Relating to Distant Suffering: Meanings of Public Talk and Action in the Contemporary US Anti-Trafficking Movement

Omeltchenko, Tatiana, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Olick, Jeffrey, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Press, Andrea, Department of Media Studies, University of Virginia
Williams, Bruce, Department of Media Studies, University of Virginia
Makarova, Katya, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia

In today's society, media is a major source of images and representations of suffering and distress of people living in foreign countries. Audiences may perceive these images passively, but may also consider possibilities for action. Can the media turn audiences into actors? In this dissertation, I elaborate on the theory of Luc Boltanski who emphasized the importance of audience's narrativization of mediated texts for the emergence of complex understandings of the Other and for the action oriented towards justice. I ask, how the audience can discursively engage with the media representations of the Other in public settings? How does it translate these representations into action? I contribute to Boltanski's theorizing by suggesting that it is important to uncover the meanings of public speech on behalf of the Other in varying social contexts. To analyze the trajectories of such meaning-making, I consider discursive interactions of activists in the US anti-trafficking movement – a movement dominated by campaign culture which often depoliticizes and sentimentalizes the issue. Observing public discussions, in the activist groups or group-like settings, I analyze the ways activists interpret the mediated representations of human trafficking by mainstream media and by movement organizations' campaigns. I identify two ways they do this: some - by following the mediated constructions of victimhood, and others - by creating critical understandings of this social problem. I further analyze how these two kinds of activists understand action on behalf of the distant Other. While the former understand action as 'raising awareness" iii on media texts, the latter devise forms of action anew, depending on the circumstance. I chart explanations for the observable patterns of public speech and action by emphasizing the role of group customs which are defined by these activists' varying understandings of reputation among the movement organizations. I conclude by positioning the observable understandings of the Other and activism on behalf of the Other in the larger culture of activism as individualistic action characterizing postmodern society.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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