Emotions, Identity, and Social Movements

Emotions, Identity, and Social Movements

While working this summer, I have been thinking about how scholars can continue to apply social psychology to understand individual behavior, including participation in social movements. In my recent comprehensive exam, I argue that identity and emotion can help to explain differences in movement participation from initial involvement to variations in movement-related behaviors. The history and framing of particular social movements can interact with individuals’ social and personal identities and emotions to influence movement behavior.

The environmental and environmental justice movements are currently active social movements that provide a lens for understanding modern civil society. Although these two environmental movements are not entirely distinct, understanding their differences in framing, goals, and tactics is necessary for understanding participation processes and recruitment. The environmental and environmental justice movements differ in their explicit attention to social identities, with the environmental justice movement aiming to address inequality in environmental exposure based on race, class, and gender. Participation in these two movements can be informed by the way their differences in tactics and framing interact with self-concepts and emotion, including the intersections of multiple identities that individuals hold.

Collective identity, centered on group membership and based in studies of social movements, affects multiple stages of movement processes, but personal identities, individuals’ views of themselves as an “I”, and emotions help explain participation in a more complex way at the individual level. The concept of social movement identity, such as an environmental movement identity, bridges collective and personal identity and provides one example of how individuals can view their participation in a movement as consistent with their individual sense of self (Dunlap and McCright 2008). Personal identities and emotions explain variation in participation between people who share similar collective or social identities and are therefore necessary for a complete picture of participation.

As identity’s influence on movement choices has been previously noted, the varied identities that can connect to participation in the environmental and environmental justice movements can help to explain varied participation in those movements. Because compatible identities with a social movement are necessary pre-conditions for participation in the movement, varied movement organizations and frames can also attract adherents differently based on the individual self-concepts of potential participants (Stryker 2000, Stryker et al. 2000). Although the framing of the mainstream environmental movement might tend to align itself with individuals’ identities as activists or environmentalists, the framing of environmental justice might align with these identities as well as racial, ethnic, and class-based social identities. Relative salience and commitment to the varied identities that people hold, particularly social movement identities, could explain their differential participation in environmental justice and environmental movements, while also providing context to the consequences of frames used within these movements. This could also apply to the intersections of multiple identities. For example, women of color face unique vulnerabilities and exposures to environmental harm and could therefore be more likely to participate in environmental justice activities. Additionally, movement organizers may attempt to portray movement asks as consistent with particular identities, including social identities based on race, gender, and class as well as personal identities based upon an individual role as an agent of social change. Research is needed to move beyond understanding social identities as they relate to movements to also include social movement identities that people incorporate into their self-concepts as personal identities.

From a broader perspective, research on environmental movements should continue to connect both social and personal identities to movement goals. While environmental justice activism explicitly addresses individuals’ raced, gendered, and classed identities and self-concepts, the mainstream environmental movement has historically not directly addressed inequality based on social identity. This difference can also lead to differences in applications of self-esteem and mastery. While individuals involved in both movements may see themselves as working toward protection of human wellbeing, environmental justice activists tend also to consider inequality in exposure to environmental problems while environmental activists are concerned about the preservation of nature. Additionally, many participants in the environmental justice movement are working for justice for social groups to which they belong, while others are participating in activism outside of issues that directly pose risks to their health, wellbeing, and safety. Owens and Aronson theorize that people with high self-esteem are more likely to become involved with a social movement when they perceive an injustice to a group with which they share a salient identity (2000). The process by which self-esteem influences movement participation could function differently when participants join a movement that they perceive to be based on injustice to others rather than to a group with which they share a salient identity. However, some people may view their participation in the mainstream environmental movement as related to threats to themselves or to future generations, while people participating in the environmental justice movement who do not share marginalized identities or are not facing environmental threats in their communities may join based on threats to others. This argument highlights the importance of examining the ways that participants in the environmental movement view the potential goals and benefits of the movement and how this interacts with group membership and self-concept to influence participation.

To restate, social movement research would benefit from an increased focus on the micro-level processes of individual self-concept in order to explain social movements using a broader definition of participation. Future research should also link the particular framing and history of a social movement to theories of social psychology in order to better understand participation. Because movements are made up of individuals, social movement scholars should look to the micro to explain the macro. People who share the same social and collective identities do not consistently participate in the same ways. In addition, individuals participate in movements through a range of varied behaviors. Although there may be differences by social group in likelihood of participation in the environmental and environmental justice movements, two people who share the same social group may not participate in the same movement or may participate in different ways. Understanding individual participation is important for a complete view of social movements. Personal identity theories can help to deepen understanding of social movement participation by explaining behavior using identity salience and identity definitions, incorporating personal identities based on participation in a social movement.

Going forward, I am interested in using these ideas to explain other types of behaviors, such as volunteering, personal environmental behaviors, stewardship, and civic behaviors, as well as further exploring the influence and formation of values and morality.




Dunlap, R. E. and Aaron McCright (2008). Social movement identity: Validating a measure of

identification with the environmental movement. Social Science Quarterly, 89(5), 1045-



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Stryker, S. (2000). Identity Competition: Key to Differential Social Movement Participation. In S.

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Stryker, S., Owens, T. J., & White, R. W. (2000). Social Psychology and Social Movements: Cloudy

Past and Bright Future. In S. Stryker, T. J. Owens, & R. W. White (Eds.), Self, Identity, and

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