A Typology of Oppositional Knowledge: Democracy and the U.S. Peace Movement

by Patrick G. Coy, Lynne M. Woehrle and Gregory M. Maney
Kent State University, Mount Mary College, Hofstra University

Sociological Research Online 13(4)3

Received: 4 Apr 2008     Accepted: 3 Jun 2008    Published: 31 Jul 2008


Institutionally privileged political discourses not only legitimate the policy agendas of power-holders, but also de-legitimate dissent. Oppositional discourses are social movement responses to these cultural obstacles to mass mobilisation. Integrating discourse analysis and framing theory, we argue that the production of oppositional knowledge constitutes a long-term, counter-hegemonic project that connects macro-level discourses with meso and micro-level efforts at political persuasion, mobilisation, and change. Drawing examples from statements issued by U.S. peace movement organisations (PMOs) over fifteen years, we map the production of oppositional discourses across five conflict periods. Using qualitative data analysis and both inductive and deductive theorising, we develop a typology of the U.S. peace movement's discourses on democracy. We show that four forms of oppositional knowledge were generated by PMOs to facilitate policy dialogue and accountability. Through their statements, peace movement organisations crafted a shared conception of democracy that is antithetical to military intervention abroad and political repression at home.

Keywords: Discourse, Peace and Social Movements, War, Hegemony, Democracy, Symbolic Culture, Political Persuasion


1.1 In the United States, public opinion and broad-based participation in public policy formation are widely regarded as important aspects of socio-cultural heritage. Far from being unusual, issue-oriented debate and dialogue on domestic policies is expected to occur among individuals, in the media, and through communications with local, state, and national officials. However, active, open discussion of foreign policy is less likely to be seen as common-place, and more likely to remain in the shadows of closed door discussions among elected officials (Pagnucco and Smith 1993). As is the case in all States, rules of access have attached themselves to the political and policy-making institutions of the United States. Whose voice is listened to and taken into account by policy-makers is one measure of a democracy's health.

1.2 In March, 2006, for example, the U.S. Congress commissioned the Iraq Study Group to evaluate government policy in Iraq and to propose substantive alternatives. Co-chaired by former Secretary of State, James Baker, and former Congressman, Lee Hamilton, the group's membership was made up entirely of former high-ranking members of the Washington political establishment. Absolutely no voices from outside the Washington beltway were heard, to say nothing of voices from social movements. National government commissions studying domestic issues – like health care or transportation policy, for example – typically include experts and activists beyond the Washington policy elite. But this is generally not the case with regard to the one issue which cuts to the core of national identity: the decision to wage war. This is indeed unfortunate as public input into policy formation and evaluation – especially on this issue –is critical in a democracy. The role of peace movement organisations in promoting public dialogue and official accountability in the United States on matters of war and peace is the focus of this study. As such it compliments other recent research that has addressed different aspects of this same issue (Heaney and Rojas 2007, 2008; Meyer and Corrigall-Brown 2005). The grassroots organisations analysed in our study contributed to the public dialogue about foreign policy decisions on war and peace. Their activism is an example of how social movements try to surmount substantial obstacles to fulfilling the vision of informed dialogue in a democracy. In so doing, these organisations are part of a broader set of changes and initiatives around the world that are demanding more civil and political liberties, and increased democratisation, including participatory democracy (Inglehart and Welzel 2005).

Creating Voice, Creating Change

2.1 Social movements exist partly to bring about social change. They also exist as places for maintaining alternative cultural and social ideologies. To achieve these objectives, movement organisations aim to capture the hearts and the minds of the populace. Often efforts at persuasion are done not only with the intent to widen organisational membership, but also to shift the meanings of dominant ideas in society at a particular juncture in history. Rhetoric, argues Griffin, has a 'vital function as a shaping agent in human affairs' (Griffin 2001:5-10). Thus participation in creating and changing discourses in a society can be a political act. We define discourses as ways of talking and writing that carry a set of underlying assumptions about how the world does and should work. Our particular interest is the role of peace movement organisations in shaping discourses around United States government foreign policy.

2.2 To change dominant political discourses, a movement needs to regularly and systematically provide the populace with new ways of talking and writing that mix criticism of conventional thinking with alternative ways of making sense of the world and human behaviour. It is this clearly articulated social and cultural criticism coupled with alternative viewpoints that forms oppositional knowledge. Participation in creating discourses provides a way to measure power in society. Traditionally, power-holders have privileged access to communication and, therefore, disproportionate control over political discourse. This control over language and explanations further supports their continued dominance (Van Dijk 1993). As a result, discourse becomes a significant site of contestation and form of resistance by social movements. Meanings in society emerge from the tug and pull of discourses. This means the work of social change includes engaging the public in processes of discourse (Muhlhausler and Peace 2006). An engaged public can create pressures that shift meanings that, in turn, inform public policy.

2.3 In this context, one noteworthy action that social movements pursue is challenging power-holders' control of discourse. This work is itself deserving of study and analysis.[1] Producing alternative discourses serves the movement by chipping away at the dominant control of the power-holders. Creating discourses also has significant influences on social movement organisations internally, including developing a sense of efficacy. In addition, Fine (1995) and Gregg (2001) argue that group cohesion is enhanced through the process of contributing to social discourses. Discourse analysis demonstrates that how problems are constructed, explained, and understood is a source of considerable power in politics (Edelman 1988). Peace movement organisations engage from below the dominant political discourses that influence the public's understandings of foreign policy. Participation in discourse production can be a means to challenge domination (Foucault 1978). While power inequalities are present and in some ways reproduced in the discourses generated by oppositional groups like those in the U.S. peace movement, challenges to those inequalities are also present. (Naples 2003).

2.4 Discourse analysis offers one set of insights into how social ideas emerge and change. Another important approach to understanding the ideational work of social movements is frame analysis. While discourses are the large bodies of language and ideas arising from multiple instances of contestation, we think of frames as specific instances of identifying and contextualising 'a view' of a particular situation. Frames offer individuals a 'schemata of interpretation' so they have a means 'to locate, perceive, identify, and label' what surrounds them in a given moment. (Gamson 1988; Goffman 1974; Snow and Benford 1988, 1992; Snow et al. 1986). Frames present a view of the situation upon which the person or organisation relaying the information wants others to focus. For social movement organisations this means that with framing, they actively put into the eye of the public their interpretations of specific events. How they frame an event or the issues that surround that event frequently aligns with their organisational mission, the group's collective identity, and their ongoing discourse.

2.5 The process of framing makes more central a particular, partial view of the situation so that what is centred in the 'frame' becomes the focus of attention. There are, for example, many ways to define or describe the concept of 'peace'. Standing at an anti-war demonstration holding a sign that says, 'peace is patriotic,' frames opposition to war policies in terms of one's commitment and obligations to the nation as a citizen. Another protester at the same demonstration might hold a sign saying 'no blood for oil.' The slogan portrays the foreign policy as being based upon callous greed.

2.6 Though operating on different levels, discourses and frames are in a relationship of mutual benefit or dependence, i.e., they are in symbiosis (Sandberg 2006). Each discourse created by power-holders and challengers helps to weave the fabric of a society. Together the various discourses help create the larger cultural context within which specific events of framing are introduced.[2] During discursive exchanges different ideas are debated. That pulling and tugging can shift the dominant discourse. While discourses may shift, they continue carrying ideas forward even within a context of change. As a result, dominant discourses shape and constrain frames (Ferree 2003; Steinberg 1999). At the same time, we argue that the presentation of a new frame – either by the challengers or the power-holders – is a contribution to the discourse around a particular phenomenon (Author1, et al. 2008). Most frames are not designed to make a radical break with the existing discourse, but rather are aimed at shifting the direction of the discourse (Tarrow 1992).

2.7 We maintain that dominant discourses are reproduced, challenged, and transformed through an interactive, contested, and cumulative process of framing by multiple actors (see Figure 1). Public information can emerge from either the dominant discourse or from oppositional knowledge. Each shapes and reshapes the information and makes it available to the public. Often they provide competing explanations or interpretations, aimed at recruiting support for particular sets of ideas. Sometimes language and ideas are used to challenge existing interpretations. At other times, language and ideas from the dominant discourse are harnessed but reworked into a different message. There are also several opportunities for feedback, when political discourses may be reshaped and even transformed.[3]

Figure 1 . Reproduction and Transformation of Political Discourses

2.8 Framing (and reframing) events and issues and putting them before the public is an influential tool for the movement organisation that wants the public to think differently about an idea or a policy. When a frame does fit well, it resonates with the general public and its potency may be increased (Snow and Benford 1992). Ongoing framing along with other means of contesting dominant discourses can also build an alternate discourse. Thus creation of oppositional knowledge is done with the intent to subvert and transcend the discourse of the power-holders. Two important forms of subversion include (1) reworking the meanings and implications of already accepted symbols (i.e. harnessing); and (2) deciding to rebuke and jettison those symbols entirely (i.e. challenging). In either approach the art of persuasion is central to legitimising the alternative knowledge provided to the public.

2.9 There are feedback mechanisms that re-shape and modify the initial frames used by activists. Positive and negative feedback can lead to increased use, abandonment, or modifications. On the one hand, frames that do not fit into the dominant discourse or attempt to shift it too quickly or too radically are likely to be at risk for negative feedback from general audiences. On the other hand, frames that fit too well with the dominant discourse and attempt to shift oppositional discourses too quickly or too radically are likely to be at risk for negative feedback from those people who are seeking a deeper social change. In addition, frames that are used consistently gain legitimacy and develop a deeper resonance.[4] They develop a historical momentum and create a future trajectory reaching well beyond the initial framing act. Thus framing can be used to harness or challenge the dominant discourse (Maney et al. 2005; Coy et al. 2003). In these ways, frames form part of long-term, counter-hegemonic projects aimed at subverting the dominant discourse and providing enduring forms of oppositional knowledge that assist people in collectively bringing about fundamental social change beyond the specific issue or event being framed.

What is Oppositional Knowledge?

3.1 Oppositional knowledge creation is a necessary part of a dialogical process where social movement organisations discuss ideas with the intent of changing what is predominately viewed as normal or acceptable (Coy and Woehrle 1996). Social meanings have the potential to be altered at the intersections of oppositional ideas with the dominant symbolic repertoire of the society. Power disparities often limit institutional openness to oppositional expressions. Nonetheless, all societies produce symbolic cultural changes through the intersection of those ideas that are dominant with those that are oppositional.

3.2 Oppositional knowledge questions what is considered possible and what is considered impossible, what is thought to be desirable and what is thought to be undesirable. It injects criticism of assumed limits and it also provides a vision for what is outside 'normal' practices. In some cases it takes the form of moral rebellion. It becomes both the basis and expression of a counterculture. For example, in a society where 'patriotism' means being willing to use preemptive violence to defend the nation, connecting peacemaking with being patriotic produces an oppositional definition of citizenship and of patriotism.

How does Oppositional Knowledge Relate to Society?

4.1 Societies often produce familiar, authoritative conceptions of how the world does and should work. These conceptions are routinely applied to legitimate existing power-relations and the policy agendas of the powerful (Anderson 1976; Gramsci 1971; Williams 1982). For example, in the United States, when people talk about what it means to 'be an American,' they attach to that label a set of norms, values, and beliefs that shape how people think, behave, and understand who they are as a nation. Much of that social consensus shapes people's lives in quiet and unassuming ways – so quiet that most may not even notice the influence. In times of crisis, however, the familiar cultural identity scripts rise to the surface of everyday discussion and action (Worth and Kuhling 2004). It is this cultural process that underpins social relations and policy formation. The production of oppositional knowledge is a response to this process of legitimisation. Oppositional knowledge is created by individuals and organisations opposed to existing power relations and policies.[5]

Forms of Oppositional Knowledge

5.1 We identify four types of oppositional knowledge. Two types describe 'what is' and two describe 'what could be.' The first and perhaps most common type of oppositional knowledge is counter-informative, which aims to present the 'untold story' and what is missing from the picture – what is not told. Information not otherwise available is offered to widen the discussion and possibly change the political assessment people make or the outcomes they desire. For example, providing evidence of disenfranchisement in those societies believed to be democracies to show that they have at best only partially achieved democracy is an instance of counter-informative knowledge. This oppositional view provides examples that show how the information available has been selectively offered and what other information should also be considered.

5.2 Another form of oppositional knowledge is critical-interpretive, which assesses the information that has been provided as accurate, but questions the moral or social basis for how that information is presented, interpreted, and used. It raises the questions: 'what is it all about, and what does it mean?'. It presents an alternative interpretation of what the picture painted by the power-holders means. For example, accepting that democracy improves people's lives but challenging the idea that workable democracy can be successfully imposed by an outside force is an instance of critical-interpretive knowledge. Instead of simply providing alternative facts, a different perspective is articulated on the meaning of the information and on what is important.

5.3 A third type of oppositional knowledge is radical-envisioning where what is regarded as the definitional root is made central in an attempt to change where society is headed. The goal is to raise what alternatives could and should look like if they are instituted. These instances tend to be forward looking and often rather optimistic about what is possible if the essence of the root can be revived. This approach paints a new picture that accounts for the knowledge and understanding exposed by counter-informative and critical-interpretive oppositional knowledge. An example would be encouraging people to think about the essence of democracy and what specifically makes it work, such as wide-based public participation. Oppositional knowledge of the radical-envisioning type might also argue for a global democratic polity where a community of nations would cooperate in the nonviolent, multilateral enforcement of international law. This approach asks us to consider what is at the root of democracy and how democracy would look if its original intent was reclaimed. For example, a popular chant among activists for global justice is 'This is what democracy looks like'. This chant emerged during the 1999 anti-globalization protests in Seattle. The protesters were a historically diverse representation of contemporary social movements. The Seattle protests have come to be described as an example of true democracy in action (Smith 2001).

5.4 A fourth type of oppositional knowledge is transformative. In these instances, oppositional knowledge defines specific ways to achieve the alternatives that are envisioned by the movement. It shows how to paint a picture that embodies this alternative vision. For instance, transformative oppositional knowledge about democracy created by the PMOs included a range of recommended activities such as participating in electronic lobbying, signing e-petitions, joining street protests and street theatre, participating in globally coordinated vigils, or taking action to disrupt congressional hearings. Since democracy is dynamic and responsive to the public voice, it only operates effectively when leaders acknowledge and respond to criticisms and concerns. The transformative approach lays out how to demand and achieve responsiveness from the power-holders.

5.5 Of course, these four types of oppositional knowledge might be intertwined in a movement statement. Moreover the four types build on each other in certain ways. Counter-informative knowledge provides new information that is not available as part of the dominant discourse in society. The critical-interpretive approach digs deeply into existing knowledge, raising critical thinking questions or analysis that often reinterprets the claims of the dominant discourse. And radical-envisioning knowledge goes beyond the question of 'what does it really look like?' to ask 'what could and should it look like?’. Meanwhile the transformative approach adds solution-thinking to the envisioning process, clearly and convincingly showing how goals can be achieved. It is the four approaches working together in interlocking ways that make oppositional knowledge so powerful. This sort of knowledge combines the subversion of what is normative with the articulation of alternate ideological and strategic visions.

5.6 To offer up oppositional knowledge is to enter into a dialogue of ideas. Oppositional knowledge is deep-rooted in the vision of society as a collective where concepts and norms are developed through interaction, disagreement and emergent consensus. Legally, in many societies oppositional thinking finds support in the constitutional protection for the freedom of speech. More generally, it is expressed as having a voice. We observe that it is in the discourse about what should be the normative framework for organising society that the process of persuasion takes place.

5.7 Shifting the normative centre of society is a slow and contentious process. Changing world views involves taking an oppositional stance against what those with power portray as the expected action. Radical pedagogy is central to creating a collective consensus willing to contravene establishment views. Social movements at their heart are about regularly educating the populace that there is additional information they have not heard, that there are options other than those commonly suggested, and that there is action that can be effectively taken by those who disagree with the status quo. The production and dissemination of alternative understandings and visions defines what we refer to as the creation of oppositional knowledge.

5.8 Studying the documents produced by a broad sample of U.S. peace movement organisations gives us insight into the specific forms of oppositional knowledge generated by the movement between 1990 and 2005. Our focus is the knowledge produced about the possibility and actuality of war or large scale military action on foreign soil. Such actions possess significant ethical, political, and cultural ramifications. We are not attempting to measure the actual impact of these documents on members of the peace movement or their opponents, but rather to hold up for analytical scrutiny what peace groups in the U.S.had to say to power-holders, to potential supporters, to the general public, and to each other about U.S. government foreign policy.

Research Methods [6]

6.1 The data for our study consists of press and media releases, printed statements, editorials, and public calls to action from fifteen peace movement organisations, issued in the name of the organisation as a whole (usually by the national office). The study includes a diverse grouping of fifteen organisations that represent a broad swathe of the U.S. peace movement. There are pacifist, policy, radical, women's, African-American, religious, secular, labour, and online organisations included in the data set. While some of the groups have existed for more than 85 years, others were founded much more recently.[7] The data collected begins in August 1990, ends in March 2005, and includes 510 documents issued during five conflict periods. The collected statements were typically released to the mainstream media and/or posted to the organisation's web site. They not only represent the public face and voice of the social movement organisation, but they also are arguably the best record of an organisation's evolving official positions. Such statements provide a tangible representation of the organisation's framing work and as such can be effectively used in data analysis. They also create a partial but clear historical record of an organisation's words and actions and demonstrate how these groups contribute to the discursive processes that create social knowledge and shape public policy. Just as important, the statements have the added benefit of not being subject to the vagaries of an individual's memory, or of the face-saving and after-the-fact reconstructions that often accompany later interviewing (Polletta and Amenta 2001).

6.2 The data set as a whole provides a unique collection of documents on the U.S. peace movement. The diversity and breadth of organisations represented, combined with the longitudinal nature of the data set makes it an important contribution to the study of social movements. Fifteen organisations and five time periods supports comparative analysis and interpretations that reveal the dynamic nature of peace movement discursive practices. Time period one is the Gulf War with data from five national organisations and a total of 94 documents. Time period two is the 1998 bombing of Iraq; it includes seven organisations and 20 documents. The third time period is the 1999 bombing during the conflict over Kosova/o. This data set has 22 statements from six organisations. The next time period is the four months post-11 September and is includes statements from of nine groups for a total of 58 documents. The final time period is composed of data from the first two years of the Iraq War and covers 15 groups and 316 documents. The data stretches across three presidential administrations encompassing both Republican and Democratic leadership.

6.3 The data-mining and analytical modeling program N-Vivo allowed us to work directly with each document. In N-Vivo, conventional (inductively-based) coding is used to index the documents for ideas. The same codes were applied to all the data. The codes created a backbone for the analysis across and within organisations and time periods.

6.4 Our coding process involved a series of developmental analytical stages. Codes emerged inductively from the data and others were added from existing ideas in the literature. All three researchers participated in the coding process. To develop our initial coding strategy and to help us code in similar ways, a set of randomly chosen documents were coded by all three researchers and compared. Based on the resulting coding strategy, the data set was then split into three parts; each document in each part was coded by a primary coder who then sent it to a secondary coder for coding. The secondary coder made suggestions for additions and deletions. The resulting dialogue between the researchers then established the final coding for each document. Since multiple rounds of coding are typical in content analysis we believe our approach produces coding that recognises the conceptual richness of the documents. After extensive reading of the data, a typology was built and a single code family was chosen as a tool for explaining our cognitive schema. Within the code family major themes were chosen based on code frequency and/or thematic interest. Exemplary quotes were selected to flesh out the typology and to give voice to the organisations. To further develop the concept of oppositional knowledge we now examine in more detail PMO discourse around the concept of democracy.

Democracy as a 21st Century Ideal

7.1 Definitions of democracy are critical to 21st century debates. For many in the United States, national identity centres on an image of the U.S. as the deliverer and protector of democracy. Despite this, whether the U.S. in its domestic practices and foreign policies embodies democratic principles is a point of contention for the peace movement organisations in our study. Our data reveals eight themes that together comprise the alternate analysis of democracy offered by PMOs. We argue that these themes are expressed through counter-informative, critical-interpretive, radical-envisioning and transformative approaches to creating oppositional knowledge. While engaging in public discourse, PMOs move between the various kinds of oppositional knowledge, tailoring their statements to fit the situation and the audience. They weave together an analysis that criticises the established understandings of democracy, that attempts to reclaim the concept, and that optimistically portrays new possibilities.

Table 1: Overview of Oppositional Knowledge

Type of Oppositional KnowledgeKey wordsWhat Understanding is AddedThemes in PMO Democracy Discourse
Expose hidden truths
Tell the untold
What is missing from the picture1) U.S. government represses legitimate dissent
2) War weakens democracies
3) Democracy is a pretext for U.S. power-plays
Critical-interpretiveQuestion the norms
Provide context
Alternative interpretation of what the original picture means4) Democracy cannot be forced upon others
5) The U.S. democracy project is in trouble at home and abroad
Radical-envisioningGo to the root
Get back to fundamentals
Imagine alternatives
Paints a different picture 6) The power and promise of true democracy
7) Democracy should be rooted in broad-based political participation
TransformativeHow social change can be realisedExplains how to paint the different picture8) Democracy works when the public holds leaders accountable

Counter-Informative Oppositional Knowledge

The U.S. Government Represses Legitimate Dissent

8.1 Because states often practice social control rather than responding to the needs of citizens, government power is at times used to limit freedoms. This is quite familiar in totalitarian regimes, but PMOs aim to expand social awareness by pointing out that even the U.S. government acts to limit citizen power in order to protect the goals of its leadership. This information is offered in opposition to the familiar and often cited assumption that the U.S. is a completely open polity that protects the rights to freedom of speech and assembly. PMOs argue that national crises like war tend to increase political closure, thus limiting the freedom of expression. In discussing the war in Iraq in 2003, the Black Radical Congress (BRC) said:
Terrorism abroad has been accompanied by repression right here at home. This ruthless imperial thrust into Iraq is supplemented within the US by the neo fascist policies of Homeland Security as well as Patriot Acts I and II. These repressive laws roll back civil rights and civil liberties in the same way the US seeks to roll back the self-determination of the people of Iraq. (Black Radical Congress, 20 March, 2003)

8.2 Like the BRC, other organisations in this study also argued that freedom to criticize the government, access to information, freedom of movement and due process are suppressed when it serves the interests of the powerful. For example, the War Resisters League argued that in wartime, power-holders narrow the space for dissent:

We have experienced a small slice of the costs of war in the violation of our rights. On August 31, a day of direct action during the Republican National Convention in NYC more than 200 WRL identified activists as well as legal observers, journalists bystanders near Ground Zero were illegally arrested. The War Resisters League plans to march again on November 3rd to assert our constitutional rights to free speech and assembly. (War Resisters League, 3 November, 2004)

8.3 That such repression is not a characteristic of a healthy democracy was a message that the PMOs wanted to add to the public discourse. This helps explain why arguments against the USA PATRIOT Acts I and II (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism)—which in many ways are domestic-focused—were commonly found woven among discussions of U.S. foreign policy.

War Weakens Democracies

8.4 According to the PMOs, the conditions that prevail during wartime typically do not enhance the democratic process either abroad or at home. For example, in March 1999 the bombings by NATO were negatively assessed in relation to the goal of eliminating authoritarian leadership in Serbia:

The bombing has politically bolstered the repressive and unpopular Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, and reinforced his myth of the Serbs as a victimised and abused people. The Kosova Liberation Army (KLA), with its own vision of an ethnic state, has also been fortified; while the democratic opposition in Serbia and the forces committed to nonviolence and pluralism in Kosova have all been undermined by the attacks. (Fellowship of Reconciliation, 29 March, 1999)
Peace Action concurred that the NATO action had done 'more harm than good' by rousing support for a regime that repressed the opposition (Peace Action, n.d. Beyond the Bombs).

8.5 Moreover, the PMOs typically argued that power-holders decide to go to war despite popular opposition within the country. To legitimate the decision, the populace is rallied to stand behind the commander-in-chief, and there is little patience for public or personal expressions of opposition. Reflecting on the onset of the Gulf War, WILPF wrote: 'Within the United States, war fever has resulted in a chilling effect on public debate and dissent, the harassment of Arab-Americans by government agents and censorship of press reports.' (Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 19 January, 1991).

Democracy is a Pretext for U.S. Power-Play

8.6 While questioning the policies of the government, PMOs argued that the public is told one justification or cover story, but there is really another governmental goal that remains untold. Counter-information is provided by the PMOs to reveal the real motivations behind the policies. Moreover, the PMOs claimed that spreading democracy is often presented as one of these cover stories, typically masking a wider imperialist agenda. The lofty goal of protecting or introducing democracy may also be a cover for something much more practical. For instance, Peace Action discussed the Gulf War as generated by a thirst for power over oil: 'Now we are in a terrible mess. And the worst of it is, it's all for oil - to keep the supply plentiful and the cost of it low. …If imposing suffering on behalf of greed is right, what's left to be called wrong?' (Peace Action, 24 August, 1990).[8] The self-aggrandising policies of government leaders may also be generally aimed at power consolidation, as the American Friends Service Committee suggested:

Today, the U.S. has defied the will of the United Nations Security Council! Our diplomacy increasingly relies on acquiescence and threat. It is the noon of our arrogance. Members of the administration speak of our need for full-spectrum dominance and our militarism has risen to the point that relief organisations are labeled force enhancers and expected to report to the Pentagon. (American Friends Service Committee, 27 March, 2003)
According to this presentation of U.S. policy, the government is hiding its aggression behind the popularity of democracy.

8.7 At times it may be in the interest of the state to use war to undermine popular resistance on seemingly unrelated issues. Peace groups raise awareness by exposing these actions for the public, deepening understandings of such political complexities. For example, during the Iraq War it was convenient for the national leadership to try to further weaken labour movements at home. As USLAW surmised, 'He [George W. Bush] has proposed legislation that would enable him to suspend many union rights in the event of war… His war against Iraq serves as a cover for a war against working people here at home. War will bring neither democracy to Iraq nor security to us' (United States Labor Against the War, 'Why Labor Opposes War'). In a parallel move following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. government extended the dictatorial law prohibiting unions in Iraq.

Critical-Interpretive Oppositional Knowledge

Democracy Cannot be Forced Upon Others

9.1 Critical-interpretive oppositional knowledge takes what power-holders say and delineates new and alternate meanings of their discourse. This kind of oppositional knowledge also interprets power-holders' intentions, presenting them with an overlay of criticism. Oppositional groups ask, for example, what is behind the project of building new democracies around the world? Many of those supporting war argued that it is necessary to promote democracy abroad. The peace groups acknowledged the virtues of democracy as a system of governance. More important, they critically assessed that democracy cannot be simply exported and pressed upon people. Moreover in situations such as the Iraq War, the critical-interpretive approach asks whether the military strategy is actually improving the Iraqis' quality of life and introducing democratic practices, as the power-holders claim.

9.2 PMOs recognise that democracy may vary from society to society. They believe that democracy should be formulated from within a culture rather than imposed from outside. As the War Resisters League (WRL) argued in a statement released on 21 March, 2003, '…every principle of democracy holds that regime change, whether in Iraq or in the United States, is the task of the people of that country, and not of any foreign power.' Six months later, trying to help the general public critically assess the situation in Iraq, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) released the following statement from Peter Lems, their national representative for Iraq: 'The central question remains: will Iraq be defined by military occupation and foreign control, or the emergence of a civil society guided by the Iraqi people?' (American Friends Service Committee, 20 October, 2003). As Women's Action for New Directions (WAND) argued, 'Democracy must have its source in the hearts and minds of the people involved. It cannot be forced through the barrel of a gun' (Women's Action for New Directions, 20 May, 2004). The oppositional stance is clearly laid out: democracy must be created by the people who are part of the nation, not by external actors.

The U.S. Democracy Project is in Trouble at Home and Abroad

9.3 The dominant discourse in the United States presents its government and people as supreme authorities on the development and practice of democracy. A widely-repeated axiom in the U.S. is the claim that the United States is 'the greatest democracy in the world.' Critical of this idea that the U.S. is a beacon to emerging democracies, the PMOs reinterpreted the U.S. democracy as failed or failing. They highlighted the shortcomings of the leadership and pointed out policies that contradict broad public participation. This theme surfaced in our data particularly after the start of the post-9/11 campaign to eliminate terrorism and terrorists. Civil liberties in the U.S. became more of a public issue with the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act. Debates around the validity of much of the 'Patriot Act' emerged as the public questioned how much centralised oversight and surveillance is appropriate in a democracy. For the PMOs the PATRIOT Act raised two major issues, one around treatment of people in the U.S. with Arab heritage, and the second regarding the protection of the constitutional right to dissent.

9.4 A second flashpoint in the data concerned the decision to initiate the Iraq war. The PMOs frequently presented democracy as failed in light of the Bush Administration's decision to ignore the popular majority that opposed military intervention, particularly after learning that there was no viable evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. As an example, consider the following statement:

President Bush believes he doesn't have to listen to the American public - which, even during war, has overwhelmingly been skeptical or strongly resistant to the idea of an American empire. He has decided that his faith in the military takes precedence over his faith in democracy. The election in 2004 is our chance to take our democracy back. (Moveon, 24 April, 2004)
Not only did this concern over democracy focus on what is happening in the United States, it also considered the weaknesses of U.S. democracy projects abroad. This two-pronged attack suggested that the U.S. is hardly good enough at democracy itself to be offering advice abroad.

9.5 Classifying the U.S. attempts at democracy-building as a failure, USLAW wrote about the situation in Iraq two months before the 30 June, 2004 transition of power:

Recent events demonstrate that [the] opposition is gaining support among ever wider sections of the population transcending religious and ethnic allegiances. U.S. credibility is at an all-time low, both in Iraq and around the world. (United States Labor Against the War, 30 April, 2004)

9.6 Several other PMOs shared this concern that it is neither appropriate nor possible for the United States to effectively create and mentor democracy projects abroad:

The U.N. is equipped to build democracies; the United States government has neither the expertise nor the long-term political will to see such a process through. (Moveon, 3 April, 2003)

9.7 Some groups focused on specific dimensions of democratic participation. For example, CODEPINK challenged the claim by U.S. leaders that the attack on Iraq had given women more access and influence in politics:

…the occupying authorities have failed to foster significant women's participation in the political process…This speaks volumes to the lack of US commitment to hear the voices of Iraqi women. (CODEPINK, 22 April, 2004)

9.8 While commenting on assumptions about the value of the U.S. democracy project in Iraq, one group argued that 'It [the U.S. war in Iraq] has brought neither liberation nor democracy, only death, torture, devastation and oppression.' (New York Labor Against the War, 24 March, 2005). In these ways the peace groups confronted the normative assumptions about democracy driving U.S. foreign policy, and criticised them as inaccurate, counterproductive, and perhaps even dangerous.

Radical-Envisioning Oppositional Knowledge

The Power and the Promise of True Democracy

10.1 Despite heavy criticism of U.S. attempts to export democracy, the PMO statements clearly indicate that democracy remains a significant ideal for the peace movement in the United States. The sticking point seems to be the failure to carry out democratic principles in good faith. The U.S. government is at times accused of bending those principles for self-serving purposes. While that is not acceptable to the groups, the premise that democracy is the preferred approach to social organisation remains a mainstay, even within the peace movement. True Majority suggests that a different pathway to democracy is needed, but that the goal of democracy remains important: 'We will attack world hunger and poverty as if our lives depend on it. Through compassion and generosity, we will reduce poverty and win over potential terrorists to the side of democracy and the rule of law' (True Majority, 24 January, 2003). Furthermore, PMOs argue that even established democracies need vigilance to maintain democratic structures:
The people of the world are watching and waiting to see how the government of the United States will respond to these acts of violence. Let us demonstrate that our strength is in our resolve to maintain a democratic and free society and to break with the cycles of violence and retribution. (Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 12 September, 2001)
Thus the peace movement acknowledges that democracy is not easy to achieve. It takes time and effort and a whole lot of compassion. But democracy is clearly embraced as an important route to achieving peace and justice.

Democracy should be Rooted in Broad-Based Political Participation

10.2 PMOs approach the concept of democracy by advocating for broad public participation as a core value in their vision of democracy. They redefined democracy as standing on the shoulders of compassionate, dedicated, involved citizens. The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) suggested that 'concerned citizens' have a right and responsibility to go to the offices of their elected officials and '(d)emand to know the position of your elected official regarding going to war with Iraq. Refuse to be brushed off. Let them know you will wait until a statement is made' (Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Act Now, September 2002). Further evidence of PMOs advocating citizen action through providing oppositional thinking, is found below:

Pax Christi begs all people of good will to scrutinise public policies as well as the actions of government and military leaders. In a democratic society such as ours, a government acts in the name of its citizens. No matter what actions are taken by other governments, we cannot, as a people committed to ethical and international standards, acquiesce in any military action that would compromise our moral integrity. Nor can we allow the winds of war ominously stirring in our land to silence the voice of moral responsibility required of peoples who pride themselves on the rights of citizen participation. (Pax Christi, 22 August, 1990)

10.3 Speaking out to demand accountability was also encouraged when Peace Action decried the move to war saying:

The American people demand that the U.S. Congress live up to their constitutional responsibility. We demand answers to these questions. We demand that a full, open and informed debate on the use of US military force in the Persian Gulf be held before it is too late. (Peace Action, 7 January, 1991)

Transformative Oppositional Knowledge

Democracy Works when the Public Holds Leaders Accountable

11.1 In this approach, the focus is on how to press for the will of the people to influence decisions by those who represent them. Transformative oppositional knowledge acknowledges the whole picture and shows how an active democratic citizenship matters. Building on the concept of a grassroots view of democracy, the PMOs push the idea that people must act to achieve their desired change. In other words, it isn't enough for citizens to make demands; elected representatives must also respond positively to the will of the people for democracy to really exist.

11.2 CODEPINK rose to fame while resisting the Iraq War for their 'pink slip' campaigns where governmental leaders who they felt were failing to lead properly were confronted. In May, 2004 they described participation in the 'Fire Rumsfeld' campaign as ‘an example of CODEPINK's policy to “speak truth to power”’. Typically the power-holders get to hand out the pink slips when workers become redundant, expensive, or otherwise problematic. In claiming the power to 'pink slip' those in positions of power, CODEPINK relies on the democratic premise that those in power only rule through the consent of the governed; the people ultimately hold the power... In the same statement, CODEPINK urged people to demand accountability from government leaders saying: 'We encourage you to continue to be in the streets and speak to the outrageous behavior of those with power in this country' (7 May, 2004). In fact, just two and a half years later, Rumsfeld's leadership over the U.S. strategy in Iraq ended when political pressures forced his resignation.

11.3 An imaginative action led by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) in opposition to the Gulf War shows that the PMOs provide concrete tactics for expressing citizen opinion on foreign policy, even when not invited to do so. In 1991 FOR called on the public to send empty black plastic film canisters to the White House, labeled to represent oil barrels. They claimed that, 'The NO BLOOD FOR OIL campaign is designed to capture the imagination of U.S. citizens and our policy makers, and give the American people an opportunity to simply but effectively voice their opposition to U.S. military action in the Middle East' (Fellowship of Reconciliation, January 1991).

11.4 Moveon, a cyber-based PMO, stressed the importance of speaking out and using the democratic process to demand changes to U.S. foreign policy. They worked to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people to sign petitions, write letters, conduct sit-ins, canvass their neighbours, and hold house parties all in the interest of protesting the war in Iraq. In 2003 they argued: 'It's Congress' duty to keep the President accountable. You can tell Congress to hold onto the $87 billion until the President changes his team and changes his course…' (Moveon, 17 September, 2003). They insisted that transformation comes through the expressed will of the people, a will that must be made evident through active opposition.


12.1 On the one hand, discourse analysis has sometimes downplayed the ability of actors, let alone institutionally excluded actors, to significantly alter longstanding, institutionally-privileged discourses. On the other hand, framing analysis has often ignored ways that power-laden, macro-level discourses influence meso and micro-level efforts at political persuasion, mobilisation, and change. This article contributes to the literature by highlighting the role that oppositional knowledge creation plays in the relationship between discourses and frames. While dominant and oppositional discourses influence the production of frames, frames contribute to the creation of enduring forms of oppositional knowledge that can help the public to envision and realise different political practices. While activists often address dominant discourses for short-term traction on specific issues, they also frequently engage these discourses as part of ongoing efforts to effect broad-scale cultural transformation. By contesting and redefining the meanings of familiar and authoritative ideas, activists seek to generate new world views that legitimate dissent.

12.2 Democracy is a central organising concept in the political world and may be the premier 21st century ideal in the north and west. Thus identifying and analysing the forms of oppositional knowledge about democracy created by the U.S. peace movement over a 15 year period increases the likelihood that our typology of oppositional knowledge may be useful to other scholars studying other oppositional movements.

12.3 Our development of a four-part typology of oppositional knowledge is an exercise in social constructivist epistemology. Oppositional knowledge is best thought of as one dimension or expression of broader concepts used to understand movement dynamics, i.e. what William Carroll and R. S. Ratner have called 'oppositional culture' (Carroll and Ratner 2001), and what Jane Mansbridge and Aldon Morris have labeled 'oppositional consciousness' (Mansbridge and Morris 2001). Within the context of oppositional cultures and/or where oppositional consciousness has been achieved by an oppressed group, oppositional knowledge may be created. Its eventual dissemination is part of the repertoire of collective action. Our analysis also reveals how each dimension of oppositional knowledge is developed in tension and engagement with institutionally privileged discourses manifested in frames used by power-holders.

12.4 We have shown that to create and disseminate oppositional knowledge is to enter deeply into a multi-dimensional dialogue of ideas. Oppositional knowledge is connected to a vision of society as a collective where concepts and norms are developed through interaction, disagreement and emergent consensus. In many societies oppositional knowledge dissemination finds legal support in constitutional protections for freedom of speech. More generally, it is expressed as claiming a voice, or gaining a seat at the table. This is one reason we chose to analyse the idea of democracy in the peace movement data; the typology we are demonstrating is itself an example of the possibilities for deep democracy. Interactive discourses about normative frameworks for how to organise society are at the heart of democratic politics.

12.5 Shifting the normative centre of society is a slow and contentious process and one that our data cannot capture directly. A large body of survey data suggests that values are gradually changing worldwide, promoting gender equality, democratic freedom and good governance (Inglehart and Welzel 2005). We have shown that the discourses of social movements are about changing world-views; they involve taking an oppositional stance against what those with power portray as the preferred action. Radical pedagogy is central to creating a collective consensus willing to contravene establishment views. Social movements at their heart are about continually educating the populace that there is additional information they have not yet heard, that options remain other than those commonly suggested, and that there are many effective actions that can taken by those who disagree with the status quo. In these ways social movements commonly articulate alternative discourses that may undermine the political authority of power-holders while charting a path to deep social change and laying out tools to help achieve those changes.


The three authors contributed equally to the research and writing of this paper. This research was partly funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (SES 043289), and from the American Sociological Association's Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline. We express our gratitude to Christopher Bellas, David Castillo, Denise Dollar, Douglas McKinzie, Rebecca Quirk, and Musa Tuzuner for their research assistance.


1 Morris and Browne's (2001) collection highlights especially the contributions of Leland M. Griffin and Robert S. Cathcart to developing theory and method for the study of social movement rhetoric.

2 We have made this argument in a slightly different way through our development of the concept of ‘discursive legacies’ in (Coy et al. 2008).

3 Although it is a significant player in the developing and filtering of information (Gamson 1995), the media is not shown in Figure 1. If the media could be meaningfully represented in Figure 1 without also causing confusion, it would appear in multiple locations influencing, funneling, and filtering the content and the meanings of the discourses.

4 We elsewhere describe in more detail the feedback dynamics that may influence how and why certain movement discourses may come into common usage or fall out of usage over time (Coy et al. 2008).

5 This discussion acknowledges only one part of Gramsci's framework. The other part focused upon the appropriation of oppositional knowledge by power-holders.(Gramsci 1971).

6 We have collected a large set of data. Although we may utilise specific parts of that data set in different research articles, on the whole all of the data was collected, coded and analysed in highly similar ways across our various research papers. It therefore seems reasonable to write the methods sections of our different papers in similar ways. Consequently, some of the language in this methods section has also appeared in the methods sections of our earlier publications that are based on parts of the same larger data set (Maney et al. 2005; Coy et al. 2008).

7 The following 15 groups are included in our data: American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Black Radical Congress (BRC), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), CodePink (CodeP), the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), Moveon.org (Moveon), New York City Labor Against the War (NYCLAW), Peace Action (PeaceA), Pax Christi (PaxC), True Majority (TM), United States Labor Against the War (USLAW), the War Resister's League (WRL), Women's Action for New Directions (WAND), and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

8 At that time Peace Action was still called SANE/Freeze, but to avoid reader confusion we reference the group as Peace Action throughout the article.


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