Advances in the Visual Analysis of Social Movements: Volume 35


Table of contents

(16 chapters)

Like any established and mature body of scholarship, social movements research has changed, evolved, and grown over its decades. Now a robust and vibrant field in its own right, it has seen interpretive paradigms and theoretical frameworks come and go, and in some cases come again. A variety of frameworks and approaches have been used, emphasizing collective behavior, mobilizing structures, resource mobilization, cultural politics, social psychology, identities, cognition, framing, discourses, narratives, and emotions.

The news of recent mobilizations in Arab, European, and North-American countries quickly spread across the globe. Well before written reports analyzing the unfolding mobilizations, images of protests circulated widely through television channels, print newspapers, internet websites, and social media platforms. Pictures and videos of squares full of people protesting against their governments became the symbols of a new wave of contention that quickly spread from Tunisia to many other countries. Pictures and videos showing the gathering of people in Tahrir square (Egypt), Puerta del Sol (Spain), and Zuccotti Park (United States) quickly became vivid tools of “countervisuality” (Mirzoeff, 2011) that opposed the roaring grassroots political participation of hundreds of thousands people to the silent decisions taken in government and corporation buildings by small groups of politicians and managers. The presence, and relevance, of images in mobilizations of social movements is no novelty. Encounters with social movements have always been intrinsically tied to the visual sense. Activists articulate visual messages, their activities are represented in photos and video sequences, and they are ultimately rendered visible, or invisible, in the public sphere. Social movements produce and evoke images, either as a result of a planned, explicit, and strategic effort, or accidentally, in an unintended or undesired manner. At the same time, social movements are perceived by external actors and dispersed audiences via images which are produced both by themselves and others.

This chapter offers a symbolic perspective on the Egyptian Revolution. It does so by analyzing the transformation of Khaled Said, a 28-year-old Egyptian man beaten to death by police on June 6, 2010, into a key visual injustice symbol. Activists were motivated by a horrifying cell phone photograph of Said taken by his family at the morgue and uploaded on the web. Although the postmortem photograph had a powerful emotional impact in itself, the transformation of Said from local/particular incident to injustice symbol with society-wide repercussions cannot be explained by its mere availability in the public sphere. The transformation required intervention and appropriation by activists who creatively and strategically universalized the case, linking it with existing injustice frames in Egypt. This chapter analyzes this interplay between photographs, activism, and society in two steps. The first provides an analysis of the genesis of the Said symbol and identifies three levels of agency in its formation. The second step analyzes the process through which Said was infused with injustice meanings by activists. Providing the first systematic analysis of Said from a social movement perspective, the chapter draws on several data sources that are subjected to interpretive analysis: visual material available on the internet, Facebook pages, and interviews with and accounts by key activists. And it calls for more attention to photographs and symbols in the analysis of activism and points to several historical and present cases with relevance for such an approach.

The chapter introduces a methodological approach to analyzing visual material based on Erving Goffman's frame analysis. Building on the definition of dominant frames in a set of visual material, and the analysis of keying within these frames, the approach provides a tangible tool to analyze contextualized visual material sociologically. To illustrate the approach, the chapter analyzes visual representations of social movement contention in two local contexts, the cities of Lyon, France, and Helsinki, Finland. The material was collected during ethnographic fieldwork and consists of 505 images from local activist websites. The analysis asks how femininity, masculinity, and gender/sex ambiguity key visual representations of different aspects of contentious action, such as mass gatherings, violence, protest policing, and performativity. Strong converging features are found in the contents of the frames in the two contexts, yet differences also abound, in particular in the ways femininity keys different frames of contention in visual representations. The results show, first, that the visual frame analysis approach is a functioning tool for analyzing large sets of visual material with a qualitative emphasis, and second, that a comparison of local activism through visual representations calls into question many general assumptions of political cultures, repertoires of contention, and cultural gender systems, and highlights the importance for sociologists of looking closely enough for both differences and similarities.

This chapter provides an analysis of images produced and employed in protests against surveillance in Germany in 2008 and 2009. For this purpose, a method of visual analysis is developed that draws mainly on semiotics and art history. Following this method, the contribution examines a selection of images (pictures and graphic design) from the anti-surveillance protests in three steps: description of components, detection of conventional signs, and contextual analysis. Furthermore, the analysis compares the images of the two major currents of the protest (liberal and radical left) in order to elucidate the context in which images are created and used. The analysis shows that images do not merely illustrate existing political messages but contribute to movements’ systems of meaning creation and transportation. The two currents in the protests communicate their point of view through the images both strategically and expressively. The images play a crucial role in formulating groups’ different strategies as well as worldviews and identities. In addition, the analysis shows that the meaning of images is contested and contextual. Images are produced and received in specific national as well as issue contexts. Future research should address the issue of context and reception in greater depth in order to further explore the effects of visual language on mobilization. Overall, the contribution demonstrates that systematic visual analysis allows our understanding of social movements’ aims, strategy, and collective identity to be deepened. In addition, visual analysis may provide activists with a tool to critically assess their visual communication.

This chapter considers the value of visual analyses for studying social movements through a study of pro-life uses of images of the fetus in the Australian abortion debate. In doing so, it points to important connections between the study of emotions in politics and visual approaches to social movement studies. It also contributes new primary material on the politics of reproduction through its study of the Australian pro-life movement, on which little has been written. Through discursive analysis of visual materials and practices embedded in three case studies, I demonstrate the range of strategies being used; their selection was informed by a wider survey of available records of pro-life uses of images of the fetus over the past four decades. Emotion is a powerful element of politics, and images of the fetus challenge the emotions, and hence the humanity, of the viewer. I identify three major themes represented in pro-life images of the fetus: the wonder of life; the human form and human frailty of the fetus; and the barbarity of modern society. The meanings of these images are built on our parallel understandings of both sight and emotion as immediate and unmediated. Moreover, the ambiguities and dualities of images of the fetus make their themes more, rather than less, persuasive.

Much scholarship has looked at how radical politics and its symbolism are framed and distorted by the mass media, while less attention has been devoted to how the symbolic imagery of violence and death is used in activists’ self-representations. This chapter provides one such alternative angle by probing how “visual protest materials” are creatively used in activists’ own videos to pass on stories of communion and contestation.It interrogates how activist video practices mirror the continuum between physical places and mediated spaces in political activism by analyzing a thread of videos circulating on YouTube that commemorate people who have died in connection with three protest events across Europe, putting on display the “spectacles of death” punctuating each of these events. The analysis draws on social semiotics, in particular the work of Barthes (1981) and Zelizer (2010), to examine how death is used as a visual trope to signify the ultimate prize of taking to the streets. This chapter suggests how agency and meaning travel back and forth between offline and online spaces of activism. Engaging with some implications of this interplay, the chapter argues that, in the quest to document truth and induce realism and immediacy, tensions between fact and fiction emerge in the creative appropriation and remixing of images. Finally, it demonstrates how the cityscape is recruited to document and dramatize the spectacle of death as part of a larger struggle for semiotic resources within the protest space and over media representations of social movements more generally.

The chapter starts with some reflections on the different ways in which scholars (implicitly, if not explicitly) perform visual analysis in their own work. For social movement scholars, in fact, the choice of logos for research centers, the selection of pictures for presentation slides, or the designing of covers for books all signal not only esthetic tastes but also specific conceptions of their object of studies. Moving from these experiences to some empirical analysis of the images collected in the place where young activist Carlo Giuliani was killed during a police charge at the counter summit against the G8 in Genoa in 2001, the chapter suggests some line of reflections on the production and use of images in social movements.

In his later works Charles Tilly extended his analysis of contention by scrutinizing the dynamics of contentious performances and the enactment of identities through them. Complementing these investigations he analyzed the centrality of trust networks in sustained challenges to authority. On a somewhat detached track Tilly developed an examination of reason giving in social life and more particularly the ways in which people do critical transactional work through stories, often with the assessment of credit and blame. In this chapter, we quilt these various pieces to offer an analysis of how storytelling is vital to the construction of trust and blame in contentious performances, both in the face of threat and opportunity. We explain how these later works on storytelling, identities, and trust can be integrated fruitfully with his many writings on contention to expand the analysis of its culture dimensions. We draw on three years of field work with a chapter of the Voice of the Faithful, an organization of Catholics that formed in the wake of the priest sexual abuse crisis, to exemplify this integration of Tilly's work. Using data from field notes and interviews we demonstrate how chapter members engage in the telling standard stories of origin, legacy and transformation, and trust in their pursuit of change and in maintaining internal solidarity. We conclude that our integration of Tilly's later work can be added to other perspectives on narrative to broaden the cultural analysis of contention.

This study uses Tilly's concept of repertoires of contention as a lens to examine the utilization of eight distinct contentious tactics, ranging from nonviolent demonstrations to rebellion. Using an original dataset on Latin America, I develop a measure of tactical fractionalization of 62 contentious campaigns in Latin America, and I find that, consistent with theory, the range of tactics within campaigns is limited, compared to the range of tactics found in the country or region as a whole. Second, an examination of the sample shows that the eight contentious tactics tend to coincide into three separate repertoires of contention: protest, strikes, and rebellion. Finally, I analyze two conflicting theories on the selection of contentious tactics: Tilly's regime theory and Lichbach's substitution model. The prevalence of the three repertoires depends a great deal on the regime type in place, the level of primary school enrollment (measuring state capacity), and the generalized level of repression. These variables were all suggested by Tilly's regime theory. Contentious challengers show no sign of shifting tactics in response to repression of that tactic in the past, which contradicts the substitution model.

Tina Askanius is a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Communication and Media at Lund University, Sweden. Her research concerns social movement media practices with a particular focus on contemporary forms of video activism in online environments. Her recent work within this area has been published in international journals such as Journal of E-politics, Journal of Electronic Governance, and Interface: a journal for and about social movements.

Publication date
Book series
Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
Book series ISSN