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"Hearts and Minds": Bringing Symbolic Politics Back In

Author(s): Alison Brysk

Source: Polity, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Summer, 1995), pp. 559-585
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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"Hearts and Minds":
Bringing Symbolic Politics Back In*

Alison Brysk
Pomona College

Materialist and rationalist models of collective action often fail to

explain political outcomes because they ignore the impact of nor-
mative and affective representations, a deficiency that can be remedi
by paying attention to symbolic politics. This article uses a framewor
drawn from theories of narrative to explain political struggle as a
competition between established canons and counter-hegemonic
challenges, to indicate the conditions under which counter-hegemonic
challenge is most likely to succeed in inspiring collective action, and t
suggest appropriate research strategies for studying symbolic politics.

Alison Brysk is Assistant Professor of Politics at Pomona College in

Claremont, California. She is the author of The Politics of Human
Rights in Argentina (1994) and articles on social movements in Latin

How can dissidents like Argentina's Mothers of the Disappeared, Czech-

oslovakia's Vaclav Havel, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King
transform their societies by rewriting political consciousness? Why do
protestors, from the first-century Israelites who committed mass suicide
to resist Roman rule at Masada to the Buddhist monks who practiced
self-immolation to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam, sacrifice even
their own survival to send a message? To understand, we must remember
that states as well as their challengers spill blood and treasure for
slogans, flags, rituals-and even inert flesh. In ancient Greece, Antigone
reshaped history in her quest for a corpse; in the contemporary U.S., a
social movement for the recovery of MIA bodies held foreign policy
hostage to its demands.

*John Seery has provided close readings, useful references, insight and support. Many
thanks to Gerardo Munck, Sidney Tarrow, and Jane Jaquette for helpful comments.

Polity Volume XX
Volume VII,Number
XXVII, Number4 4 Summer J99S
Summer 1995

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560 "Hearts and Minds"

Our leading materialist models of collective action slight this ancient,

universal source of social change. When the political will of peasant com-
munities overcomes the wealth and weapons of a superpower, as in Viet-
nam or Afghanistan, we may be told that nationalism transformed
"hearts and minds"-but not why or how. When the most marginalized
sectors of poor societies mobilize around Islamic fundamentalism in Iran
or liberation theology in Haiti, their stories and symbols are seen as a
code for more material interests, even though the participants repeatedly
sacrifice earthly rewards in pursuit of their vision.
Faced with the limits of positivism and rational actor models, one
trend in the wider study of politics has been a renewed consideration of
the subjective influence of ideas, learning, and information as sources of
political change.' While most social movement studies still follow
rational actor models, some students of collective action increasingly
consider the role of identities and cognitive constructions.2 But this
emerging emphasis does not yet offer us general explanations of how
meaning shapes both mobilization and transformation, and generally
fails to draw on the rich tradition of political theory that addresses these
questions. This essay seeks to bridge the gap by providing a theoretically
grounded account of how values inform political consciousness and how
changes in political consciousness translate into social change through
the mechanism of symbolic politics. This involves reviving an earlier
literature on symbolic politics and extending it to embrace narrative

1. A representative selection from several sub-fields includes Judith Goldstein and

Robert 0. Keohane, eds., Ideas and Foreign Policy: Beliefs, Institutions and Policy Change
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993); David Lumsdaine, Moral Vision in International
Politics: The Foreign Aid Regime, 1949-1989 (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1993); Kathryn Sikkink, Ideas and Institutions: Developmentalism in Brazil and Argentina
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991); Lawrence J. R. Herson, The Politics of Ideas:
Political Theory and American Public Policy (Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press, 1984);
Pamela Johnston Conover, Feminism and the New Right: Conflict over the American
Family (New York: Praeger, 1983).
2. Identity is discussed at length in Jean Cohen, "Strategy or Identity: New Theoretical
Paradigms and Contemporary Social Movements," Social Research, 52 (Winter 1985):
663-717; Alberto Melucci, "The Symbolic Challenge of Contemporary Movements,"
Social Research, 52 (Winter 1985): 789-817; D. Slater, ed., New Social Movements and the
State in Latin America (Amsterdam: CEDLA, 1985); Sonia Alvarez and Arturo Escobar,
eds., The Making of Social Movements in Latin America (Boulder, CO: Westview Press,
1992). On cognitive constructions, see David R. Maines, "Narrative's Moment and Sociol-
ogy's Phenomena: Toward a Narrative Sociology," The Sociological Quarterly, 34 (Spring
1993): 17-38. For an inspiring synthesis, see Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement: Social
Movements, Collective Action and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

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Alison Brysk 561

theoretical approaches and an analysis of social change as political com-

Symbolic politics involves the maintenance or transformation of a
power relationship through the communication of normative and affec-
tive representations. While symbolic politics is important for both the
maintenance and transformation of social order, this essay will concen-
trate on challenges from below-the use of appeals to ideas and values to
bring about social change through collective action. Collective action
may be measured in mobilization, protest, and rebellion.
Symbolic politics does not constitute a full alternative model of collec-
tive action, but rather an explanation for an important dynamic that
operates at varying levels during particular episodes of collective action.
As synthetic political process theorists like Tarrow show, all collective
action blends symbolic and structural elements. In his approach, sym-
bolic politics is a framing and signalling device for interests, which coor-
dinates and socializes interest-based mobilization.3 But this essay will
claim that interests are not fixed needs, but rather deeply subsumed
stories about needs, and that symbolically mobilized political actors can
create new political opportunities by revealing, challenging, and changing
narratives about interests and identities. Thus, under some conditions
symbolic politics becomes more than a framing device and produces a
distinct logic and effects.
Symbolic politics serves, then, as what Jon Elster calls a "mechanism."

The distinctive feature of a mechanism is not that it can be univer-

sally applied to predict and control social events, but that it em-
bodies a causal chain that is sufficiently general and precise to
enable us to locate it in widely different settings. It is less than a
theory, but a great deal more than a description, since it can serve
as a model for understanding other cases not yet encountered.4

The mechanism of symbolic politics produces collective action through

the narrative structuring, interpretive resonance, and projection of affec-
tive information. We think about politics in stories, and our conscious-
ness is changed when new stories persuade us to adopt a new paradigm.
Collective action itself then involves a kind of storytelling or political
theater, performing the new paradigm to persuade others. Stories that
work rewrite history because they contain the elements of successful

3. Tarrow, Power in Movement.

4. Jon Elster, Political Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993),
p. 5.

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562 "Hearts and Minds"

communication-legitimate speakers, compelling messages, and satisfy-

ing plots-and can compensate for the lack of other resources. The suc-
cessful exercise of symbolic politics then leads to social change through
shifting priorities, building collective identities, shaping social agendas,
or challenging state legitimacy.
The further development of the symbolic politics approach sys-
tematizes and adds value to the stock of existing concepts-prominently
ideology, political culture, charisma, and legitimacy-that treat the
influence of ideas and values on social change. Symbolic politics adds
communicative and affective dimensions to the treatment of ideology,
which supports critiques of various political philosophies as emotionally
appealing narratives rather than scientific analyses.5 Symbolic politics
also goes beyond ideology in the classical Marxist usage-socially pro-
moted beliefs that mystify exploitive class relations6--because of its
transformative potential. Though Gramscian treatments of ideological
counter-hegemony do address the role of symbol systems as a source of
social change, they treat symbol systems as superstructure subordinate to
Symbolic politics also expands the treatment of change offered by
"political culture." Political culture usually refers to a set of attitudes
held by individuals and aggregated across a national unit. Symbolic poli-
tics describes clusters of messages intended to change attitudes, which
may be enunciated by individuals, groups, states, societies, or inter-
national organizations. In political culture, the causal path between
changes in political attitudes and political action is unspecified, while

5. For a feminist critique of economics' "story of the marketplace of ideas" and "story
of free choice," see Dianna Strassman, "Not a Free Market: The Rhetoric of Disciplinary
Authority in Economics," in Beyond Economic Man: Feminist Theory and Economics, ed.
Marianne A. Ferber and Julie A. Nelson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp.
54-68; also Paula England, "The Separative Self: Androcentric Bias in Neoclassical
Assumptions," in Beyond Economic Man, pp. 37-53. For a narrative reading of the ideol-
ogy of science, see Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the
World of Modem Science (New York: Routledge, 1989). Michael Oakeshott provides an
interpretive critique of ideology with distinct, Burkean conclusions, in Rationalism in
Politics (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1991).
6. See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, ed. R. Pascal (New
York: International Publishers, 1960); Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New
York: International Publishers, 1964).
7. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International
Publishers, 1971) and Ronald Chilcote, "Post-Marxism: The Retreat from Class in Latin
America," Latin American Perspectives, 17 (Spring 1990): 3-24. The debate on the poten-
tial autonomy of ideology is discussed in Chantal Mouffe, ed., Gramsci and Marxist
Theory (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979).

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Alison Brysk 563

symbolic politics suggests several channels for the transformation of

beliefs into behavior.8
Social change that responds to symbolic protest is sometimes explained
by reference to legitimacy, usually implying system-wide normative
expectations between rulers and subjects. But the concept of legitimacy
has been criticized as a residual quality rather than a generalizable pro-
cess explaining social change.9 Symbolic politics depicts legitimacy as a
socially specific set of stories about justice, rights, and identity. Success-
ful collective action challenges these stories; success can be analyzed and
sometimes predicted by the ability of challengers to insert themselves in
an old story and/or create a new one that others adopt.
Charismatic leadership is often offered as an explanation of value-
inspired social change. More recent approaches expand on Weber's treat-
ment of charisma as the quality of an individual to depict it as a relation-
ship between leader and followers.10 Symbolic politics frames charis-
matic leadership as one element of successful communication, and offers
a broader discussion of other determinants of persuasion. This advances
the study of change, since resort to the concept of charisma often focuses
on the qualities of the speaker while ignoring the qualities of the
message, media, and receivers.
This essay will sketch a symbolic politics approach to collective action
and social change. First it reviews the theoretical tradition that provides
tools for understanding power and identity in terms of meaning. Then it

8. See Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, The Civic Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1963); Almond and Verba, eds., The Civic Culture Revisited (Boston:
Little Brown, 1980); Ronald Inglehart, Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990). While Harry Eckstein attempts to apply
political culture to social change, in "A Culturalist Theory of Political Change," American
Political Science Review, 82 (September 1988): 789-804, Sidney Tarrow questions the abil-
ity of political culture to account for collective action in "Mentalities, Political Cultures,
and Collective Action Frames: Constructing Meanings Through Action," in Frontiers in
Social Movement Theory, ed. Aldon D. Morris and Carol McClurg Mueller (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 174-202. Edward N. Muller and Mitchell A. Seligson
empirically test the relationship in "Civic Culture and Democracy: The Question of Causal
Relationships," American Political Science Review, 88 (September 1994): 635-52.
9. See Max Weber, Theory of Social and Economic Organization (Glencoe, IL: Free
Press, 1964); William Connolly, Legitimacy and the State (New York: New York Univer-
sity Press, 1984); John Scharr, Legitimacy in the Modern State (New Brunswick, NJ:
Transaction Press, 1981). The critique is in Adam Przeworski, "Some Problems in the
Study of the Transition to Democracy," in Transitions To Democracy, ed. Phillipe
Schmitter, Guillermo O'Donnell, and Laurence Whitehead (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1986).
10. Douglas Madsen and Peter G. Snow, The Charismatic Bond: Political Behavior in
Time of Crisis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

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564 "Hearts and Minds"

examines existing approaches to collective action that fail to fully assim

late these insights from political theory. Next, it suggests that a rev
and elaboration of the symbolic politics approach can address thes
questions. The essay then outlines the symbolic politics mechanism: h
persuasion changes hearts and minds, which stories persuade, and w
channels are used to achieve social change through symbolic collecti
action. Finally, a range of applications will be explored.

I. Politics as Persuasion

In contrast to the static concept of power employed by many studies o

collective action, political theory reminds us that power is not a fixed
property of individuals, but rather an evolving relationship among indi-
viduals or collectivities. In the classical tradition, communication is an
important form of political contestation, and rhetoric creates power
Hannah Arendt's interpretation of the communicative elements of power
locates persuasion as antecedent to "the ability to act in concert."11 Fur
thermore, both instrumental and normative communication create and
sustain power. That is, persuasion can be used to redefine actors' goals
or interests as well as the strategies to secure those ends. Part of politics is
convincing people of what they want.12 This implies that a power rela-
tionship can take at least three basic forms: coercion (force), bargaining
(exchange), and persuasion (manipulation of meanings).'3
In reaction to modernism's turn toward rational, scientific, and
materialist models of human behavior, neo-Kantian and neo-Hegelian
theorists insisted on the meaning-laden character of social science and its
subjects. In a contemporary parallel vein, Alan Wolfe links the case for a
distinctive social science to the uniquely human attribute of interpreta-
tion.14 The theoretical underpinning of persuasion is a reading of the

11. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1958), pp. 199-207.
12. See Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, trans. George A. Kennedy
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic (New
York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969), pp. 103-98 and "Communicative Power," in
Power, ed. Steven Lukes (New York: New York University Press, 1986); P. Bachrach and
M. S. Baratz, "Decisions and Non-Decisions: An Analytical Framework," American
Political Science Review, 57 (September 1963): 632-42; Nancy Hartsock, Money, Sex and
Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism (Boston: Northeastern University Press,
13. For classical roots, see Plato, The Republic and Other Works, trans. B. Jowett (New
York: Anchor Books, 1973), Books II and III; for modem critique, Max Horkheimer and
Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Seabury Press, 1972).
14. Alan Wolfe, The Human Difference: Animals, Computers, and the Necessity of
Social Science (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

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Alison Brysk 565

identity of political actors that acknowledges the need for meaning, long
recognized by theorists but only recently rediscovered by scholars of
political behavior. This builds on Eisenstadt's analysis of Weber, that:
"among the 'egoistical' wishes of human beings a very important part is
comprised by their quest for and conception of the symbolic order, or the
'good society,' and of the quest for participation in such an order."15
Rational choice theorist Jon Elster recently concluded that, "a largely
ignored but very significant phenomenon for the study of political life is
that of beliefs arising from a need for meaning."' Elster's survey of polit-
ical behavior leads him to conclude that norms cannot usually be
changed by an appeal to interest, but more often by an alternative norm
or description.'6
The hermeneutic approach sees social life as a search for meaning
through narrative. Hermeneutics thus departs from the positivist strategy
of causal, law-like explanation to seek interpretation: the recovery of
meaning and intention through the textual analysis of human behavior.17
The rationality of political behavior is defined within the context of a his-
torical political narrative. Hence, to discover the motives and mech-
anisms of political behavior such as collective action requires a her-
meneutic reading of that narrative.18 But an account of symbolic politics
must go beyond interpretation to consider the impact and influence of
narrative communication on political actors and social change.
The post-modern project suggests one channel for the influence of nar-
rative communication in its depiction of communication as constituting
rather than simply representing identities. 9 Although some forms of

15. S. N. Eisenstadt, ed., Max Weber: On Charisma and Institution-Building (Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 1968), p. xli.
16. Elster, Political Psychology, p. 14; Elster, The Cement of Society, p. 130.
17. Paul Rabinow and William M. Sullivan, "The Interpretive Turn: Emergence of an
Approach," in Interpretive Social Science: A Reader, ed. Rabinow and Sullivan (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1979); David R. Hiley, James F. Bohman, and Richard
Shusterman, eds., The Interpretive Turn: Philosophy, Science, and Culture (Ithaca: Cor-
nell University Press, 1991); Michael T. Gibbons, ed., Interpreting Politics (Oxford: Basil
Blackwell, 1987).
18. See Alfred Schutz, The Phenomenology of the Social World, trans. George Walsh
and Frederick Lehnert (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1967); Clifford Geertz,
Local Knowledge (New York: Basic Books, 1983).
19. On post-modernism, see Pauline Marie Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social
Sciences (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992); Jean-Francois Lyotard, Toward the
Postmodern, ed. Robert Harvey and Mark S. Roberts (London: Humanities Press, 1993);
Anne Norton, Republic of Signs: Liberal Theory and American Popular Culture (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1993); Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism and the Politics of
Recognition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

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566 "Hearts and Minds"

post-moder critique question all fundamental interpretive categories of

structure, subjectivity, and causality, we need not accept radical indeter-
minacy to benefit from the insight that identity is a form of meaning that
can also be manipulated. Pre-constituted subjects do not simply project
narratives toward other fixed subjects; rather, the messages and texts of
social life help to construct and reconstruct the identities of all partici-
pants. Performative speech transforms as well as communicates.20 Post-
modernism reminds us that knowledge, power, and representation are
interpenetrated. "Discourses are not only social products, they have fun-
damental social effects. They are modes of power."21 Part of politics is
convincing people of who they are.
If communication is one face of power, collective action will often
involve persuasion as well as bargaining. If actors seek meaning and
principle as well as welfare, rational actor models cannot explain com-
municative collective action-unless hermeneutic and principled "inter-
ests" follow the strategic logic of material goods that more is better,
efficiency is the only criteria for choice of means, and all ends can be
quantified in terms of some universal standard of value.22 If subjects are
to some extent constituted by communication, methodological indi-
vidualism will miss how collective action can transform consciousness
through symbolic politics.

II. Explaining Collective Action

Prevailing paradigms offer partial accounts of mobilization, collective

action, and social change. The traditional model of collective action
focused on modernization-induced patterns of social strain and disloca-
tion from the traditional social structures that manage change. The
cumulation of grievances over time (rising expectations) and across ref-
erence groups ("relative deprivation") was believed to produce frustra-
tion, expressed in aggressive, anomic protest.23 Yet this approach cannot
explain the incidence of activism; why do some persons take their "rela-

20. Bonnie Honig, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1993), esp. pp. 79-80, 84-96, and p. 89ff. on Arendt, Derrida and per-
formative utterance.
21. Donna Harraway, Primate Visions, p. 289.
22. Nozick attempts to integrate symbolic utility in a theory of rationality, but concludes
that they cannot be amalgamated because they appear to follow a different logic, The
Nature of Rationality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), esp. pp. 26-35,
23. James Davies, "Towards a Theory of Revolution," American Sociological Review,
27 (1962): 5-19; Ted Gurr, Why Men Rebel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).

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Alison Brysk 567

tive deprivation" to the streets? The traditional perspective tends to view

mobilization as dysfunctional. Therefore, little attempt is made to
explain the transmission of protest messages to broader publics, or the
differential impact of types and episodes of collective action.
In reaction to the explanatory limits and status quo bias of tradi-
tional views, a wide range of American scholarship of the past generation
has adopted economistic models of collective action. Despite important
differences in other respects, rational choice, resource mobilization,
political economy, and political process approaches share the assump-
tions of rational actors, methodological individualism, material and
structural bases of power, and the predominance of political process over
political content. In these models, protesters are rational actors who cal-
culate the utility of alternative strategies to secure their political pref-
erences. In a world of multiple and endemic grievances, the rational
actor protests only when opportunities exist and relevant resources can
be deployed to exploit them. Social change is a product of bargaining or
disruption-sometimes multiplied by the nature of political oppor-
tunities or the cumulative effect of "protest cycles." Persuasion only
helps social movement actors to recognize their common interests.24 In
this interest-based model, preferences are exogenous and resources are
potentially fungible. Political struggle becomes a form of shopping: pur-
chasing the "political goods" desired with the resources available. Such
paradigms cannot account for the very elements the political theory
tradition depicts as the essence of politics: changing preferences, chang-
ing identities, and changing responses to resources.2s
Thus, sophisticated applications of these interest-based approaches are

24. On rational actors, see Albert Hirschmann, Exit, Voice and Loyalty (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), and Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965). On resource mobilization, see Charles
Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1978) and
"Models and Realities of Collective Action," Social Research, 52 (Winter 1985): 717-47;
William Gamson, The Strategy of Social Protest (Homewood, IL: Dorsey, 1975); John D.
McCarthy and Mayer N. Zald, "Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial
Theory," American Journal of Sociology, 82 (1977): 1212-41. On political process, Doug
McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1982). Disruption is emphasized in Frances Fox Piven and Richard A.
Cloward, Poor People's Movements (New York: Pantheon, 1977).
25. For related criticism, see Shawn Rosenberg, "Rationality, Markets, and Political
Analysis: A Social Psychological Critique of Neoclassical Political Economy," in The
Economic Approach to Politics: A Critical Reassessment of the Theory of Rational Action,
ed. Kristen Renwick Monroe (New York: Harper Collins, 1991); Virginia Held, "Mother-
ing Versus Contract," in Beyond Self-Interest, ed. Jane Mansbridge (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 287-304.

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568 "Hearts and Minds"

often forced to incorporate elements of collective symbolism in an ad h

way. James Q. Wilson simply lists both solidary and purposive incentive
as types of non-material interests inspiring mobilization, but does
discuss how they work.26 Henry Dietz's resource mobilization interpreta
tion of rebellion in Peru incorporates "social network incentives .
more important kind of private interest reward than material selec
incentives."2' Sidney Tarrow describes disruption as a combination
drama, symbolism, and uncertainty.28 Samuel Popkin tells us that
individualistic, rational Vietnamese peasant is critically influenced
"credibility, moral codes and visions of the future."29 Charles Tilly pro-
vides perhaps the most systematic treatment in his discussion of "reper
toires" as culturally and historically specific vocabularies of collecti
action,30 while Tarrow's recent work examines the development and dif
fusion of a modern modular repertoire.31 Thus, recent work in the econ
omistic tradition has been preoccupied with reintegrating the lost dime
sions of meaning, context, and values.32
The Marxist tradition shares many of the assumptions of economis
models, but focuses on a collective subject (class) and on domination
disruption rather than bargaining. The Gramscian tradition and the tur
to critical theory permit a treatment of discourse as a locus of class str
gle, but most Marxist theorists still deny symbolic politics an independ
logic.33 It is an important irony for historical materialism that the mos
enduring revolutionary socialist systems in the world-China and Cu
-have placed an unusually strong emphasis on moral suasion.34

26. James Q. Wilson, Political Organizations (New York: Basic Books, 1973).
27. Edward N. Muller, Henry A. Dietz, and Steven E. Finkel, "Discontent and
Expected Utility of Rebellion: The Case of Peru," American Political Science Review
(December 1991): 1265.
28. Sidney Tarrow, Struggle, Politics and Reform (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University We
ern Societies Occasional Papers, 1989), pp. 6-7.
29. Samuel Popkin, The Rational Peasant (Berkeley: University of California Pr
1979), p. 262.
30. Charles Tilly, "European Violence and Collective Action since 1700," Socia
Research, 53 (Spring 1986): 159-84.
31. Tarrow, Power in Movement.
32. Aldon D. Morris and Carol McClurg Mueller, eds., Frontiers in Social Moveme
Theory, includes several studies seeking to reintegrate social psychology into the stud
collective action.
33. An exception is Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (London:
Verso, 1977).
34. On Cuba, see Richard Fagen, The Transformation of Political Culture in Cuba
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969). On China, see Martin King Whyte, Small
Groups and Political Rituals in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974).

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Alison Brysk 569

As a result of parallel gaps in the positivist analysis of other domains

of political behavior, scholars have consciously incorporated semantic
accounts of political values: international relations' "operational
codes,"35 "epistemic communities,"36 and constructivist definitions of
state identities and interests;37 public opinion's "schema";38 organiza-
tion theory's "organizational stories."39 Within the social movement
literature, increasing attention is given to new social movements,40 activ-
ists' cognitive frames, analysis of political discourse and "hidden tran-
scripts," and interpretive sociology.4' However, this panoply of promis-
ing approaches does not yet offer a systematic and theoretically
grounded account of the mechanism of symbolic politics. Furthermore,

35. Alexander George, "The Operational Code: A Neglected Approach to the Study of
Political Leaders and Decision-making," International Studies Quarterly, 13 (June 1969):
36. Peter Haas, "Do Regimes Matter? Epistemic Communities and Mediterranean
Pollution Control," International Organization, 43 (Summer 1989): 337-403.
37. Alexander Wendt, "Collective Identity Formation and the International State,"
American Political Science Review, 88 (June 1994): 384-96.
38. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, "Causal Schemas in Judgments Under
Uncertainty," in Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, ed. Daniel Kahne-
man, Paul Slovic and Amos Tversky (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp.
117-28; James H. Kuklinski, Robert C. Luskin, and John Bolland, "Where Is the Schema?
Going Beyond the 'S' Word in Political Psychology," American Political Science Review,
85 (December 1991): 1341-56; Milton Lodge, Kathleen M. McGraw, Pamela Johnston
Conover, Stanley Feldman and Arthur H. Miller, "Where Is the Schema? Critiques,"
American Political Science Review, 85 (December 1991): 1357-82.
39. Steven P. Feldman, "Stories as Cultural Creativity: On the Relation Between Sym-
bolism and Politics in Organizational Change," Human Relations, 43 (1990): 809-28.
40. On new social movements, see Cohen, Melucci, Slater, Alvarez, Alesandro Pizzorno,
"Political Exchange and Collective Identity in Industrial Conflict," in The Resurgence of
Class Conflict in Western Europe since 1968, ed. Colin Crouch (New York: Holmes and
Meier, 1978); Claus Offe, "New Social Movements: Challenging the Boundaries of Institu-
tional Politics," Social Research, 52 (Winter 1985): 817-69; Russel Dalton and Manfred
Keuchler, eds., Challenging the Political Order: New Social and Political Movements in
Western Democracies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); Bert Klandermans,
Hanspeter Kreisi, and Sidney Tarrow, eds., From Structure to Action: Comparing Social
Movement Research Across Cultures (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1988); Bert Klander-
mans, ed., Organizing for Change: Social Movement Organizations in Europe and the
United States (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1989).
41. On frames and discourse, see David A. Snow and Robert D. Benford, "Master
Frames and Cycles of Protest," in Frontiers in Social Movement Theory, ed. Morris and
McClurg Mueller; Paolo R. Donati, "Political Discourse Analysis," in Studying Collective
Action, ed. Mario Diani and Ron Eyerman (London: Sage, 1992), pp. 136-67; Maines,
"Narrative's Moment"; James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden
Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

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570 "Hearts and Minds"

these semantically informed treatments of changes in political conscious

ness differ widely in their implications for changes in political behavior
from cooperation to mobilization to adaptation to passive attitude
change. Perhaps the most promising, the new social movement
approach, does consider the importance of consciousness-raising, bu
ing collective identity, and expressive protest. But its focus on the p
sonal empowerment of activists and change in discourse slights the wide
social impact of collective action on political behavior and institutio
In order to explain how semantic collective action produces soc
change, we must revive and extend the literature on symbolic politic

III. Bringing Meaning Back In

An earlier literature on symbolic politics examines communicative a

semantic aspects of political life, with applications to collective actio
As Edelman puts it, "the single problem takes its meaning from the con
stellation of problems with which it overlaps and from narratives ab
its past and its future consequences."43 Symbolic politics is based on
meaning-seeking, frame-producing actor. Work on symbolic polit
reminds us that, "politics does not begin with mass emotion or poli
preferences but with conceptual structures into which people rece
information and transform it into a world view from which action
inaction) proceeds."44 Proponents of this approach argue that symb
do not simply mediate "objective reality"; they help to constitute po
ical reality.45 One recent treatment even incorporates post-moder
insights about how political communication shapes identity.46
Thus, the symbolic politics approach can help us to interpret collective
action as persuasion. Subordinates may be liberated by unmasking t

42. See Murray Edelman, The Symbolic Uses of Politics (Urbana: University of Illi
Press, 1964); Edelman, Political Language: Words That Succeed and Policies That
(New York: Academic Press, 1977); Victor Turner, Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: S
bolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974); Sally Falk M
and Barbara G. Myerhoff, eds., Symbol and Politics in Communal Ideology (Ithaca: C
nell University Press, 1975); Ferdinand Mount, The Theatre of Politics (New Y
Schocken Books, 1972); Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative
Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981).
43. Murray Edelman, Constructing the Political Spectacle (Chicago: University
Chicago Press, 1988), p. 29.
44. Michael Lipsky, "Introduction," to Edelman, Political Language, p. xxi.
45. Seymour Drescher, David Sabean, and Allan Sharlin, Political Symbolism
Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of George L. Mosse (New Brunswick, NJ: Transact
Inc., 1982), p. 5.
46. Edelman, Spectacle, pp. 104-17.

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Alison Brysk 571

symbolic manipulation of their political consciousness. Challengers may

struggle to appropriate multivocal metaphors and myths. The disenfran-
chised may enter the political agenda by attaching their issue to legiti-
mate symbols, redefining, displacing, or enlarging that wider agenda.47
Political theater can situate grievances in universally accessible plots,
reverse the relationship between audience and performer, and resolve
breaches of norm-governed social relations.48
However, the symbolic politics approach has its limits, and thus must
be augmented. The earlier wave of literature on symbolic politics concen-
trates on the maintenance of social order and state legitimacy through
the projection of symbols from the top down, with less attention to sym-
bolic collective action that challenges dominant paradigms.49 To the
extent that older treatments of symbolic politics do treat collective
action, they focus on symbols as a source of action rather than the effect
of symbolic action on the observers' consciousness and behavior. While
drawing on the hermeneutic approach, symbolic politics offers little
guidance as to the sources of narratives or how to read them. Although a
symbolic politics approach does improve our understanding of actors'
nonrational interest in meaning, it does not systematically address the
pursuit of other types of principled interests through collective action.
An invigorated symbolic politics approach will expand its treatment of
collective action by drawing on newer approaches to social movements,
such as the "frame" literature, which document the use of symbols for
social change from the bottom up. "From this perspective, movement
mobilization not only requires that the structural conditions be ripe for
collective action to occur, it also requires that a critical mass of persons
collectively define the situation as ripe and persuade others on an on-
going basis that their version of reality rings true."50 While most of this

47. On unmasking, see Edelman, Symbolic Uses; on metaphors, Jameson, Political Un-
conscious, and Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors. Agenda change is treated most
extensively by Roger Cobb and Charles D. Elder, Participation in American Politics: The
Dynamics of Agenda-Building (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1972).
48. Discussions of political theater range from plot types in A. Paul Hare and Herbert
H. Blumberg, Dramaturgical Analysis of Social Interaction (New York: Praeger, 1988) to
performer status in Mount, The Theatre of Politics, to social drama as crisis resolution in
Turner, Drama, Fields, and Metaphor.
49. See Edelman, Spectacle; Clifford Geertz, "Centers, Kings, and Charisma," in Local
Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983);
Sally Falk Moore and Barbara G. Myerhoff, eds., Symbol and Politics.
50. Robert D. Benford, " 'You Could Be the Hundredth Monkey': Collective Action
Frames and Vocabularies of Motive Within the Nuclear Disarmament Movement," Socio-
logical Quarterly, 34 (1993): 195-216.

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572 "Hearts and Minds"

literature confines its dependent variable to mobilization, Klanderm

Tarrow, and Snow and Benford have recently begun to treat the c
struction of meaning as a result as well as a cause of collective action
In order to read narratives more systematically, symbolic politi
approaches must make greater use of hermeneutics and consider t
sources of narrative. Interpretive theorists believe that we can arriv
useful and determinate understandings from shifting and plurivocal tex
and subjects. Max Weber introduced verstehen, the process of test
plausible hypotheses against the reading of an agent's behavior.52
Ricoeur analogizes the process to a courtroom, in which arguments link
intentions to outcomes; we "make the case" for a reading of a frame.
Roth draws on metaphors of history and psychoanalysis as modes of
interpretation in which inquiry rewrites the initial plotting of events.53
Political consciousness-raising may then be seen as a form of rewriting
and linking personal and social history, as in the feminist movement
slogan, "the personal is political."
Where do these narratives come from, and how do they work? Some
authors who treat symbolic politics do not analyze the sources of sym-
bols, some treat symbols as a condensation of material conditions, while
others posit universal archetypes of plot, character, or genre (quest, "the
good king," tragedy).54 Instead, we can trace narratives to canon and
counter-hegemony. Canon is the framework of received wisdom, univer-
sally transmitted by storytelling, which shapes how ordinary people talk
about politics. This framework can range from a post-colonial theme
that "We fought a revolution so that everyone could eat" to a Hindu
account of caste to the elaborate international conspiracy depicted in the
"tree of subversion" drawn for me by an Argentine military officer.55
The specification of canon as a source allows for a flexible, inductive
approach that avoids psychological or anthropological determinism.
Symbolic vocabulary may be learned quickly, or may correspond to
deeply held cultural values-but it need not be innate, or rooted in child-
hood socialization, like political culture is. Like a dialect of symbolic

51. See the Klandermans, Tarrow, and Snow and Benford essays in Morris and
McClurg Mueller, eds., Frontiers in Social Movement Theory.
52. Max Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).
53. Roth, "Interpretation as Expectation," in Hiley, Bohman, and Shusterman, eds.,
The Interpretive Turn, pp. 184-92.
54. Edelman rarely considers the source of symbols in his earlier work, while symbols
are seen as condensations in Spectacle. Hare and Blumberg posit universal plot types in
their treatment of political theater in Dramaturgical Analysis.
55. Interview, Buenos Aires, April 27, 1988.

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Alison Brysk 573

language, what counts as canonical will generally vary by class, gender,

and cultural location, and may be exported cross-culturally. For exam-
ple, some Stalinist symbols were successfully exported from their Soviet
source to Eastern Europe.56 While symbols and stories of national scope
transform readily into national political change, part of symbolic politics
is a competition for attention and influence among national, local, and
global narratives. Thus, the current debate on immigration in the U.S.
may be seen as a contest among narratives of the American Dream,
nativism, civil rights, ethnic identities, states' rights, hometown and
neighborhood identification, and global modernization.
Counter-hegemonic uses of symbolic politics generally involve reversal
of a canonical narrative, attachment of new characters to an existing nar-
rative, or self-representation by marginalized members of society. An
example of reversal would be human rights protestors in a dictatorship
singing the national anthem, appropriating the military's legitimacy as
guardians of national identity. As Clifford Geertz comments, "any
expressive form works (when it works) by disarranging semantic contexts
in such a way that properties conventionally ascribed to certain things are
unconventionally ascribed to others, which are then seen actually to
possess them."57 The insertion of new characters in an old story might be
seen in the U.S. civil rights movement's insertion of African-Americans
into the constitutional canon, while feminist and human rights move-
ments draw heavily on silence-breaking testimonial. Projection of new
characteristics and silence-breaking are linked to public performance,
often taking the form of political theater (as when AIDS activists in the
group ACT UP stage die-ins with slogans such as "silence equals death"
and "we're queer and we're here").
Actors involved in symbolic politics use narratives to seek and manipu-
late meaning, not just welfare. But we know that actors also seek other
principled ends. Even the core self-interest of biological welfare and sur-
vival has been repeatedly sacrificed for values such as nationalism,
memory, and altruism. Irish political prisoners fast to death to make a
point about national identity. Kristen Renwick Monroe's systematic
study of altruistic behavior by philanthropists, heroes, and rescuers of
Jews in Nazi Europe ties altruism to an other-identified cognitive frame-

56. See Lars Erik Blomqvist, "Introduction," in Symbols of Power: The Esthetics of
Political Legitimation in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, ed. Blomqvist and Classes
Arvidsson (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell Intl., 1987).
57. Clifford Geertz, "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight," in Rabinow and
Sullivan, eds., Interpretive Social Science, p. 217.

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574 "Hearts and Minds"

work rather than to any rational motive or structural determinant.58 T

principled interests most often pursued in collective action share a c
mon link to identity, in the sense of roles and values that orient gr
consciousness.59 Thus, a broader interpretation of symbolic politic
should recognize the realization of identity as a motor of mobilizati
and as a search for internal as well as external meaning. When thi
combined with post-modern insights about the communicative construc-
tion of identity, we can come to see collective action as a search for iden
tity by participants that communicates and transforms new roles a
values to observers.
Stories do not just describe; they motivate and explain collective
action. Symbolic politics achieves social change through a two-stage
process: first the projection or performance of narratives opens hearts
and changes minds, and then changes in consciousness produce changes
in political behavior. This provides the link between Klandermans's pro-
cesses of consensus formation and consensus mobilization.60 Reframing
leads to renaming, and renaming leads to reclaiming.

IV. Consciousness-Raising as Paradigm Shift

What is the mechanism of impact? Roth analogizes narrative explana-

tions (by interpretive social theorists) to Thomas Kuhn's scientific para-
digms.61 Democratizing this insight provides an account of changes in the
political consciousness of ordinary people as paradigm shifts. Just as stu-
dents of ethics have discovered that some social actors are "everyday
Kantians," I propose that most of us are "everyday Kuhnians." The
adoption of Kuhn's framework does not imply that an old paradigm will
necessarily be superceded by a superior framework. Following Lakatos,
we can make use of the paradigm metaphor while recognizing that para-

58. Kristen Monroe, "John Donne's People," Journal of Politics, 53 (May 1991):
59. Allesandro Pizzorno, "On the Individualistic Theory of Social Order" in Changing
Society, ed. Pierre Bordieu and James Coleman (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991),
p. 224.
60. See Bert Klandermans, "The Formation and Mobilization of Consensus," in From
Structure to Action: Comparing Social Movement Research Across Cultures, ed. Bert
Klandermans, Hanspeter Kriesi, and Sidney Tarrow (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1988), pp.
61. Paul Roth, "How Narratives Explain," Social Research, 56 (Summer 1989): 449-78,
drawing on Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1962).

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Alison Brysk 575

digms often overlap and coexist even within the same population or
We need some sort of semantic framework to make sense of the con-
stant influx of political data. Most of the time, some form of received
wisdom tells us who we are, what interests to seek, what is political, what
is just, and what is possible (perceived inevitability creates obedience
while a judgment of injustice inspires resistance to authority).63 Undis-
turbed, this semantic framework is rarely visible (and thus often suscepti-
ble to rational actor modelling); it performs the function of a paradigm
in "normal science." But occasionally some highly salient political event
or figure does not make sense: peaceful protestors are massacred, a hero
defects, the government bans a language, a child is dragged away in the
middle of the night. When anomalies concatenate, we seek a new story.
Triggering events that open hearts are usually linked to the actor's sense
of personal identity, and often to a vision of justice, coinciding with
some facets of the "moral economy" approach.64 Ideology helps to con-
struct and politicize grievance from triggering anomalies.65 As the
founder of an Amazonian Indian social movement described his reaction
when faced with cultural, physical, and environmental threats, "I
realized that my problem is not folklore, my problem is politics."66
The paradigm shift analogy suggests that anomalies are likely to have
more impact when regnant canonical paradigms are visible and in crisis.
At these moments any form of social order legitimated by strong claims
about justice and identity will be particularly vulnerable, as both
Arendt's analysis of totalitarianism and "culture theory" would pre-
dict.67 Rapid changes in economic, cultural, and authority systems
generate large numbers of incommensurable phenomena. Yet deteriora-
tion in material conditions or universal modernization are not enough to

62. Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1978).
63. See Barrington Moore, Injustice: Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt (White
Plains, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1979).
64. See James Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1976); Marsha Pripstein Posusney, "Irrational Workers: The Moral Economy of
Labor Protest in Egypt," World Politics, 46 (October 1993): 83-120.
65. For examples from the women's movement, see Steven M. Buechler, "Beyond
Resource Mobilization? Emerging Trends in Social Movement Theory," Sociological
Quarterly, 34 (1993): 217-35.
66. Interview, Geneva, July 25, 1993.
67. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian, 1958);
Michael Thompson, Richard Ellis, and Aaron Wildavsky, Cultural Theory (Boulder, CO:
Westview, 1990).

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576 "Hearts and Minds"

overturn established meanings-for that to happen, the crisis must

challenge specific tenets of the official story. Thus, the conjunction
economic stagnation, rapid urbanization, and political marginalizat
in the Middle East created anomalies "solved" by Islamic fundament
ism (charging interest is evil, women should not compete in the wo
place, peripheral nations gain dignity through participation in Ho
War).68 Similarly, we can see the explosion of social movements in L
America in the 1980s context of economic crisis, transition to dem
racy, and the attendant "triple rupture" of culture, state, and devel
ment models (generating women's movements, neighborhood mov
ments, and environmental movements, respectively).69
Listener characteristics serve as a final filter for paradigm shift. Com
munication psychology research shows that impact depends on pe
suasive communication (analyzed below), motivation to process inf
mation (salience of anomaly), and ability to process information.7
While candidates for collective action need not be educated or sophi
cated, they must possess a level of cognitive competence sufficient
entertain a rival paradigm. This tends to exclude the neurologically
organized or impaired (such as drug addicts).
Most actors confronted with an anomaly will first attempt some
hoc modifications of the socially relevant story. Some social institut
like churches are charged with repairing the cannon; the failure or "sub
version" of such institutions is an especially powerful predictor of p
digm shift. If modifications are not robust and anomalies are com
pounded, we become receptive to new forms of symbolic communication

V. Which Stories Work?

What makes a new story about politics persuasive? First, symbolic poli-
tics must speak to the heart: successful symbols must be culturally appro-
priate, have historical precedent, be reinforced by other symbols, and
signal a call for action. In Vietnam, the Mandate of Heaven mobilized

68. Nikki R. Keddie, "The Revolt of Islam and Its Roots" in Comparative Political
Dynamics, ed. Dankwart Rustow and Kenneth Paul Erickson (New York: HarperCollins,
1991), pp. 292-308.
69. See Rafael de la Cruz, "Nuevos movimientos sociales en Venezuela," in Los movi-
mientos populares en America Latina, ed. Daniel Camacho and Rafael Menjivar (Mexico:
Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1989).
70. Richard E. Petty and John T. Cacioppo, Communication and Persuasion: Central
and Peripheral Routes to Attitude Change (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1986).

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Alison Brysk 577

nationalist resistance in this way.71 During the 1960s, Che Guevarra

failed to bring culturally appropriate revolutionary ideology to Bolivia
(as well as improperly assessing objective conditions), while Peru's Sen-
dero Luminoso did adapt Maoism to indigenous communal traditions.
Once attention to communication is established, narrative efficacy
depends on qualities of the speaker, message, narrative structure, and
media. Since the credibility of information is judged in part by the credi-
bility of the source, we would expect speakers with greater social legit-
imacy to succeed more often at persuading others. Legitimacy is strong-
est for those to whom society has already allocated a special protective or
interpretive role, either generally or on a particular matter (such as
mothers, priests, warriors, and doctors). This is related to both Weber's
and Geertz's treatment of charisma; in its original meaning, charisma
derives from proximity to the center of the social order.72 This frame-
work systematizes and expands Brinton's observation that revolution is
often catalyzed by the "desertion of the intellectuals" (interpreters).73
Thus, it is not surprising that collective action is mobilized by charis-
matic clerics in Latin America and the Islamic world. Physicians for
Social Responsibility and various scientists' groups played a legitimizing
role in the anti-nuclear movement. The Mothers of the Disappeared, the
U.S. temperance movement, the Test Ban Treaty protests, and Mothers
Against Drunk Driving all draw on the charisma of maternalism.
The content of the message also matters. A successful message offers
meaning to experience the dominant order ignores or dismisses. The
meaning offered carries a new account of identity (roles and values) and
desert. In some sense, messages that resonate answer fundamental
religious questions: Who am I? What is the good life? Why do bad things
happen to good people? Will the meek inherit the earth? A mobilizing
message creates (or rediscovers) standards that condemn and explain suf-
fering, redefine friend and foe, and redirect internalized oppression out-
ward.74 The content of a message can affect narrative resonance in three
different ways.
First, a message can foment political change by creating an alternative
reality, transferring daily experience to a different realm in which it is
valued and thus opening the recipient to consider a new social order.
Turner called this "liminality," while Alberoni labels it "the nascent

71. Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam
(Boston: Little, Brown, 1972).
72. Geertz, "Centers, Kings and Charisma," pp. 122-23.
73. Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1965).
74. See Barrington Moore, Injustice, pp. 87-89.

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578 "Hearts and Minds"

state."75 Liberation theology, Islamic fundamentalism, some forms

Marxism, and counterhegemonic celebration of indigenous religiou
traditions clearly bridge levels of experience in this way.76
Second, a message can resonate because its content ties issues and
events to values that are already widely accepted, such as the growi
international acknowledgement of universal human rights. For exam
indigenous peoples throughout the world face cultural destruction, l
of land rights, underdevelopment, lack of political representation
environmental degradation, and human rights abuse. But appeals ba
on the latter two (especially environmental appeals) are much more effe
tive than representations of other, equally real conditions.77 This d
not mean the message will be accepted automatically, just that it w
receive more and more favorable attention than messages reflecting mo
contested values. Thus, American advocates of abortion rights shift
their appeal from the feminist "abortion on demand" to the civil lib
tarian "pro-choice." Defensiveness and hypocrisy by those challeng
indicate the power of these widely legitimate messages, which oft
inspire preemptive reform that provides later opportunities for furthe
challenge-such as Soviet acquiescence to the Helsinki Accords or cr
tion of a Human Rights Office in Mexico.78
Finally, a message may resonate within a political system because t
message challenges the regime by showing that it fails to satisfy
own central legitimacy claims. Thus, the Solidarity movement in Pol
effectively contested the communist party's claim that the country was
workers' state. Women's human rights movements in Latin America
challenged the paternalist pretensions of military authoritarian regimes.
The U.S. civil rights movement hoisted by its own petard a republic in

75. See Turner, Dramas, Fields and Metaphors, and Francesco Alberoni, Movement
and Institution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).
76. See Jameson, Political Unconscious, p. 40; Jean Comaroff, Body of Power, Spirit of
Resistance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); Rowan Ireland, Kingdoms Come:
Religion and Politics in Brazil (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991); Anita M.
Waters, Race, Class, and Political Symbols: Rastafari and Reggae in Jamaican Politics
(New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1985).
77. See Alison Brysk, "Acting Globally: Indian Rights and International Politics in
Latin America," in Indigenous Peoples and Democracy in Latin America, ed. Donna Lee
Van Cott (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994).
78. See Daniel Thomas, "International Norms and Political Change: The Helsinki
Process and the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, 1975-1990," Ph.D. dissertation,
Cornell University, 1995; Kathryn Sikkink, "Human Rights, Principled Issue-Networks
and Sovereignty in Latin America," International Organization, 47 (Summer 1993):

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Alison Brysk 579

which schoolchildren pledge allegiance to "liberty and justice for all."

Narrative structure or plot also influences the power of a story. To be
read as a coherent narrative, events must be selected, semanticized, and
temporally ordered.79 The multiple indignities of Jim Crow are plotted as
Rosa Parks being denied a seat on a bus. Emplotment may be achieved
through a variety of vehicles other than a written text, including ballads,
pilgrimages, political theater, and eulogies. Political funerals serve as
symbolically charged sites of ethnic and religious mobilization, especially
in apartheid-era South Africa, Northern Ireland, and zones of Palestin-
ian-Israeli conflict. Through the lens of symbolic politics, the body is
valuable as an object of memory that encodes powerful heroic narratives.
An effective plot should build affective ties with a clear protagonist who
experiences changes amenable to human intervention. Thus, complex
struggles are linked to the fate of a single cause celebre; the movement
against apartheid becomes "Free Nelson Mandela." Plot may be implied
rather than expressed, as many symbols or slogans work by evoking an
entire narrative. For example, revolutionary movements are named for a
historic figure (the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, Salvadoran Farabundo
Marti, or Peruvian Movimiento Tupac Amaru) or date (Palestinian
Black September, Colombia's M-19), which lend the guerrillas the legiti-
macy of a heroic epic.
Finally, messages must be transmitted. Media access and appropriate-
ness influence their reception.80 Physical control of public space facili-
tates the projection of symbolic politics. Dissidents enact political theater
in village squares, urban plazas, and the borders of contested areas: the
Greenham Common nuclear facility, abortion clinics, military bases dur-
ing mutinies in the Philippines and Argentina. Travel, immigration, and
global media have broadened access and internationalized appropriate
imagery. In the global village square of CNN, Chinese demonstrators in
Tianamen Square can build a Statue of Liberty to tie their protest to the
American Dream. On the anniversary of Tianamen, China banned CNN
broadcasts to forestall use of this medium.81 Visually distinctive speakers
and affective slogans are also effective, while the lack of images that pro-
ject well in public space handicaps groups that are numerous but increas-
ingly indistinct in developed societies-such as workers.

79. See Maines, "Narrative's Moment," p. 21.

80. For a sustained treatment of the influence of media on all forms of collective action,
see Tarrow, Power in Movement.
81. See Gladys D. Ganley, The Exploding Political Power ofPersonal Media (Norwood,
NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1992) for a variety of examples, including Tianamen
and the Iranian revolution.

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580 "Hearts and Minds"

VI. Symbolic Politics and Social Change

In order to translate changes in consciousness into changes in politi

symbolic politics must transform individuals (both activists and aud
ence), social norms, and relations with the state. The most powerful way
in which symbolic politics changes individuals is through rewriting
refraiing elements of identity.82 Identifications can shift to larger
smaller communities: populism amalgamates social groups as "we th
people," nationalism creates an "imagined community" that cuts acr
local and global categories, the assertion of lesbian identity produce
distinct community within the feminist movement. Narratives can insp
changes in roles and values through identification with a protagonis
"reemplotment" of one's own life story, or a message that leads to
reprioritizing some element of existing identities.83 Randall Robins
founder of the anti-apartheid group Transafrica, describes reframing hi
experience of alienation in the Jim Crow South after reading Ralp
Ellison's The Invisible Man.84
Changes in roles, values, and collective identity often lead directly to
mobilization. New social movement studies of a variety of groups point
to the importance of consciousness-raising for the formation and repre-
sentation of a collective identity that inspires collective mobilization. As
one Mother of the Disappeared put it, "The big change has been in us, to
come to protest for other peoples' children."85 Student protest in China
has been interpreted in similar terms.86 Even within the parameters of an
economistic model, changes in identity may explain the catalyst for col-
lective action. Those whose hearts and minds have been transformed by
symbolic politics will become the "movement entrepreneurs," Kanti-
ans,87 or altruists whose path-breaking protests transform the calcula-
tions of more conventionally rational actors.

82. See Guillermo O'Donnell, "Tensions in the Bureaucratic-Authoritarian State and

the Question of Democracy," in The New Authoritarianism in Latin America, ed. David
Collier (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), pp. 285-318 on "lo popular";
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of
Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983); Shane Phelan, Identity Politics: Lesbian Feminism
and the Limits of Community (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989).
83. On "reemplotment," see Roth, "Interpretation as Explanation," pp. 184-88. On
reprioritizing norms, see Francesca M. Cancian, What Are Norms? A Study of Beliefs and
Actions in a Maya Community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).
84. Peter Claver McAlevey, "Invisible No More: Randall Robinson Is a Quiet Force for
Change," Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1994, p. El.
85. Interview, Northern Argentina, November 1988.
86. George T. Crane, "Collective Identity, Symbolic Mobilization, and Student Protest
in Nanjing, China, 1988-1989," Comparative Politics, 26 (July 1994): 395-413.
87. Elster makes the point regarding Kantians as a catalyst for cooperation in The
Cement of Society, p. 205.

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Alison Brysk 581

At the social level, symbolic politics often produces agenda change.

This is important because invisibility or marginalization of issues and
activists is the first barrier to change.88 Symbolic politics can facilitate
the recognition that a social circumstance is a public and political prob-
lem. Silence-breaking narratives like The Autobiography of Malcolm X,
The Gulag Archipelago, The Feminine Mystique, or I, Rigoberta
Menchu, transform petty criminals, disturbed misfits, crazy housewives,
and hapless peasants into resisters of newly problematized social systems
of racism, totalitarianism, patriarchy, and ethnic exploitation. Success-
ful agenda change ultimately establishes a problem or claim as a per-
manent referent for political discourse, mobilization, and behavior.
Human rights secretariats, environmental impact reports, and consumer
watchdog groups become institutionalized elements of policymaking.89
Symbolic politics can also inspire collective action aimed at changing
institutions and policies by challenging their legitimacy and authority.
The use of symbolism and reframing are critical elements in delegitimat-
ing authority; claims about principles such as fairness may influence
assessments of legitimacy more than personal benefit. 9 By challenging
the rationale for the state's legitimacy, persuasion can cause a collective
withdrawal of obedience, which reduces the ability to govern. As Arendt
notes, "where commands are no longer obeyed, the means of violence
are of no use, and the question of this obedience is not decided by
command-obedience relation but by opinion, and, of course, by the
number of those who share it."91
When power-holders lose legitimacy, other power-holders withdraw
support, institutions lose cohesion, and subordinates may directly con-
front authority figures. This can lead to attempts at various types of
social change, from preemptive reform to civil disobedience to revolu-
tion.92 Gandhi's challenge to British rule in India is the best-known
88. Bachrach and Baratz, "Decisions and Non-Decisions," p. 632.
89. For an early discussion, see Cobb and Elder, Participation in American Politics.
Frank Baumgartner and Bryan D. Jones have recently chronicled the interaction of "policy
image" with political institutions to produce agenda access, in "Agenda Dynamics and
Policy Subsystems," Journal of Politics, 53 (November 1991): 1044-74.
90. William Gamson, Bruce Fireman and Steven Rytina, Encounters With Unjust
Authority (Homewood, IL: The Dorsey Press, 1982), esp. pp. 10-16, 125; Tom R. Tyler,
"Justice, Self-Interest, and the Legitimacy of Legal and Political Authority," in Beyond
Self-Interest, ed. Mansbridge, pp. 171-79.
91. Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, trans. A. M.
Henderson and Talcott Parsons (New York: Oxford, 1947), pp. 324-29; Hannah Arendt,
Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969), p. 148.
92. Francesco Alberoni, Movement and Institution (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1984), p. 218. Symbolic aspects of confrontations between subordinates and power-
holders are explored in Gamson, Fireman, and Rytina, Encounters with Unjust Authority,
esp. p. 10.

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582 "Hearts and Minds"

example of success, but it can also be seen in the rise of the Solidar
movement in Poland, the Philippines' "people power" challenge
Marcos, the Sandinista revolution, the transition to majority rule
South Africa, and U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Future Czech pre
dent and dissident Vaclav Havel characterized the 1968 Prague Spri
uprising against Soviet domination in terms of this type of loss of legit
macy, as "merely the final act and the inevitable consequence of a l
drama originally played out chiefly in the theatre of the spirit and con-
science of society."93

VII. Applying a Symbolic Politics Approach

The study of symbolic politics as a motor of social change dictates a

tinctive research strategy. We must look for nonrational political act
and unexplained variance in outcomes. Symbols and narratives to exa
ine can be selected by frequency of use by collective actors, intensity
social response, and fungibility of context. In order to read collecti
action hermeneutically, we must map stories' plots, messages, speake
and media. Then we must make the case for a particular reading. If polit
ical change is understood as persuasion, the influence of symbolic col
tive action can be traced through changes in the transformation of colle
tive identities, collective mobilization, new public agendas, change
public policy, establishment of new institutions, and challenges
authority relationships. Studies of specific episodes of symbolic poli
can build and test hypotheses concerning the general conditions in whic
it is possible and effective. For example, I have suggested above th
socially legitimate speakers and multivalent messages will contribu
positively to the efficacy of symbolic politics. Preliminary reading
several genres of collective action are sketched below to suggest furt
The study of symbolic politics improves our general understanding
social movements. First, a symbolic politics approach helps us und
stand social movements' behavior. Many ecology movements seek t
"speak for the Earth" by contesting the dominant paradigms of Pr
ress legitimated by science, commerce, and Western religious traditions.
Defenders and opponents of the right to abortion struggle to estab

93. Vaclav Havel, Power of the Powerless: Citizens against the State in Central-Eas
Europe (New York: M.E. Shape, 1985), p. 43.
94. See Maria Garcia Pilar, "The Venezuelan Ecology Movement: Symbolic Effecti
ness, Social Practices, and Political Strategies," in Escobar and Alvarez, eds., The Ma
of Social Movements, pp. 150-70.

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Alison Brysk 583

the protagonist of the narrative: fetus or pregnant woman? The success

of anti-abortion protest in shifting the social agenda despite pro-choice
majorities in the U.S. is largely due to symbolic projections that recast
the debate to focus on the perspective of the fetus: the film "The Silent
Scream" is a powerful, literal illustration. A symbolic politics approach
helps us understand the use of "repertoires" as sites of semantic strug-
gle. Chilean women marched through the streets banging pots under
Allende to tell a story of the guardians of the hearth pushed into the
public sphere by the state's failure to provide sustenance. Under Pino-
chet, different women appropriated the same repertoire to show that a
regime legitimated by economic growth and traditional family values was
failing in the same way as its radical predecessor.
A model of symbolic politics can also help account for the unexpected-
ly persistent role of religion in shaping political protest in modernizing
societies. Religious institutions are charged with creating and manipulat-
ing symbols to produce order and meaning in social life. They draw on
sacred texts (and oral traditions) replete with canonized narratives that
provide a rich pool of plots applicable to different audiences and polit-
ical challenges.95 Liberation theologists such as Haiti's Aristide con-
sciously seek to reinterpret traditional Biblical stories or mine the sacred
text for counterhegemonic tales. Clergy are legitimate and charismatic
speakers, while churches and mosques provide highly visible public space
(stage and props), along with scheduled, scripted performances. The
community of believers itself acts as a medium for transmission of new
messages. Eschatological themes rewrite identity in a way that encour-
ages mobilization by overriding rational calculation regarding risk-
taking: martyrs go to heaven.
Symbolic politics can contribute to the study of ethnic conflict and the
resurgent forces of nationalism. Ethnic conflict involves the construction
of identity-based collectivities to struggle for both material and symbolic
resources. Many separatist movements, such as those of the Quebecois
and Basques, are economically irrational, but motivated by the main-
tenance of group identity. Ethnic identity is rooted in and maintained by
a common story of origins. Perhaps the most dramatic example can be
found among the Afrikaans-speaking whites of South Africa, with their
ritualized history of "taming of the wilderness," the Long Trek, Boer

95. On the role of religion as symbolic integrator in disparate systems, see Clifford
Geertz, Negara: The Theater-State in Bali (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980),
and Leonardo A. Villalon, "Sufi Rituals as Rallies: Religious Ceremonies in the Politics of
Senegalese State-Society Relations," Comparative Politics, 26 (July 1994) 415-37.

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584 "Hearts and Minds"

War, and founding of the apartheid system. Collective identity i

mobilized for agenda recognition, protest, and violent challenge to stat
authority by a common perception of threat.96 Threat perception is often
evoked through narratives of persecution. Persecution narratives are
prominent in the establishment, projection, and mobilization of ethni
identities by groups as diverse as Serbs, Armenians, and Israelis.97
Revolutionary movements and regimes seem especially prone to use
symbolic politics to inspire, consolidate, and deepen social transforma
tions. Both the French and Cambodian revolutions reset the calendar to
radically interrupt the historical narrative of national identity. Most rev-
olutions rename public spaces and erect statues and monuments to
spatially inscribe the revolutionary epic and claim a permanent public
stage for parades, anniversaries, and festivals. The Russian Revolution
appropriated symbols from earlier uprisings as well as the Russian
Shrovetide celebration. The French Revolution emphasized anti-clerical
pagan symbols and celebrations, as well as public rewriting of the life
stories of enemies. The reemplotment of "self-criticism" was later used
extensively by the Chinese communists, particularly during the Cultural
Revolution.98 Even the corpses of revolutionary leaders such as Mao and
Lenin were preserved as embodiments of national transformation, en-
coding powerful heroic narratives.
The incidence and impact of international reform campaigns can also
be traced to symbolic politics. The spearhead non-governmental
organization of the "international human rights regime," Amnesty
International, frames human rights violations as a series of stories about
individual political prisoners. Transnational identification with each
month's "prisoner of conscience" and the inherent legitimacy of non-
partisan rights of the person with Western publics shape Amnesty's
influence. Similarly, the international boycott of Nestle Corporation
over marketing practices for infant formula, and the subsequent adop-
tion of corporate codes of conduct probably constitutes the most suc-
cessful grassroots attempt to regulate the conduct of multinational cor-

96. Elizabeth Crighton and Martha Abele MacIver, "The Evolution of Protracted
Ethnic Group Conflict: Group Dominance and Political Underdevelopment in Northern
Ireland and Lebanon," Comparative Politics, 23 (January 1991): 127-42.
97. See Jenny Phillips, Symbol, Myth and Rhetoric: The Politics of Culture in an
Armenian American Population (New York: AMS Press, 1989).
98. For a discussion of the French experience, see Jean-Francois Lyotard, Toward the
Postmoder, ed. Robert Harvey and Mark S. Roberts, trans. Kenneth Berri (London:
Humanities Press, 1993), pp. 87-114; on Russia, see Richard Stites, "The Origins of Soviet
Ritual Style: Symbol and Festival in the Russian Revolution," in Symbols of Power, ed.
Arvidsson and Blomqvist, pp. 23-42.

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Alison Brysk 585

porations in the Third World.9 While Nestle's activities were decidedly

unethical and detrimental to Third World consumers, the selection and
success of this particular campaign had more to do with non-governmen-
tal organizations' projection of a story depicting a threat to the archetype
of maternal sustenance than the relative weight of this single multi-
national activity in the determinants of infant mortality in the Third
World. International environmental activists focus on the rainforest
rather than equally imperiled and ecologically significant zones because
the jungle is fertile, houses attractive animals, and can appeal to a story
of Paradise Lost.
A symbolic politics approach can even help us to make sense of forms
of political action not recognized as political by rational actor models-
in this case, the symbolic struggle for political corpses. In Argentina, the
sign of the corpse became a well-developed "repertoire" of collective
action: rightists and leftist guerrillas alternately kidnapped the remains
of Evita Per6n, Mothers of the Disappeared searched for and simultane-
ously denied the death of the bodies of their loved ones, an eccentric
activist detached the hands of populist leader Juan Per6n's corpse, and
Argentina's foreign relations with Britain were complicated by demands
for the repatriation of the body of nineteenth-century dictator Juan
Rosas. Lest this be thought an idiosyncrasy, we should consider the four-
year struggle between the Philippines' Imelda Marcos and Corazon
Aquino over the burial of deceased dictator Ferdinand Marcos, replete
with embalming, refrigeration, regular viewings, and a series of memori-
als. Reference has been made above to the cross-cultural phenomenon of
the irrational energy devoted to social movements for burial rights such
as the MIAs, political funerals as a site for mobilization, and the revolu-
tionary preservation of leaders' bodies. Egyptian mummification began
as a device to preserve the power of the Pharoah. The seemingly futile
political preoccupation with absent actors who have passed beyond inter-
ests is actually a struggle by the living to wrest meaning from mortality,
to situate the dead in history, to tell a story that can reshape hearts and
Bringing symbolic politics back in sheds light on the dark side of poli-
tics, too often slighted by those who view collective action as a market-
place rather than a contest for hearts and minds. Scholars of collective
action must begin by according our subjects the same interpretive facul-
ties by which we apprehend them. Perhaps then we can make sense of
those moments in which the powerless make history-by making sense.

99. See Kathryn Sikkink, "Codes of Conduct: The WHO/UNICEF Case," Inter-
national Organization, 40 (Autumn 1986): 815-40.

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