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Inventing the Ties That Bind

Imagined Relationships in Moral and Political Life

At a time of deep political divisions, leaders have called on ordinary Americans to talk to one another: to share their stories, listen empathetically, and focus on what they have in common, not what makes them different. In Inventing the Ties that Bind, Francesca Polletta questions this popular solution for healing our rifts. Talking the way that friends do is not the same as equality, she points out. And initiatives that bring strangers together for friendly dialogue may provide fleeting experiences of intimacy, but do not supply the enduring ties that solidarity requires. But Polletta also studies how Americans cooperate outside such initiatives, in social movements, churches, unions, government, and in their everyday lives. She shows that they often act on behalf of people they see as neighbors, not friends, as allies, not intimates, and people with whom they have an imagined relationship, not a real one. To repair our fractured civic landscape, she argues, we should draw on the rich language of solidarity that Americans already have.


"Imagining the Ties That Bind is a perceptive meditation on the capacities and deceptions of everyday social imaginaries. Polletta has given us a powerful thinking tool to enrich our research with a broader and more piercing sociological imagination."

American Journal of Sociology

"It is challenging to do justice to Inventing the Ties that Bind because it draws adroitly across such a diversity of cases and lines of argumentation, and accomplishes so much. In addition to the book's major contributions to cultural and political sociology, movement scholars interested in culture in general, and solidarity, story, ritual, and emotions specifically, will find the book offers fresh and compelling insights."


“Reading through Inventing the Ties That Bind is like a jaunt through what you thought was a familiar public park or streetscape only to be jolted, over and over again, with a novel, provocative, or hard-hitting insight that makes the contours of the familiar leap into shimmering, breathtaking focus. The book is exciting, timely, ambitious, beautifully written, and is sure to have a broad audience.”

Ann Mische, Notre Dame University

“This book is timely, original and wonderfully synthetic. While the cultural turn in the study of social movements has been well underway for some time, Polletta’s understanding of culture is far more sophisticated than that of many authors who work in this vein. Moreover, she speaks directly to some key debates in our turbulent political times, including how to talk to people across the many divides that fracture our polity.”

Wendy Espeland, Northwestern University

 "With whom do we bond?  Social science tells us it is with friends of friends, popular people, and those with whom we share social and organizational affiliations. Fair enough, but there are many exceptions—and when it comes to establishing empathy and social solidarity in complex societies, these exceptions may be more important than the rule. This book is about the exceptions, the ways in which people use analogy to construct relationships across social boundaries, and about why strategic recipes for producing such relationships usually fail to do so. In this subtle and insight­ful study, Polletta delineates the intimate links between sit­uation, imagination, interaction, and identity, providing signposts for reconstructing community in the face of anomie and polarization."

Paul DiMaggio, New York University

“How can strangers be turned into people we feel solidarity with? This is the burning question that distinguished expert of social movements and deliberation Polletta takes on in her remarkable book. She examines evidence from across the social sciences about the relative value of various paths of action, which may include moral norms, self-interest, civility, emotions, rituals, advocacy, self-disclosure, and feel-good exercise. Through rich case studies, she argues against encouraging a culture of superficial intimacy. Instead, the secret sauce for 'solidarity across differences' is building imagined relationships over time through practice and 'relationship schemas.' As a wide-ranging contribution of stunning originality, Inventing the Ties that Bind deserves to have a broad readership from sociology, political science, and beyond."

Michèle Lamont, Harvard University

"Seeking to transcend today’s constricted politics, Inventing the Ties that Bind probes the fundamental nature of identity and solidarity. With original research on cases from early Civil Rights organizing to professionally-curated civic dialogues, Polletta explores how people imagine–and reimagine–their relationships with others different from themselves. Polletta shows how, as social and moral beings, we can draw from existing relationship schemas–as family members, citizens, and friends–to imagine, and enact, more inclusive, just, and equal forms of cooperation and of struggle."

Ann Swidler, University of California, Berkeley

"In Inventing the Ties that Bind, Francesca Polletta, a distinguished contributor the literature on social movements, probes what is needed to build solidarity."

Social Forces

Table of Contents


1 Relationships, Real and Imagined
2 Free-Riders and Freedom Riders
3 Whom One Owes
with Zaibu Tufail
4 Publics, Partners, and the Promise of Dialogue
5 The Art of Authentic Connection
6 Solidarity without Intimacy
7 The Uneasy Balm of Communication


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