The rise of inequality: How social movements shape discursive fields


Social movement scholars have considered several political and cultural consequences of social movements, but have paid limited attention to whether and how social movements shape discourse. We develop a theory of discursive eruption, referring to the ability of radical movements to initially ignite media coverage but not control the content once other actors— particularly those that can take advantage of journalistic norms—enter the discourse. We hold that one long-term outcome of radical social movements is the ability to alter discursive fields through mechanisms such as increasing the salience and content of movement-based issues. We examine the way movements shape discourse by focusing on newspaper articles about inequality before, during, and after the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. We analyze changes in the salience and content of coverage as well as shifts in actor standing and influence. Using 7,024 articles from eight newspapers, we find that the OWS movement increased media attention to inequality, shifting the focus of the discourse toward movement-based issue areas (e.g., the middle class and minimum wage). Further, we find that compared to the pre-OWS period, the influence of social movement organizations and think tanks rose in discourse on inequality. In addition, the discourse on inequality became more highly politicized as a result of the Occupy movement. These findings highlight the importance of social movements in shaping discourse and indicate that social movement scholars should further consider discursive changes as a consequence of social movements.

Mobilization: An International Quarterly