Contentious politics scholars can be inconsistent with their definitions


in Books and literature, Language, Politics, Writing

For analyzing climate change activism, the contentious politics theoretical framework associated with Doug McAdam (a sociology professor at Stanford), Sidney Tarrow (a professor of government and sociology at Cornell), and Charles Tilly (formerly a social science professor at Columbia) has much to recommend it. In particular, it incorporates many explanatory factors used in the related social movements literature (like the construction of meaning through frames, seeing protests as performances, and the importance of political opportunities and mobilizing structures) while also looking at phenomena broader than social movements, including revolutions.

One just criticism of the literature is that terms are not rigorously defined and consistently used. Ideas like “cycles of contention” are central to the literature, but every author seems to think of them a bit differently, and the same person even uses the idea differently in one text as opposed to another.

I’m only partway through, but so far McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly’s book Dynamics of Contention seems to demonstrate a lot of the problematically obscure language use within the literature. Generally, I find that this literature is best when it sticks closely to empirical cases, rather than wandering out into broad theorizing. Long discussions of abstract nouns like “mechanisms” versus “processes” versus “episodes” can be especially hard to draw useful inspiration from.

I have a stack of other contentious politics books picked up from the library today, with the aim of further fleshing out the theoretical framework for my proposal and finding additional examples of methodologically similar research.

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