Social protest should not be conceptualized instrumentally as depending only upon social networks and material resources. Such factors provide, rather, the boundary conditions for symbolic action. In order to seize power, one must first seize the social stage. If social protest is conceived as social performance, the projection of new meanings is illuminated, the writing of new scripts that mediate between deep cultural structures and contemporary conditions, creating scenarios for civil repair and social justice. Social protest is a civil art. It aims to fuse citizen-audiences with narratives of good overcoming evil, with heroic characters and the real-life actors who perform them. In large and fragmented societies, however, even the most creative protest performances must gain access to the means of symbolic production, grabbing the attention of mainstream and/or social media. And they must maneuver subtly in the here and now to achieve persuasive mis-en-scene. Structures of power, both material and hermeneutical, impede but also facilitate such efforts. After setting out this new approach conceptually, I will illustrate it with references to widely varied protest performances over the last half century.

Jeffrey C. Alexander is the Lillian Chavenson Saden Professor of Sociology at Yale University. With Ron Eyerman, Philip Smith, and Frederick Wherry, he is Co-Director of the Center for Cultural Sociology (CCS). Jeffrey Alexander works in the areas of theory, culture, and politics. An exponent of the “strong program” in cultural sociology, he has investigated the cultural codes and narratives that inform diverse areas of social life.