Dirty Birds, Filthy Immigrants, and the English Sparrow War: Metaphorical Linkage in Constructing Social Problems

Gary Alan Fine*, Lazaros Christoforides

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


The role of metaphor in the construction of social problems has often been neglected. Yet we believe that the use of metaphorical linkage can help explain how social problems become defined. To explore the role of metaphorical linkage, we examine a controversy that shook the American ornithological world of the late 19th century: The Great English Sparrow War. English sparrows were originally imported to the major American cities of the East, in the early 1850s, to control the infestation of trees by dropworms. These birds adapted successfully, and by the mid‐1870s they began to be perceived as a menace to the American ecosystem. As a consequence, a vigorous debate began as to their usefulness or harmfulness, which often exceeded the bounds of scientific discourse. We argue that this controversy over the English sparrow was linked to the controversy over “the new immigration.” A post‐bellum America faced the task of rebuilding its moral boundaries after the disruption of the Civil War and in the face of millions of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and the Orient. The opponents of the English sparrow drew their imagery from the nativism (anti‐foreignism) of the day. They defined the bird as: (1) a foreigner, (2) that competes unfairly with native birds, (3) that has an immoral character, and (4) that needs to be eliminated from the American community of birds. Examining the metaphorical linkages among public concerns of the same period, we suggest, is a fruitful way of examining social problems. 1991 Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)375-393
Number of pages19
JournalSymbolic Interaction
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jan 1 1991

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Nursing(all)
  • Social Psychology
  • Education
  • Communication
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences(all)


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