Francesca Polletta, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology, University of California, Irvine
Dr. Francesca Polletta came to the University of California Irvine 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), Dr. 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.
Dr. Polletta currently is working on three projects. She is completing a book manuscript entitled Inventing the Ties that Bind Us: Imagined Relationships in Moral and Political Life, to be published by University of Chicago Press. With Edwin Amenta, she is working on a second book manuscript, on the cultural consequences of social movements. And she is continuing her research on storytelling through a series of experiments on the conditions for narrative persuasion.
How Characters and Storytelling Drive Social Change: Season 6, Episode 3
What are the benefits and risks of storytelling in social movements?
Professor Francesca Polletta researches the role of storytelling in social movements. She says stories can do three things: get us to care about an issue, create or jump-start a movement, and tell new stories about issues in fundamentally different ways. Social movements’ most important impacts are in changing opinions, beliefs, values, and behaviors. Professor Polletta’s focus is on people who are affected and influenced by movements and bring those ideas and values into their workplaces.
Listen to more: Activate World
How Characters and Storytelling Drive Social Change
Francesca Polletta, Professor, Sociology, University of California, Irvine
Jon Mertz: 00:01 Welcome to the Activate World podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought.
Jon Mertz: 00:18 Today, we are joined by Dr. Francesca Polletta. She is a professor of sociology at the University of California Irvine, and the author of several books including, It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics, and Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements. Dr. Polletta has several new works underway, including a book entitled Inventing the Ties That Bind Us: Imagined Relationships in Moral and Political Life, and another book focused on the cultural consequences of social movements.
Jon Mertz: 00:49 Francesca, welcome to Activate World. Give us some insight into your background and how you became interested in storytelling and social movements.
Francesca Polletta: 00:57 Well, thanks Jon. I have always been interested in stories. My father was an English professor, and I often remember when I was young, I had very tangley hair, and I remember my father untangling my hair slowly, painstakingly, painfully, and telling me stories to make the process go more easily. And I think probably that was one of my first reckonings with the power of stories. I’ve been interested in stories pretty much all my life, and became interested in the connection between storytelling and social movements because stories seems so important to how social movements operate, why they succeed, why they fail, how they get us to care.
Jon Mertz: 01:54 What’s the importance of storytelling and creating positive change?
Francesca Polletta: 01:58 Stories figure in social movements, I think in a number of ways. One, the stories that movements tell can get us to pay attention to the issue, get us to care about the issue, get us to participate in a social movement, to act on behalf of causes that we may have once seemed remote. And stories can lead us to change our own behavior. I say stories can do those things because often they do not. And the question for scholars of social movements and that I really wrestle with is, when do stories work and when do they not work? There are loads of stories we hear that we pay no attention to. There are loads of stories we hear that we think of as just kind of manipulative spin. And so which are the stories and what are the contexts in which stories grab our attention and lead us to care about the cause?
Francesca Polletta: 02:59 Story can also play a role in social movements, in it seems creating a movement, jump-starting a movement. For example, a story of a young girl who was brutally raped and murdered by a sex offender who had been released on parole. It seemed, generated a social movement of people who were convinced that the laws had to be reformed to prevent what happened to Megan from happening again, and that resulted in Megan’s Law. What social movement scholars know is that oftentimes there are groups who were already working on the issue before that galvanizing story appeared. But what that story does is to create a lot of media attention, a lot of interest in the issue, that those organizations, those groups who have been kind of laboring on the issue under the radar, those groups can take advantage of to try to get their reforms traction, in a way that they hadn’t done before.
Francesca Polletta: 04:09 And then finally storytelling can be the consequence of social movements, in the sense that movements can lead us to tell a new story about an issue, to think about an issue in a fundamentally different way. And often that’s a really powerful effect of movements. Even more powerful than particular laws or policies.
Jon Mertz: 04:33 Do you think people trust stories more than mundane facts?
Francesca Polletta 04:36 They pay attention to the story, right? The story is vivid, the story is dramatic. The story seems to frame the issue, really clear moral terms. When most of the issues that we deal with in life are complicated, right? There’s no obvious good and bad guy. And I think the stories are so powerful because they seem to render the issues in sharp moral terms.
Francesca Polletta: 05:04 Let me give you another example of how activists are able to take advantage of that. A number of years ago, a young boy in New York City was taking the bus to school for the first time and was kidnapped and murdered. His name was Etan Patz. Caused a huge media fur, and in conjunction with another case of a young boy who was abducted and killed, it launched a movement on behalf of missing children that led to all kinds of reforms, and the famous pictures on the milk cartons that many of us are familiar with.
Francesca Polletta: 05:45 One of the interesting things was that there were already organizers and organizations fighting for reform around the case of missing children, but missing children did not just include children who had been abducted by strangers. Most missing children cases were parents who were in a custody battle, who were splitting up and one parent took the child, right? Or children who ran away from home, teenagers who ran away from home and might come back several days later.
Francesca Polletta: 06:16 What these organizations were able to do was to join their concerns with this much larger category of children, to join their concerns with this high profile galvanizing story of a child abducted by strangers. As a result of that, people got the sense that the phenomenon of missing children was much wider spread than it actually was. And so what movement organizations are often doing is they’re looking for opportunities like that, looking for opportunities to get their issues out there, in a way that makes them seem widespread and urgent, and stories can do that.
Jon Mertz: 07:03 You’ve written about the role of characters in these stories. Is there a certain type of character that resonates more in some of these movements?
Francesca Polletta: 07:10 It’s a really good question and it’s a really tough problem because we know that characters are compelling, but when people hear a story or read a story or see a story, they interpret that story in terms of stories they’re already familiar with. Characters they’re already familiar with. Stereotypes they have. And so that one of the problems that storytellers often have is that they need to make groups, people who are stigmatized, people about whom there are stereotypes, they need to make them into compelling characters and that’s often hard to do.
Francesca Polletta 08:00 I’ll give you an example of one place where I saw this as a problem. With collaborators, I did a study of how people responded to stories of acquaintance rape. One of the problems that we’ve known about for a long time is one of blaming the victim. That people have often seen, especially young women who are the victims of acquaintance rape, as having somehow deserved it because they were drinking, because they didn’t physically fight off their attacker. And I was struck in some of the outreach materials that I was reading at the time, which interestingly, I think it changed since then. But at the time outreach materials that were aimed at getting women to see rape as rape, often told a story of a young woman who met a guy at a party, was swept off her feet by him, ignored signs initially that he might be aggressive, went off with him, told her friends she was fine, and then eventually was raped.
Francesca Polletta: 09:12 And what was striking to me about these stories was that the purpose of them was to try to convince readers that rape is a rape is a rape, that it wasn’t this woman’s fault and that the rape should be prosecuted as a crime. But the form that the story took was of classic tragedy. And I worried that readers might read the story and say, not, “This should not have happened to this woman,” but instead, “Oh, she did something wrong by trusting that man, she shouldn’t have let her friends leave her.”
Francesca Polletta: 09:49 In classic tragedies, we say that the protagonist, the hero of the tragedy has an Achilles heel, there’s a fatal flaw. He or she makes some terrible mistake and disaster is assured. And so my worry was that readers would read these stories that were intended to make them sympathize with the victim and instead they would blame her. My collaborators and I had a number of college students read a story that followed these lines, and then we asked readers if they could imagine the character reporting the rape to authorities. And what we found was indeed, that if they didn’t blame the victim after she trusted this man, they saw her rape as virtually inevitable. And they didn’t imagine her reporting her rape to authorities. So then we thought, “Well, what if we make the young woman into a hero? What if we make her not that kind of classical victim that we see in tragic stories, but what if we make her into an assertive young woman who’s overpowered by a violent man and realizes at some point that if she doesn’t report that rape, that the young man will rape again.”
Francesca Polletta 11:19 And so our hope was perhaps people would read this different character, right, as you suggest, rather than a victim, a hero, and imagine themselves reporting the rape to authorities. What we found when people read that story, was that they did imagine the young woman reporting the rape to authorities, but they didn’t like her, and they wouldn’t recommend her story for an outreach effort. She was too aggressive they said. She was a party girl. They especially believed that she had abandoned her friends, even though there was no indication in the story that she had actually left her friends.
Francesca Polletta: 12:03 And so the way we interpreted that finding was that readers were reading the story in terms of stereotypes about assertive women. And so that was the… That was the sort of challenge. How do you tell a story about the victim of acquaintance rape who’s a hero, but is still seen as feminine, is still seen as connected to her friends, is still seen as the kind of women that these readers would like to see themselves? The long answer to your question of how important are characters, they’re enormously important and I think the challenge for activists, or those using stories to try to effect change is how do you create characters that can overcome stereotypes people have?
Jon Mertz: 12:58 It sounds like a painstaking effort to find the right character for the story.
Francesca Polletta: 13:04 Absolutely, and I think one of the mistakes we make is to think that effective stories are simple stories, right? They often sound simple. They often sound straightforward. But effective stories, especially when they’re stories that are intended to challenge the status quo, especially when they’re stories that are intended to get us to think differently about issues, are sophisticated stories. They are hard to write. And one of the things that we’ve seen in the research on storytelling is that often the most effective stories are those that are written not by activists, but are written by Hollywood writers. They know how to do that and they know how to write a character who is different enough, that it leads us to think possibly about an issue in a new way, but not so unfamiliar as to seem off-putting or incoherent or bizarre. And I think that’s the real challenge.
Jon Mertz: 14:16 Two characters you’ve written about are Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement, and also Stella Liebeck, who was burned by McDonald’s scalding hot coffee. Can you talk about those two characters in particular?
Francesca Polletta: 14:27 Sure. The story we often hear about Rosa Parks was that she was a middle-aged seamstress, living in Montgomery, Alabama, who got onto a bus at the end of a long day, was asked by the bus driver to stand up for a white rider, and was too tired, refused to stand up, refused to leave her seat, was arrested and the Montgomery bus boycott was born.
Francesca Polletta: 14:58 The story that’s told is a story that we’re familiar with, right? Where people are oppressed, discriminated against, are the victims of injustice and then one day decide just not to take it anymore. In fact, we know that the story is quite different. Rosa Parks was a longtime activist. She was the secretary of her local NAACP organization. She had been involved in activism and training for the cause for many years before this.
Francesca Polletta: 15:35 We also know that Rosa Parks was initially not the first person who was chosen by the movement to challenge the Montgomery segregated bus laws. A young woman named Claudette Colvin had also refused to yield her seat, some time before. She was arrested and organizations in Montgomery were considering making her the test case for the Montgomery bus boycott. Problem was that Claudette was 15 and she was pregnant, and activists decided very strategically that she would not be a good candidate because she would be smeared as being an immoral person, because she was going to have a child out of wedlock. Rosa Parks by contrast was middle-aged, middle-class, upstanding. And so in this case we see activists willingly accommodating this belief that Rosa Parks’s protest was spontaneous. And I think this was important politically because one of the ways in which white Southerners sought to discredit civil rights protest, was by saying that activists were, quote unquote, “outside agitators,” they’d been people sent in from other places. They were communists who’d been sent to stir up trouble among local African Americans, who otherwise would have been quite content with the system of apartheid then operating.
Francesca Polletta 17:17 And so to instead represent their protest as being spontaneous was a way to prevent that kind of smear against the movement. What we see is that oftentimes activists really have a stake in this imagery of social movements kind of emerging out of nowhere, led by people who’ve never been active, who have no interest in politics. That kind of imagery sometimes serves the movement well.
Francesca Polletta: 17:54 The McDonald’s case is another one, a story that many of us have heard and that turns out to be quite different in reality from the story. The story we heard is that an older woman, Stella Liebeck, drove to a drive through McDonald’s, ordered a cup of coffee, dropped the coffee on her lap, was burned and then sued McDonald’s for $3 million. And the story was widely circulated. It was in newspapers, magazines. It appeared on television talk shows and stand up comedy rooms, routines.
Francesca Polletta: 18:37 It became a kind of emblem of what was seen as a widespread litigation crisis. That Americans were litigation happy. People were suing at the drop of a hat, and push over juries were awarding them millions. In fact, stories like the McDonald’s case and other stories were circulated quite deliberately by a group of tort reform activists, activists who wanted to reform the rules around tort filings, wanted to make it more difficult for people to file such claims. And so they quite deliberately set out to publicize stories like the McDonald’s case, stories like the woman who had a CAT scan and then sued the hospital when she said the CAT scan destroyed her psychic powers. Or the robber who fell through the skylight of a home he was robbing and then sued the owners of the home. In fact, the stories were either completely untrue or grossly exaggerated.
Francesca Polletta: 19:46 In the McDonald’s case, McDonald’s had received, I think over 700 complaints in the past 10 years about it’s scalding coffee. Stella Liebeck received… Had third degree burns, I think, and was disabled for the next two years. Initially she asked McDonald’s only to cover that portion of her medical expenses that weren’t covered by her insurance, and McDonald’s refused. The case was much different then the one people heard about, but it so resonated with people I think, because it fed into other stories that had circulated, right? About the fact that our world was becoming more bound by regulation, that kids couldn’t play in the park on monkey bars the way they used to. And so I suspect that if you had told people at the time, “In fact the story is exaggerated,” right? It might not have mattered to people. People might’ve said, “Yeah, maybe that story was exaggerated. But there are a lot of other stories like that one that are not quite as bad, but are still pretty bad.” And so people heard the story not as untrue or potentially exaggerated, but as the tip of the iceberg.
Jon Mertz: 21:21 Right. It’s interesting because Rosa Parks seemingly was a willing character in the story and Stella Liebeck was not.
Francesca Pollett 21:26 Right. And one of the things that people have who’ve been the subject of these stories, who found themselves protagonists in a story they didn’t choose, is that it changes their life, right, in ways they hadn’t anticipated and often would not have chosen. But the story becomes something larger than the individual. Right? It becomes a kind of ground for debate among different forces.
Jon Mertz: 22:02 The idea that stories beget get other stories, that when others hear them, they’re inspired to tell their own. Is that an important element to social movements?
Francesca Polletta: 22:10 Absolutely, and that’s the problem that movements challenging the status quo often have, right? That they need to convince people, one, that it’s okay to tell their stories, and two, that their stories connect. In the case of the the tort reform movement, one of the effects of these stories of people who were litigation happy, who were mounting these frivolous lawsuits. One of the effects of that was that it convinced many Americans that there really was a litigation crisis, when in fact it seems pretty clear that there was not.
Francesca Polletta: 22:55 And so the small stories, the stories of individuals taking advantage of the system added up to a larger story, seemed to support a larger story in which insurance prices, medical malpractice insurance prices were going up for physicians. Physicians were leaving the practice because they were so worried about getting sued. Much of that was actually not true, but the small stories contributed to the large stories. The problem for progressive activists is that they need to tell stories not about ordinary people taking advantage of the system. They need to tell stories about powerful groups and actors who are taking advantage of the system, or about the system operating in a way that disadvantages ordinary people, and that’s often hard to do.
Jon Mertz: 23:52 It seems more challenging to drive change when you have two competing stories.
Francesca Polletta 23:56 Yeah. Yeah, and it’s pretty much always the case that when we see a movement emerge, we also see a counter movement emerge. The stories that the movement’s telling may be compelling, but the stories that the counter movement is telling may be even more compelling. And so we see movements responding to each other in a way that can create a lot more attention to the issue, but also makes it unclear which side is going to win in the end.
Jon Mertz: 24:31 What’s your best advice on how to craft the right story and character to drive positive change?
Francesca Polletta: 24:36 I would say a couple of things. One, stories may not always be the most effective way to generate attention to an issue, to create commitment to change. I’m struck by climate change activists use of a number in recent months, right? 12 years. We have 12 years to avert climate change disaster. That’s not a story and frankly it’s hard to tell a story about climate change. It’s hard to tell a story about individuals when it comes to climate change, and it’s hard for people to grasp climate change. I think in this case a number is really effective.
Francesca Polletta: 25:23 Reproductive rights activists talk a lot lately about the fact that one in four women will have an abortion by the time she’s 40. That’s a number, it’s not a story. And in some ways I think the number is powerful because what it’s suggesting is that there are women who have had abortions all around us, and this is much more common than we acknowledge. And that’s a kind of invitation for people to tell their friends and family members about their own experiences. One, stories are effective, but numbers can also be effective, depending on the issue, depending on the context, depending on the audience.
Francesca Polletta: 26:05 I think the second point goes back to something that you mentioned a moment ago, which is that often the most effective stories are the ones that lead people to tell their own stories in response. And what creates their commitment to the cause is not so much that they’ve been convinced by the issue, or that they’ve come to empathize with the group that they didn’t have empathy with before. But that by telling their own story, they begin to feel committed to the cause. And I think we absolutely see this with the recent #MeToo movement, that the sort of groundswell of participation was around people telling their stories of sexual harassment. And in telling their stories of sexual harassment, coming to recognize, right, that this was not something that they only had experienced, but also this was something they should not have had to experience. And so the stories that may be effective are the stories that people can recognize as like their own experiences, and people can be invited to then share those stories.
Jon Mertz: 27:23 Have you looked at the role of social media in terms of what works and what doesn’t in driving social change?
Francesca Polletta: 27:29 Yeah, we see social movements being transformed by social media and none of us yet knows quite how. People are bombarded with stories, right? Every time you go on YouTube, there’s a group that’s telling a poignant or galvanizing or shocking story. And a lot of those stories we just scroll through. Which are the stories that go viral? Which are the stories that lead people to share those stories with other people and to tell their own story in response? We don’t yet know.
Francesca Polletta: 28:07 It does seem clear that for all the importance of social media, mainstream media continues to be important too. And what we’re just trying to figure out is what the relationship are between those. Why do certain issues gain a kind of groundswell of attention, but also then what happens once those issues are covered by mainstream media? I don’t think #MeToo would have had the impact that it has had unless it got the widespread media coverage by old fashioned, old media, that it did. We’re trying to sort of figure out what the interaction between those two is.
Jon Mertz: 28:55 In your classrooms at the University of California Irvine, are you seeing a different type of interest in students today versus five years ago?
Francesca Polletta: 29:02 Yeah, I mean I think when I started studying social movements, the kind of burning question for social movement scholars was how to respond to Mancur Olson’s famous free rider problem, which was that, Olson argued that even if you believe in a cause, it is irrational to participate in that cause because you can free ride on the efforts of others. Why participate in a demonstration? Why put your body on the line? It takes time and energy, danger of arrest, physical harm. Why do all that when if the movement wins, you’ll still win. And if the movement loses, you won’t have sacrificed your time and energy. And so we spent a lot of time kind of wrestling with that question, how do movements get people to participate even when it is irrational for them to participate?
Francesca Polletta: 29:58 The change that social media made to that dilemma is that participating now is as easy as pressing Like, or signing an online petition. And so, one, what does that mean for why people participate, but also what does that mean for when movements are effective? If movement participation is just signing an online petition, then are movements effective in the way that they once were? And so I think one of the questions that we’re really wrestling with and our students are wrestling with is, what does participation mean and what are the chances of impact through various ways of participating?
Jon Mertz: 30:48 One final question to wrap up, as far as storytelling and social change, what’s most exciting as you look ahead?
Francesca Polletta: 30:55 We’re getting a pretty good understanding of the conditions in which movements have an impact on policies and laws, but I think all of us would acknowledge that movement’s most important impacts are in changing opinions, beliefs, values, behaviors. And I’m really excited about wrestling with that question, when do movements change how we interact with each other? When do movements change what we think is important? And what I think we’re seeing in studying those questions is that often the impacts are indirect, but that one of the things that’s striking to me, is that oftentimes the people who really make change are the people who are affected by the movement, influenced by the movement, but bring those ideas and values into their workplaces.
Francesca Polletta: 32:01 Let me give you an example. In the 1970s, the government, after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that government wrestled with the question of how to best ensure equality in the workplace. And one of the things that was interesting was that when it came to gender equality, and when it came to things like maternity benefits and maternity leave and dependent care benefits, companies were ahead of the law. The reason it seems that was the case was because of people working in personnel. Corporations were unsure of how to respond to these demands for women’s equality in the workplace. There was some concern about what regulation would look like, but at the same time, the field of personnel, human resources had feminized in the previous years. There were many more women and there were women who had been influenced by the women’s movement. And so these activists, they weren’t activists, they weren’t members of movement organizations necessarily, but they played a really critical role in pushing companies to adopt women friendly policies, well before the government was requiring them to do so.
Francesca Polletta: 33:31 I think what I’m excited about is just figuring out who those insider outsiders are, who those people are within companies, within businesses, who really lead the charge for change, and what makes it possible for them to do so?
Jon Mertz: 33:51 It’s all just so fascinating. Francesca, thank you so much for joining us and for your incredible work in driving positive change. It’s inspiring to so many of us.
Francesca Polletta: 34:00 Thank you, Jon. It was fun talking.
Jon Mertz: 34:09 Activators, let’s continue the conversation in our Activate World LinkedIn group. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and perspectives.
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Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.