A genealogy of moral character: The cultural constitution of contention in Lowell, MA 1825-1845

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The causal role of culture in contentious politics has been the subject of much dispute by scholars in the study of social movements in general and labor contention in particular. While several approaches illuminate the cultural dimensions of contentious claim-making, the cultural foundation of contention remains underdeveloped. In this paper, I address this gap by investigating the role of culture in the formation of the antagonism at the basis of contention. I argue that the formation of contention is an event at the level of meaning that establishes the moral disunity elementary to contentious claim-making. I demonstrate this process by revisiting the case of nineteenth-century Lowell, which was marked by the employers' investment in the workers' moral welfare. I show that the workers' interpretation of their experience and thus the formation of their contention depended on their rejection of the moral view offered in the employers' cultural project. That view presented workers with a perception of themselves and their occupation that could no longer be justified, thus from their perspective losing its moral ground. This study has implications for future research regarding the moral disunity at the foundation of contention and the historical analysis required to explain this disunity.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)60-95
Number of pages36
JournalAmerican Journal of Cultural Sociology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • contention
  • culture
  • field
  • genealogy
  • labor
  • morality

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


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