Culture and Social Movements

Some of my research examines the interplay between social movements and culture. By culture, I not only refer to cultural products (e.g., novels, plays, and songs) but also to the cultural meanings or understandings that people apply to the world around them. I am particularly interested in questions such as how social movements mobilize or deploy culture and how social movements produce cultural change.

Publications on this research theme include:

Coley, Jonathan. 2018. Gay on God’s Campus: Mobilizing for LGBT Equality at Christian Colleges and Universities: chapter 4 and Supplement E. The University of North Carolina Press. (order)

Chapter four, “Creating Change,” addresses the question of how LGBT activist groups impact Christian colleges and universities. Specifically, the chapter reveals why some LGBT activist groups have been successful in changing campus policies (e.g., convincing their schools to adopt non-discrimination policies inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity) and campus climates (i.e., changing their campuses so that LGBT people can be open about their sexuality or gender identity without fear of bullying or harassment) whereas others have not. As I argue, LGBT activist groups have been most effective at changing campus policies and climates when they simultaneously engage in cultural work–specifically, engaging in conversations about Christianity and LGBT rights and thus transforming people’s understandings about what it means to be a Christian university, a Christian community, and an LGBT Christian. LGBT activist groups that avoid these conversations are less successful at creating change at their colleges and universities. The chapter thus draws on insights on social movements and culture to advance sociological theory on social movement outcomes.

Supplement E, “Social Movements and Cultural Change: What, Why, and How?” (available online at this link), reviews literature pertaining to three crucial questions in the study of social movements and cultural change: 1) what types of cultural change do social movements produce?; 2) why do social movements produce cultural change?; and 3) how do social movements produce cultural change? As I discuss, scholars studying the cultural consequences of social movements previously focused on the ways that social movements generate new artistic products (such as paintings, songs, and books) and give rise to new subcultures (from women’s communes to countercultures), and scholars assumed that social movements seek to change culture either as a means to separate political ends or as an end in itself. However, emerging research focuses on the ways that social movements produce shared understandings, and when these shared understandings underlie societal institutions, cultural change can effectively constitute political and structural change. This supplement critiques these conceptualizations of and assumptions about the types and purposes of social movement-induced cultural change, and it assesses the utility of political process theory and field theory for explaining the impacts of social movements on culture.

Coley, Jonathan. 2015. “Narrative and Frame Alignment in Social Movements: Labor Problem Novels and the 1929 Gastonia Strike.” Social Movement Studies 14(1): 58-74. (external link)

Abstract: Research on social movements and frame alignment has shed light on how activists draw new participants to social movements through meaning making. However, the ‘framing perspective’ has failed to interrogate how the form or genre in which frames are deployed affects the communication of meaning. The burgeoning literature on social movements and narrative would seem to point to one discursive form of importance to meaning making in social movements, but scholars have failed to connect their insights with the literature on framing. In this article, I analyze five novels published in response to a 1929 communist-led strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. I argue that labor movement activists deployed these long-form narratives for the purposes of ‘frame alignment,’ specifically ‘frame amplification’ and ‘frame transformation,’ and I show how these narratives conveyed frames in ways that other discursive forms could not. The study raises new questions about the selection and reception of discursive forms in social movements.