What does it mean to be a democratic subject? Studying the role of activists in the US public

Name of applicant

Johan Gøtzsche-Astrup


Visiting Research Associate


Yale University


DKK 820,000



Type of grant

Internationalisation Fellowships


The project asks how activists are constructed and reasoned about in the US public. Activists have become prominent and influential political actors in both the United States and in other liberal democracies such as Denmark. They are consolidated and highly recognisable figures in the public, exemplified most recently by Black Lives Matter and anti-lockdown activists. In the public, activists are sometimes seen as empowered citizens but can also be seen as unruly actors who threaten democratic institutions and norms. These diverging views place activists at the centre of a public discussion about the meaning and prospects of democratic subjectivity. I set out to explore the cultural constructions of and ways of reasoning about activists, which underlie these public discussions.


Activists represent a new way of being a democratic subject, which is gaining traction in many liberal democracies. Usually, we have analysed this way by focusing on activists themselves, asking who become activists and how this shapes their identity and subsequent life. However, we also need to study how activists are seen in the public. Tackling this question helps activists better understand the public to whom they direct their appeals. It also provides a mirror for the public, facilitating a discussion about what role activists can and should play in democratic societies. Understanding this role helps us ensure that the increasing prominence of activists does not erode but deepens democratic participation.


The research is carried out at Yale’s Center for Cultural Sociology, which is at the core of sociological discussions about the cultural dimensions of democracy. My project moves through three interconnected stages. First, I construct and analyse an archive of popularized activist autobiographies. Here, I seek to uncover a set of underlying activist narratives that are widely diffused in the public. It is through these that we come to think about the democratic role of activists. Second, I conduct a population representative survey of the US public to explore how these narratives are inflected in the ways that individual members of the public reason about activists. Finally, I conduct a series of in-depth interviews with these individuals to get a nuanced description of these ways of reasoning.

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