Theory and Society

, Volume 47, Issue 5, pp 603–633 | Cite as

Boundary-work and the demarcation of civil from uncivil protest in the United States: control, legitimacy, and political inequality

  • Ruth BraunsteinEmail author


Beyond the reaches of scholarly debates about how to define and value civility properly, social actors across various institutional domains routinely demarcate civil from uncivil behavior. Yet this everyday classification process remains understudied and undertheorized, despite being widespread and having significant stakes for the individuals and groups involved. This article begins to fill this gap by developing the concept of civility contests—practical efforts to draw symbolic boundaries between civil and uncivil individuals, groups, or behaviors. Through a focus on the realm of political protest in the United States, this article demonstrates that civility contests involve a wide range of political actors (including institutionalized power holders, opposing movements, and the media) who engage in this boundary-work in order to justify the control or (de)legitimation of protest. It then highlights patterned disparities in the outcomes of these contests, demonstrating that the likelihood of being marked as uncivil and the extent to which this prompts negative social sanction is shaped by one’s social position. Overall, the article seeks to stimulate and guide future empirical research on civility contests and to deepen theoretical understandings of the relationship between symbolic and social boundaries and the role of symbolic boundary-work in the reproduction of political inequality.


American politics Boundary-work Civility Democracy Political inequality Social movements 



I would like to thank participants in the Politics of Social Change Workshop at the University of Connecticut (especially Andrew Deener and Erica Dollhopf), the Workshop in Cultural Sociology at Yale University, and the Public Discourse Project Seminar at the University of Connecticut’s Humanities Institute for their feedback on previous versions of this article, as well as Craig Calhoun and the editors of “Participation and its Discontents,” a blog in collaboration with the ASA Political Sociology section (Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Pablo Lapegna, Philip Lewin, and David Smilde), for their comments on an early version of this argument. I also gratefully acknowledge support for this project from the UConn Humanities Institute’s Humility and Conviction in Public Life Project.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of ConnecticutStorrsUSA

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