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The Politics of Death

A Sociological Analysis of Revolutionary Communication

by Michael J. Blain,

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Institution: Universaity of Colorado
Advisor(s): Raymond P. Cuzzort, Elise Boulding
Degree: Ph.D., Sociology
Year: 1974
Volume: 137 pages
ISBN-10: 1581121318
ISBN-13: 9781581121315


This dissertation reports the results of a sociological analysis of the narrative form and functions of revolutionary discourse. Chapter I poses two questions: How do representations of death function in political processes? How do signifiers of violent death function in the structure of revolutionary statements? Chapter II reviews relevant sociological concepts and articulates a dramatistic political-sociology of death, concepts mainly derived from Emile Durkheim, Robert Hertz, and Arnold van Gennep on death and the sacred, Max Weber on violence and politics, and Burke, Duncan, and Edelman's view of politics as symbolic action. Chapter III presents the results of a formal, narrative, and semiotic analysis of a large sample of revolutionary statements ( Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Foucault). Two symbolic complexes were clearly evident. First, revolutionaries employ a tragic narrative form, employing "the blood" of innocent victims and heroic martyrs to construct the villainy of their enemies, to provoke moral outrage, and to legitimate acts of righteous retaliation against established authority. Second, metaphors of fire, storm, explosion, and eruption are used to infuse revolutionary acts with powerful, impersonal forces. Chapter IV validates these results through an exploratory study of political meanings employing Osgood's semantic differential technique. Chapter V concludes that in revolutionary discourse, at least, revolutionary action is a form of tragic drama, an violent appeal to a 'public' audience made on behalf of 'powerless' people, a statement that one is willing to kill and die in the name of the ultimate principles of social order. The results of the semantic differential analysis show that these meanings can be studied empirically employing this technique. They also illustrate the validity and usefulness of the analytic framework, suggesting future avenues of research.