Early news reports about the recent uprising in Tunisia have suggested that social media played a role as participants used such technology and organize and coordinate activities. (See this AP story with the headline of “Jobless youths in Tunisia riot using Facebook.”) In the midst of a lively debate over whether social media actually can lead to revolution (see the earlier post on Malcolm Gladwell’s recent thoughts on this), a sociologist provides a short overview of how he thinks sociology has addressed (or has not addressed) this question:
When the debate does pick up again, though, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few new wrinkles added into the mix. What all of the above writers share, I would argue, is, first, a notion of collective action overly-indebted to definitions of action and coordination provided by economics, and (second) a somewhat a-historical focus in digital technology. One of the problems with the debate as it is currently structured is that other academic disciplines, particularly sociology, have largely stopped asking questions about the relationship between the media and social movements. Indeed, sociology has largely stopped asking questions about the media at all. (I’m generalizing wildly here, of course, but as evidence I would point you toward the cogently argued and well-titled article by Jefferson Pooley and Elihu Katz, “Why American Sociology Abandoned Mass Communication Research.”) A second problem with the current debate lies in the fact that more complex theorizing about the nature of technological artifacts has yet to penetrate the mainstream debates over the roles played by technology in political protest.
There are, of course, exceptions. When it comes to deep and important thinking about media and social movements from a sociological perspective I’d point you toward work by Francesca Polletta and Edwin Amenta at UC Irvine, W. Lance Bennett’s work on political communication and protest, and especially research by Andrew Chadwick, and John Downing. In his discussion of “organizational repertoires” and their relationship to media, just as one example, Chadwick draws on a lengthy tradition of thought in classic social movement research aimed at understanding the role “repertoires play in sustaining collective identity. They are not simply neutral tools to be adopted at will, but come to shape what it means to be a participant in a political organization. Values shape repertoires of collective action, which in turn shape the kind adoption of organizational forms.”
In short, a primary advantage provided by a core sociological perspective on social movements is that they bring values and culture back into our conversation, problematizing notions of what collective action even means in the first place.
I would be interested to hear how other sociologists would respond to this, particularly those who study and write about social movements. Just being part of a Facebook or Twitter conversation or group doesn’t not necessarily lead to collective action. So when does organizing through social media turn from just an online activity to rioting in the streets?
Here is a bit of the AP story talking about how Facebook was used in a country where some Internet uses, such as YouTube, are regulated, but Facebook is not:
Video-sharing sites like YouTube and Daily Motion are banned in Tunisia, where newspapers are tightly censured, but Facebook abounds and videos posted there are quickly spread around.
One in 10 Tunisians has a Facebook account, according to Ben Hassen, whose movement is also on Facebook.
“It’s a form of civil resistance,” he said.
How exactly did this happen? And with a limited number of people in the country on Facebook, how did this become something larger? Sounds like a start to a research paper…