Guest post by Kevin Lujan Lee, PhD student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His current research centers on local, regional and transnational economic development of low-income migrant communities in the continental US and the Pacific. Kevin is on Twitter at @justkevworks.

Review of The Boundaries of Belonging: Online Work of Immigration-Related Social Movement Organizations, by Bernadette Nadya Jaworsky (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

For over a decade, social movement scholars in the US have been enamored with the national immigrant rights movement. This movement has used effective and novel top-down and bottom-up advocacy strategies to secure an unprecedented series of wins for undocumented immigrants. Such wins have ranged from college financial aid and municipal IDs in several statehouses, to work authorization and travel privileges for high-achieving undocumented youth at the federal level. Jaworsky’s monograph, The Boundaries of Belonging: Online Work of Immigration-Related Social Movement Organizations, offers a thoughtful, well-researched and timely contribution to this already-substantial body of literature.

Jaworsky starts from three primary theoretical claims: (1) culture can be analyzed on its own terms; (2) detailed and evocative descriptions—what is often termed 'thick description'—of scenes and social settings can help us understand culture; and (3) culture can enable and constrain the behavior of social movement actors. Taken together, these claims offer a unique starting point to think about the role of culture in social movements. Against other social movement scholars who are interested in how culture is used to obtain material resources and shape politics, Jaworsky is interested in how culture fundamentally shapes how social movements look like. This includes the kinds of rhetoric they use, and the kinds of activities that they engage in.  

In this vein, her main argument is that left-wing immigrant rights (IR) and right-wing immigration control (IC) social movement organizations engage in online 'boundary work,' which has important political and material implications. Here, 'boundary work' refers to intentional efforts to change how something is perceived, by negotiating the kinds of cultural meanings and values (or 'boundaries') that are attached to them. For instance, consider the following examples of boundary work, which Jaworsky herself provides in Chapter 3. IC groups present native-born children of undocumented immigrant parents as faceless, non-moral objects, by framing them as 'anchors' or 'human shields' for their parents’ supposed crimes. In contrast, IR groups center children as moral agents, by showing pictures of children wearing t-shirts reading 'Don’t Deport My Mom,' and by documenting their experiences and opinions of being involved in direct political action.

To support her core argument, Jaworsky draws upon a staggering amount of data: she reviews hundreds of key website pages and social media posts from IR and IC organizations between 2014-15. This timeframe captures organizational responses to several landmark events in global immigration politics. For instance, it includes President Obama’s failed 2014 executive order to expand work authorization and deportation relief to a subgroup of undocumented immigrants in the US; as well as the 2015 identification of the European migrant crisis.

For academics interested in her theoretical framework, or how she conceives the role of culture in social movements, the first two chapters and the concluding chapter are most useful. Chapter 2 helpfully situates the book within the broader literatures on cultural sociology and social movements. It also develops the dense vocabulary of boundary work that is used throughout the book.

Chapters 3-5 form the book’s empirical core, with each exploring how IR and IC groups engage in boundary work around cultural notions of the family, of citizenship, and of values. Here, it is deeply striking how IR and IC groups, for all of their animosity towards each other, care about and use the same three core concepts—and that they differ only in the way that they construct and situate these same concepts within their boundary work. Both IR and IC groups want to preserve the family: the former holds that the undocumented families should be preserved in spite of the law, while the latter argues that only 'American' families should be preserved because of the law. Both groups also care about citizenship, which is tied to the economic value of immigrants. IR groups suggest that citizenship should be given to all who live in our communities and contribute to our economies, while IC groups see citizenship as a legal status endorsed by the state. Finally, both groups ground their discourse in the American values of freedom, fairness and opportunity, which are linked to ideas of American nationhood. IR groups, however, go beyond said values and also appeal to the values of human rights discourse, including justice, equality, dignity and respect. Through considering how these different social movement organizations use and engage with these cultural notions of family, citizenship and values, Jaworsky offers a fresh perspective on the cultural disagreements that are at the heart of the US’ embittered national immigration politics.

For scholars interested in constructing theoretical frameworks that incorporate both symbolic and political-economic analyses, Jaworsky offers a paradigmatic study. Her book is a critical addition to syllabi for undergraduate and graduate survey courses on social movements or immigration policy, and a must-read for scholars interested in the complex interplay between immigration, culture, and social justice. If pushed to make a critique, I might say that—in addition to Jaworsky’s occasionally too-exuberant use of sociological jargon—there was perhaps a missed opportunity to explore the more unexpected roles of culture in shaping social movements. For instance, the book might have benefited from a deeper dive into the way that boundary work operates in the presentation of ‘objective’ quantitative data—something that Jaworsky tackles all-too-briefly in Chapter 4.

The Boundaries of Belonging is a deeply insightful book that synthesizes scholarship in cultural sociology and social movements, and offers a powerful analysis of the role of culture in shaping social movements. Its bigger theoretical argument about the importance of culture in social change is also a timely one. In the 'post-truth' era, we are finally realizing the extent to which 'truth' is socially constructed and culturally bounded. This book can offer a useful vocabulary, and an instructive method, to critically analyze the ideological battles at the very heart of social movements. Jaworsky says it best: 'For meaningful social and political change to occur, meaning itself needs to be at the center of the academic scholarship addressing the movements that seek to affect it' (p. 23).

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Lujan Lee, K. (2019) Book Review: The Boundaries of Belonging: Online Work of Immigration-Related Social Movement Organizations. Available at: (Accessed [date])