The Trouble with Stories

NOV 09, 2018 | 3:00 PM



The Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue


6112: Sociology Student Lounge


November 09, 2018: 3:00 PM




Francesca Polletta
Professor of Sociology, University of California, Irvine
Visiting Scholar, Russell Sage Foundation

Personal storytelling has become a standard part of cause advocacy today. Victims of human trafficking tell their stories to Congress, undocumented students tell their stories to journalists, and homeless people tell their stories at fundraising dinners. I draw on interviews with the professionals who recruit storytellers and produce their stories in order to identify a contemporary discourse of storytelling, a set of beliefs about what makes particular stories authentic and effective. Progressive advocates today reject “victim stories.” Instead, they emphasize stories of hope and resilience, avoid referring to the graphic details of abuse, encourage the performance of what I call modulated suffering, in which storytellers hint at, rather than fully expose, their emotional pain. Advocates justify these strategies as the best way to avoid exploiting storytellers, and only coincidentally as also appealing to audiences. I argue that rather than superseding the tension between empowerment and persuasion, advocates have, in new ways, reproduced it. More broadly, I question whether a relationship of egalitarian intimacy, crafted through rationalized modes of talk, is the best model for political solidarity.

Dr. Francesca Polletta’s research centers on the cultural dimensions of protest and politics. In particular, she has sought to show 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 first book, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements (University of Chicago Press, 2002), she showed that activists over the course of a century styled their radical democracies variously on friendship, religious fellowship, and tutelage—and fractured along the lines of those relationships. The book won the Outstanding Book Award from the Collective Behavior/Social Movements Section of the American Sociological Association, and Honorable Mentions from the Sociology of Culture Section and the Political Sociology Section. In It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics (University of Chicago Press, 2006), winner of the ASA Collective Behavior/Social Movements Outstanding Book Award, Polletta investigated the political advantages and risks of telling stories, especially for disadvantaged groups. Popular conventions of storytelling have created obstacles to reform, she argued, less by limiting what disadvantaged groups can imagine than by limiting the occasions on which they can tell authoritative stories. In Passionate Politics, co-edited with Jeff Goodwin and James M. Jasper (University of Chicago Press, 2001), she sought to integrate an analysis of emotional dynamics into more structuralist accounts of social movement mobilization. She has published journal articles also on rights claims making, public deliberation, collective identity, and the Internet.

For more information about Professor Polletta's research, see: