Contentious Knowledge & the Diffusion of Social Protest

November 9-10, 2007

The broader project of the ISS Contentious Knowledge Research Team brought together members of two communities of scholars: those focused on social movements and contentious politics, and those focused on social studies of scientific knowledge. Studies of movements and contentious politics have produced a body of findings on the dynamics of mobilization, the processes of framing, the development and diffusion of tactics, and the trajectories and transformations of collective political struggle. Social studies of scientific knowledge have developed detailed accounts of how scientific knowledge is produced, how the credibility of knowledge claims is collectively assessed, and how scientific controversies reach closure. But while these two research communities have not wholly ignored one another, neither have they engaged in extensive dialog. We believe that such dialog would be productive, owing both to the existence of shared empirical subject matter and to the potential for useful theoretical exchange.

At this workshop, we sought to address a number of questions related to our broad theme, but focusing on the role of diffusion. We identified 3 separate panels based on 3 very broad topical areas. Here, we suggested a number of questions that we see relevant to these three broad topic areas and which we hope participants will consider when drafting their papers and presentations for this Workshop. These questions are not intended to be rigid guidelines but simply examples of the issues we hope will come up in our discussions.

Workshop Themes

I. Tactical Diffusion

  • How do knowledge claims affect the choice of tactics?
  • How do knowledge claims affect the linkages or alliances that are formed between different actors, and the patterns of diffusion that allow protest frames or tactics to spread from one group to another?

II. Frames and Framing Processes in Diffusion

  • Are issues under contention framed differently when authoritative knowledge or technical expertise from the social or natural sciences are invoked (as opposed, say, to contentious claims based primarily on collective interests, group identities, or normative or ideological conceptions of “justice”)?
  • How do political authorities and social movements employ such expertise in their framing of contentious issues?
  • How does framing contribute to the diffusion process?
  • Does contested knowledge diffuse in a way that is different than uncontested knowledge?

III. The Role of Media and NGOs in the Diffusion Process

  • What is the role of experts and expert knowledge in the development and deployment of tactics? For example, how do NGOs shape tactical repertoires of activists in the countries in which they work and how does such ‘expert’ knowledge affect the diffusion of tactics?
  • How do various brokers (e.g., media, NGOs) process and respond to contentious claims leveled for or against authoritative knowledge?
  • In thinking about specific scientific issues around which movements may mobilize (e.g., GMOs, evolution) that transcend national and cultural boundaries, how are these issued framed by various authorities such that the issue resonates with the local knowledge?  What is the role of agency in this process?
  • What is the role of technical expertise in various kinds of diffusion? What kinds of diffusion happen without expertise (e.g., rumors)?

Agenda & Abstracts



Workshop Participants

Panel I. The Role of Networks, Communication, & NGOs in Tactical Diffusion
Robert Paarlberg, Political Science, Wellesley College
Sean Chabot, Sociology, Eastern Washington University
Michael Hanchard, Political Science, Johns Hopkins University

Panel II. Frames and Framing Processes in Diffusion
Dave Snow, Sociology, Univ. of California, Irvine
Conny Roggeband, Sociology, Free University, Netherlands
Lance Compa, ILR, Cornell University
George Lakoff, Linguistics, Univ. of California, Berkeley

Panel III. The Role of Media and Technology in the Diffusion Process
Andy Andrews, Sociology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 
Jennifer Earl, Sociology, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara
Thomas Olesen, Political Science, University of Aarhus, Denmark
Jayson Harsin, Communications, American University in Paris

Workshop Concluding Lecture
Sidney Tarrow, Government and Sociology, Cornell University

Organizing Committee

Sarah Soule, Department of Sociology
Becky Givan, Department of Collective Bargaining
Ken Roberts, Department of Government
Anneliese Truame & Judi Eastburn, ISS Administrative Staff

For more information contact: