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Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements
By Francesca Polletta
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2001 Francesca Polletta
All right reserved.
Chapter One - Social Movements and the Focus of Emotional Attention
Social movements, when successful, are crescive, emergent phenomena. To understand the shape of their emergent and transient pathways across time, I will suggest we need to capture their emotional dynamics in a social attention space.
Let us start with an analogy. Imagine a city in which there are restaurants and cafes in different parts of town. Some of them are quiet, even painfully quiet, so that it feels uncomfortable to be the only customer in the place. Others are bustling with people. They are "where the action is." They are the places to go, not just to eat and drink, but to be on the scene, to feel the energy, to feel you are where things are happening. This center of attention tends to shift around; some establishments rise like stars, shine for a while, then fade again a few months later, replaced by someplace else.
Such phenomena can be analyzed by the now-familiar theory of the critical mass (Marwell and Oliver 1993). I will add two points: (1) The critical mass develops, and fades away, because of emotional dynamics. (2) Social movements operate inside a social attention space, which has room for onlya limited number of participants; hence there is an implicit struggle to position oneself within this attention space. This process largely determines victory or defeat, as well as whether a movement can get off the ground at all and how long it will remain important.
First, the emotional dynamic. At the center of every highly mobilized social movement is what Durkheim (1995 ) called "collective effervescence." This is the product of what Durkheim called "moral density" and what I would call "high ritual density." The ingredients are:
Corresponding to the extent that these ingredients are present, there are a series of consequences:
(1) Feelings of group solidarity.
A Durkheimian ritual operates by transforming emotions. The ritual process can start with any emotion, as long as it is shared or can spread within the group and become its implicit focus of attention. The key to the relative success or failure of collective mobilization is the degree to which such emotional transformation takes place.
There are two kinds of emotional transformation in collective rituals. One involves the amplification of the initiating emotion. If the initiating emotion is moral outrage, the collective focus of the group makes the feeling of outrage stronger. Similar processes unfold when the emotion is fear, pity for a victim, concern for one's selfish material interests, a sense of sinfulness and despair, anger against an enemy, or any of the variety of emotional experiences described in the following chapters.
The second kind of emotional transformation involves the transmutation of the initiating emotion into something else: the emotion which arises out of consciousness of being entrained within a collective focus of attention. This is the emotion which makes up solidarity, and which makes the individual feel stronger as a member of the group. I call this emotional energy. It is what Durkheim (1995 ) sometimes referred to as "moral force"; Mauss (1972 ) equated it with mana, the collectively transmitted social energies that in some tribal societies are interpreted as magic power. Tom Scheff (1990; Scheff and Retzinger 1991) has argued that the central emotion of strong social bonds is pride, and of damaged social ties is shame; I suggest these are the subjective, self-oriented interpretations of what in the collective aspect is emotional energy.
A successful social ritual operating in the collective gathering of a social movement is a process of transforming one emotion into another. The ritualized sharing of instigating or initiating emotions which brought individuals to the collective gathering in the first place (outrage, anger, fear, etc.) gives rise to distinctively collective emotions, the feelings of solidarity, enthusiasm, and morality which arise in group members' mutual awareness of their shared focus of attention. To some extent there is a catharsis of the initiating emotions; these might well be unpleasant or painful, but the group experience transmutes them so as to take off the painful edge. Cognitively, the original label of the emotional process still remains (and likely becomes even more articulate), but there is now a positive flow, the sense that what one is doing has a higher importance, even a magnetic quality.
There is a danger in this way of analyzing the emotional experience of highly mobilized movement participation. It may give the impression that social movement members are just excitement-seekers, without commitment to the cause, just looking for an emotional good time. Several things need to be said on this point. It is indeed true that this is the motivation for some proportion of participants in collective gatherings of social movements. Recent work, including some in this volume, has focused on sexual motives for attending protest meetings, which motives might be unconscious or overt. It would be a mistake to draw too sharp a dichotomy between excitement-seeking (put more generally, emotional energy-seeking) participants, and the "morally serious" participants who come out of a deeper sense of need or dedication. That is, we could distinguish between (and perhaps, with some care, empirically observe) persons who are toward the end of the continuum where the emotional energy boost is their primary attractor, and persons who start with one of the initiating emotions (pity, anger, etc.) and whose transmuted emotions in the group remain anchored in that specific emotional orientation. We could further distinguish those whose participation is most ephemeral, who opportunistically stick around only for just those moments when the energy is being pumped up most dramatically and publically; and on the other hand those who have internalized the group energy through attachment to its symbolic objects and who thus are motivated to do the grunt work, sometimes even in solitary or routine situations. But these are further variants within the same ritual process model. All social movements and their participants, if the ritual process builds up far enough to make for successful commitment-generating occasions, undergo the process of generating collective emotional energy. The degree of ephemerality or internalization, and the cognitive focus on particular emotional tones and hence objects and goals, characterize different kinds of social movements and different participation profiles within each of them.
Another way of defending the centrality of collectively generated EE in social movements is on the theoretical level, in the debate between rationalistic and nonrationalistic (cognitive, emotional) theories of social movement mobilization. Rational choice theorists have recognized the need to posit commitment incentives to overcome the free-rider problem. This is what the ritual process of generating EE provides. In this light, ritually generated emotional energy is a sine qua non for successful social movements. Where the formulation of a neo-Durkheimian model of ritual build-up gives a special analytical advantage is that it provides a mechanism, a process, and a set of causal variables which produce different levels of outcomes. It is not enough to posit, in a very generalized and causally backward-reaching functionalist argument, that if a social movement exists it must have solved the participation incentive problem. The ritual model gives us a forward-oriented causality, showing what conditions (the ingredients listed earlier) give rise to solidarity effects and the other emotional consequences of ritual participation; it thus explains the relative intensities of the movement commitments, and gives the conditions under which they fail to get off the ground in the first place, as well as when they dissipate and crash.
What I have analyzed so far is the way in which emotional dynamics of ritual participation appeal to members. We could go further in this direction, to consider how social movements periodically gather, in smaller or larger collective occasions, sometimes to recreate the effervescence that launched the movement, and sometimes to infuse new emotions, one of the most effective ways being confrontation with targets or enemies.
In addition to this internal appeal, emotional dynamics have external effects. This is particularly important for determining the appeal of social movements to conscience constituencies. Such supporters may have preexisting sympathies, which predispose them to agree emotionally with the movement. A theoretical problem is to account for why the appropriate conscience constituencies happen to exist. One hypothesis is that conscience constituencies exist to just the extent that persons have gone through interaction ritual chains in their lives that have produced an emotional orientation similar to that of the social movement. They must have been charged with respect for the same kind of symbols. Examples would be the kinds of experiences which create liberal universalizing values, producing a conscience constituency for social movements dramatizing insurgency of the oppressed; or experience in particularistic religious communities which makes one receptive to the emotional appeal of conservative religious activists.
In addition to drawing upon preexisting emotional bases in individual experience, a conscience constituency is emergent, at least in the case of highly successful social movements. A movement which has widespread social impact, which arouses the moral concern of a majority of the surrounding society, to a considerable extent creates that moral concern in the very process of mobilizing the movement. The same kinds of processes that transmute emotions into emotional energy bringing internal commitment and forceful activity to the movement, spill over and become outwardly directed. Sometimes this emotional propagation happens more or less by accident; at other times, it can be consciously staged. There is a continuum here; all movements which have any track record of sustained experience learn how to dramatize their ritualistic activities so that they mobilize a larger penumbra of support (e.g., Gitlin 1980). The outer layers of a conscience constituency are the most changeable part of a movement's support. When and if a social movement arrives at one of those rare and much-sought moments when a majority of the society is paying attention, there is a limited amount of time to take advantage of this temporarily widened window of shared conscience.
Movements use terms for this process such as "raising consciousness," but this is misleading in several respects. The rhetoric implies that issues of conscience objectively exist, and persons only need to have their consciousness expanded to focus on them. But there are a huge, perhaps infinite, number of things that people may focus upon, that they can invest with significance and treat as calling for moral commitment. Any particular framing of what is the crucial issue becomes increasingly ephemeral as one moves outward into the larger penumbra of an audience attracted to a particular focus of dramatic attention. The rhetoric of "consciousness raising" is analytically misleading in implying that the process is primarily one of cognition; the dynamic is centrally emotional, and therefore strongly time-bound. Shared emotions propelled by dramatic events build up over a relatively compact period of time. Their peak appears to be sustainable for a maximum of a few days; we see this in the most extreme instances, such as the wild enthusiasm that takes place after a successful political revolution; most emotional peak mobilizations seem to be shorter. They can be repeated, with emotional "time off" in between; this process has not been measured, but I would estimate that a series of such peak emotional mobilizations, perhaps with breaks of a few weeks or months in between, can be sustained for possibly as long as two or three years. The various permutations of possibilities remain to be studied. But all of them involve a rising-and-declining pattern of collective emotional arousal; eventually core participants burn out, and attention among the peripheral onlookers who make up the conscience constituency becomes siphoned away.
The upshot is that the larger the conscience constituency, the more ephemeral it is. I do not intend to moralize about it, but simply note that successful movements live with this fact and take advantage of it where they can. For a movement to take a purist stance of accepting the support only of those who have principled long-term commitments is to doom itself to never winning any large victories. The key is to get the maximum out of those moments when a large conscience constituency is called into existence.
It is this crescive and transient quality of conscience constituencies that explains the importance of innocent victims in mobilizing wide support for social movements. It has been noted in specific historical cases that an oppressive regime begins to crumble, or a social movement begins to make headway against its targeted injustice, when its activists are subjected to a well-publicized atrocity. The image of police unleashing their dogs on a crowd of peaceful marchers is the archetype of this kind of mobilizing event. Let us note however that what mobilizes a conscience constituency in such cases is not merely moral outrage, the feeling that it is manifestly unfair, morally disgraceful, to attack the weak. The victims must not only be innocent, but they must be emblems of the movement's dedication, or be quickly converted into such emblematic associations. It is their deliberate willingness to sacrifice themselves, or at least to expose themselves to the danger of such atrocities, that broadcasts the sense of a moral commitment operating. This is inseparable from the feeling of moral and emotional (and ultimately social) strength. The victims become martyrs because they are taken to represent the moral power of the movement; they symbolize the feeling that the movement will ultimately win out. Metaphorically, their message is that God is on their side; at times this is a literal belief, as in the case of the Christian martyrs, who generated considerable admiration and enthusiasm as they were paraded by Roman authorities through the Mediterranean communities on their way to Rome for exemplary execution. There is a good Durkheimian reason for the connection between martyrdom and moral power. Durkheim (1995 ) argued that the social basis of the concept of God is the experience of power, exaltation, and transcendence of everyday mundane experience that takes place in emotionally heightened collective occasions. God symbolizes the emotionally unified group; no wonder that if this emotional unifying process is widely enough focused upon, the sense arises that no power can stand against it, that evil must lose to it in the end.
The process of creating and widening a conscience constituency is this process of taking the moral high ground. But the moral suasion is also rooted in collective emotional participation; strength and morality are fused into high levels of collective dedication. God is not only good, but omnipotent. And although these metaphors have their fuzzy edges at which contradictions set in (the long-standing theological problem of how God can coexist with evil is the main conceptual contradiction), they are emotionally meaningful and socially mobilizing at just those moments in time when the collective focus is high. It is this that gives the final impetus for movement success. For if a conscience constituency can be extended far enough, so that it encompasses the vast majority of a society (even if only temporarily), there is no privileged person who can stand against it, no authority who will not be delegitimated and deserted. Most movements do not get this far, but their relative successes and failures correspond to how far this dynamic can flow.
At the outset I proposed that there are two keys to social movement dynamics: not only emotional process but competition over a limited attention space. To explore the latter, it is useful to broaden our discussion from politically oriented social movements to two other kinds of movements: religious movements and intellectual movements.
Excerpted from Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements by Francesca Polletta Copyright © 2001 by Francesca Polletta. Excerpted by permission.
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