Rhetoric and Social Movements
Summary and Keywords
What moves the social? And what is rhetoric’s relationship to social movement? Since 1950, scholars studying the art of public persuasion have offered different answers to these questions. Early approaches to social movements defined them as out-groups that made use of persuasion to achieve goals and meet persistent challenges. However, protest tactics that flaunted the body and spectacle (e.g., 1960s-era dissent) challenged early emphasis on social movements as nouns or “things” that used rhetoric. Influenced by intersectional feminist theories and movements that featured identity transformations (along with ending oppression) as political, rhetoric scholars began to view “a social movement” as an outcome or effect of rhetoric. Scholars treated movements as “fictions,” identifying the ways in which these collective subjects did not empirically exist—but were nonetheless significant, as people came to invest their identities and desires for a new order into social movements. Scholars argued that people manifested “a social movement’s” presence by identifying themselves as representatives of it. More recently, though, rhetoric scholars emphasize what is moving in the social, by following the circulation of rhetoric across nodes and pathways in networks, as well as bodies in protest. Inspired by social media activism, as well as theories of performance and the body, scholars concentrate on how symbolic action (or the affects it helps create) interrupts business as usual in everyday life. To study rhetoric and social movement is to study how dissent from poor and working-class people, women, people of color, LGBTQ activists, the disabled, immigrants, and other non-normative, incongruous voices and bodies coalesce in myriad ways, helping move humanity along the long arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice.
Rhetoric and the Study of Social Movement
Sociologist Charles Tilly once observed that the study of social movements is, itself, political. A tour of the history of social movement study in critical/cultural and rhetorical subfields in communication studies in the United States underscores Tilly’s point. Scholars have featured different foci and assumptions in studying communication and social movement over time. In so doing, their work not only reflects the politics of their immediate academic surroundings, as scholarly approaches fall in and out of favor. How we define social movements, and how we evaluate the effects and ethics of those who identify and perform as part of social movements, have political ramifications in the larger communities and/or publics of which we are a part. As Tilly (1978, p. 5) writes, social movements invite “judgments about who has the right to act, and what good it does.”
The study of social movement in communication studies has been driven in large part by rhetoric scholars who turned to the “excessive” tactics of collective action and protest to expand “what counts” as the art of public persuasion. Leland Griffin famously introduced the study of “historical movements” in 1952, bucking public address scholarship’s preoccupation with a single, eloquent orator. Scholars in the 1970s and 1980s imported resource mobilization theory from sociology, acknowledging that non-institutionalized actors faced special constraints as they fought institutions to win the “hearts and minds” of the public—and that persuasion was the means through which they worked. New social movements (NSMs), intersectional feminism, and queer theory inspired critical/rhetorical communication scholars to focus less on policy change and reasonable appeals and more on how rhetoric moves the social in various symbolic, material, and/or affective ways—particularly as complex, overlapping systems of oppression (racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.) demand justice. Recent work in media studies pushes scholars to consider not only movements but networks, as activism “goes digital.”
Yet, as Foust (2017) concludes following a critical genealogy of work published since 1980, many rhetoric and critical/cultural communication scholars appear to be abandoning the term “social movement” to describe their own work. Instead, scholars have proliferated a variety of concepts and heightened their “original” contributions, resulting in “nomadic” scholarship. Though scholars have “wandered an expansive terrain of discourse broadly related to social change” (Foust, 2017, p. 51), they have lost sight of such fundamental questions as: What moves the social? and What is rhetoric’s (or communication’s) relationship to social change?
Rhetoric scholars have both elided and engaged these driving questions over time, leaving them well positioned to contribute to an interdisciplinary conversation on social movement. This article builds on others’ reviews (e.g., Cox & Foust, 2009; DeLuca, 1999; Pason, Foust, & Zittlow Rogness, 2017) and provides a disciplinary history on the study of rhetoric and social movements (rather than a rhetorical history of movements; e.g., Triece, 2017). This article provides a more-or-less chronological tour of social movement theorizing derived from rhetorical approaches and case studies reflective of the mainly Western protests engaged by scholars. It begins with work that features social movements as nouns—unique collective subjects that use persuasion to meet persistent needs and achieve goals. It then develops how scholars centered communication more, positioning “a social movement” as the outcome of rhetoric, a “fiction” to which people come to invest their identities and desires. It presents more recent work that emphasizes moving in the social, including network theory and “Social Movement 2.0” scholarship accounting for the global convergence of social media with activism since 2011. Finally, the article identifies directions for further research, underscoring how rhetoric and social movement scholars may address the driving question, “What moves the social?”
What Is Social Movement and How Does Communication Fit In?
“Social movement” is an interdisciplinary idea, inspiring work in “classical” humanities and social sciences (notably, sociology, psychology, political science, English, and history) as well as cross-disciplinary academic discourses (such as critical theory, environment studies, and identity-based fields, like gender and women’s studies). This richness is compounded by an array of approaches to studying social movement, including critical focus on language and image, participant observations of protests or activist collectives, surveys on the efficacy of advocates’ tactics, network analysis on the reach of activists’ social media use, and case studies on how social movements affect policy change. Given this panoply of theory and method—along with the diversity of tactics and ideologies articulated by social movement actors—the task of defining “social movement” is a tall order.
However, by following the changing definitions of “social movement” in representative rhetoric scholarship, we may better appreciate how scholars have prioritized different facets of social change, including moving communication from the margins to the center of scholarship. We note a general trend where early work emphasized the “noun” version of social movement as a thing (e.g., an activist collective) and later work emphasized the “verb” in social movement (focusing on the process or actions affecting change) (Chávez, 2011). The choice to feature the noun or verb—“a social movement” or “social movement”—has profound effects on how we view rhetoric and the power of people to effect change in their world.
The Noun Story: “A Social Movement” Uses Rhetoric to Make Change
The first basic scholarly account of social change assumes that a collective agent uses rhetoric to achieve its aims. It suggests that the success or failure of “a social movement” is often measured through a movement’s ability to look and act like an institution (notably, government) and/or to use communication in ways that other movements have “effectively” done so. Scholarship has created typologies for reformist, revolutionary, and reactionary movements, for example, with tactical styles to match. A reformist leader, for instance, may appeal to the common sense of a community, and speak civilly, in order to promote change within the confines of the present system.
Rhetoric allows a social movement to resolve ideological contradictions that accompany large-scale, complex efforts, as they attempt to achieve change through the force of words, not the force of arms. The animal rights movement, for instance, presents a conundrum, where sensate beings who cannot speak for themselves cannot agitate for themselves in the public sphere (Black, 2003). So People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) activists may appeal to a living being’s rights to live, healthy living conditions that promote flourishing, or even the morality of audiences as PETA builds a movement to address conditions for chickens in concentrated animal feeding operations. Rhetoric allows a movement (as a noun) to achieve its goals by helping assuage contradictions.
Leland Griffin (1952, p. 185) inspired rhetoric scholars to follow “the pattern of public discussion, the configuration of discourse, the physiognomy of persuasion” peculiar to historical movements. Griffin defines historical movement loosely as “a sustained process of social inference” (1952, p. 185) that occurs “at some time in the past” (p. 184) when people “have become dissatisfied with some aspect of their environment” and “desire change—social, economic, political, religious, intellectual, or otherwise” and thus attempt to make it. Griffin directs critics to study multiple orators and audiences in a rhetorical situation (compared to, say, a great public address like Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom). However, Griffin’s early work definitively treats movements as nouns, as he invites students to follow them from inception, through crisis, and consummation and evaluate a movement’s success or failure in responding to urgent problems.
Griffin’s encouragement for scholars to classify communication and the movements that it serves would be taken up by Simons (1970, p. 3), who defined a social movement as “an uninstitutionalized collectivity that mobilizes for action to implement a program for the reconstitution of social norms or values.” Clearly reflecting sociological theory, Simons distinguishes social movements “from panics, crazes, booms, fads, and hostile outbursts, as well as from the actions of recognized labor unions, government agencies, business organizations, and other institutionalized decision-making bodies” (1970, p. 3). So not only is a social movement a “thing,” per Simons’s perspective, it is an “outsider” relative to the other collective formations. Movements are neither civilized groupings that hold more resources (like government and business) nor temporary manifestations of violence and/or frivolity (like mobs and/or stadium concerts).
Eltantawy and Wiest (2011) illustrate a resource mobilization view of rhetoric and social movement in the 2011 Egyptian protests that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian government. As they summarize, social media quickly transmitted information about the protests, helping coordinate peoples’ movements to protest centers. Additionally, messages of “encouragement and sympathy” as well as pride “inspired and boosted Egyptian protestors, who were linked not only to each other, but also to Tunisian protestors, Egyptians abroad, and the outside world” (Eltantawy & Wiest, 2011, p. 1218). A social movement thus uses rhetoric to mobilize assets (e.g., people) toward an end goal.
Early resource mobilization perspectives defined movements as well organized, with clear leaders who represent (stand in for and speak as) the collective (Simons, 1970). A savvy leader is able to command the ship, facing the problems and meeting the requirements to achieve social change, with good communication strategies. Likewise, Stewart (1980) encourages a typology not only of movements and their leaders (e.g., as reformist or revolutionary) but also of the persistent functions that communication performs for them. For example, rhetoric permits movements to “alter audience perceptions of the past, the present, and the future, to convince them that an intolerable situation exists and demands urgent action” (Stewart, 1980, p. 155). Rhetoric scholars thus provided an answer to the question asked by sociological theory: How do individuals work together to change laws, working conditions, representations of themselves in art and culture, and on? The answer is through the art of public persuasion, as evident in out-group efforts over time.
Troubling the Noun Story: Feminisms, Dramatism, and Movement-as-Meaning
In the late 1960s through the 1980s, complex activism undermined the idea that “a woman’s movement” existed as a finished, unified agent making use of rhetoric to achieve its goals (McKerrow, 2017). Rather, women’s movements began forcing activists and academics alike to reckon with preconceived ideas about social change, all the while responding to oppression. Women famously rejected the sexism apparent in some activist circles, demanding to be equal partners in organizing (rather than have their contributions reduced to secretarial work like making coffee). Feminists (particularly from white, middle- and upper-class standpoints) also developed their own methods of organizing, like consciousness-raising, in ways that challenged the leader-centered bias of earlier scholarship (Campbell, 1973). Women-of-color feminists, including queer and lesbian-identified individuals, pushed the need for an intersectional consciousness. Demanding the recognition of overlapping systems of domination, figures like Audre Lorde challenged white feminists in particular to define and practice emancipation without replicating racism, classism, and heterosexism.
Additionally, the counterculture of the 1960s and radical protests of the 1970s challenged the basis of reasonability (if not rationality) at the heart of functionalist theories of social movement, suggesting that if movements were things (nouns), they did not need to communicate like in-groups in order to achieve effects. Tactics including sit-ins, love-ins, the Black Panthers’ gun-toting protest at the California state assembly, and the “No More Miss America!” protest of 1968 flaunted how unruly bodies could occupy public space, taunting the “normal” order and performing public life differently. Such tactics certainly captured journalists’ attention, thus meeting the requirement of spreading a movement’s message throughout civil society. But the excessive qualities and possible effects of such actions demanded other definitions of social movement to help account for what made them compelling—definitions that would begin featuring moving in the social, more than “a social movement’s” use of rhetoric.
Describing the dramatic qualities of protests of the late 1960s, Griffin remarked that “to study a movement is to study a progress, a rhetorical striving” (1969, p. 461), most evident in dialectical confrontations between friends and enemies. Following rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke, some scholars thus suggested that social movement reflected a grand drama rooted in language (and, thus, human nature itself). A lack of alignment between a community’s perceptions of itself and the larger status quo thought to represent it motivated community members “to rise up and cry No to the existing order” (Griffin, 1969, p. 460).
Such theories encouraged scholars to follow protesters’ transformation (e.g., from being the object of abuse to actors who define themselves and their identities). However, these theories also reflected an academic compulsion to offer a universal theory, which threatened to erase the particularities of bodies in struggle. So Black Power activists’ inventive responses to racist policing, housing, and education were overshadowed (or even erased) by the use of their struggle to illustrate confrontation as endemic to the human condition. Additionally, the dialectical confrontation between protesters and a status quo appears remarkably similar to the clash imagined in functionalist theories, whereby two nouns (institutions and out-groups) battle each other rhetorically for dominance.
McGee (1980) infamously critiqued the noun version of social movements by labeling them as phenomena—beings whose empirical existence is given prior to any ascription of meaning, things that are experienced directly by witnesses, as in a horse trotting on the seashore. To treat a march, marchers, the chants they shout, the signage they carry, the tweets or photos they exchange, or even newspaper articles written about them, as representative of “a movement;” and then classify how such communication serves “a movement” in achieving its goals; misses the point. “Movement,” writes McGee, “is an analogue comparing the flow of social facts to physical data controlled less by what happens in the real world than by what a particular user of the analogue wants to see in the real world” (1980, p. 237). Rather than “ticket[ing] and label[ing]” movements (McKerrow, 2017, p. 30), as functionalist theory would have us do, McGee (1980, p. 242) suggests that different definitions betray our desires for order, change, even “human significance” itself.
While McGee’s deconstruction of “social movement” helpfully displaces the phenomenon of an out-group as the prevailing definition, the alternatives he provides are less clear. If we are not to treat movements as things preceding and making use of communication to achieve (more or less) prescribed ends, how are we to define them? And if not only an instrumental tool in the hands of people trying to achieve social change, then what is rhetoric’s relationship to social movement?
Scholars have, in some respects, deferred these questions by proliferating a number of new terms (e.g., counterpublics, resistance) instead of relating their work to definitions of “social movement” (Foust, 2017). Influenced by women of color feminism, queer theory, and post-colonial work, some rhetoric and movement scholarship reflects identity-based movements beginning in the 1980s. It focuses on smaller-scale contributions, eschewing the universalizing tendencies of “social movement” theory, while honoring the specific identity standpoints of activists (Foust, 2017). While the answers to the question of what moves the social remain to be written, at least two productive possibilities have developed since 1980: treating social movement as a fictitious, but nonetheless significant, noun and embracing movement more as verb in analyzing social change.
Moving Away From Functionalism: Movement as Fiction
Departing from resource mobilization and functionalist theory, a second major account of social change treats movements as fictions—collective subjects that do not empirically exist but are still consequential because people identify with them and coordinate meaning-making through their terms (Foust & Simon, 2015). “Social movement” is both process and product here, both the coordination of meaning-making and identification.
To conceive of movements as fictions subverts the dichotomy of phenomenon and meaning, suggesting that phenomena do not exist outside of meaning—or, that phenomena without meaning are not nearly as interesting. To take an analogy, consider unicorns. While a few adults may believe in the empirical existence of unicorns, for most of us unicorns as phenomena matter much less than what the horned horses represent, what they inspire, what they do within discourse. Are unicorns no less significant if they are not “real”? Similarly, treating movements as necessary fictions allows us to pragmatically avoid definitional debates that mired social movement work from the mid-1980s on (Mitchell, 2004). Rather than creating typologies by which to classify, differentiate, and, ultimately, predict and control the unicorn’s (or, the movement’s) existence; we follow the fiction where it might lead, in changes of meanings, identities, consciousness, etc. The empirical existence of a unicorn did not precede our naming of the being, but the ability to claim its presence (in mythology, our hearts and minds, in art, in memes, perhaps even in politics) is a powerful effect of rhetoric.
Nonetheless, treating movements as fictions retains their noun stature and thus shares some commonality with functionalist theories. For instance, both approaches attend to how individuals participating in “a movement” accept terminology related to this fictitious collective to describe their actions and define themselves. However, defining movements as fictions acknowledges the becoming that preceded (and will continue past) the “being” and the ephemeral qualities of the “being” in question. Further, defining movement as a fiction does not limit the potential uses (or effects) of communication to a movement’s out-group status. Instead, scholars describe rhetorical processes that inspire people to materialize a “movement’s” presence by identifying their bodies, their selves, through its terms, with profound changes possible.
For instance, many of the millions of people marching in cities throughout the United States on January 21, 2017, might have identified as feminist or part of women’s movements. Some analysts suggested the marches failed to achieve lasting effects, but as the seasons turned, it is clear that the marchers’ righteous anger, visibility, and women-led demands for institutional accountability helped inspire the #MeToo social media event that is still unfolding as of this writing. Activist Tarana Burke created the catchphrase to enable women of color who survived sexual violence to connect with each other for support and healing. In the wake of women’s testimonies implicating Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, in sexual harassment, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a friend’s posting, calling on women who had survived sexual assault, abuse, and/or harassment to simply identify as such by posting #MeToo to their social media accounts. With Facebook and Twitter feeds flooding with #MeToo messages, over 97 public figures (as of this writing) have been accused of sexual misconduct, leading to firings and resignations in media and government (Cooney, 2017). Notably, many journalists and Tarana Burke herself append “movement” to the catchphrase, demonstrating the significance people place in identifying a process-turned-product or being-in-becoming.
Memories of movements (or protests) past further illustrate how “movements” provide points of identification, as spirits whose dynamic presence is felt and described (Kang, 2012). Further, these spirits haunt contemporary political struggle, as collective “friends” vie against “enemies” for the power to remember past movements and/or rely on other fictions to help build their own. As Kearl (2015) demonstrates, advocates may rely on analogies between their contemporary struggles and “past” movements, sometimes in ways that reify oppressive discourses and marginalization. For example, advocates opposed California’s Proposition 8, a bill designed to prevent same-sex marriage, by relying on the analogy (as quoted in The Advocate) that “Gay is the New Black” (Kearl, 2015, p. 63). By analogizing same-sex marriage as equal to the American civil rights movement, opponents of Proposition 8 made racial discrimination seem like a relic of the past, and they ignored the priorities and presence of LBGTQI black and Latinx communities. Kearl (2015) recognizes the importance of an intersectional consciousness in advancing LGBTQ justice, one that does not embrace the seeming short-term effectiveness of building same-sex marriage rights by appealing to whiteness.
Importantly, to name movements as fictions is not to diminish their material consequences—particularly with the convergence of white supremacy and anti-intellectual populism in some conservative movements. As Cloud (2009, p. 461) demonstrates, enemy-creation through foiling threatens psychic and physical violence: “words can make foils that establish a sense of identity by warping and flattening the features of another.” Stirred by waves of right-wing activism, the hate mailers in her article constituted themselves as “patriots and men of the people” by foiling her as a “fraudulent intellectual,” a “national traitor,” and a “gender/sex traitor” (Cloud, 2009, p. 461). Rhetorical criticism sheds light on the continued dehumanization that some movements use to build their own collectives.
While post-race, post-feminist, and other contemporary ideologies assert that mainstream US culture is “beyond” racism, past the need for feminism or recognition of other historically situated identities, Squires et al. (2010) assert the need for critics to connect contemporary oppression to exploitative systems that have been ongoing for centuries. As Watts (2010, p. 215) reminds us, “there are plenty of ‘fictions’ that structure our subjectivities and social relations that are quite stubborn,” regardless of whether or not we consider them as part of our progressive present. Identity standpoints like race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability offer a critical vocabulary through which we may understand how significant fictions are created and maintained, for worse (in the case of foiling) but also for better.
Here, scholars of social movement consider how marginalized communities reclaim the meaning of their identities outside the oppressive terms of dominance and with effects that reverberate beyond themselves. For instance, Latinx immigrants asserted their public presence as active democratic citizens whose identity matters. As Cisneros (2011, p. 34) describes, protests against restrictive immigration legislation, centering in Los Angeles in 2005, creatively combined the immigrant mythos of the United States with Mexican resistance, through chants such as “La Tierra Es De Quen La Trabaja (The land belongs to those who work in it!). No H.R. 4437!” This chant hearkens activism from Emile Zapata and the Zapatistas of Mexico while asserting the right of those proclaiming it on the streets to be present (regardless of documentation status). Rhetoric thus invites immigrants to identify and perform as US citizens, constituting not only a powerful fiction in the form of immigrant pride but also in reworking the fiction of “US citizens.” Cisneros’s analysis of a hybrid citizenship contrasts significantly to the “patriots” who constitute themselves through foiling, with the former refiguring citizenship as an active, public, collective assertion of brown bodies working together for mutual aid (and not simply an exclusionary fortification of whiteness).
Other recent work features movements as fictions circulating within new media. Social Movement 2.0 literature explores social movement and Web 2.0 platforms (like Facebook and Twitter), following the 2011 and 2012 protests that captured the public’s imagination, from the Arab Spring, Europe, and the United States. Building on the work of Italian sociologist Alberto Melucci (particularly his theory of collective identity), media studies scholars suggest that people come to see and express who they are through the terms circulating around “a movement.” Collective identity building occurs dialectically, as “a movement” clashes with those whom it is not, connecting Melucci’s work with the dramatistic perspective described above. Web 2.0 platforms spread stories and the friend-versus-enemy clashes structuring them: “The ubiquity of digital media allows ‘a movement’ to seem even more like it exists, as it manifests repeatedly on smartphones, tablets, and laptops across the world” (Foust & Drazner Hoyt, 2018, p. 5). While some question the staying power of “slacktivism,” media ecology scholars note that online activism rarely, if ever, occurs in isolation of offline advocacy. Collective identity theory allows us to consider Social Movement 2.0 always in context, rather than giving in to utopian or dystopian views of technology as the basis for claiming a “movement’s” effects. In sum, to define social movement as a fiction suggests that rhetoric creates a being to which we may attach our identities and desires, with which individuals may identify, that continues to affect change in the world. Other recent approaches attempt to move past beings, highlighting becoming more.
Featuring the Verb/Moving the Social
In denouncing phenomenal movements, scholars have advocated that our work move beyond the preoccupation with classification, particularly typologies defined by stationary subjects (as in “institutions versus out-groups,” “civil society against the state,” or, perhaps most radically, “friends-against-enemies”). Alternatively, for instance, Sillars (1980, p. 19) defined “a movement” as “some combination of events occurring over time which can be linked in such a way that the critic can make a case for treating them as a single unit.” This avoided the harmful reductions accompanying traditional theories that stress the noun, which are already familiar to us in our tour of resource mobilization and functional theories: imposing linearity, relying on cause-effect and intentional frameworks for explaining movements and rhetoric’s place in them, and “prescrib[ing] excessively rigid definitions of the phenomena they study” (Sillars, 1980, p. 19).
McGee (1980, p. 238) suggests that social scientific definitions of movements as phenomena distracts from a more productive aporia endemic to Western philosophy, and at the heart of the scholarly preoccupation with social movement: “what ‘moves’ in history—the material things which are our physical environment or the human ideas which mediate and interpret the facts of our experience?” We could expand the materialism-idealism dialectic to include not only the “stuff” of nature but also the structural world we find ourselves thrown into—prevailing relations of production, of power, those practices and terms (discourses) that have accreted over time, which come to constrain our ability to act. We could nuance idealism to include the power of public symbols, art, invention, emotion and affect, which unsettles, corrodes, or even transforms materiality.
What moves the social? The workers taking over the factory and controlling their own labor, expunging owners and building cars themselves? The factory worker who steals parts off the line, “one piece at a time,” as Johnny Cash sang, and builds a car at home over the course of decades? The cyclists who organize “critical mass” rides that jam traffic downtown, interrupting car culture for an hour on a Tuesday? The possibilities inspired by this thought experiment, of course, exceed these brief examples and may lead our inner materialist and/or idealist to protest. Though this debate is, in some ways, reductively futile, it might produce more vibrancy than classifying “a social movement’s” work, as if “it” existed in predictable, controllable ways.
DeLuca (1999, p. 26) notes that sociologists fled phenomenal definitions of movement with the rise in “new social movements” that are more concerned with issues of culture and symbolic production (than a traditional focus on the means of production) and “resist formal modes of organization (unions and parties) and instead create networks of grassroots groups lacking hierarchy and much in the way of resources.” As environmental protests, feminism’s “third wave,” and lesbian, gay, and queer activism of the 1980s through the 2000s underscores, networks agitating for change often do so by eschewing the prescriptions for a “social movement’s” success. As the radical environmental network, EarthFirst!, illustrates, many new social movements flaunted movement as a verb to avoid the trappings of becoming managerial, institutional, and part of the status quo—the very facets of resource mobilization that suggested a “movement’s” ability to succeed. Instead, EarthFirst! practices direct action that both immediately stops business as usual (e.g., violence against the natural world) and offers a “mind bomb” that interrupts typical meanings about the world. In one compelling example, DeLuca (1999) introduces an activist who buries his body in the middle of a dirt forest road, exposing only his head. He thus blocks the path of logging trucks, delaying deforestation. Further, the activist has put his life on the line for the trees’ lives, forcing a revaluation of trees as simply resources available for humans to take and throw away. Conceptually, then, rhetoric provides an ability to articulate—that is, to both “speak forth” and pull together different “elements” (DeLuca, 1999, p. 38)—allowing people to create meanings through language, visual images, even the body and thus move realities for themselves and others.
Work attuned to moving may be smaller or moderate in scale, focused on tactics. For example, Morris and Sloop (2006) position man-on-man public kissing as a queer juggernaut whose potential for moving the social had yet to be fully realized. While Hollywood has “variously domesticated” queer kissing by inserting it into “quaint romantic but non-sexual plotting” or by featuring it as a joke (Morris & Sloop, 2006, p. 7), Morris and Sloop revisit activist art that flaunted the act’s potent political performance. Morris and Sloop (2006, p. 19) conclude that man-on-man public kissing may upend “heteronormative intimacy” and create or perform counterintimacy, an “exchange of inwardness” derived from and validating queer experience (quoting Berlant & Warner, 1998, p. 325). The authors also acknowledge the importance of an intersectional consciousness in imagining “kissing’s queer futurity, unaddressed in our earlier essay” (Morris & Sloop, 2017, p. 184). Following the violence wrought at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in the summer of 2016, Morris and Sloop (2017, p. 184) center “brown bodies in pleasurable excess affectively interconnected, who in their racial and ethnic specificity were subsequently and unsurprisingly erased in large measure by mainstream public discourse.” Featuring the verb form of movement does not necessitate erasing identities to build its promise, and, indeed, the identities marking bodies in resistance may amplify their movement.
Studying movement as a verb also involves larger-scale studies following the circulation of communication, often outside prescribed noun terms (e.g., the people vs. the state). Recent developments in media studies are helpful here, as Social Movement 2.0 scholars track movement through network theory (Foust & Drazner Hoyt, 2018). Castells (2012) characterizes networks as “a new species of social movements,” building upon Web 2.0 platforms (like Facebook and Twitter) as “the fastest and most autonomous, interactive, reprogrammable and self-expanding means of communication in history” (Fuchs, 2012, p. 779). Network theory may define social movement as the horizontal spreading of information, structured by pathways and aggregating in nodes, with the “capacity to circulate data and/or to spread and structure information” as “key features of the network’s effects” (Foust & Drazner Hoyt, 2018, p. 7). The sheer spreading of symbolic action evidences the work of communication, as hashtags transform into protest (like #BlackLivesMatter) or profile pictures constitute and spread protest simultaneously (e.g., Facebook users wearing hoodies in protest of anti-black violence).
The task of critics who analyze movement as verb is to make a case for movement as apparent in the social. The effects of forces, the presence of movement, can be challenging to define, as in the moon’s gravitational force, which appears most readily in effects on ocean waves. Tidal ebbs and flows, white caps or stagnations, evidence force through movement, and though these patterns can become predictable, getting to know them is as much an art as science. Samek (2017, p. 210) encourages us to consider “physical movement, meaning, and experience” as we analyze moving, including how people, ideas, and things physically move; what connotations and articulations are attached to practices of moving; and how people feel and sense movement. Additionally, Samek encourages us to attend to friction and mobility, as facets of movement that demonstrate political saliency. After all, what is resistance but the imposition of a force on another force, whether this imposition results in slight wear and tear, drag, or more significant effects?
An important task of rhetoric here is to bear witness to friction, to bear witness to movement, and perpetuate (perhaps even amplify) movement in new contexts. Students of social movement may witness change and describe it compellingly for their readers, considering potentiality and effects: “a wealth of possible outcomes, ranging from the revolutionary to the quotidian practices of daily life; the alteration of material conditions to the recognition of subaltern identities; or changes in policy to transformations in consciousness” (Pason et al., 2017, p. 15). Pezzullo (2001), for example, bears witness to how critical interruptions literally and figuratively create friction with dominance, as black activists lay themselves down on roads in Warren County, North Carolina, to prevent the state’s ability to dump toxic soil near their homes and perpetuate environmental racism. Similarly, by refusing to state the actual distance of their homes to the proposed landfill—responding for the public record, instead, that she lived “too close” (Pezzullo, 2001, p. 11)—one resident stalled the ability of the state to manage her within its technical expertise. Regardless of whether or not these critical interruptions serve functions for “a social movement,” or even constitute a collective identity or fiction, Pezzullo stakes claim to their effects for slowing the state’s ability to dump nearby, help other poor communities and communities of color respond to environmental racism, and add to a repertoire of responses building environmental justice. Pezzullo also reminds us how painfully long and taxing the struggle for justice is, where activists and allies must continue to create friction over decades to see results.
Moreover, featuring the verb form of movement encourages us to dwell in the complexities we might ignore by focusing attention on being—the forces that exceed naming, the becomings and affects that swirl around us all the time. Here, scholars narrow the scope of their analyses to feature a finer-grained lens on daily life and affects. For instance, Enck-Wanzer (2011) illustrates how some residents in East Harlem “make do” and resist tactically in everyday life through the means available to them, most notably, through their identity as Nuyoricans. By flying a Puerto Rican flag (la bandera), displaying a Virgin Mary statue or mural, or gardening in formerly vacant lots, the Nuyoricans enact complex identities both resistant (particularly to the gentrifying city that seeks to privatize and commodify all space to appeal to wealthy whites) and commodifying (such as consuming, uncritically, a Puerto Rican identity through la bandera merchandise). Similarly, Rand (2012, p. 77) revisits the affective archive of HIV/AIDS and queer activist collective, ACT UP, noting that the group organized around “feelings of fear, desperation, and isolation” as well as “collectivity and support.” Defying commonplace gay pride or shame discourses, the movements of affect discourage simple identifications or memories of friends and enemies, problematizing the noun (and perhaps even fiction) form of movement.
In summary, rhetoric scholars have come to emphasize the movement over “a social movement” in nearly eight decades of study, even as they have come to expand communication’s potential to move the social, at least outside the narrow “problems, requirements, and strategies” leaders were presumed to have to follow. Scholars have offered many different answers to the question of what moves the social, suggesting with sociologists that out-groups function like institutions, changing policies through persuasion. They have also been drawn to how humans invest themselves and their identities in a powerful fiction, “a social movement” that allows them to feel part of something greater than themselves. Through articulating shared commitments, individuals realize and perform a different consciousness—and whether or not we believe that a unicorn could move the social, the sheer belief in that unicorn changes the thinking and practicing of individuals touched by it. Finally, scholars suggest that the sheer circulation of discourse across pathways and nodes shows a tidal force. The growth and spread of a network evidences that the social is moving, in some ways, bringing us full circle to Griffin’s encouragement that students of movement follow a “change in the pattern of public discussion.” Trusting that such changes in talk accompany or perhaps precede changes in action, scholars trace movement to help realize its potential. We consider now in more detail the future directions that communication scholars may take in studying social movement.
Directions for Future Research
Theorizing and Researching Outside Western-Centrism
Future articulations should expand beyond Western terrain to include international and multicultural contexts, theories, and methods of social change. Where past social movement inquiry has adopted a Eurocentric understanding of agential tactics and what makes a social movement successful (i.e., were the predetermined goals met?), future scholarship should consider diverse standpoints and their influence on effects and goals. Aboubakr (2013) marks this consideration as it applies to the transformation of traditional media to contemporary online material. Through the technological recording and display of what was once solely immediate media (e.g., graffiti and street performances), wider populations are able to access information for the purpose of political mobilization. According to Aboubakr (2013), this contemporary mode of reproduction allows for the formation of a collective identity with participants who do not have access to traditional spaces and modes of persuasion due, for example, to poverty or illiteracy. New media dismantles traditional hierarchies, as participants can adopt the role of producer, recording and framing material that might move the social. Here, a consideration of location, culture, and accessibility provides a richer understanding of movement approaches and strategies. The necessity to center more non-Western movements and theories, however, is not a consideration that solely applies to an international landscape. Within the United States, social movement scholarship should reflect the diversity of identity standpoints and the material experiences of low-income people of color.
Social Movement 2.0 work underscores the importance of considering historic relations of oppression and material identity standpoints in the context of evaluating social change (Foust & Drazner Hoyt, 2018). Physical protests do not always represent an accurate count of bodies or who is called to action. Likewise, dismissing digital networking on the basis of technodystopian ideologies (that privilege physical presence) may exclude those already on the margins from attributions of agency and movement. Bodies who are not afforded “physical or economic safety,” for example, can be implicated through the digital recreation of events and can enact resistance in ways that ensure their safety and well-being (Foust & Drazner Hoyt, 2018, p. 15). The 2017 rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program illustrates that considering the situatedness of actors not only informs how bodies are affected but also provides a fuller understanding of efficacy—where “success” cannot be reduced to numerical presence. While a few brave actors outed their documentation status, many who could not take the risk were able to access marches, protests, and performances (such as the “Defend DACA” butterfly display at a National Basketball Association game half-time) in alternative media. Social movement theory should be careful to apply contextual influences rather than reduce material to Western notions of effectiveness and persuasion, including the functions that a “social movement” should or must meet (Frangonikolopoulos & Chapsos, 2012). Theories of social change must reflect the diversity of identity standpoints and material experiences of various communities and not simply late capitalist democracies like the United States.
A Humanistic Approach
Where the study of social movements has been disproportionately reliant on social scientific models of predictability, a humanistic focus allows researchers to acknowledge the fluidity and diversity of social movement and rhetoric. We strongly advocate for the power of humanistic, critical methods to amplify social movement. For instance, Enck-Wanzer’s (2006) work on the New York Young Lords garbage offensive describes the inventive rhetoric Puerto Rican communities had to employ to protest inequitable sanitation practices. Where traditional forms of persuasion, such as public speeches, were not accessible for cultural, political, and geographic reasons, diverse discursive forms had to be employed to effect change. In this case, after suffering from city officials’ lack of attention, the Young Lords built (and eventually ignited) massive trash barricades that blocked traffic. Unlike traditional protests, the execution of a fiery demonstration could not be ignored. While traditional movement theory may chastise the Young Lords for their incivility, substantive limitations to traditional modes of advocacy led them to creatively and effectively layer rhetorical forms (e.g., embodied, material, verbal, and narrative). A humanistic approach leaves phenomena open to the inventive rhetoric of communities who do not have access to traditional modes of efficacy.
Additionally, centering humanistic criticism highlights how diverse social movements, although unique, can be interconnected. Here, students of social movement may trade predictive markers for deeper understanding of contextual influences that shape and draw together struggles. For instance, at the 2017 Women’s March, diverse collectives (black feminists, prison abolitionists, and gender–non-conforming groups, to name a few) could attend the initiative under the collective protest against Donald Trump. A humanist perspective remains simultaneously open to the advocacy of each group, and how it shaped their style and approach, while also marking attributes of commonality among the groups via their collective presence at the Women’s March. A negation of predetermined means of advocacy allows researchers to acknowledge the complex and multifaceted nature of agential tactics. As social movement inquiry persists, our knowledge creation must reflect the contextual nature of social movements whereby scholars flatten their authority and move beyond homogeneous accounts of collective organization. Instead researchers should be careful to function as translators of what worked well, what didn’t, and how tactics are representative of our historic moment (e.g., the need for Women’s March organizers to avoid transexclusionary practices).
Rhetoric as Art
Finally, we encourage scholars to move beyond prescribed ends, or a reductive view of instrumentality. Where rhetoric can continue to be used instrumentally to make change, it cannot operate within the user’s exact control. The 2015 University of Missouri protests reflect this consideration as the campus community protested the administration’s insufficient response to a hostile racial climate. Through student-led sit-ins, hunger strikes, and a football boycott (to name a few tactics), the community attracted international attention and solidarity through rhetorical efforts that were not ordained well in advance of the struggle as it unfolded. The hashtags #InSolidarityWithMizzou and #ConcernedStudent1950—the latter representative of the year Mizzou admitted its first black student—went viral across social media, inspiring demonstrations of support from universities across the United States. Further, where the mass protesting at the university and across the country led toward the eventual ouster of then-President Tim Wolfe, the acts prompted campus communities to make demands of their own universities, calling for institutional changes and other university-specific protests (see Johnson, 2017). Where other universities may not have achieved the institutional change Mizzou accomplished, protests brought attention to the persistence of racial inequality in higher education and the transformative potentiality of determined individuals. As social movement inquiry persists, students of social movement would do well to consider the instrumental capacities of rhetoric outside a “checklist” approach, where users employ communication in service to narrow predetermined ends (e.g., “attracting the attention of the press”). Instead researchers may follow the twists and turns of activists responding to the contingencies of their movements, returning to the roots of rhetoric as an art and practical tool in the hands of people who have intentions, but who are not under any illusion that their communication will end in predictable ways.
To return to rhetoric’s artistic capacities may also amplify the agency of marginal populations, or those inhabiting multiple identity standpoints, who use rhetoric instrumentally—if not in ways that check the boxes of social movement theories. Girl-of-color activists, for example, face considerable obstacles relative to age, race, gender, and class that shape their social movement efficacy and communicative tactics, but they persist in promoting personal change as well as institutional changes. The advocacy of The Radical Monarchs, a social justice–oriented organization from Oakland, California, illustrates the artistic capacities of communication as girls are taught a decolonizing curriculum that inspires identification and resistance. Here, personal transformation via a social justice–oriented education functions as an artistic strategy that can then be used in service of transforming communities. A consideration of the artistic capabilities of rhetoric will allow researchers to more acutely understand nuanced social movement strategies that do not re-create colonial means of achieving change.
Moving From the Past to the Future of Social Movement
In this article we have considered the theoretical development of social movement scholarship in rhetoric. We have focused on moments of convergence and departure around the questions: What moves the social? and What is communication’s relationship to social change? We first traced the account of social movements as nouns whereby collectives operate similarly to organizations. Here, communication is viewed as operating in service to the limited aims of the group, where groups are typically hierarchical, led by clear figureheads, and clearly successful or failing in achieving goals. The limitations of this perception of social movement was then challenged by activism of the 1960s to the 1980s, as well as scholars such as McGee (1980), who argued that reducing movements to phenomena promoted functional predictability at the expense of other possibilities. Rather than reduce social movements to simple indicators of presence or success, scholars moved toward regarding movements as necessary fictions—entities that do not empirically exist but nonetheless are significant. As illustrated through Social Movement 2.0, “social movements” dissemination enables meaning-making and identification that have resounding impacts. Finally, we discussed a move to considering social movements as verbs, processes always occurring and in flux. This move avoids reductive perceptions of movements as entities that can be controlled, instead emphasizing the movement over a “social movement.” We concluded with directions to continue allowing this diverse area of inquiry to grow, advancing an interdisciplinary conversation on social movement. Though the study of social movements is political, as Tilly claimed, we believe that accepting a critical, humanistic approach positions communication scholars as translators who may help amplify their movements’ meanings. By honoring movement in its various grammatical forms—as noun, verb-stalled-as-noun, and verb—we hope to encourage scholars to use their work to find social justice across different discourses, identities, and exigencies. For in the practice and teaching of social movement, we hope to inspire the belief that another world is possible and work to create it.
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