Symbolic Objects in Contentious Politics

Benjamin Abrams and Peter Gardner, Editors

So much depends upon a yellow umbrella (or a pink hat)


When we observe protest marches, striking workers on picket lines, and insurgent movements in the world today, a litany of objects routinely fill our field of vision. Some such objects are ubiquitous the world over, like flags, banners, and placards. Others are situationally unique: Who could have anticipated the historical importance of a flower placed in the barrel of a gun, a flaming torch, a sea of umbrellas, a motorist’s yellow vest, a feather headdress, an AK-47, or a knitted pink hat? This book explores the “stuff” at the heart of protests, revolutions, civil wars, and other contentious political events, with  particular focus on those objects that have or acquire symbolic importance. In the context of “contentious politics” (disruptive political episodes where people try to change societies without going through institutions), certain objects can divide and unite social groups, tell stories, make declarations, spark controversy, and even trigger violent upheavals.

This book draws together scholars from a variety of fields to discuss symbolic objects in contentious politics: their meanings, uses, functions, and social responses. In bringing these phenomena together, this book offers a serious, distinctive, and cohesive theoretical contribution that draws upon diverse scholarly work in order to form the building blocks for future inquiry in the field. The aim is not merely to “close the gap” in the literature, but to create space in the field for further and more fruitful inquiry.

Benjamin Abrams is Leverhulme Fellow in Politics and Sociology at University College London.

Peter Gardner is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York.

Praise / Awards

  • “This is exemplary humanistic social scientific work, of the sort that all of us should be striving for. Bravo.”

    —Fiona Greenland, University of Virginia

  • “Political players use all sorts of ‘things’ in pursuing goals and spreading meanings, from totems of group identity such as flags to a protester’s body intentionally set on fire. Such objects are as necessary to action as the people who carry them, and they are often the most colorful, creative, and memorable part. This volume shows why these objects matter so much.”
    —James M. Jasper, author of The Art of Moral Protest
  • “In a world where American cities have stowed away Confederate statues, people in yellow vests shook a powerful French president, and Chinese protestors changed Covid policies by holding up blank sheets of paper, the creation, potency, and legacies of symbolic objects clearly matter enormously. The superb interdisciplinary scholars assembled in Benjamin Abrams and Peter Gardner’s Symbolic Objects in Contentious Politics shed invaluable light on these critical features of politics across the globe.”
    —Rogers M. Smith, University of Pennsylvania

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 330pp.
  • 25 figures, 2 tables.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2023
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-07597-3

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  • $80.00 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2023
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05597-5

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  • $44.95 U.S.

  • Open Access
  • 2023
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-90331-3

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