What A Good Idea: Mobilization and Culture

BY Francesca Polletta

Is Moby only 25 years old? It so quickly established itself as the house organ for social movement research and theorizing that one might be forgiven for thinking that it had been around for much longer.  As a newly-minted PhD in 1995, I certainly was under that impression. Nor did I realize at the time how influential Mobilization was in bringing the study of ideas, beliefs, values—culture—firmly into the study of social movements. I lucked out, though, since that was exactly what I was interested in. 

The editors asked me to write about an article that was influential in the field and in my own work, and many articles fit the bill. But I took the opportunity to reread three pieces that appeared early on as a debate about how to study culture in movements: Pam Oliver and Hank Johnston’s “What A Good Idea: Ideologies and Frames in Social Movement Research,” which was published in 2000, along with a comment by Dave Snow and Rob Benford and a response by Oliver and Johnston. The pieces are as interesting now as they were twenty years ago—as much as for what they anticipated as what they argued. 

First, a little background. Collective behaviorist theories in the 1960s and 70s had paid attention to people’s beliefs in accounting for mobilization but had tended to treat those beliefs in a pejorative and psychologically reductive way. The political process models that gained prominence in the 1980s asserted the importance of mobilizing beliefs, unlike resource mobilization theories, but sought to avoid pathologizing those beliefs, unlike collective behaviorists. After the publication of articles on collective action framing by Dave Snow and colleagues and by Bill Gamson in the late 1980s and early 1990s (articles that together have been cited more than 15,000 times), framing became the most popular way to talk about culture in movements. 

Pam Oliver and Hank Johnston took issue with framing’s conceptual hegemony in an article that would become the most cited in Mobilization’s first decade. Framing had crowded out other ways of thinking about ideas, values, and beliefs in social movements, Oliver and Johnston argued, and, in particular, had led to the neglect of a whole body of research and theorizing on ideology. Instead, movement scholars tended to treat frames as synonym for ideology. But doing so was a mistake. Oliver and Johnston gave the example of the movement against abortion. To treat anti-abortion activists’ beliefs only in terms of a “pro-life frame” would mistake activists’ strategic invocation of fetuses’ legal rights for the beliefs that motivated them, which had little to do with legal rights and much more to do with deeply religious understandings of personhood and sexuality, as well as beliefs about the proper role of childbearing in women’s lives.  To make frames the sum total of how ideas figured in movements’ emergence, trajectories, and outcomes was to treat people only as the objects of marketing or as the marketers themselves rather than as thinking, reflective beings, who made sense of the world and acted in it in terms of complex and changing, but empirically observable, sets of ideas, beliefs, and values. 

In their response, Dave Snow and Robert Benford pointed out that they had never treated frames as synonyms for ideology. To the contrary, one of their main lines of theorizing was into the relations between frames and other kinds of cognitions and beliefs. In fact, Oliver and Johnson’s conception of ideology as a coherent system of beliefs misrecognized reality. People’s beliefs were often inconsistent and, indeed, outright contradictory. If one sought only to identify the ideologies animating mobilization, one might well miss the active construction, negotiation, and contention that was involved in making ideas mobilizing. And this was precisely the point of studying framing. Far from treating frames as fixed and static, as nouns rather than verbs, as Oliver and Johnston charged, Snow and Benford pointed out that they had always been interested in the interactive processes by which frames were constructed, sustained, contested, and altered. They studied framing, not frames. 

Oliver and Johnson, in their rejoinder, argued that the problem was not a tendency to treat frames as nouns—to the contrary, if one wanted to investigate frames’ relation to other features of social life, one had to artificially freeze them in time—or else remain trapped in an “interactionist bubble that limits all research to descriptions of process” (p. 62). The problem rather was a failure to probe in a more historical way the changing background of beliefs in terms of which activists’ claims were developed and in terms of which they made sense to those they sought to mobilize.  

The debate was, in some respects, frustrating. Both sets of authors recognized that the problem was less in the way Snow and Benford talked about framing (in relation to ideology) than in the way that legions of scholars who took up the concept did. Both sets of authors seemed to suggest that cultural materials in movements should be treated as interpretive lenses rather than as persuasive devices, but of course they are both and can be studied either way or both ways. Both sets of authors treated beliefs as purely cognitive; neither made mention of the fact that people feel as well as think. Finally, a wholly other debate—about the virtues of interactionist versus structuralist approaches more generally—percolated through both sets of authors’ comments.  

And yet, for me, the debate was liberating. It communicated the importance of culture in movements, but also made clear that we needed multiple theories to grasp culture’s role. No one theory or concept alone was adequate. But the message was not: “let a hundred flowers bloom,” with each sociologist choosing whatever concept worked for him or her.  Instead, the debate encouraged us to justify the concepts we chose and to spell out their relation to other concepts that were already being used. For those of us who were plumbing fields outside the study of social movements for theories that could help us to make sense of the cultural dimensions of movements’ emergence, individual participation, organizations’ tactical choice, and movement consequences, the debate offered both encouragement and counsel. 

Re-rereading the pieces twenty years later, I’m also struck by two issues that came up in the debate only obliquely: those of cultural constraint and cultural coherence.  At the time, while I too was frustrated by the fact that frames were being made to do too much analytical work, I was not fully sold on Oliver and Johnston’s brief for ideology.  Although the authors recognized that the extensive scholarship on ideology used the terms in both critical and neutral ways, they opted for a neutral definition, treating ideology as interconnected sets of ideas, beliefs, and values. For some of us, though, there was virtue in a more critical conception. We were interested in the fact that ideas also constrain; that, like the distribution of resources or the structure of political opportunities, dominant ideas, beliefs, and values much of the time support the status quo, and they sometimes do so within movements as well as outside them. The problem with using ideology to explore cultural constraint, though, was the Marxist baggage of false consciousness that it came with. We wanted to find a way to account for constraint that did not represent people as simply blind to their own interests and that allowed for creativity alongside constraint. In fact, it was precisely those dynamics of creativity and constraint that interested us. (I’m using “us” vaguely: I was talking to Marc Steinberg, Lis Clemens, Elizabeth Armstrong, Ann Mische, and Kim Voss about these issues at the time but many others were talking about them too.) We turned variously to concepts like discourse, institutional schema, narrative, and repertoire as a way to try to get at those issues.  Not that we—not that anyone– wrapped the issue up. Indeed, there would be value now, I believe, in the kind of discussion that Oliver, Johnston, Benford, and Snow modeled, in which proponents of different concepts made the case for how their preferred concept related to others that scholars have used to illuminate dynamics of cultural creativity and constraint. 

Another issue raised by the debate: Snow and Benford rightly, I believe, took issue with Oliver and Johnston’s representation of ideologies as coherent systems of beliefs. Perhaps ideologies are coherent, but people draw on them in ways that are anything but that. But Snow and Benford’s own account of frame resonance fell prey to the same assumption in positing that frames whose elements were interconnected were more likely to resonate than those whose elements were not. Is that true, though? Perhaps effective frames are ones in which very different, indeed, contradictory claims combine in a way that forecloses objection but is not at all logically consistent. That poses a challenge, though; one that is conceptual, theoretical, and, especially in the Trump era, political: how much coherence do ideas have to have in order to mobilize people? Or perhaps the better question is: what counts as coherence? And what role does coherence play alongside other factors—cultural and structural factors’—in accounting for ideas’ resonance? Scholars like Amin Ghaziani, Delia Baldessari, Chris Bail, Terence McDonnell, Iddo Tavory, and others are using new theoretical and methodological tools to tackle questions like these. 

Obviously, issues of cultural constraint and cultural coherence are of interest to scholars beyond those who study social movements. In this respect, I’m convinced that the cross-fertilization in the fields of social movements and culture that we see today owes in no small measure to Mobilization’s role in promoting the study of culture in movements. What a good idea that was.


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