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Feeling Social Movements: Theoretical Contributions to Social Movement Research on Emotions

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Abstract

Recent literature provides evidence that emotions are intrinsic to the constitution of social movements. The present review examines how scholars theorize emotions in their empirical studies and focuses on the following topics: emotion work, emotional framing, emotional cultures and emotional opportunity structures. The combination of several constructs in the analysis of emotions signals a shift toward integration of preexisting perspectives common in the field of social movements.
Feeling Social Movements: Theoretical Contributions to
Social Movement Research on Emotions
Natalia Ruiz-Junco*
American University
Abstract
Recent literature provides evidence that emotions are intrinsic to the constitution of social move-
ments. The present review examines how scholars theorize emotions in their empirical studies and
focuses on the following topics: emotion work, emotional framing, emotional cultures and emo-
tional opportunity structures. The combination of several constructs in the analysis of emotions
signals a shift toward integration of preexisting perspectives common in the field of social move-
ments.
Durkheim ([1912], 1995) coined the term collective effervescence to signify emerging collec-
tive emotions that transform social life and explained how groups become electrified by
coming together through the enactment of rituals and the utilization of symbols. The
emotions of collective life also piqued the interest of students of collective behavior in
the past century. But, the early collective behavior perspective presented participants in
collective action as being predisposed by their psychological peculiarities to seek solace in
the group or as being carried away by the emotional irrationality of the masses (Klapp
1969; Kornhauser 1959; Le Bon 1960; Ortega y Gasset [1930], 1997). Because the early
studies clearly suggested that movement participants were more emotional and more irra-
tional than those who did not engage in collective action, criticisms mounted with time
and the collective behavior perspective fell from grace (Goodwin et al. 2000; Jasper
1998).
By the 1970s the center of analysis shifted dramatically. Scholars were reluctant to
make the same mistakes that plagued the early collective behavior tradition, and thus, for
some decades emotions were virtually erased from studies of social movements. Instead of
focusing on emotions, resource mobilization and political process theorists concentrated
their attention on the mobilization of resources and organizations and the political con-
texts in which mobilizing actors operate. However, they did this work using a particular
angle on rationality. This scholarship emphasized a dominant version of rationality that
appears devoid of emotional components and enmeshed in a Western logic that feminists
have criticized for decades (Ferree and Merrill 2000; Jaggar 1989).
The view of rationality dominant in resource mobilization and political process theories
came under heavy fire as sociologists, anthropologists, and historians exposed its flawed
characterization of the emotional through distinctive contributions to emotion research
(Abu-Lughod 1999; Barbalet 2001; Lutz 1998; Reddy 2001). These perspectives on emo-
tions left behind false premises that hindered progress in social movement research.
Among these premises the supposed irrationality of emotions reigned supreme (Aminzade
and McAdam 2002). Sociologists demonstrated not only that people go about the crea-
tion, management and transformation of emotional states in typically rational ways
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(Hochschild 1979, 1983), but also that they do so as a product of unconscious and habit-
ual processes (Katz 1999).
From the late 1990s onward, a parallel move in the literature of social movements pro-
gressively incorporated the new understanding of emotions. This partly responded to the
need to theorize the personal and the increasing influence of feminist and culturalist
frameworks in social movement studies (Goodwin et al. 2000). What have we learned
since then? The last decade has proved fruitful. We now have at our disposal an increas-
ingly rich stock of typologies (Barbalet 2006; Flam 2005; Jasper 1997, 1998). Today we
recognize the fact that feelings and emotions are implicated in all movement dynamics
(Jasper 1998) – from movement emergence (Jasper 1998; Jasper and Poulsen 1995) to
movement disintegration (Adams 2003; Klatch 2004). Specifically, emotions play a role in
the following processes: fostering recruitment (Snow and Benford 1992; Williamson
2011) and preventing involvement in social movements (Norgaard 2006); creating and
enacting collective identities (Einwohner 2006; Flesher Fominaya 2010b; Hunt and
Benford 2004; Taylor and Rupp 2002); and impacting movement outcomes (Einwohner
1999).
Given the mounting research since the late 1990s, this review asks two questions in
assessing the degree of theoretical progress in this area. First, what are the main concepts
used in this burgeoning literature? Second, are the theoretical contributions crafted from
preexisting perspectives in the field of social movements and protest, or are they innova-
tions without a previous lineage in the social movements literature?
Theoretical contributions to emotion research in social movement studies
Four major emotion concepts have had the greatest impact in the social movements liter-
ature: emotion work;emotional framing;emotional cultures; and emotional opportunity structures.
Scholars apply the four concepts to study emotional dynamics in social movements, and
sometimes they combine them in empirical studies. However, I will show in this review
that each differs on the analytical ground it covers and on the theoretical presuppositions
that it entails. Emotion work and emotional framing are theoretical twins and are com-
monly combined in the literature. They tend to be applied at a micro-level of analysis
whereas emotional cultures and emotional opportunity structures are both macro-oriented
concepts.
Since the social constructionist approach to emotions is the most widespread perspec-
tive in the field (Clarke et al. 2006), most of the review will focus on social construction-
ist perspectives that emphasize emotion work, emotional cultures, emotional framing or
some combination of these. Even those scholars of social movements who criticize social
constructionism (Gould 2009; Groves 1997) do not discount its analytical validity in
examining the social dynamics underlying emotions.
The social constructionist literature on emotions in social movements starts with the
premise that people learn cultural norms to interpret their affective states and learn to
name their feelings with specific labels. Some argue that labeling feelings leads people to
create emotional constructs that fix for us the meaning of affects whose discursive label is
not yet overdetermined (Gould 2009). Regardless of the stance on social constructionism
that analysts adopt, however, they generally assume that the fluctuating, ever-shifting and
heterogeneous emotional lava that we experience hardens into feelings that people inter-
pret, name, and oftentimes, subsume under normative feeling rules (Hochschild 1979).
Therefore, these scholars reject the idea that emotions are simply bio-psychological in
nature, and concur that emotions are socially structured and structure social life. But ideas
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about the social aspects of emotions remain varied in the field. On the one hand, some
argue that emotions in movements are both ‘‘strategic and spontaneous’’ (Robnett 1997,
192) and lead a contingent and often highly volatile life that cannot be reduced to con-
scious strategic management because it is experiential (Groves 1997) and habitus-like in
nature (Gould 2009). On the other hand, much of the literature backs the idea that peo-
ple’s labeling of emotions is a structured social process that involves individuals strategi-
cally managing their emotions (Flam 2000).
Emotion work
The classic formulation of emotion work emphasizes emotion work as the strategic and
conscious management of emotion. Influenced by the sociology of Erving Goffman, Arlie
Hochschild (1979, 1983) first coined the concept of emotion work. She defined emotion
work as ‘‘the act of trying to change in degree or quality an emotion or feeling’’ and dis-
tinguished two forms: ‘‘evocation, in which the cognitive focus is on a desired feeling
which is initially absent, and suppression, in which the cognitive focus is on an undesired
feeling which is initially present’’ (Hochschild 1979; 561). Since then her perspective of
emotional management has gained prominence. Indeed, Hochschild’s idea of emotion
work stands among the most popular with analysts in the area of social movements
(Hercus 1999; Maney et al. 2009; Perry 2002; Reger 2004; Smith and Erickson 1997). In
this section I discuss the application of this concept in the field of social movements and
discuss three forms of emotion work: emotional management, emotional channeling and
emotional harnessing.
First, social movements research examines emotional management by focusing on the
emotional strategies employed by participants in social movements. For example, Smith
and Erickson (1997) analyze how a contemporary environmental group incorporates
emotion management as part of an ideological strategy to guarantee social movement
actors’ compliance. Interestingly, these scholars show how activists use deep acting – the
conscious production of emotional states that one intends to feel – when they canvass to
‘‘sell’’ conviction, thus doing emotional labor – the type of emotion work that companies
extract from workers in the everyday execution of their job duties (Hochschild 1983).
A second type of emotion work discussed in the literature is the channeling of emotion
(Gould 2009; Groves 1997; Jasper 1997; Reger 2004; Summers Effler 2010). On a basic
level, emotional channeling refers to the activity of reshaping certain emotions into other
emotions that are more adequate for the social movement activity at hand; it can, there-
fore, be a crucial factor in movement success. An early account of emotional channeling
comes from Groves (1997). His study of animal rights activism shows that animal rights
activists morphed shame and guilt into hostile emotions. Likewise, Jasper (1997) gives an
account of emotional channeling when he identifies what an anti-nuclear activist called
‘‘attack mode’’ as the channeling of fear into anger or ‘‘a cluster of emotions that activists
try hard to cultivate: inchoate anxieties and fears must be transformed into moral indigna-
tion and anger toward concrete policies and decision-makers.’’ (Jasper 1997, 107)
Similarly, Gould (2009) also explores channeling in her study of ACT UP Chicago.
Specifically, she shows that in the mid-eighties ACT UP activists successfully channeled
grief – visibly embodied and enacted in ACT UP’s vigils and in the quilt demonstrations
of the Names Project Memorial Quilt – into anger. During those years ACT UP’s chan-
neling of despair and other feelings into anger proved remarkably conducive to high
degrees of mobilization. Ironically, the continuity of ACT UP was ultimately compro-
mised some years later when the emotional habitus that the organization developed could
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not handle despair. As Gould (2009, 396) points out, ‘‘ACT UP’s emotional habitus pro-
hibited despair...’’ This proves that the channeling of emotion can be a double-edged
sword for activists: it can enable movement success but also eventually prevent it.
More recently, Summers Effler (2010) has added an emphasis on temporality to the
analysis of channeling in social movements. Her study of two contemporary movement
organizations, which she calls Catholic Workers and the anti-death penalty group STOP,
shows how the groups constructed different emotional pathways with different temporali-
ties and different emotional strategies. The author discusses a strategy that she dubs emo-
tional slingshooting. This is a form of channeling that the two groups under study enacted
by ‘‘transmuting dangerous negative emotions into negative emotions that they had the
capacity to release’’ (Summers Effler 2010, 116).
The two stages of emotional slingshooting are as follows: first, blocking a negatively
valued, forbidden emotion; and second, channeling it into a manageable emotion, also neg-
atively valued, but whose accumulated negative impact can eventually be undone through
a positively valued emotion. This is how slingshooting worked for each group. First, the
members of the Catholic Worker House needed to block the forbidden emotion of anger
and transmute it into grief; next, they offset grief by evoking positively valued feelings of
Christian agape. Conversely, STOP blocked grief and transmuted it into anger, which they
could eventually let go of by evoking feelings of triumph.
Finally, channeling activities can be facilitated through organizational structures and
processes. For example, Reger (2004) makes a link between channeling and organiza-
tional dynamics such as consciousness-raising. Using her work on the feminist social
movement organization NOW, she demonstrates that the technique of consciousness-
raising has the role of channeling emotions such as anger and estrangement into empow-
erment and collective action.
The last type of emotion work is harnessing. In their analysis of peace organizations’
discursive strategies going back to the Gulf War, Maney et al. (2009) show that peace
movement activists and their opponents engaged in a contentious interaction over the
meaning of emotions, fear in particular. The authors report that peace activists sometimes
harness the dominant emotion work of their targets. They point out, ‘‘harnessing the
dominant discourse constitutes a type of ‘emotional jiu-jitsu,’ whereby rather than trying
to block the potency of authoritative language and ideas, activists embrace the weight of
these potencies to go on the discursive offensive’’ (Maney et al. 2009, 118).
Emotional framing
Emotion work bears a strong theoretical resemblance to emotional framing, a concept
derived from the framing perspective, a constructionist approach to social movements
developed in the mid-eighties. The two approaches have their roots in the sociology of
Erving Goffman: the emotion management perspective draws inspiration from Goff-
man’s work on dramaturgy; the framing perspective, from Frame Analysis. Originally
concerned with the framing of experience (see Ruiz-Junco 2011), the framing perspec-
tive explores the frames or cognitive interpretations that movement participants use to
achieve their goals. This perspective gives importance to the meanings that social
movement participants attach to their actions as much as to the strategic purposes of
those meanings.
Recently this perspective has come under attack on the grounds that it fails to ade-
quately tackle emotions and emotional dynamics (Benford and Snow 2000; Cadena-Roa
2005; Emirbayer and Goldberg 2005; Ferree and Merrill 2000). Framing scholars are
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addressing some of the problems associated with the exclusion of emotions from the con-
ceptualization of frames by way of the idea of emotional framing.
Emotional framing refers to the framing activities that social movements engage in to
achieve emotional resonance. Schrock et al. (2004) define emotional resonance as ‘‘the
link between targeted recruits’ emotional lives and the emotional messages encoded in
SMO framing.’’ Cadena-Roa’s study of Me
´xico Distrito Federal’s neighborhood move-
ment, organizing around economic justice in urban housing, offers an application of the
concept of emotional framing. This work explores the emotional resonance of movement
frames by focusing on the emotional receptivity of bystanders and potential adherents.
Cadena-Roa (2005, 76) shows that the movement’s created character, Superbarrio, suc-
cessfully promoted the causes of the movement because his performances were consonant
with the cultural and emotional context created and facilitated by the wrestling demon-
strations in which Superbarrio took part.
Social movement researchers frequently interweave emotion work and emotional fram-
ing in their studies. Schrock et al. (2004) give us an example of such articulation. The
authors examine a transgender support group and its relation to transgender social move-
ment organizations to find out how framing affects emotion work. By contrast to particu-
lar transgender groups, the authors note, transgender social movement organizations
strategically frame issues to achieve the goal of emotional resonance. Thus, emotional
framing appears as a dimension of emotion work in the literature.
Emotional cultures
Social movement participants and organizations do not do emotion work and emotional
framing in a cultural vacuum. Instead, the more micro-level activities of emotion work
and emotional framing give rise to collectively reproduced patterns of emotions, or emo-
tional cultures. This section will explore how the emotional culture concept has been
successfully applied in the area of social movements.
Adapting the idea from Hochschild, Taylor (2000, 274) argues that the emotional
culture concept ‘‘include[s] expectations about how members should feel about them-
selves and about dominant groups, as well as how they should manage and express
the feelings evoked by their day-to-day encounters with dominant groups.’’ Taylor
(1995) was the first to introduce this idea in the social movements literature. In her
work on the self-help movement around postpartum depression, Taylor (1996) exam-
ines how women involved in this movement learned to understand a collection of
miscellaneous feelings as postpartum depression by sharing these feelings with others in
the movement. What Taylor’s analysis makes clear is that it was precisely the sharing
of feelings in common that led to the creation of an emotional culture that increased
the women’s commitment to the movement. Similarly, Taylor and Rupp (2002) show
how three feminist transnational organizations do emotion work to form a common
emotional culture.
The notion of outlaw emotions or emotions that are socially deemed as ‘‘conventionally
unacceptable’’ (Jaggar 1989, 160) illuminates a dimension of the idea of emotional culture
in the literature. Outlaw emotions are the result of an oppressive emotional culture with
the potential to constrain the non-normative expression and experience of emotions and
thus to further the domination of particular groups and individuals. Following Jaggar’s
(1989, 160) suggestion that people with subaltern statuses together may build an emo-
tional culture of their own in opposition to the dominant cultural context, scholars of
social movements analyze the impact of oppressive emotional cultures when they examine
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how outlaw or deviant emotions play a role in activism and in everyday interaction (Groves
1997; Hercus 1999).
For example, Groves (1997) argues that women activists in the animal rights group he
studied were stigmatized for being ‘‘emotional’’ and women; in contrast, the men in that
group by virtue of their gender were not penalized in the same manner. As Groves
(1997, 147) argues, ‘‘Men paid their emotional dues simply in the shame they had to
endure by being in an animal movement. Men’s willingness to express their feelings was
considered a sign of fearlessness, but in women it was a sign of weakness.’’
Lastly, the role of emotional cultures in movement organizations is further elaborated
through the early classification introduced by Jasper (1997) between shared and reciprocal
emotions. Shared emotions involve the common feelings that people have regarding a
particular target or social issue which precedes involvement in a social movement group.
For example, an immigrant to a foreign country may feel enraged at prevalent discrimina-
tion policies that affect her. She may share this feeling with others, but none of them
need to have joined a social movement organization to have the feeling in common.
However, in joining an immigrant rights organization, this person develops reciprocal
emotions with others in the movement group. Thus, reciprocal emotions are always the
product of movement involvement and are a key ingredient of the emotional cultures of
movement groups.
The emotional reciprocity of a shared emotional culture motivates movement partici-
pants to remain involved regardless of social movement outcomes. Reger (2004) makes
the case that participation in consciousness-raising was sufficient for some NOW mem-
bers to take part in organized social action in the organization, because they valued the
reciprocal emotions and emotional culture that they created together. Similarly, Flesher
Fominaya (2010a) demonstrates that participants in the Global Justice Movement in
Madrid valued the emotional reciprocity they felt in the gatherings called asambleas and
that this was a factor in fueling their continued activism despite negative movement
outcomes.
Emotional opportunity structures
The last concept reviewed here moves us to a new terrain in social movement theory,
but, as I will show, it is also connected to earlier ideas. The emotional opportunity con-
cept has its roots in the political process perspective. This perspective studies structural
constraints on collective action, considering them crucial in determining the success or
failure of a movement. Like the framing perspective discussed previously, this perspective
has also been a target of criticism for ignoring the emotional (Goodwin et al. 2000; Jasper
1998). Scholars working from this perspective have responded to this critique by investi-
gating how structural contexts affect movement emotional dynamics.
In her pioneering discussion of emotional opportunities, Nancy Whittier (2001, 250)
explains the idea by arguing that ‘‘the institutions within which the social movement
operates carry their own emotional expectations, permitting and rewarding some feeling
displays and rendering others futile or unintelligible.’’ It is these emotional opportunities
created by the institutional background of social movements that analysts are interested in
discovering. Prior to Whittier, the idea of emotional opportunity structures was intro-
duced under other guises, for instance, under the notion of libidinal opportunity structure.
Goodwin (1997) uses this concept to explain how the Huk movement in the Philippines
suffered a decline in mobilization. Due to its libidinal opportunity structure, the Huk
movement saw its internal solidarity and the salience of its collective identity decrease
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when its members withdrew emotional energy from the movement to direct it to emo-
tional and sexual relationships. Thus, for the communist rebels Goodwin studied, family
and sexual relationships became more important attachments than communist politics and
the seizure of power.
One important area of inquiry in this literature is the connection between emotional
opportunity structures and emotional cultures. The relation between these concepts can
be summarized in two points. First, social movements must decide how to respond to
changing circumstances in their environments. Thus, emotional opportunity structures
affect the emotion-based discourse of social movements, which is part of their emotional
culture (Woehrle et al. 2008). Woehrle et al. (2008) analyze how emotional opportunities
shape the discursive strategies of movement actors through a study of the peace move-
ment during the period from the Gulf War through the presidency of George W. Bush.
Their study shows that peace movement organizations struggled against ‘‘the Bush admin-
istration’s cultivation of a climate of fear to justify repression of civil liberties at home and
the prosecution of preemptive and aggressive wars abroad’’ (Woehrle et al. 2008, 91). In
response to this context, the organizations discursively contested the emotion of fear and
created alternative signifying practices that foregrounded other emotions.
Second, emotional cultures may directly emerge from given emotional opportunity
structures. Rather than arguing that there is a reciprocal influence between emotional
cultures and their structural environments, Guenther (2009) argues that emotional
opportunity structures determine the creation of emotional cultures. She (Guenther
2009, 356) conceptualizes emotional opportunity structures as ‘‘constituted by the spe-
cific social, economic, and political environments in which organizations operate.’’
Drawing on her study of two feminist movement organizations from Eastern Germany,
she shows that dependence on governmental funding shapes how movement organiza-
tions use emotions to advance their movement-specific goals. Her study renders evi-
dence that feminist organizations with such economic backing from the state are
characterized by ‘‘an emotional opportunity structure that encourages a professionalized
emotional repertoire’’ whereas those without it have an emotional opportunity structure
conducive to ‘‘an expressive emotion culture for maintaining members’ commitment
and thereby survival’’ (Guenther 2009, 342–343). In short, Guenther’s work exemplifies
how emotional opportunities create the circumstances under which particular emotional
cultures flourish.
Conclusion
Mostly focused on social constructionist work, this review has examined the conceptual
tools researchers use to study emotions in social movement contexts. I have found that
the contributions of this literature come mainly from theoretical crosspollination based on
preexisting perspectives in the field of social movements and protest. Some of the most
widespread concepts, such as emotion work, channeling, emotional framing, emotional
cultures, emotional resonance and emotional opportunity structures, stand precisely as a
direct outgrowth of long-standing perspectives in the field, such as framing and political
process. Moreover, these concepts may appear successfully combined in empirical analyses
further showing that the literature is moving in the direction of theoretical integration of
perspectives. Thus, this review also points to some progress in addressing the need for
understanding how emotions intersect with other mobilizing factors and proves that we
are starting to grapple with the deficiencies in dealing with emotions with which our
general theories of social movements have been charged (Goodwin et al. 2001).
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But there is some unfinished business that demands our attention. Firstly, the literature
still has to transcend the overemphasis on a handful of emotions. Admittedly, this tendency
can be attributed to the complex of the dominant emotion, or ‘‘the publicly expressed feeling
perceived by participants and observers as most prominent in an episode of collective
behavior’’ (Lofland 1991, 39). That is, scholars tend to focus on the emotions that partici-
pants report and previous scholars assess as central to mobilization. It is clear, for example,
that one cannot discount the power of fear,hostility,orjoy (Lofland 1991) and that these
emotions are interrelated in collective action. For instance, Robnett (1997) finds that the
anger of the civil rights movement’s women activists trumped their fear to get involved in
the movement, a crucial factor in explaining their mobilization. But because there is no
concluding evidence that the dominant emotions that have garnered most attention from
scholars are more constitutive to social movements than other emotions, scholars will be
well-advised to expand their analytical lenses to include less investigated emotions.
Empathy is one of the least investigated emotions in this area of research. Although
some have noted the importance of empathy in mobilization (e.g. Flam 2000), we still
lack studies that either provide a full-length analysis of empathic processes in mobilization
and demobilization, or an analysis of how empathy intersects with other emotions and to
what effect. Confusion and courage are other emotions that are poorly studied. William-
son’s (2011) recent study of the Reclaiming movement is an exception in this respect. By
expanding the analysis to how different emotions intersect with each other in emotion
chains across time, Williamson further contributes to our knowledge of the diversity of
emotional dynamics in movement contexts. In sum, we should expand our analytical
reach to tap the full diversity of social movement emotions by zooming in to the least
investigated emotions at the same time that we zoom out to explore the intersections of
several emotions across time.
Secondly, we should scrutinize our methods of researching emotions. In addition to
in-depth interviews and surveys, social movement scholars are using other research meth-
ods to investigate emotions such as ethnography, longitudinal analyses of emotions and
comparative methods (Gould 2009; Maney et al. 2009; Walgrave and Verhulst 2006).
However, more work on the methods of emotion research in social movements is neces-
sary. Practitioners point out the difficulties they encounter in relying on what the study
participants tell them about their emotional states (Adams 2003; Groves 1997). This indi-
cates the need to clarify the methodological dilemmas encountered by practitioners to help
to build further theory in this area. By advancing our methodological strategies, we will
gain more knowledge into the emotional life of social movements and will likely discover
more emotional diversity and more emotional dynamics than were previously known.
Acknowledgements
I thank Cristina Flesher Fominaya, Gregory Maney, and the anonymous reviewers at Soci-
ology Compass for their helpful feedback on this work.
Short Biography
Natalia Ruiz-Junco is Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology at
American University. She holds degrees from Universidad Complutense and University
of Kentucky. She received her PhD from University of Kentucky. She specializes in
social theory and social movements. Her perspective on social movements is characterized
by a focus on meaning and interpretation. Professor Ruiz-Junco has published several
52 Feeling Social Movements
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types of work in outlets such as disClosure, Contemporary Sociology, Journal of Contemporary
Ethnography, Studies in Symbolic Interaction, and The Oral History Review.
Note
* Correspondence address: Natalia Ruiz-Junco, American University, 4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washing-
ton DC, District of Columbia United States 20016. E-mail: ruizjunc@american.edu
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54 Feeling Social Movements
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