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House Series – Symbolic Objects in Contentious politics: Why Objects Matter in Protest, Revolution and Resistance

Contentious Politics
Political Sociology
Protests
HS811

Tuesday 16:00 - 17:30 (08/11/2022)


Abstract

Speakers: Benjamin Abrams, University College London Peter Gardner, University of York Panel Chair David Swartz, Boston University When we observe protest marches, strikes, revolutionary crowds, and insurgent movements in the world today, our gaze is drawn to two things: the people, and the problem. However, amid the crowds, regiments and mobs of contentious politics, litanies of objects are also visible. Some of these are found the world over, such as flags, banners, and placards. Others are situationally unique: who could have anticipated the historical importance of a flower placed in the barrel of a gun, a motorist’s yellow vest, or a knitted pink hat? These are what we call symbolic objects: powerful and potent signifiers in political contention. They range from flags to protest placards, from controversial statues to symbolic bodies and personages, from masks and uniforms to the machete and the AK-47. Importantly, these are not simply objects, nor only symbols: they are at once physical objects and symbolically potent. Symbolic objects can denote resistance, collective action, and forms of collective identity. They can present proclamations, narratives or symbolic arguments; and may feature as tools in protest and contention. Rarely do protesters, revolutionaries and insurgents act in the absence of objects imbued with symbolic content. Protesters hoist banners; striking workers wave placards declaring grievances; revolutionaries have used everything from flowers to flags as signifiers of their cause. In recent years, statues have become focal points for anti-racist and decolonizing movements. In all these cases, symbolic objects act as powerful signifiers and potent motifs. They can divide and unite social groups, tell stories, make declarations, spark controversies, and even trigger violent upheavals. Drawing together the findings of a forthcoming book Symbolic Objects in Contentious Politics, this talk develops what we see as the promise of studying symbolic objects in contentious politics. Our aim is not to proscribe how objects in contention must be interpreted, but to offer what we understand to be some of the most promising parameters for analysing these fascinating empirical phenomena, inspired by a wide array of cases and comparisons including Germany, Poland, Iran, the United States, Nigeria, and Lebanon. The talk is organised into three sections. First, we develop and discuss the scope of symbolic objects in contentious politics as an area of study. Second, we outline key theoretical propositions about how symbolic objects tend to present across cases. Third, and finally, we examine more precisely how studying symbolic objects can enrich our understanding of key areas in the study of contentious politics, furnishing our analysis with examples from the cases and comparisons that make up the book.