“Meet Them Where They Are”: Social Movement Communication in a Culture of Personal Politics

Jeffrey Johnson

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

Committee Members: Nancy Hanrahan, John Dale

The Hub, #3
May 01, 2017, 12:30 PM to 09:30 AM


This dissertation asks, how do social movement communicators attempt to strike up a societal conversation in a culture of personal politics? A conversation with society is essentially social, yet the current media landscape increasingly demands a personalized style of communications. Drawing from three sources of evidence—a year of fieldwork in a social movement organization, interviews with 15 communication directors for advocacy organizations, and a discourse analysis of New York Times articles on personalization—this dissertation furthers sociology in two specific ways. First, the evidence supports a separation of traditional media advocacy, which has been defined as social movement attempts for journalistic attention, from a movement’s communicative work of strategizing for and drawing from sources of attention across a stretched, distracted, and noisy media terrain. Second, this dissertation demonstrates that the media ecosystem is not only a forum for public discussion but a social structure of public dialogue, producing a schema with which movement communicators form their attempts at reaching a potential audience. This dissertation concludes that the communicative schema of the early 21st century encourages a radically-practical deference, on a case-by-case basis, to identity and personal biography. This “communicative personalism” promotes cultural conditions that are both enabling and limiting; it opens up a wide range of deep, personal involvements in bubbles of the civil sphere while closing down other possibilities of translation and dialogue across political enclaves.