term consequences of protest.

The major contributions of this volume lie in two aspects. First, protest cultures are understood as internal effects on collective actions. Ideologies (Chapter 8), cultural memories (Chapter 10), collective identities (Chapter 13), emotion (Chapter 14), and commitment (Chapter 15) are innately formed during the movement itself—they have an endogenous origin. The constructions of these functions shape the meaning-making process of protest communication in which protestors can generate their own images of movement and produce various repertoires of collective action through organizational collaboration and self-adaptation. Such internal effects engender a common goal for all the group members to pursue when movements unfold in the process.

Second, protest cultures are understood as external effects of protest performed by specific social movement. For example, the emergence of mass media changed the communication of protest in a fundamental way. Protest agents and the media gradually establish a “mutual interdependence” (p. 3) in which expressive forms of protest through media channel have become integral parts of popular culture. Meanwhile, symbolical actions and events have also become social movement strategies at both the grassroots levels and elite levels.

Apart from broadly-defined media in its traditional understanding, body (Chapter 16), dance (Chapter 17), linguistic genres (Chapter 19), fashion (Chapter 20), graffiti (Chapter 23), posters (Chapter 24), songs (Chapter 27), and other kinds of communicative forms “that relate different areas and actors of communication” (p. 6) are all becoming a sign of symbolic public act to express protestors’ demands and claims in a street demonstration. The cultural functions of these kinds of protest communication expand the analytical perspective of protest movements.

This edited volume is rich in its research scope and empirical cases. As for me, I am particularly interested in chapter 10 on cultural memory. For protest cultures, cultural memory could be a powerful analytical tool, as the past is always recollected in the present. In this chapter, the author proposes a “dynamics of memory approach”, which analyzes memory as “a continuous process of negotiation between different actors involved both in the recollected past and in the present of remembrance” (p. 132). As such, protesting identity could be inherited and transmitted from the past to the present, exerting long-term effects on future collective claims. Sometimes, movement participants possess various and even conflicting memories over the same past, and such a divided memory can trigger opposite collective manifestations in the present.

For example, in Freedom Summer, Doug McAdam convincingly argues that the Mississippi Summer Project was the decisive experience leading to the formation of the “New Left” and the counterculture of the Sixties. First, the Mississippi Summer Project effectively re-socialized and radicalized the volunteers, and the ties they established with other volunteers laid the groundwork for a nationwide activist network. Returning North, most of the volunteers became leaders of the students for a Democratic Society, the antiwar movement, and left-wing feminism. In this sense, it is volunteer experience learned in Mississippi served as the crucible for the New Left movement in the Sixties. Such long-term cultural memory even extended to the 1980s. During the 1980s, former activists still have been heavily involved in the environmental, antinuclear, and local community movements. Second, the Mississippi Summer Project produced strong cultural effects. The firsthand experiences of Freedom Summer volunteers with racial oppression and violence resulted in the formation of many strong bonds of interracial trust and friendship. Such memory distinguished those who were liberated from those who were not. The Mississippi volunteers were among the first to be so liberated, and their example helped establish the ideological salience of interracial relationships within the emerging counterculture.

This book could be strengthened at least in two directions. First, the editors should explicitly state the evolving and temporal nature of protest culture. In other words, time matters in studying the cultural elements of protest. When the movement unfolds, some processes may be linear, consecutive, and cumulative, while others may be non-linear, discrete, and transformational. Therefore, processual investigations should take the time dimension into account in research on political culture. For example, how the practices of street protest (Chapter 36), insult and devaluation (Chapter 37), public debating (Chapter 38), and theatrical protest (Chapter 40) evolve in different time periods? Starting from the same initial conditions, the basic elements (i.e., actors, agendas, targets, tactics, and so on) of a contentious episode invariably develop in different sequence, generate new identities and political divisions at different points in time, and eventually project varying circumstantial effects with different scales of influence. In the current book, the editors acknowledge that protest cultures should be understood as “a historical process, dynamically affected by different, even contrasting interests, motivations, and practices of the actors involved” (5), but fail to include more articles along this line of discussions.

Second, this book only includes one article on online protest (Chapter 31) while the rapid-growing usage of the internet and widespread digital network provide a great political opportunity for activists to mobilize followers with innovative tactics and strategies, both online and offline. New techniques create new forms of communicative patterns and protest culture, attracting a more diversified audience of popular movements. The rise of the Arab Spring has already demonstrated the mobilizational forces of the internet among the younger generation. Meanwhile, the movement opponents (e.g., government authorities) also devise effective tactical counters to constrain the momentum generated by new technologies. This interactive dynamic defines an ongoing process of tactical interaction in which insurgents and opponents seek to offset the moves of the other.

Despite these shortcomings, this volume widens our understanding of the cultural elements of protest from an interdisciplinary perspective and guides the readers to look deeper into the various cultures of dissent worldwide.

Fahlenbrach, Kathrin, Martin Klimke and Joachim Scharloth. 2016. Protest Cultures: A Companion. New York: Berghahn, 554 pages, ISBN-13: 9781785331480


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