Narrative & Social Movements Research Paper Starter

Narrative & Social Movements

(Research Starters)

This article discusses the relationship of narrative and social movements. It clarifies what is meant by the terms social movement and narrative and explores the emergence of narrative analysis in the historical development of ways scholars have approached the study of social movements. The article discusses the function of storytelling and narrative within social movements to create collective identity, to frame movement origins, and to deal with movement setbacks and defeats. The role of narrative as tool for social movements in policy making scenarios is also examined. The article points out some limitations of narrative analysis as a scholarly approach and concludes that it is one of many useful tools scholars can use to better understand social movements.

Keywords: Civil Rights Movement; Collective Action Frame; Collective Behavior; Collective Identity; Discourse; Narrative; Storytelling; Social Movements; Social Movement Abeyance; Trope


Everybody loves a good story, it seems, and social movement participants are no exception. Just like any social institution, stories are present within and about social movements and their participants. Although stories may often seem casual or inconsequential they are often imbued with deeper meaning and interpreted differently, depending on the situation in which they are told, or whom they are told by or about. Social movement activists are fond of storytelling, whether in front of other activists, to potential allies or for the public. In fact, movement activists and adherents are often told to "tell their story" in an effort to garner public support or sympathy (Leondar-Wright, 2008; Polletta 1998, 2006). Because of the popularity and widespread presence of storytelling and narrative devices in social movements, sociologists interested in social movements and other political processes have begun to look more closely at how, why and when stories are used and to what effect.

Why is it important to understand the relationship between narrative and social movements? As scholars have focused more attention on how societies change and what role social movements play in either helping or hindering that change, they have discovered many mechanisms at play that contribute to the success or demise of social movements. For many years sociologists focused on the seemingly negative psychological traits of social movements and other collective behavior (e.g. Le Bon, 1896; Hopper, 1950). Later, as the civil rights, anti-war and other movements of the 1960's and 70's gained more attention, scholars began to focus attention on the more instrumental aspects of social movements — that is, the way movements carried out campaigns in a rational and organized manner (e.g. McCarthy & Zald, 1977). This approach was a turn from the previous approach, which emphasized the more emotional and psychological aspects of social movement mobilization. With this came the focus on the rationality of social movements as actors within the socio-political realm. Although these approaches moved the field of collective behavior and later social movement studies forward in many ways, later critics argued that they focused too much on the rational aspects of social movements and their adherents at the expense of emotional and cultural elements. Narrative analysis of social movements is part of this new focus on the emotional and cultural. In order to understand the relationship between social movements and narrative it is important to understand the terms.

What is a Social Movement?

Social movements have a long history throughout the world. Social movement activity follows closely the rise of democratic representation in the United States and England in the late 1700s. Thus, they are highly associated with democratic societies. This does not mean that Social movements are limited to democratic societies. In fact, they have also been associated with the process of democratization in many societies and are also present in more authoritarian societies (Tilly, 2004). Social movements, then, occur in a wide variety of societies. They can be local in purpose, such as a movement against the construction of a toxic waste dump in a neighborhood, or they can be national or even international in focus. Social movements are also broad in their aim. Some may seek to reform an existing political system, while others may aim to halt change. On the other hand, some are not political at all and instead may seek cultural or individual change. Still others may seek revolutionary change on both a political and social/cultural level.

Despite the differences in types of social movements there are also many similarities. Some key similarities between all social movements that have been noted are:

  • The campaign, all movements carry out sustained actions with an orientation towards specific goals
  • Social movement repertoires, a standard set of actions that are used by social movements i.e. protests, rallies, etc. and
  • Displays of worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment (WUNC). WUNC displays are carried out by social movements and social movement organizations (SMOs) in order to legitimize themselves in the eyes of potential adherents and target authorities (Tilly, 2004).

A social movement can be thought of as an informal set of individuals and/or groups that are "involved in confliction relations with clearly identified opponents; are linked by dense informal networks; [and] share a distinct collective identity" (della Porta & Diani, 2006, p. 20).

What is Narrative?

Storytelling is often used in place of the word narrative. Although sometimes distinction is made between the two, they are also regularly used interchangeably. Sometimes narrative may refer to a wider set of storytelling devices beyond simple oral storytelling. For example, a narrative can be told through a visual display such as through comics or art, whereas a story is usually spoken by a narrator to an audience. Specifically, a narrative entails three important elements:

  • A plot, which "seeks time and place specific connections between events" (Polletta, 1998, p. 421),
  • Point of view, which means they must be told from a certain perspective -either the stories tellers, or someone else's, but they cannot be events placed outside of a perspective.
  • A degree of ambiguity or "fundamental indeterminacy, a key question that cannot be answered or even formulated, a 'complex word' or concept whose meaning remains ambiguous" (Polletta, 1998, p. 440).

These three elements are essential for a story. Narrative, on the other hand, often refers not just to stories but also the way a story is told including the devices used to tell a story. A story telling device refers to the way language, pictures etc. are used to tell a story. For example, a story may use a common cultural or linguistic stereotype — or trope — to stand in for a complex set of ideas. The use of tropes can simplify storytelling and also define the term of the thing being described. There are many types and uses of tropes, especially by social movements, which help to simplify the message of social movements as well as define the terms of debate; similar to the way that framing within social movements is used.

Further Insights

The Use of Narrative within Social Movements

Scholars have identified many ways in which narrative occurs and functions within social movements. Social movement actors tell stories and use story telling devices to their advantage. Sometimes stories are deployed strategically and other times they are used unconsciously, but they almost always carry meaning which can be interpreted and analyzed.


An important element of any social movement is the creation of a collective identity. Mellucci (1995) explains, "collective identity is an interactive and shared definition produced by several individuals…and concerned with the orientations of action and the field of opportunities and constraints in which the action takes place" (p. 44). In other words, collective action is the way a group of people understands their shared environment and how they should act collectively within that environment. An important part of the process of collective identity is the making of shared meanings. When individuals come together from many different places and backgrounds it is often difficult to know from where each individual understands the world around them. Thus, part of the work of social movements is to help create a sense of shared meaning; that is, to ensure that everybody involved in a given movement is understanding the situation, or conflict, in the same way.

Storytelling is one way movements can create this shared sense of meaning and thus, a collective identity. When activists tell stories of collective actions they define the antagonists and the protagonists or the "we" and the "them." Glover (2004) notes that activists "… who identify with a story about the [group], 'step into the story, recreate the world it presents, and retain the experience. They make the story their own'" (p. 48). Similarly, Linde (2001) notes that an organization uses "narrative to create and reproduce its identity by the creation and maintenance of an institutional memory" (p. 1). Social movement organizations and informal groups behave in much the same way. Stories are told of actions and opponents which then create a sense of the group's values and goals and guides how people should relate to one another within the group and towards opponents or targets of the group or movement. Christiansen (2009) found...

(The entire section is 4250 words.)