Theorizing meaning construction in social movements: Symbolic structures and interpretation during the irish land war, 1879-1882

Sociological Theory 15 (3):249-276 (1997)
Abstract
Though the process of meaning construction is widely recognized to be a crucial factor in the mobilization, unfolding, and outcomes of social movements, the conditions and mechanisms that allow meaning construction and cultural transformation are often misconceptualized and/or underanalyzed. Following a "tool kit" perspective on culture, dominant social movement theory locates meaning only as it is embodied in concrete social practices. Meaning construction from this perspective is a matter of manipulating static symbols and meaning to achieve goals. I argue instead that meaning is located in the structure of culture, and that the condition and mechanism of meaning construction and transformation are, respectively, the metaphoric nature of symbolic systems, and individual and collective interpretation of those systems in the face of concrete events. This theory is demonstrated by analyzing, through textual analysis, meaning construction during the Irish Land War, 1879-1882, showing how diverse social groups constructed new and emergent symbolic meanings and how transformed collective understandings contributed to specific, yet unpredictable, political action and movement outcomes. The theoretical model and empirical case demonstrates that social movement analysis must examine the metaphoric logic of symbolic systems and the interpretive process by which people construct meaning in order to fully explain the role of culture in social movements, the agency of movement participants, and the contingency of the course and outcomes of social movements
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