The Function of Collective Identity in the "Moms Demand Action" Movement

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2016

20 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Alexandra Dorn (Author)





3.1 The missing movement for gun control
3.2 The emergence of Moms Demand Action

4.1 Identification with motherhood
4.2 Strategic use of collective identity




The killing of 20 school children by a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, brought home the issue of gun-related violence to many Americans. The event sparked the emergence of Moms Demand Action, a grass-root movement for stricter gun laws, initiated by Shannon Watts, mother of five children. The goal of Moms Demand Action is to draw public attention to the issue of gun violence and to promote legislative solutions to the problem. The group does this by redefining the issue of gun control as an issue that lies within the responsibility of mothers to protect their children from harm. Indeed, it is not uncommon for striking events, such as the shooting in Newtown, to attract public attention and to prime social action on issues that had previously not occupied public consciousness. However, Moms Demand Action was not a short-lived organization of mothers, but has managed to develop a prevailing movement. The group has helped to close background check loopholes in more than six states and executed successful campaigns to get restaurants, retail chains and social media companies to promote gun safety standards, among them Starbucks, Facebook, Instagram, Chili’s, Jack in the Box, Sonic Drive-In, Chipotle and Target. The novelty of Moms Demand Action is that the group's collective identity is the reason for much of its success. Motherhood creates the platform from which members of Moms Demand Action construct a collective identity. It helps to create commitment to the group cause and the conviction that if members mobilize they have the potential to achieve change.

The aim of this term paper is to demonstrate the important role that collective identity formation has played for Moms Demand Action in tackling the issue of gun control. Therefore, the key research question underlying this term paper is: what is the function of collective identity in the Moms Demand Action movement? In order to address this question, I first provide a literature review on the concept of collective identity and then describe the context in which the emergence of Moms Demand Action occurred. Next, I present motherhood as the central theme of the movement that invites for identification with the group cause and examine two functions of collective identity formation for the movement. I argue that in order to achieve its objectives, Moms Demand Action deploys its collective identity to make claims against opposing groups. Furthermore, collective identity plays an important role in achieving small wins at the local level, which have the potential to deliver major wins at the national level.


The concept of collective identity is a key concern in the context of social movements. Collective identity has been used to explain how social movements generate and facilitate commitment between members over a period of time (cf. Taylor and Whittier 1992; Snow 2001; Hunt and Benford 2004). The formation of it is seen as an essential factor for the construction of social movements. The concept of collective identity has been defined in a variety of ways: as “the shared definition of a group that results from members’ common interests, experiences, and solidarity” (Taylor and Whittier 1992: 105), for example, or as “constituted by a shared and interactive sense of “we-ness” and “collective agency” (Snow 2001, p.2). Although collective identity refers to a shared sense of identity among members of some collective, the relationship between the individual and collective identity is also important. Polletta and Jasper (2001) focus on the individual's connection to collective identity, defining it as “an individual’s cognitive, moral and emotional connection with a broader community, category, practice, or institution“ (p. 285). Collective identity occurs when actors feel a sense of belonging together, because of common interests or shared beliefs for example (ibid.). Consequently, collective identity can be understood as something created between individuals, through mechanisms, in which actors negotiate and construct a shared sense of themselves that allows for collective action. This perception emphasizes collective identity not as given, but as a process that involves the construction and negotiation of common interests and goals through active communication between individuals.

The introduction of new social movement theory (NSM) in the 1980s sparked scholarly interest in the role of identity processes in social movements and emphasized the processes of constructing a collective identity as an integral component of collective action. Alberto Melucci (1996) rejected the idea of a social movement as a given constituted collective actor and took a closer look on how it became a movement in the first place (Fominaya 2010, p.394). He argued that the formation of collective identity is dependent on the interaction between individuals and their construction of common cognitive frameworks that concern “the ends, means, and the field of action“ (p. 70).

Melucci considered collective identity to be anchored in collective action, as the process of collective identity formation is necessary for successful collective action (ibid, p. 72- 73). It enables actors to see themselves as people linked by interests, values and common experiences for example. Thus, in order for individuals to act and address problems, they cannot just depend on collective identity as a preexisting factor that leads to action, but need to build a shared definition first (ibid., p. 70-71). Through a collective identity actors of a movement are then able to distinguish between themselves and others and to be recognized by those ‘others’ (ibid. p. 73). Like Melucci, other social movement scholars take a similar approach to collective identity and understand it as a process, produced through interaction between actors, who together construct a sense of we-ness. Snow and McAdam for instance have outlined the concept of “identity work”, which refers to a range of activities in which social movement actors engage to construct and maintain their collective identity (2000, p. 46). However, the influence of people outside of a movement in the construction of collective identity has also been highlighted. According to this body of work, the collective identity of a group is influenced through the boundary between members within the group and individuals outside of the group (Johnston et al. 1994; Taylor and Whittier 1992; Polletta and Jasper 2001). In their study of collective identity formation in lesbian feminist communities, Taylor and Whittier (1992) present boundary maintenance between group members and dominant groups as crucial to collective identity formation. Actors create distinctions by defining themselves against a group that they want to make clear they are not (Taylor and Whittier 1992, p. 111). Thus, movement members' sense of identity is not only the result of their interactions with each other, but also of their interactions with non- members. Boundary construction can be seen as a strategic activity. Collective identity then serves as a tool that defines who the group is and who it is not (cf. Johnston et al. 1994). Hence, the process of collective identity formation involves both generating a sense of togetherness and at the same time a sense of otherness (Melucci 1996; Taylor and Whittier 1992; Tilly 2004).

Collective identity can also be an explicit feature of social movement strategy. To express collective identity publicly, members of social movements often use cultural materials, such as narratives, symbols, or rituals (Polletta and Jasper 2001, p. 284).

Research on social movements has found that groups often deploy their collective identity strategically, putting forth certain images of themselves in order to achieve their goals. Mary Bernstein (1997) developed the concept of “identity deployment” to describe how the gay and lesbian movement used the strategic portrayal of collective identity in pursuit of their policy goals. She defines identity deployment as “expressing identity such that the terrain of conflict becomes the individual person so that the values, categories, and practices of individuals become subject to debate” (ibid., p. 537- 538). According to Bernstein's study, identity deployment can be a tool to “transform mainstream culture, its categories and values (...)“ (ibid., p. 538). Hence, identity can operate in social movements at the level of strategy, such that activists deploy a certain identity in order to contest dominant values and to achieve change. Thus, how successfully activists use their identities for the public affects their ability to gain public hearing and challenge opposing movements. Scholars have applied the study of identity deployment strategies to other types of identity-based social movements, including, for example, the women's movement (Gilmore and Kaminski 2007).

Taken together it can be stated that much of the research on collective identity points to the constructed aspects of identity. Central to this approach is the notion that actors construct a shared sense of identity through exchange and that this process precedes collective action. The formation of a collective identity in social movements is seen as a requirement to communicate the needs of the collective and to express what movement members want and what they see as the problem. In this context, collective identity can be used as a strategic tool that shows external audiences what a certain movement stands for and what justifies this movement to make certain claims.


3.1 The missing movement for gun control

In 2013 more than 30,000 persons died as a result of gun-related violence, accidents or suicides in the United States (CDC 2016). US gun consumption is striking and the associated gun violence a great problem. According to a report by the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey, the estimated number of guns owned by civilians in the United States is about 270 million (Small Arms Survey 2007, p.47). In addition to that, the rate of ownership is higher than in any other country. According to the survey, which included estimates for 178 countries, “[w]ith less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States is home to 35-50 per cent of the world’s civilian-owned guns” (ibid., p. 46). Although gun violence in the country remains high, experience shows that fighting for gun control in the United States is difficult. Political attention to the issue of gun control has been driven by events that have triggered public demand for gun law reforms. According to political scientist Robert Spitzer, a “cycle of outrage, action, and reaction” (2016: 14) is often provoked by shocking shootings or “the sensational and the horrific” (ibid.). The assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 were examples that sparked political reaction and the passing of the Gun Control Act in the same year (ibid.). The law, among other things, prohibited dealers from selling guns to high-risk persons, such as drug addicts and mentally disabled people (Goss 2009, p.9). However, the first period of gun control organizing began a few years later, in 1974, with the formation of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns (now the National Coalition to Stop Gun Violence) and National Council to Control Handguns (now the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence) (ibid., p. 40-42). The most notable legislation sponsored by the Brady Campaign was the Brady Bill, passed by Congress in 1993. It came in response to the assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981, in which Reagan's press secretary James Brady was seriously injured. The Brady Bill amended the Gun Control Act by requiring background checks on all licensed gun sales to see if a gun buyer falls into a prohibited class (ibid., p. 47). With no new gun control laws passed until the Brady Bill, 25 years after the Gun Control Act of 1968, this was the most far-reaching achievement of the Brady Campaign. Today, more than 20 years later, this was the last significant of gun safety laws inspired by a shooting incident. Kristen Goss (2009) argues that the United States experienced gun control “movement moments“ (ibid., p. 34) rather than a coordinated and effective grass-root movement. During these movement moments, preconditions for mobilization were given and nonetheless no sustained movement arose.


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The Function of Collective Identity in the "Moms Demand Action" Movement
University of Bonn
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Moms Demand Action, Gun Control, Social Movements
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Alexandra Dorn (Author), 2016, The Function of Collective Identity in the "Moms Demand Action" Movement, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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