Deva Woodly: The resonance of public discourse in social movements

We sat down earlier this year with Deva Woodly, Assistant Professor in Politics, to learn about her research comparing the living wage and marriage equality movements. According to Woodly, the political discourses “shared through social networks online, or spoken in the meeting houses of civic and social movement organizations … provide an empirical record of what members of the polity acknowledge as politically valuable as well as clues to the logics that people commonly use to associate their beliefs and values with the problems that they recognize in the world as they find it.”

Woodly recently published The Politics of Common Sense: How Social Movements Use Public Discourse to Change Politics and Win (Oxford Press, 2015).

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


NSSR: What is your research about, and what are you finding?

DW: My research is about how ordinary people impact politics. I’m particularly interested in the way that people are able to articulate and implement solutions to their concerns from within or outside of the political process.

My first book, The Politics of Common Sense, is a comparison of two social movements – the living wage movement and the marriage equality movement – with a focus on their activities and progress — between 1994 and 2004. I look at the ways that we can evaluate the success of those two movements, and I’m particularly concerned with the ways that communication—the communication of movements, and the communication from the people involved—influences the acceptance of political movements, and the ability for these movements to be enduring and effective over time.

The living wage movement gets a lot of policy ordinances passed with pressure and skilled organizing, but – in contrast to the marriage equality movement – it does not focus very much energy on changing the general political discourse around wages, employment, and politics. Instead, it is focused on discrete policy fights.

My research reveals that this focus ends up yielding wins that are less durable and less effective than those that are enacted after periods of widespread public debate. I argue that it matters how movements communicate to the general public, and whether they are able to persuade the public of the importance of their issue – and not just how they put immediate pressure on decision-makers – if they want to succeed over the long term.

First, policy wins can be ephemeral if public attention was never engaged in the issue, or, if it quickly shifts from the issue. We see this with the living wage. Many of the ordinances that were hard fought and decisively won in that period also went on to be unenforced because there was no sustained public attention to incentivize local governments to create well-functioning enforcement apparatuses.

And second, with consistent and resonant framing of movement issues, activists can change the way people think about their issue. This does not necessarily mean that activists can make everyone agree with them – we see no evidence that this is the case. Certainly, the marriage movement has, until very recently, been in an opinion environment in which the majority disagrees (a large plurality still does, by the way). However, by using consistently resonant discourse, activists can influence whether people think their issue is political, whether they think it’s important for the country, and they can change what people generally think is at stake in their decision about the issue.

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Lara Golesorkhi addresses discrimination against Muslim women in employment

The Muslim veil is not only a garment demonstrating religious faith, but also a highly politicized symbol, as seen by the proliferation of policies that regulate its visibility. In Germany, for example, the “veil has been perceived as a tool for gender segregation … and most notably a marker of cultural dissociation,” writes Lara Golesorkhi, a doctoral student in Politics at The New School for Social Research, in her recent piece published on the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s website.

This summer, Golesorkhi was one of ten winners in an international competition, co-sponsored by the United Nations’ Academic Impact initiative and the UnHate Foundation, part of the Benetton Group, for her proposal addressing Muslim women’s employment rights in Germany. Winners were chosen based on proposals that aimed to end various forms of intolerance, and each will receive 20,000 euros for the implementation of projects over the coming months.

WoW Full Logo
Logo Design: Eliana Perez

In addition to raising awareness of the challenges that Muslim women face in securing jobs in Germany’s employment sectors, Golesorkhi’s proposal is “to promote tolerance, equality, and respect, in the workplace, and to increase the number of Muslim women in the German labor market.” The project, linked here, has several components: a program to prepare Muslim women for the German job market; a launch of two initiatives, the iPledge Campaign and the WithorWithout (WoW) Campaign; and a fellowship program to recruit leaders for the project.

The Initiative
Golesorkhi’s proposed initiative stems from her goal for Muslim women to become “the face of the solution we’re seeking.” The aim is to give Muslim women the opportunity to gain work experience, and to develop leadership and communications skills. The program’s “Job Ready” program will provide formal preparation for the German job market through a series of professional development workshops and trainings.
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Banu Bargu delivers keynote address at SOAS University of London

Banu Bargu, Associate Professor of Politics, presented a keynote lecture at SOAS University of London in October 2015 called “Why did Bouazizi Burn Himself? Fatal Politics and the Politics of Fate.”

Her book, Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons (Columbia University Press, 2014), was awarded the 2015 First Book Award from the Foundations of Political Theory Section of the American Political Science Association, she has also recently published two articles: one on self-destructive protest (Angelaki: Journal of the Humanities, 2014) and another on enforced disappearances (Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, 2014).

Listen to the keynote below.


Bio | Bargu received her PhD from Cornell University in 2008. Her main area of specialization is political theory, especially modern and contemporary political thought, with a thematic focus on theories of sovereignty, resistance, and biopolitics. Since publishing the book Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons, Bargu is currently working on a book-length manuscript on rethinking the materialist tradition, especially in light of the posthumous publication of Louis Althusser’s work on the aleatory. 

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Miriam Ticktin presents annual Elizabeth Colson lecture at Oxford University

Miriam Ticktin, Associate Professor of Anthropology and co-director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, delivered the annual Elizabeth Colson lecture in June 2015 at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, England. In the talk titled “Innocence: Understanding a Political Concept,” Ticktin explored the idea of innocence in the context of humanitarianism, and the roles of “the child, the trafficked victim, the migrant, asylum seeker, the enemy combatant and the animal.” Ticktin has also been awarded a one-year fellowship at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study for this academic year.

Listen to Ticktin’s full lecture below.


Bio | Ticktin received her PhD in Anthropology at Stanford University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France, and an MA in English Literature from Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.  Professor Ticktin works at the intersections of the anthropology of medicine and science, law, and transnational and postcolonial feminist theory. She is co-editor of the journal Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and Development. Her most recent book, Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France (University of California Press, 2011), was awarded one of two 2012 William A. Douglass Prizes in Europeanist Anthropology by Society for the Anthropology of Europe. Recent publications include “Transnational Humanitarianism“ (Annual Review of Anthropology, 2014), “Cross-species craziness: Animals, Anthropomorphism and Mental Illness” (Books Forum, Biosocieties, 2014) and “Humanitarianism as Planetary Politics” in At the Limits of Justice: Women of Colour on Terror (University of Toronto Press, 2014).