I have been studying one form or another of what I call “contentious politics”—and what others call “social movements”—since I went to southern Italy in the 1960s as a graduate student to learn about peasant communism. A kindly academic invited me to take part in a conference he was organizing in a villa near Rome with a panoply of Europe’s famous political scientists. I made bold to introduce myself to one of these worthies and when he asked me what I was doing, I told him I was interviewing communist officials. “Interviews,” he scoffed, his nose in the air, “If you base your research on interviews with Communists, all you will learn about is verbal behavior!”
I was at first crushed, then angry, and, finally, provoked into thinking about a meaning of his dismissal that he didn’t intend: that words can tell you more than the speaker intends about their meaning; and that the mobilization of words can change how people act contentiously. In my interviews with Communist activists, I had noticed that the Leninist term “cadre,” which originally referred to groups of militants, was transformed in Italian Communist parlance to mean an individual militant – a quadro.
Words can tell you more than the speaker intends about their meaning, and that the mobilization of words can change how people act contentiously.
At the time, I didn’t really know what to make of this transformation in meaning, so I let it go. But the meaning of political words continued to haunt me as my work shifted from Italian communists to mayors in the South of France. Nurtured by my experiences in Italy, my idea was that a mayor was a party activist who had been delegated by his party to run for local office. How surprising, then, to find that the first French mayor I interviewed in 1968 insisted he had nothing to do with politics! “Moi, je ne fais pas de politique!” (“I have nothing to do with politics!”), exclaimed the mayor of Maussane-les-Alpilles, the village my wife and I were living in. When mayor after mayor repeated the same mantra, I began to think that I had encountered words that mattered.
This was the instinct that led me to carry out a matching set of interviews with French and Italian mayors which unearthed a fundamental difference in how local elites interacted with the state: in France it was through “apolitical” ties with the state and in Italy through the mayor’s ties in the party system.
The language of contention turned up again in the work I did on the social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s in Italy. I had become interested in the actions that these movements performed on the public stage. Starting with standard computerized technology, I first tried to fit the multiple public performances I was finding into categories like marches, sit-ins, demonstrations, and later, street fights and organized terrorism. But I soon saw that minor changes in the language of contention denoted major changes in behavior. Take the term “Il popolo di dio” (the people of God), that was first employed by Pope John XXIII at Vatican II. When a dissident priest employed in Florence to defend his poor parishioners, it threatened the Catholic hierarchy. I came to see that such changes in language could track longer-term changes in behavior.
Does the use of a particular locution produce changes in behavior? I began to find that as new words for contention diffuse across social and territorial boundaries, they affect how people behave as well as how they describe what they do. Take the recent evolution of the term ”occupy”: it not only described what a group of protesters did near Wall Street in 2011; it also inspired people around the United States and abroad to imitate what they had done, to innovate new forms of occupation, and to force the concept of “the 99 percent” onto the political agenda. By the time of the 2012 election, President Obama was using their imagery to seek re-election.