Setting the Stage (part II) :: Social Movements & ICTs :: The Basics

13 04 2009

The study of the intersections of social movement rhetoric and digital media isn’t the easiest task, no doubt in large part because what a social movement is exactly remains rather elusive.  Definitions that establish a set of criteria to be met are often too rigid to encompass the range of action that is actually happening on the street; such is the fate of earlier social movement scholarship, which set parameters more around what they understood than what was emerging.  More refined definitions are cautious, offering disclaimers and reservations, or defining in the negative: by describing what it’s not.  Here’s how the editors of Cyberprotest: New Media, Citizens and Social Movements put it:

As stated time and again in and beyond this volume, these [social movements] tend to be fuzzy and fluid phenomena often without clear boundaries.  Although they may include formal organizations as components, on the whole they are not an organization.  A social movement typically lacks membership forms, statutes, chairpersons, and the like.  It may expand or shrink considerably over relatively short periods of time, and exhibit phases of visibility and latency.  Also, unlike political parties, social movements may have significant overlaps with other movements.  Moreover, a social movement may quickly change its forms, strategy, tactics, and even some of its goals.  In sum, a social movement is a ‘moving target’, difficult to observe.  3

They rightly continue on to observe that there is organization within this chaos—often a multiplicity of overlapping organizational forms: “This structure, however, is not an organization but a network, or even a network of networks, that both rests on a maintains a sense of collective identity” (3).  With much of the digital innovations over the past ten years focused on connecting networks with other networks, it should come as no surprise that there is an “elective affinity” (to borrow a term from Max Weber) between digital communication technology and social movements.

In approaching these complex set of interactions, the introduction glosses some established methodologies:

Resource Mobilization:

  • This approach highlights the processes and ability of social movement organizations’ leadership to gather and distribute resources such as labor power (which includes time, skill sets, brute strength, etc.), money, and information.  Resource mobilization, however, often overshadow aspects of the communication interplay of social movements, because of its focus on the organizational structure, and as a result, only the communication within an organization; furthermore, it often only examines that internal communication with a lens to see how it mobilizes resources, consequently eliding its impact on areas such as identity and ideology.  Thus, we might say that it focuses on a particular micro set to the detriment of the larger macro issues and “the structural setting in which social movements act” (9).

Political Opportunity:

  • While aligned with resource mobilization in its positioning of social movement actors as “rational and instrumentally oriented”—in contrast to social behaviorist models that posit actors in social movements as irrational and lacking clear goals—political opportunity approaches center the attention on external relations of communication, departing from the internal focus of RM.  Here the attention is drawn to how movements communication issues broadly, across media structures, or to authorities and/or opponents.  As the pendulum swings the other way (towards the macro), however, there is a neglect of the “concrete communication and mobilization processes that underlie direct action” (10).

Ideology/Identity/ Persuasion:

  • The editors seem to choose this broad banner to identify the various methods that focus less on organizational structure and more on the expressive, persuasion-oriented practices of social movements.  The dominant model with this spectrum is “Framing,” which comes from sociology studies.  This discursive strategy identifies the perceptions that are trying to be changed and evaluate persuasive appeals based on those.  I believe that with this approach offers the bets opportunity for bridging the micro and macro is sensible and productive ways.

The introduction to Cyberprotest finishes by outlining some of the main issues that social movement scholars must pay attention to with the increased reliance of digital tools, that although rather obvious, are good to list nevertheless:

  • Use of information communication technologies (ICTs) to circumvent mass media outlets; information can be distributed both internally and externally to large audiences at a low cost and without the interference of the established media.
  • Forges alliances between organizations, linking issues together sometimes in the process.

Throughout this post I’ve used the term “social movement” without making any reference to which contemporary movements are operating today: What is the most dominant social movement?  The Green movement?  The anti-globalization movement?  And how might we interrogate its status as a “movement?”  To put us on that track we might turn to the recent rabble-raising that took place in London . . .

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