"Meet Them Where They Are": Social Movement Communication in a Culture of Personal Politics




Johnson, JL

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This dissertation asks, how do social movement communicators attempt to strike up a societal conversation in a culture of personal politics? A conversation with society is essentially social, yet the current media landscape increasingly demands a personalized style of communication. Drawing from three sources of evidence—a year of fieldwork in a social movement organization, interviews with 15 communication directors for advocacy organizations, and a discourse analysis of New York Times articles on personalization—this dissertation furthers sociology in two specific ways. First, the evidence supports a separation of traditional media advocacy, which has been defined as social movement attempts for journalistic attention, from a movement’s communicative work of strategizing for and drawing from sources of attention across a stretched, distracted, and noisy media terrain. Second, this dissertation demonstrates that the media ecosystem is not only a forum for public discussion but a social structure of public dialogue, producing a schema with which movement communicators form their attempts at reaching a potential audience. This dissertation concludes that the communicative schema of the early 21st century encourages a radically-practical deference to emotion, narrative, identity, and personal biography. This “communicative personalism” promotes cultural conditions that are both enabling and limiting; it opens up a wide range of deep, personal involvements in silos of the civil sphere while closing down other possibilities of translation and dialogue across political enclaves.



Sociology, Attention, Culture, Media, Personalization, Public sphere, Social movements