Aida Tomeh Distinguished Service Award
Ruth & John Useem
Plenary Address
Friday, March 29

Francesa Polletta
Professor of Sociology, Department of  Sociology
University of California, Irvine

Visiting Scholar, Russell Sage Foundation

The Trouble with Stories

The story that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant was convincing enough for a man to storm the restaurant armed with an AR-15. Yet public health officials’ effort to persuade parents to vaccinate their children by telling poignant stories of babies almost dying from measles and rubella failed miserably. Why are stories so persuasive—and so unpersuasive? While social psychologists and communication scholars have studied how people process stories cognitively to answer that question, sociologists draw attention to the institutional norms shaping how we tell and hear stories, whether in court, on television, or in conversation; the popular beliefs about storytelling as a cultural form that lead us to see stories as appropriate on some occasions and inappropriate on others; and the so-familiar-as-to-not-need-retelling background stories against which particular stories make sense. I draw on several case studies to demonstrate the yields of a sociological approach to storytelling, and then focus on the political work that stories do. Before the last election, I ask, why might a Fox News viewer believe that affirmative action was taking away jobs from qualified white men, even though the viewer had never lost a job to a person of color, believe that the federal government was bilking people like him, even though he had benefited from federal programs, and believe that liberals and the liberal media thought of people like him as rednecks and white trash even though he probably did not know many liberals and it is hard to imagine the New York Times referring to “rednecks” or “white trash”?  I draw on what sociologists know about stories and the media to explore why some stories come to seem not only true but as if they describe people’s own experience—and why that matters.

Francesca Polletta came to UCI from Columbia University, where she was an assistant and associate professor of sociology. She works in the areas of culture, politics, social movements, and law. Much of her work investigates how culture sets the terms of strategic action, but culture understood less as beliefs and worldviews than as familiar relationships, institutional routines, and conventions of self-expression. In her award-winning Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements (2002), Polletta showed that activists over the course of a century have styled their radical democracies variously on friendship, religious fellowship, and tutelage—and fractured along the lines of those relationships. In her award-winning It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics (2006), she investigated the political advantages and risks of telling stories, especially for disadvantaged groups. Popular conventions of storytelling have served to reproduce the status quo, she argues, less by limiting what disadvantaged groups can imagine than by limiting the occasions on which they can tell authoritative stories. Polletta’s current research focuses on new modes of citizen participation, and aims both to account for the new enthusiasm for participatory democracy and to determine whether popular participation has become effectively detached from power.                                                                                                                                   

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