Issue status and social movement organization maintenance: Two case studies in rhetorical diversification

Michael Francis Smith, Purdue University


Communication studies of social movements have primarily focused on the highly visible rhetorical acts which characterize the movement's formation and development. This study explores the rhetoric which characterizes social movements in their maintenance stage. The author posits that a relationship exists between the status of a social movement organization's primary issue and the health of the organization. Moreover, social movement organizations use rhetorical strategies to adjust to changes in their issue's status. The study explored two questions: (1) what rhetorical strategies did social movement organizations use to adapt changes in their issues' status over time? and (2) How did rhetorical strategies function to maintain social movement organizations? The study examined the rhetoric of SANE/Freeze, an anti-nuclear weapons organization, and Bread for the World, an anti-hunger group. The study proceeded in two steps. First, the author tracked the status of the nuclear weapons and hunger issues between 1981 and 1992. The number of articles in three national print media outlets were counted, and the status of the issues was assessed using the Issue Development Graph. The author labelled major evolutions in the issues' development "eras." Second, a typology of the major issue management strategies--definition, legitimation, polarization, and identification--was used to analyze the rhetoric in the organizations' newsletters. In addition to tracking the eras the nuclear weapons and hunger issues moved through between 1981 and 1992, the study confirmed the relationship between issue status and social movement organization membership. As the organizations' primary issues rose in status, membership increased: as they fell, so did membership. In order to maintain themselves, organizations used rhetorical diversification. Rhetorical diversification is when an organization expands the number of issues it addresses. Rhetorical diversification involves the processes of re-definition and re-legitimation. Organizations generally made links between their primary issues and issues with current status. As the organizations addressed new issues, there was a tendency for the organization's identity to change.




Stewart, Purdue University.

Subject Area


Off-Campus Purdue Users:
To access this dissertation, please log in to our
proxy server