Category Archives: Great Books

Great Books for Summer Reading 2017

Every summer we have a tradition of offering readers a broad selection of great books to add to their summer reading lists. This year we asked contributors to recommend the one book social movement scholars and activists should be reading this summer. Contributors chose their favorite social movement or protest-related book, whether scholarly or activist, fiction or nonfiction, and wrote a short review. In past years, the selection of books has been diverse, and we hope to again offer something of interest to everyone.

Many thanks to our wonderful group of contributors.

Alex Hanna, University of Toronto (essay)
Diego F. Leal, University of Massachusetts-Amherst (essay)
Marcos Emilio Perez, Colby College (essay)
Trent Steidley, University of Denver (essay)
Fei Yan, Tsinghua University (essay)
Luyang Zhou, McGill University (essay)

Because of the number of contributors, we will have more book reviews this Friday.

Editors in Chief,
Grace Yukich, David Ortiz, Rory McVeigh, Guillermo Trejo

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You Should Read “This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed”

By Trent Steidley

Untitled.pngCobb, Charles E. 2014. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. Basic Books. Amazon Link

“I never was a true believer in nonviolence, but was willing to go along [with it] for the sake of the strategy and goals. [However] we heard that James Chaney had been beaten to death before they shot him. The thought of being beat up, jailed, even being shot, was one kinda thing. The thought of being beaten to death without being able to fight back put the fear of God in me. Also, I was my mother’s only child with some responsibility to go home in relatively one piece and I decided that it would be an unforgivable sin to willingly let someone kill my mother’s only child without a fight. [So] I acquired an automatic handgun to sit in the top of that outstanding black patent and tan handbag that I carried. I don’t think that I ever had to fire it; I never shot anyone, but the potential was there. And I still would hurt anyone if necessary to protect my son and grandson and his wife.”

— Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) former field secretary Cynthia Washington (page vii)

For many, “nonviolence” and “social movements” are synonymous. The legacy of nonviolence pioneered by SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) has had such an influence that any modern movement that wishes to be taken seriously almost always prefers to use nonviolent tactics. However, in his book, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, Charles Cobb makes it plain that nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement did not equate to wholesale pacifism. In it, Cobb has two lessons that I think any scholar of social movements will appreciate (lessons which are evident in the above quote). First, social movements are made up of ordinary people, people who fear for their lives and loved ones, people who refuse to be defenselessly attacked, and people who will make compromises between “official” movement strategies and their own moral constitution. Second, guns are not simply the domain of conservatism or gun rights advocates, they are owned and used by millions of ordinary people, and during the Civil Rights Movement many who fought for racial equality did not think “nonviolence” meant surrendering either their guns or their right to use them in self-defense. Continue reading

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Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest: A Review

By Alex Hanna


In 2011, as Egypt’s Tahrir Square filled with throngs of newly minted activists, New York’s Zucotti Park with the echoes of the mic check, and the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison with heart-shaped signs and singing teachers, speculation about what spurred this wave of protest events was shared by pundits and academics alike. Popular thinkers and journalists suggested that the activation of thousands of protesters in public squares could be laid at the feet of social media and online technologies such as Facebook and Twitter. On the other hand, it wasn’t too long ago that the sentiment seemed to lie in a completely opposite direction, suggesting that the “revolution will not be tweeted” and that engagement in high-risk activism (McAdam 1986) – especially within the repressive regimes of Egypt and Tunisia – required the strong ties that we would see in the Freedom Summer-era US South. The latter sentiment is still prevalent within social movement scholarship. Continue reading

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History as the Textbook for Making Revolution

By Luyang Zhou

Making revolution is a complicated project, and it cannot be learned openly and legally from textbooks. This paradox raises the question of how revolutionaries learned revolution making. A first quick answer is to “learn by doing”, while the second is learning from the contemporary instructors who had made successful revolutions just recently. Neither answer is fully satisfactory, however. On one hand, starting from scratch could be too slow because practices were so multi-facial that at one time many competing lessons could be drawn. On the other hand, revolution-makers often had no living predecessors, because the most recent revolution had occurred a century or centuries before – as in the cases of the French and Russian Revolutions. If neither “science” nor “authority” sufficed to teach revolution-making, the radicals had to gain knowledge from a third source: history.

To analyze this source, Eric Selbin’s Power of Story (2010) is a book offering great insight. Summarizing numerous researches on the mimeses, myths, memories, and historical writings reflective of revolutions, Selbin reiterates the point that story of resistance must be analyzed if we need to gain full understanding of the identity and motivation underlying revolutionary movements. Selbin suggests three mechanisms of how revolutionaries could benefit from the past: belief, morale, and technique. Bearing successful historical models in mind, conspirators could overcome their own cowardice to be convinced that the seemingly stable old regimes were in fact weak and fragile. Moreover, the appreciation for the heroism, courage, and altruism demonstrated in past rebellions motivated the revolutionaries to fight selflessly against the physically stronger enemies, which often enabled them to withstand repressions and defeats. Finally, history did teach techniques, not only symbols in propaganda but often substantial thought useful to design strategies and tactics. Continue reading

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Becoming Black Political Subjects: A Review

By Diego F. Leal

black political subjects.jpeg

As the 20th century was coming to an end, several countries in Latin America produced major pieces of ethno-racial legislation. Tianna S. Paschel’s Becoming Black Political Subjects focuses on the cases of Colombia and Brazil, the two most prominent examples of these interesting and fundamental changes. These ethno-racial reforms –as well as their more or less successful implementation– had the black social movements of each country as their most important advocate. As Paschel argues, however, contrary to what the experience of the US Civil Rights movement would suggest, in the Colombian and Brazilian experience these movements were very far from being massive or disruptive. Continue reading

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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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Recommendation: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

By Marcos Emilio Perez


Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.

One of the main challenges for scholars using qualitative methods is how to incorporate the perspectives of respondents in our writing. The very complexity of each individual narrative, combined with the demands of analysis and conciseness, raises several difficult questions. How much evidence should we include? Which interviews and excerpts are most illustrative of dynamics we want to highlight? In which ways do we ensure that transcription, translation and edition do not interfere with the stories and ideas shared by those we interview? Continue reading

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