2010 Dissertations IV: Activism

Researchers in social movements or social activism face something of a crossroads in the face of the Internet.  Movements are an area of empirical communication research that — at least in traditional research — seem to have effectively identified recurring and successful dynamics and patterns, and to have developed a fairly straightforward agenda for building on research in this area.

One part of that agenda is identifying and documenting cases of movement or activist strategies and tactics, and articulating what is effective, or less so, within these cases. What part, then does the Internet play? I’ve written elsewhere how online communication is opening new questions about what constitutes activism  (“Case Study: Internet and Political Activism”).  Two 2010 dissertations take up this question in different ways.

Amy Pason (PhD University of Minnesota, faculty at U Nevada-Reno) conducted a rhetorical analysis of Cindy Sheehan’s protest of the US involvement in the Iraq War.  Pason examined a wide range of texts, including Sheehan’s online writings. In this sense, Pason has naturalized online communication, as it becomes simply another source of texts.  What is interesting, however, is the way in which Pason uses an online-based metaphor to identify the emergence of (and to advocate for) a new activist strategy. From the abstract of Cindy Sheehan and the peace movement: Networks of care and rhetorical exploits:

“…resistance is defined through the concept of exploit, where, like computer viruses, movements use rhetorical forms to exploit norms of dominant systems to gain access, “recode” norms, or disrupt systems. Movements, employing distributed structures, work to “write code” or build new systems through a politics of the act .”

Activists as hackers? An interesting upending of the formula, though I look forward to future work to really explore the robustness of this idea.

A second part of the agenda of social movement research is to delve deeper into the motivations and identifications of activists. If we accept that there is such a thing as an “activist” identity, what are the communication processes that recruit individuals to that identity, and that keep them engaged and motivated?

Donjin Lim (PhD SUNY-Buffalo) conducted experiments to analyze how processes and practices typically associate with successful activism translated into online social networking contexts. Not surprisingly, Jin found that reciprocity and contact frequency were positively related to enacted support.  Jin measured the extent to which participants engaged in acts of altruism–i.e., completing requested tasks–which could be taken as an indicator of social mobilization.  Interestingly, the extent to which participants held to local social norms was a key factor.  Which raises an interesting paradox — one strength of the Internet is mass mobilization, yet the effectiveness of this mobilization might depend on provincialism.  Further large-scale investigation of “internet activists” might explore this question.