By Jules Boykoff
Social Movement Studies Journal
late 2010, NGOs and grassroots activists flocked to the United Nations
climate change conference in Cancún, Mexico where they engaged in a
variety of creative actions to raise awareness, challenge proposed
policies, offer innovative alternatives, and vie for media attention.
Sierra Club members stuffed their heads into the Cancún sand as a
symbolic critique of specific countries’ unwillingness to take action to
mitigate climate disruption. Greenpeace and tcktcktck coordinated an
underwater performance to highlight rising sea levels. La Via Campesina,
a network of peasant organizations, choreographed a cross-country
caravan that culminated in Cancún. Meanwhile, groups like 350.org
orchestrated human sculpture installations around the world that were
designed to be visible from space. Dissident citizens knew they needed
to play to the media’s penchant for novelty while not coming across as
too bizarre for the mainstream-media-consuming public. In Re:Imagining Change,
authors Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning offer a constructive
framework for riding that fine line, proffering a creative approach for
political activists to rethink their tactics and strategies, imbuing
them with story-based narratives in the hopes of ramping up
effectiveness. This is an engaging, accessible book with use value for
social-movement scholars and activists alike.
The book chimes with ideas from Thomas Kuhn’s classic treatment of paradigm shifts in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, focusing on the discursive dimensions of paradigm shifts and tacitly anteing up an agentic, “story-based strategy campaign model” for understanding such macro-change. Social movement scholars have long leveled their analytical attention on the concept of framing, usually settling into one of two tracks in dialectical tension: (1) the examination of mass-media frames that appear in the news, or (2) the exploration of how activists can frame their grievances in ways that are most convincing to policymakers, the media, and the general public. Re:Imagining Change falls squarely in the second track, offering a variety of paths for activists to gain greater prominence for their preferred frames.
The book hinges on the idea that stories, if told with both vigor and rigor, can be powerful agents of socio-political change. The authors strive for “holistic social change practices” by which they mean concertedly “shifting from issues to values, supplementing organization building with movement building, and exploring creative new strategies for confronting systemic problems” (11). Creativity is key, and is consistently foregrounded as the authors present their toolbox for effective activism.
Reinsborough and Canning introduce numerous concepts to help activists re-tool and re-tune their messages. A cornerstone concept is the “meme” (pronounced like team), which they define as “a unit of self-replicating cultural information (e.g., idea, slogan, melody, ritual, symbol) that spreads virally from imagination to imagination and generation to generation” (122). They liken memes to information packets that help convey stories that can challenge “control memes,” which are often concocted by public-relations specialists and politicians to reinforce the status quo (35-38). The memes Reinsborough and Canning promote aim to destabilize rather than reproduce the machinations of hegemony, forging a fresh vision of possibility rooted in equity and equality. The authors encourage activists to make use of “psychic breaks”—by which they mean “moments when status quo stories no longer hold true, and a critical mass of people can’t deny that what is happening in the world is out of alignment with their values”—as vital pivots on the hard-trammeled road toward social justice (105).
Being keenly aware of one’s audience is crucial, and a central element in Re:Imagining Change is distinguishing between the “the story of the battle” and “the battle of the story.” The former entails mobilizing those with whom you share core values, while the latter involves reaching out to bystander publics as persuasively as possible. “The story of the battle” includes solidarity-building activities like sharing facts and deepening analysis in order to motivate like-minded people to take action. “The battle of the story” builds from there, with social movements taking their story-driven messages to the general public in hopes of gaining new recruits and more widespread support. For Reinsborough and Canning, “the battle of the story is the larger struggle to determine whose stories are told, how they are framed, how widely these stories are heard, and how deeply they impact the dominant discourse” (46). Given that activists can make claims and adopt frames in the “the story of the battle” that they would not use in “the battle of the story” for fear of alienating potential supporters, it would be interesting to get the authors’ assessment of how social media and self-surveillance culture (the YouTube-ificiation of dissent, if you will) might be erasing the seemingly sharp border between these two realms. Social media, which modern-day activists use with abandon, may well undercut this theoretically useful, dichotomous heuristic, and, more importantly, undermine activists’ efforts to message specific groups in particular ways. It would also be interesting if the authors explicitly worked the concept of political opportunity structure into their analysis. Given the authors’ impressive ability to convey complexity in forthright fashion, I imagine they would be able to bring political opportunity structure alive for contemporary activists, thereby bridging the gap between academia and activist circles in ways that could help foster movement success.
In the twenty-first century we find ourselves at a crossroads in terms of the practice of dissent. How can activists slice through the din of the 24/7 news media-o-rama? How can social movements not only impact policymakers but political culture more generally? Re:Imagining Change antes up concrete answers to these questions. As such, this book holds promise for undergraduate courses on protest and social change as well media politics and civic engagement. The authors offer a wide range of real-world examples of dissident citizenship to illuminate the concepts in their book, from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to Iraq Veterans Against the War to ecological justice movements. Bringing this work into conversation with scholarly research on framing and collective action could enliven classroom discussions. And the book is certainly an excellent resource for practicing activists.