In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rhetoric and Social Movements

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks and Edited Collections
  • Review Essays and Important Commentaries
  • Popular Culture and Social Movement Rhetoric

Communication Rhetoric and Social Movements
Christina R. Foust
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0300


US communication scholars turned to social movements in the 1950s to advance theory past its origins in public address. Social movements presented a multiplicity of voices that nonetheless could be heard as one collective demand. As protests against racism, sexism, and war erupted in the 1960s, rhetoric scholars recognized the need for theory and criticism to account for not only the varied number of people involved in social movements—but also the uninstitutionalized, non-normative demands or expressions made. Discourses emanating from intersectional feminism, liberal feminism, gay liberation, Black Power and civil rights protestors, demanded that we center power, privilege, and oppression as organized by social identities. Rhetorical theory was slow, in many ways, to heed this call, as work of the 1970s–1990s continued to rely on resource mobilization or organizational leadership models. However, trends in larger academic conversations influenced rhetorical theory, and “new social movement” study underscored the importance of identities to activism. By the 2000s, the term “social movement” fell out of favor. Instead, concepts such as counterpublics, outlaw rhetoric, vernacular discourse and rhetoric, resistance, emerged. Rather than offering generalizable contributions to “social movement rhetoric,” scholars turned to specific tactics in movements like feminism, HIV/AIDS activism, and the environmental movement, to theorize consciousness-raising, remembrance and polemics, and direct actions to prevent logging. As tactics grew increasingly mediated with the advent of digital technology through the 2000s—particularly “Web 2.0” applications like Facebook and Twitter, which appeared to fuel global actions in the 2010s—rhetoric scholars questioned how much the medium affected the message. Debates over technological determinism return us to questions invited in 1960s protests, such as whether or not “body rhetoric” (like the Black Panthers’ tactic of carrying of assault rifles into the California State Capitol) is effective and ethical. Social movement rhetoric scholars today follow historic protests against racism and a time of swift action against some prominent sexual harassers. As the dust continues to settle following the 2020 US presidential election, scholars are also taking stock of misinformation, echo chambers, and a number of actions which could be construed as right-wing populism and white supremacy. Finally, as youth activists lead the way out of resource intensive, toxic systems that have been oppressing so many/so much for so long, we may consider social movement rhetoric as an inspiration and blueprint for living life in alignment with life on the planet.

Textbooks and Edited Collections

Students of social change may begin with textbooks and edited collections. Two books that have been present on many a Social Movement Rhetoric course syllabus come from Stewart, et al. 2012; and Bowers, et al. 2009. The former offers more of a social scientific entry into the subfield, concentrating on how rhetoric serves a social movement. Readers seeking a more critical, activist-driven account of social movement may begin with the Bowers, et al. 2009, textbook for their class. The remaining edited collections in this section tend toward a more advanced undergraduate, graduate, and scholarly audience, but will have chapters that speak well to general audiences. Morris and Browne 2013, a series of edited volumes, now out of print but likely available in libraries or used book sellers, chronicle some of the top published journal articles in the field. Asen and Brouwer 2001, set a standard for the study of counterpublics, and is an excellent companion to the collection published sixteen years later, Foust, et al. 2017. Foust, et al. 2017 reflects on the diffusion of various concepts related to the study of social change (including counterpublics and social movement), with original case studies that will speak to general readers and activists. Crick 2021 expands on the terrain mapped by Foust et al., and provides excellent case studies on media’s intersection with social movement rhetoric. Finally, Alexander, et al. 2018 offers more of a humanistic take on social movement rhetoric, demonstrating the editors’ vantage as English faculty.

  • Alexander, Jonathan, Susan C. Jarratt, and Nancy Welch, eds. 2018. Unruly rhetorics: Protest, persuasion, and publics. Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.

    This edited collection engages humanistic social and cultural theory to ask how bodies gather and voice protest. With case studies on indigenous activism, contemporary feminist, queer, and democratic occupations, this collection will appeal particularly to graduate seminars on social movement rhetoric.

  • Asen, Robert, and Daniel C. Brouwer, eds. 2001. Counterpublics and the state. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

    This edited collection lays the groundwork for studying rhetoric and social movement through counterpublic theory. The introduction provides an excellent overview of how critical humanities scholars theorized with and against Jurgen Habermas’s normative theory of the public sphere to develop counterpublic discourse. Case studies consider how claims to marginalized identities (rather than Habermas’s encouragement to “bracket” identities), and performances of counterpublic style (rather than rational-critical debate), matter as resistance.

  • Bowers, John W., Donovan J. Ochs, Richard J. Jensen, and David P. Schulz. 2009. The rhetoric of agitation and control. 3d ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

    This text presents social movement rhetoric as a response to institutional strategies of control such as avoidance. Agitation is “persistent, long-term advocacy for social change, where resistance to the change is also persistent and long term” (p. 3). Students new to social movement rhetoric will benefit from the tactical vocabulary and historic examples the book provides, as it considers agitation manifesting through such forms as petitions, nonviolent resistance, and confrontation.

  • Crick, Nathan, ed. 2021. The rhetoric of social movements: Networks, power, and new media. Oxford: Routledge.

    This rich collection focuses on tactical case studies, most of which engage media in various contemporary movements. Readers may appreciate the compositional and stylistic diversity of scholars, perspectives, and rhetoric, including chapters on marches and memes, intersectional rhetorics and histories, and engagements with Black Lives Matter, indigenous movements, and LGBTQ advocacy.

  • Foust, Christina R., Amy Pason, and Kate Zittlow Rogness, eds. 2017. What democracy looks like: The rhetoric of social movements and counterpublics. Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press.

    This edited volume unpacks the similarities and differences between social movement and counterpublic as theoretical cousins. The editor’s introduction provides a comprehensive map of the field of social movement rhetoric in its complexity, while chapters engage in critical histories of scholarship. The book also shares case studies that provide clear examples of how to apply a social movement or counterpublic lens to contemporary resistance.

  • Morris, Charles E., III, and Stephen H. Browne, eds. 2013. Readings on the rhetoric of social protest. 3d ed. State College: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press.

    Though out of print, this collection of reprinted articles from journals and handbooks provides many examples of social movement rhetoric analysis. It is like an archive of disciplinary “greatest hits” for the rhetoric subfield of US communication studies and the approach to resistance, protest, and social movement rhetoric.

  • Stewart, Charles J., Craig Allen Smith, and Robert E. Denton Jr. 2012. Persuasion and social movements. 6th ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

    One of the discipline’s most commonly assigned texts for undergraduate courses on social movements, this book is an elaboration of the functional approach. It follows social movements as uninstitutionalized collectivities that use persuasion to meet persistent needs and goals, with life cycles and leadership styles. The book also includes chapters to help students understand conspiracy and institutional counter-responses.

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