Interpretive Activism and the Political Uses of Verdi’s Operas in the 1840s

Publication Date: 
June 2002
American Sociological Review, 67: 345-366

Publisher Link >>


The concept of interpretive activism as a relational position and a practical accomplishment is a useful analytical tool for the study of audiences conceived not as a conglomerate of individuals but as loose networks in which the ability to construct and impose political meanings is unequally distributed. An analysis of the political uses of Verdi’s operas in the 1840s demonstrates the power of interpretive activists to impose on audience co-members a political interpretation of cultural objects. There is significant variation in the ways in which these operas were used for the construction of expressive collective statements by contemporary audiences. Opera performances were interpreted as symbolic representations of different political idioms, and audiences expressed their political stance by both affiliating with, and disaffiliating from, these performances. The practices of interpretive activists, not the patriotic symbolism inherent in the operas, account for this variation in outcome. Symbolism, along with the formal properties of opera and the normative enforcement of behavior, is just one of the different contextually grounded resources that interpretive activists use for the construction and imposition of politicized interpretations of cultural objects.

Download PDF >>