Social Movement Publics (March 2012)

Social Movement Publics

This presentation develops a concept of ‘social movement publics’ as a means to understand contemporary collective action, both theoretically and empirically. Drawing together an interdisciplinary field, ‘publics’ brings attention both to collective communicative practices (public spheres) and the production of discursive-spatial relationships (public spaces), emphasizing the analysis of publicity, plurality, and power within political actions. Oriented toward social change, social movement publics emerge through constitutive practices that create collective identities and relational practices that coordinate broader collective action. I argue it is these processes of identification and collectivization that define social movement publics within larger context of unequal, competing publics, making them epistemologically visible and politically significant.

The concept of social movement publics was developed in an empirical study of competing discourses about a controversial urban redevelopment project in Vancouver, Canada. Comparing documents from anti-gentrification activists with those of the mass media and city government, I analyzed the campaign for social housing, focusing on rhetorical techniques of claim-making and identity construction. I show that the activists’ constitutive and relational practices led to the formation of a social movement public, transforming a specific local struggle against gentrification into a larger movement for social housing. Building on this case, I suggest the study of social movement publics, which emphasizes emergent political identities, issues and actions, lends to a rethinking of collective actions. Conceptually and politically, it locates in the discursive actions of marginalized social actors alternative social and political practices that have the potential to revitalize current notions of democratic participation.

Presented at the Discourse, Communication, Conversation Conference, Loughborough, UK (March 2012).

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