Mobilisations, Changing Protest Cultures and Web 2.0 Technologies
This first workshop looked at contemporary ‘protest cultures’ and explored the changing relationship between political participation and media technologies in the age of social media by considering three different dimensions a) organisation b) political imaginations c) lived experience. Scholars and activists discussed this relationship by considering culturally and context specific examples.
We launched the first event of our SoME Seminars with a mission in mind. This first workshop aimed to set the tone for the entire seminar series. What is new or old of contemporary protest cultures? How can we understand the relationship between web technologies and new forms of political imagination and organization without falling into the pitfall of techno-determinism? How can we develop a culturally sensitive approach in the study of digital activism?
Our mission was broad and inquisitive in nature. The research presented was of the highest quality, the discussions engaging and the level of interdisciplinary exchange was thought-provoking. At the end of the second day we were left with some important lines of inquiry for future research, which will influence and define future SoME seminars. Here below we want to share with you these lines of inquiry.
Social Movements and the Articulation of Political Alternatives? Tension Between Individual Participation and the creation of a common “we”
The first day of the SoME seminar started with a statement and a question by Elena Pavan: “Every time you call something a ‘collectivity’ you have a kind of political responsibility. What do you mean by collectivity? How do you theorise collectivity?”. During the two days different papers tried to address these questions. Anastasia Kavada critically considered how people create collectives though communication, Paolo Gerbaudo discussed the concept of ‘crowd’ and the return a common “we”, whilst Mirca Madianou explored – by looking at the context of the Philippines – the ethnographic complexities involved in the concept of crowd.
All the different papers, in various ways, addressed a fundamental problem that emerges when we think about contemporary protest cultures: the difference between individual and collective participation and the central role of the collective in the construction of political alternatives. It became clear that focusing on ‘individual participation’ to big protest events, does not necessarily translate into the construction of meaningful political alternatives. It also became clear that when we wish to understand how social movements are trying to construct the common “we’, we need to consider their need to create type of ‘political collectivity’ that – whilst being devoid (for as much as possible) of hierarchies – becomes institutionally meaningful. This latter point emerged particularly well in the paper by Simona Levi from XNET who explained the challenges and believes of the 15M movement in Spain.
Beyond Techno-Determinism? Avoiding the Deterministic Stance while Taking into Account Technological Structures
Departing from a variety of perspectives and methodological traditions the different presentations over the two days tackled the problem of techno-determinism. Presenters unanimously agreed with the fact that in order to shed light on how web 2.0 technologies are impacting on political participation and imagination, we need to move away from a techno-centric and deterministic perspective.
However, what was particularly interesting about the papers presented, was that – although scholars agreed on the importance of moving beyond techno-deterministic understandings – they also believed in the importance of taking into account the impact of technological structures.
This emerged vividly in the paper by Ella McPherson that looked at the social hierarchy of online ‘verification’ processes, in the work of Bart Cammaerts that, in the discussion on the Anti-austerity movement, took into consideration the structural constrains and censorship of Facebook or in the work of Stefania Milan who discussed how hactivists shape their imaginaries and values drawing on an in-depth knowledge of technological structures.
Therefore, for the future, we were left with the challenge of finding ways of tackling this tension and developing approaches that enable us to appreciate the impact of technological structures whilst understanding how people actively negotiate with them without falling into the temptation of reproducing dualisms.
Changing Protest Cultures? History, Culture and the Multiple Complexities of Social Change.
When we think about ‘changing protest cultures’ we cannot fail to engage with questions concerning how we understand and theorise ‘social change’. These questions were at very heart of the papers presented. Most presentations revealed the urgent need to tackle existing understandings of ‘changing protest cultures’, by considering the complex dialectics between the old and new, and by taking into account not only the historical dimensions of social movements but also their cultural varieties. Gholam Khiabany provided an historical and context-specific overview of digital activism in Iran before focusing on a specific Facebook Campaign. Lina Dencik argued that in order to understand how the labor movement is engaging with new media and new forms of social protest we need to take into consideration how the movement has emerged and evolved, adapting to the changing nature of capitalism and the nation-state.
In understanding ‘social change’ many papers engaged with the question on how activists come to terms with established and emerging power relationships, and how they can resist them. Dhiraj Murthy expressed his optimism as he was talking about the role Twitter played in giving voice to the Black Urban Youth in the U.S., whilst Adrienne Russell critically considered how we can update our understanding of media power if we consider the recent changes in the relationship between activists and journalism.
Researching Social Movements and Media Technologies? Disciplinary boundaries and the Problem of Language
The two days of intense exchanges and confrontation from scholars who came from a variety of disciplines, theoretical frameworks and methodological backgrounds lead to the identification of a fundamental problem when we want to research social movements and media technologies: the problem of language. Our keynote Jennifer Earl has demonstrated the importance of developing a truly cross-disciplinary approach. Yet this interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation has proven to be a real challenge over the two days of our first SoME seminar.
We questioned how we used the conceptual terms that are so crucial to our research, we realised that we often referred to ‘social movements’ when in fact we were talking about ‘social protest’. We also realised that we have completely different understandings of ‘activism’. In the round table discussion we came to the conclusion that our future SoME seminars will need to create a space, which will enable us to achieve a truly nuanced and interdisciplinary understanding of the conceptual frameworks that we use.
We look forward to your thoughts comments and ideas!