Academic journal article Sociological Focus

The Microlevel Discourse of Social Movement Framing: Debating Antiwar Protests on a University Listserv

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

The Microlevel Discourse of Social Movement Framing: Debating Antiwar Protests on a University Listserv

Article excerpt

Over the past two decades, researchers have increasingly employed frame analysis in attempts to understand the genesis, development, and outcomes of social movements. Relatively little attention, however, has focused on the microlevel processes involved in generating social movement frames. This paper is an effort to link theories of social movement framing with the methodology of discourse analysis. In the following, an online debate over the legitimacy of protests against the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States provides qualitative data for a discourse analysis of microlevel framing processes. The debate occurred on a university listserv and involved more than 100 messages offered by 67 individuals over 16 days. Analyses reveal four distinct framing contests in the discourse. An initiating contest regarding a specific antiwar protest is found to generate three additional contests, the first about antiwar protests more generally, the second about the war in Iraq itself, and the third about the appropriateness of holding such a debate on a listserv sent to university employees. A framing process schema is offered to represent conflict between social movement and countermovement participants across the discourse.

On March 19, 2003, a campus peace organization (CPO) at a public university of approximately 13,000 students located in the midwestern United States posted the following email announcement:

CPO, a university-recognized organization, announces the intentions of its members to join the National Strike called for tomorrow, March 20, the day after the war on Iraq began.

We will not go to work. We will not go to class.

All are welcome to join us on the quad, in front of the library, in a vigil for peace and justice.

This email was posted on the university's faculty and staff listservs. It inspired a sometimes contentious electronic discussion composed of approximately 120 separate messages posted by 67 different individuals over the course of 16 days.

In the following, we treat this listserv discussion as data and apply the sibling logics of frame and discourse analysis. Our data provide an excellent opportunity to contribute to the social movement framing literature because this discourse does not present some of the problems associated with data typical to social movement framing research (see Johnston 2002). Such research typically relies on documents generated by social movement organizations and/or interviews with activists; some complement these with documents and/or interviews representing social movement adversaries and others focus on media representations of social movements.

These documents, interviews, and media products do not provide actual texts of microlevel framing processes. Documents directly reveal only the products of such processes. Interviews and media products may provide texts about such processes, but not texts of the actual processes themselves. Therefore, relatively little attention is paid to the microlevel processes that generate social movement frames and counterframes. Our data, however, do provide a text of microlevel framing processes related to the social movement against the war in Iraq. This text was produced through the voluntary participation of a self-selected group of individuals that included active opponents and supporters of the invasion as well as others who stated no position regarding the war.


The application of frame analysis specifically to the sociological analysis of social movements is a relatively recent occurrence. Such applications have, however, experienced a significant growth in popularity since the introduction by David Snow and colleagues (1986). While the current application of the concept of frame dates back at least to Bateson (1972), the sociological application of frame analysis owes more to the work of Erving Goffman (1974).

According to Goffman, frames are the elements from which definitions of situations are constructed; they are "schemata of interpretation" (1974:21) that condition our perception of and involvement in social interaction. …

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