A review and analysis on theory of narrative in social movements . Essay Example

  • Category:
  • Document type:
  • Level:
  • Page:
  • Words:



Activists are influential part of society and this can be attributed to the power of a good story. Activists may be politicians, religious leaders, advertisers who have the ability to move people to specific actions. Activists use stories to influence people to change their status quo and embrace change. The power held by stories is not only in the massage itself but also in the ability to draw peoples’ attention. True practical applicability and ability of conviction to relate to the story also draws people to action. Apart from this, ability to tell a good story is based on the norms and values of the story itself. An analysis of stories told within movements can help people understand the constraints that activists face. This is common when applying stories in cultural contexts that may conflict with different institutions. In their narrations, activists challenge cultural norms and values that may work against them. Just like other individuals, they are risk averse and try to evaluate cultural norms before they decide whether or not to defy them. Critical evaluation of story telling in social movements can help understand why activist sometimes succeed and others fail in light of cultural diversification (Polletta, 2000, p. 1). This article reviews and analyses the theory of story telling in social movements by activists.

Why use stories?

The concepts of ideology, identity speechifying, belief and communication have all been cited as the roles culture plays in social movements. In social movements, frames are sets of beliefs that give meaning to and explain events in a manner that can move people and gain support and demobilize oppositions. In social movements there are frames used to drum up support, recruit new members, condemn opponents, and maintain coherence. In social movements, successful frames give the groups a sense of identity and collective efficiency. The success of frames is dependent on the features of the frames themselves and those of the specific group. Frames that are consistently clear and coherent have more persuasive power than those that that lack these attributes. Motivational, analytical and problem solving should be interconnected comprehensively to support the course of the social movement. Such frames should also be in consistence to what members, followers or audiences perceive to be correct. For frames to be effective to a specific audience, they should be held with at most importance and strongly held therein. This means that they should relate to the everyday experiences that people can associate with. Additionally they should be in line with popular beliefs, myths and folktale associated with a given culture (Polletta, 2000, p. 4).

Proponents of framing theorists base their arguments in accordance to the cultural stories and use them for expression. However, frames may not always work as intended by activist. Stating that effective frames are clear and coherent is debatable. This is because they have not been empirically tested to prove their viability.

It is not certain whether clear frames are more effective than indefinite ones. Frames that are consistent, problem oriented and prognostic have not been proven to work better than those that are not. It should be clearly understood how persuasion or moving people to action specifically works, other than framing theories allegedly works. It is not also clear how audiences influence frames in social movements. This is because framing efforts are for multiple and diverse movements and audiences. All frames must appeal to all these audiences which would seem to be reverberation within different movements’ members. There is also the debate of cultural significance and its relation to audiences’ experiences (Polletta, 2000, p. 7).

In the political arena, politicians and activists use stories as a tool of attracting and influencing followers. They can be used as a way of convincing followers to join a specific political affiliation. It is also a tool used to rebuke and ridicule opponents and non-supporters. In using stories, activists face the cultural challenge and sometimes have to master it or defy it. As a result, they sometimes succeed and others they do not (Polletta, 2000, p. 9).

The strategy of story telling

In story telling in different movements, it is possible to isolate different aspects to suit different audiences using the same narrative. Stories told by activists provide individuals with insights on how to make decisions to participate in the intended activities. The extent to which stories impact movements can be measured by the stories told. Activists use persuasive stories not only for recruitment purposes but also for purposes of funding, media exposure, and also to influence relevant decision making authorities. Telling personal stories in this context turns shadowed experiences into heroic figures and complex goals are turned into moral lessons. Sometimes personal experiences may be humiliating and require tellers to be passive other than agents of the narration. This is strategy that seeks to avoid activists themselves being seen as pitiable victims in their on capacity. This ensures that the intention of the story is reached other than repelling listeners (Polletta, 2000, p. 12).

Different people conceptualise stories differently. Activists and politicians use this aspect to affect emotions and understanding in people. For instance, abolitionists who were victims of slavery told stories in a passive other than active form. The essence is to educate moral intuition of audiences that would prompt them to act accordingly. Activists tell stories in ways that explain and highlight their insights and fortitudes. The strategies of story telling by activists in movements take diverse strategies with the single aim of compelling desired actions. For instance, a victim of child abuse would tell the story differently to a social movement than they would tell it in a court of law seeking compensation. In the movement, they would focus on recovery and in court of law they would tell of their shame, grief and negative effects on their lives. If such a case was to be aired in the media, listeners, viewers and readers would see the views as persuasive widespread. It is a case of the same story told in different situations hence requiring different presentations (Polletta, 2000, p. 16).

Sometimes activists get the specific emotional response they were seeking from narrations. However, the action required forthwith is not achieved. In such cases, activists use allusiveness of the story. They can also look at the institutional norms that the stories can be associated with. Activists can handle such challenges using the conventions of narrations to achieve inequities. They can, for instance, turn a courtroom hearing into an informational seminar. Gaining storytelling authority in different setting can help in achieving intended impact (Polletta, 2000, p. 29).


An in-depth study in stories that are told in social movements can help us understand mobilization dynamics. The frames convince institutional values and norms into emphasizing the logic to which such frames are comprehensible or not. Therefore, we can understand why people prefer collective activism other than individual efforts. The aim of activists to bring desired change is faced with challenges, such as cultural, that story telling can help unravel. Due to such challenges, activism calls for practical creativity and canny ways of persuading listeners. They cannot just tell similar canonical stories over time, but they can tell different stories that revolve around the subject matter. Stories in social settings should also be believable, appropriate and portray seriousness. Setting may be different in terms of time and listeners hence diverse evaluations by different institutions. Finally, as culture may be a hindrance to effective change, activists have used the nature of stories to overcome such issues.


Polletta F, 2000, Contending Stories: Narrative in Social Movements. Qualitative Sociology
, vol

21,no 4, pp. 1-33.