Francesca Polletta, Professor

PhD, Yale University, 1994

political sociology, social movements, culture, narrative, democracy

Professional Bio

Francesca Polletta is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. She came to UCI from Columbia University, where she was an assistant and associate professor. She received her BA in the Sociology of Law from Brown University in 1984 and her PhD in Sociology from Yale University in 1994. She has been a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Open Society Institute, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Vreije Universitat, Amsterdam. She is currently a Senior Fellow in the Successful Societies Program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

Professor 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.

Current Research

Polletta is working now on three projects that extend her interests in strategy, democracy, and culture.  One, entitled Democracy Now, seeks to account for the surprising popularity of participatory forms of decision making in movements, governments, nonprofits, and for-profits. Some observers have hailed a new age of democracy while others have been more skeptical. Polletta asks instead what ordinary people want and expect of democracy—of democracy in their workplaces and civic organizations, schools and movements. Where do their models of what democracy is and requires come from? And what consequences do those models have for what people want and get from their political and economic institutions?

A second project extends Polletta’s research on storytelling in protest and politics. Advocacy groups today commonly coach their members on how to tell their personal stories in court, to funders, to policymakers, and to reporters. Advocates’ hope is that audiences hearing stories of individual suffering and survival—of sex-trafficked young women, undocumented immigrants, or welfare recipients—will be motivated to support the cause. There is good reason for advocates’ enthusiasm about storytelling. First person stories can be powerfully persuasive. They can get us to understand and empathize with the needs of people very different from us. They can sensitize us to issues we had not thought of before and can get us to see possibilities we had not imagined. But stories only sometimes do those things. Told badly, or told on an inappropriate occasion, or told by some people rather than others, stories can seem inauthentic, unbelievable, manipulative, or irrelevant. Stories easily can be dismissed. So when do stories work in advocacy efforts? And what does working or not working mean? To answer these questions, Polletta draws on experimental and discourse analytic research to identify the conditions in which narrative messages are persuasive. With support from the Open Society Foundations, she is also interviewing advocates who have used storytelling to probe the challenges of using stories effectively.

In a third project, Polletta is studying the conditions in which ordinary people are able to reflect on the competing frames that underpin policy debates. Numerous studies in sociology, political science, and communications have demonstrated that people’s opinions are profoundly shaped by the ways in which issues are framed, that is, by the metaphors and images, claims and assumptions that inform statements about an issue. Scholars have argued that giving people the opportunity to reflect on competing frames should make for more informed opinions, and possibly, lead to compromise or alternative positions. But how do you get people to reflect on the frames underpinning political controversies? In collaboration with Cornell University computational linguists and funded by the National Science Foundation, Polletta is capitalizing on the enormous amount of commentary available online, combined with new techniques of computational linguistics, to develop a visualization tool capable of highlighting linguistic patterns in the arguments that are made pro and con a particular policy proposal. The researchers are interested in how people use the visualization tool, individually and in a group deliberative situation, and in how it affects their opinions about the issues in question.