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Shifting Symbolic Boundaries: Cultural Strategies of the Animal Rights Movement1


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    I thank Jim Dowd, Heather Macpherson Parrott, Patricia Richards, David Smilde, J. Patrick Williams, and participants of the Georgia Workshop on Culture, Power, and History for their comments on earlier drafts of this article. I also thank Karen Cerulo and three anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions. Previous versions of this article were presented at the 2008 Annual Meetings of the American Sociological Association and the Society for the Study of Social Problems. Research for this article was supported by a Chateaubriand Fellowship from the French Embassy of the United States, a summer fellowship with the Animals and Society Institute, and a Dissertation Completion Award and a Dean’s Award from the University of Georgia.


How do activists create cultural change? Scholars have investigated the development and maintenance of collective identities as one avenue for cultural change, but to understand how activists foster change beyond their own movements, we need to look at activists’ strategies for changing their targets’ mindsets and actions. Sociologists need to look at activists’ boundary work to understand both the wide-sweeping goals and strategies that activists enact to generate broad-based cultural changes. Using data from participant observation and interviews with animal rights activists in France and the United States, and drawing on research on ethnic boundary shifting, I show how activists used two main strategies to shift symbolic boundaries between humans and animals, as well as between companion and farm animals—(1) they blur boundaries through focusing and universalizing strategies and (2) they cross boundaries physically, discursively, and iconographically. This study contributes a new theoretical and empirical example to the cultural changes studied by scholars of social movements, and it also provides a useful counterpoint to studies of symbolic boundary construction and maintenance in the sociology of culture.