Dissertation Abstracts

Storytelling in the Political Mobilization of Young Immigrant Rights Activists

Author: Cabaniss, Emily R., emily_cabaniss@shsu.edu
Department: sociology
University: North Carolina State University, USA
Supervisor: Michael Schwalbe
Year of completion: 2014
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: social movements , storytelling , undocumented immigrants , DREAM Act
Areas of Research: Migration , Social Classes and Social Movements , Stratification


In this study, I examine the storytelling strategies used by young, undocumented political activists who advocated passage of the DREAM Act and broad reform of U.S. immigration laws. Based on 19 months of ethnographic fieldwork, 37 in-depth interviews, and content analysis of movement materials, I show how these young people used stories to elicit sympathy and support, claim an “American” identity, and assert agency in a contested political arena. In my first analytic chapter, I argue that the cultural rules that prescribe different emotions for women and men complicated activists’ efforts to give expressive storytelling performances and ultimately led to a gendered division of emotional labor that disproportionately burdened women. Next, I examined the narrative identity work strategies activists used to shift the boundary of and signify membership in the category “American.” I argue that by using white, middle-class markers of American respectability, the undocumented youth activists could present themselves as culturally assimilated into American society and thus challenge their legal exclusion. Doing so, however, reinforced notions of “deserving” and “undeserving” immigrants. Finally, I examined their efforts to reframe the broader debates around immigration reform and elevate themselves to positions of moral leadership. I argue that by claiming proprietary control over their storytelling strategy, undocumented youth activists were able to subvert the influence of adult citizen-advocates in the immigration policy debates, articulate their own stake in the issue, and control the public participation of allies in their own group. However, they struggled to assert similar authority vis-à-vis their allies in backstage movement spaces where norms of equality prevailed. My research indicates that while storytelling can be a potent strategy for marginalized groups seeking social and political change, activist-storytellers must navigate the broader cultural terrain – including its normative expectations, social hierarchies, and power differentials – to enact it. As a result, narrative strategies aimed at resisting and contesting oppression can inadvertently reproduce and maintain other inequalities.