Volume 9, Issue 4
Popular Intellectuals and Social Movements: Framing Protest in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Michiel Baud and Rosanne Rutten, eds. Cambridge University Press, 2005. 222 pp.
As part of a larger effort to capture the public imagination and galvanize support, social movements invest considerable time and energy developing frames that interpret and articulate a particular understanding of social reality. The stakes for movements are potentially enormous: organizations that can offer meaningful and resonant frames are better equipped to mobilize activists, influence public opinion, and ultimately, enhance their leverage—all of which can significantly improve their chances of affecting political change. The importance of framing has not escaped social movement scholars, many of whom have provided careful analyses of how movements develop, contest, transform, and deploy a range of possible frames in a variety of movement settings. This attention to framing has quite properly incorporated cultural considerations into movement scholarship (thereby balancing out an otherwise strongly structural tendency) by refocusing on the content, identities, and messages of movements, not just the organizations and political environments in which they operate.
Yet this attention to framing has been somewhat skewed, insofar as scholars have spent much of their time examining framing processes and mechanisms rather than on the individuals who perform the actual work of constructing meaning and interpreting reality. This lack of agency is a critical gap that this volume, edited by Michiel Baud and Rosanne Rutten, seeks to fill. In their introduction, Baud and Rutten note that although “framing is the work of individuals…many studies tend to invest social movements with an agency of their own, and fail to take a closer look at the men and women who are instrumental in interpreting conditions and articulating demands” (p. 2). The eight essays they have assembled address this issue from a number of different angles. Together, the authors cover a diverse range of movements and countries, from the importation and transformation of Gandhi's non-violent principles from India to the United States , to the impact that different formative experiences had on groups of nationalist intellectuals in Mali and Nigeria , to framing disputes and factionalism within al-Qaeda.
Given the diversity of topics and geographies, it would be easy for a volume of this type to lack a set of integrating themes apart from their basic focus on the individuals involved in framing processes. Fortunately, Baud and Rutten are able to tease out a number of ideas that draw connections among these contributions and advance our thinking beyond the simple declaration that “agency matters.” At the very least, this book pushes us to consider “whose agency matters—and how?” Not all individuals are equipped to engage in framing, and not all individuals who articulate frames succeed in persuading others of their interpretation. In fact, success in framing requires a certain minimum amount of credibility and standing within a movement. This credibility is not necessarily tied to one's status or occupation. Indeed, the book is built on the premise that framing work can be carried out by a range of popular or organic intellectuals.
At the same time, as several contributors argue, an individual's authority to promulgate a frame (and the success of that frame) is often contested by others inside the movement. Pablo S. Bose's work on the movement opposing India 's Narmada dam traces one such dispute, as grassroots activists challenged the individuals who had served as very public ambassadors and spokespeople for anti-dam forces. The point of contention in this case stemmed from activists' perception that these prominent individuals lacked the local knowledge and ties to represent the interests of activists in an authentic and legitimate way. Quintan Wiktorowicz's chapter on intra-movement framing contests focuses on this point as well, arguing that that in al-Qaeda, actors disputed each others' frames by engaging in various strategies to discredit and challenge the expertise, commitment, and religious values of opponents. These chapters suggest that we must rethink the mechanisms associated with frame disputes. The struggle over framing that occurs in all movements is not only about the content of possible alternatives but also about the character, identity, and credibility of the individuals who do the framing.
A second key theme of this book involves the role that popular intellectuals play as cultural brokers, mediating between local activists and a broader political environment. This brokerage role is possible because popular intellectuals inhabit two worlds simultaneously: they tend to emerge from the grassroots, and thus enjoy specific and grounded knowledge of a particular movement, its participants, and their preferences. At the same time, the individuals have easier access to an external political community, including fellow intellectuals in other societies and movements. This middle position, which calls to mind Sidney Tarrow's recent work on “rooted cosmopolitans,” makes it possible for popular intellectuals to act as two-way transmitters. On one hand, they are able to take advantage of their transnational linkages to access innovative movement frames, tactics, and strategies, and then repackage them to appeal to local actors. Sean Chabot's work on American civil rights leaders traces this type of interaction, as he notes how religious leaders in the south emphasized the compatibility of non-violence with Christian doctrine in order to ensure a sympathetic public hearing. Reverse transmission is also possible, as Joanne Rappaport shows in her study of indigenous rights groups and the intellectuals who took local discourses and brought them to the attention of national audiences.
Taken together, this book offers some interesting insights into framing processes and explores its ideas through eight detailed case studies located in countries that are often understudied in the movement literature. As such, this book would be of interest to those interested in social movement theory as well as those with a particular empirical interest in movements located outside of Europe and North America . While the book is somewhat narrow in scope—it does not explore, for example, the various ways in which states can and do attempt to influence who engages in framing or what frames are even possible—it reminds us that messages require a messenger, and that we would be well served to pay attention not just to the frames, but the individuals who stand behind them.