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Questioning Methods of Studying Social Movements

Admittedly, the Stewart book has been more of a challenge to conquer than I initially thought because I am frustrated over the “method� of Stewart et al’s approach to social movements. It is telling that the title of the book is Persuasion and social movements, and the method does indicate that this book is not a study of social movements for their own sake, but seemingly a study of persuasion where social movement rhetoric just happens to be (conveniently perhaps) the object of study. Let me explain my argument and the limitations that I see apparent in this view of social movements, but before I begin let me acknowledge that I am generalizing the book as a whole and recognize some of my critique might be slightly unfair and obviously there are exceptions to everything that I am saying. That said, there are some highlights in the book and there are things that can be learned and should be retained for the study of our own movements, however, I do want to show that their approach has some important limitations that we should not leave unquestioned.

1. In looking at the bibliography (and assumingly the “sources� from which they use their inductive reasoning skills to create categories for their various chapter topics (does this seem like a social science qualitative study to anyone else?), it is clear that they pulled nearly all communication articles that remotely looked at “social movements.� Their “sample� then is mostly rhetorical criticism (analyzing texts/public addresses, etc.) which is looking at persuasion, arguments, interaction of members solely. This is problematic since what this book is really based upon is what social movements do with their rhetoric through what communication scholars perceive them doing through their analysis of the texts (kinda like basing a theory off of mostly secondary sources instead of primary texts?). This is not to say that the discourse and rhetoric of social movements is not worthy of study (and you can tell spots in the book where the authors are referencing their own work where they did look at the primary texts), but that it does limit us to what we can know of social movements when their discourse is treated the same as any other public address text. Yes, it is important for us to understand, for example, why obscenity can be effective and have impact (or limit a movement), but perhaps only in so far as we consider other contextual elements to that discourse or individual speech act. Arguably, the rhetoric and conditions that Stokely Carmichael was speaking in is not the same as a President of the United States.

2. Continuing from the first point, not every communication/rhetorical concept can be or perhaps should be applied to social movement texts. Again, perhaps this is my read, but the book itself (in places) does not come across as an organic version of what actually happens in social movements, but rather a specific movement example becomes a convenient place to evoke McGee’s ideograph or return for the 100th time to Gregg’s concept of ego-function. Surely, what is happening for the Gray Panthers is not the same as the Black Panthers just because we see some similarities in their songs or texts AND it happens to make a nice fit to give homage to some other communication theory. Not only are we missing the nuances of McGee, Gregg, etc. when they are casually mentioned in the text, but again, it limits our “movements� to only being validated when we can attach a communication scholar to their work.

3. This approach is unsatisfying for me (if this is not apparent) because I think that social movements are more than the sum of their discourse (esp. if “discourse� is limited to the texts, songs, talk, and actions). Although we do get a hint that social movements might be more complex than an argument in some chapters (Chp. 14 with Resisting Social Movements for example), a majority of the book remains in categorizing the arguments and text. It does not indicate relations of power, the individuals themselves (their rhetorical choices are probably a function of life experiences just as much as “strategy�), or the outcome the movement might actually intend with their action. Again, the categories of Stewart et al assume that all social movement rhetoric should be for some progressive goal of the group, that it can function either for protesters’ ego, for legitimacy of the movement, to ask for action or to vilify or frame their opposition—and conveniently songs, obscenity, and arguments all can do this. In trying to maintain and privilege the type of discourse, we lose a lot of who gets to speak, why they are speaking in this way, and what situational factors have conspired to bring this about. For example, can we understand the songs of slaves only as “requesting action� when the reasons for song to be the chosen method was for 1) safety, 2) norm for the community to sing while working anyway, and 3) a means to communicate when most were not literate (and songs would be easy to remember than verbal directions anyway?). Surely we can make more generalization with the appropriations of such songs in the present (with a free, literate, physically unthreatened protest group), but how can Stewart et al casually lump the songs of slaves and the IWW (who were also working against a working force of immigrants which didn’t all speak the same language), with the educated and financially more secure Gray Panthers?

As a means to sum up: I think that the method of Stewart et al is problematic because it tries to simplify and make generalizations of social movements using studies based (mostly) in the rhetorical criticism of some social movement texts. Social movements, for me, should be considered more individually since they are more complex and each movement does work within the constraints of its own actors, issues, and the social institutions they are working against. Although movements should be and can be compared to one another (esp. if there is appropriation of tactics or recognition that members of one movement overlap or start other movements), we should not assume that all movements can, should, or do use the same strategies for the same reasons (which is somewhat implied in this book). We lose some of this complexity with Stewart et al’s assessment and method.

What should be retained for me, however, is that we do need to look at the arguments made, the songs and other non-argument discourse that makes up the movement (yes, the movement as a whole should be seen as a communicative and persuasive act), and should recognize the movement for its structure, leadership, and its various members and discourses. We should not be misled or satisfied, however, to allow social movements to be simplified into categories. In “learning� from this book, I think it is valuable to be asking all the questions of things left unsaid when our only means of understanding a social movement is through analysis of one text, song, or argument.