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It Was Like a Fever

Storytelling in Protest and Politics

Activists and politicians have long recognized the power of a good story to move people to action. In early 1960 four black college students sat down at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and refused to leave. Within a month sit-ins spread to thirty cities in seven states. Student participants told stories of impulsive, spontaneous action—this despite all the planning that had gone into the sit-ins. “It was like a fever,” they said.

Francesca Polletta’s It Was Like a Fever sets out to account for the power of storytelling in mobilizing political and social movements. Drawing on cases ranging from sixteenth-century tax revolts to contemporary debates about the future of the World Trade Center site, Polletta argues that stories are politically effective not when they have clear moral messages, but when they have complex, often ambiguous ones. The openness of stories to interpretation has allowed disadvantaged groups, in particular, to gain a hearing for new needs and to forge surprising political alliances. But popular beliefs in America about storytelling as a genre have also hurt those challenging the status quo.
A rich analysis of storytelling in courtrooms, newsrooms, public forums, and the United States Congress, It Was Like a Fever offers provocative new insights into the dynamics of culture and contention.


“In this wonderful book, Francesca Polletta helps put definitively to rest the notion that narratives are little more than ‘just so’ stories. Their causal power, particularly in the production of social change, comes through bright and clear. Polletta goes a long way toward developing just the kind of disciplined sociology of discursive forms that is needed at the present juncture. It was Like a Fever will be of lasting importance to cultural analysts of various ilk in the social sciences and the humanities."

Michèle Lamont, Harvard University

"For anyone interested in cultural sociology, social movements, political sociology, and the sociology of the media, this study of the political potential and constraints of storytelling is a must read."

Victoria Johnson | Mobilization

"Through a better understanding of the epistemology of storytelling, Polletta moves beyond functional and textual analysis to understand the belief systems that shape use and interpretation. An interesting and very accessible book."

Lisa Rathje | Journal of Folklore Research

"Polletta breaks newer ground in showing how the ambviguity of some stories and their rhetorical treatment can generate interpretive possibilities that can suit a variety of agendas."

Wendy Griswold | Political Science Quarterly

Table of Contents

1. Why Stories Matter
2. "It was like a fever . . .": Why People Protest
3. Strategy as Metonymy: Why Activists Choose the Strategies They Do
4. Stories and Reasons: Why Deliberation Is Only Sometimes Democratic
5. Ways of Knowing and Stories Worth Telling: Why Casting Oneself as a Victim Sometimes Hurts the Cause
6. Remembering Dr. King on the House and Senate Floor: Why Movements Have the Impacts They Do
7. Conclusion: Folk Wisdom and Scholarly Tales


ASA Collective Behavior and Social Movements Section: Charles Tilly Award for Best Book

ASA Political Sociology Section: Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Book Award in Political Sociology
Honorable Mention

ASA Culture Section: Mary Douglas Prize
Honorable Mention

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