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Narrating political opportunities: explaining strategic adaptation in the climate movement

Journal article
Authors J. de Moor
Mattias Wahlström
Published in Theory and Society
Volume 48
Issue 3
Pages 419–451
ISSN 0304-2421
Publication year 2019
Published at Department of Sociology and Work Science
Pages 419–451
Language en
Keywords Climate change, Narrative, Political opportunity structure, Social movements, Strategy, Structure and agency
Subject categories Sociology


This article advances theory on social movements’ strategic adaptation to political opportunity structures by incorporating a narrative perspective. Our theory explains how people acquire and use knowledge about political opportunity structures through storytelling about the movement’s past, present, and imagined future. The discussion applies the theory in an ethnographic case study of the climate movement’s mobilization around the UN Climate Summit in Paris, 2015. This analysis demonstrates how a dominant narrative of defeat about the prior protest campaign in Copenhagen, 2009 shaped the strategizing process. While those who experienced Copenhagen as a success preferred strategic continuity, those who experienced defeat developed a “Copenhagen narrative” to advance strategic adaptation by projecting previously experienced threats and opportunities onto the Paris campaign. Yet by relying on a retrospective narrative, movement actors tended to overlook emerging political opportunities. We demonstrate that narrative analysis is a useful tool for understanding the link between structure and agency in social movements and other actors affected by (political) opportunity structures. © 2019, The Author(s).

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