Making #BlackLivesMatter: A Social Media Ethnography of Cultural Trauma

Erin M. Stephens

Advisor: Amy L Best, PhD, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Committee Members: John Dale, James Witte

November 14, 2018, 12:30 PM to 02:30 PM


In an era where news of tragedy spreads at the blink of an eye as images and words are sent with the movement of a few fingers, how is it that certain events become significant to the public while others are forgotten? Sociologists in the 1990s developed cultural trauma theory to identify the processes through which collectivities make meaningful an experience of social suffering in various arenas and how that affects collective identity and the possibilities for social repair. This research uses this theory to unveil the cultural structures that have enabled Black Lives Matter, as a movement and as a persuasive hashtag, to raise police-related Black death to global concern and mobilization. From 2015 to 2017, I conducted a social media ethnography of #BlackLivesMatter online discourse and participant observation in regional movement activities related to the Movement for Black Lives, collecting tweets and images, blogs, articles and videos. Using qualitative methods and social network analysis, this dissertation updates cultural trauma theory by revealing the cultural structures of online trauma claims-making on Twitter and yielding valuable insights on how collective social suffering becomes legitimized through online counter public discourse. I argue that, while this theory is useful for explaining the rise of #BlackLivesMatter, it pays little attention to the role of emotion in cultural trauma and fails to account for the ways that race and gender shape claims-making about social suffering. I examine the strategic wielding of emotion and reveal how beyond the representation of social suffering, the cultural trauma process includes an experience of trauma when it involves a socially oppressed group making public claims about institutionalized oppression.