Digital Media and Social Movements

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* CFP: ICTs, digital media and social movements: beyond the state of the art. Special issue editors Cristina Flesher Fominaya and Kevin Gillan. Social Movement Studies, 15(4), August 2016.


Continual innovation in technologically mediated communications has excited social movement scholars, particularly over the past two decades. As a result there is now a great deal of empirical research detailing the uses of a variety of technologies by activists in a wide range of movements. However, the developing literature displays a number of conceptual problems and empirical gaps and we believe that addressing them could significantly advance our understanding of the interaction of movements with information and communication technologies (ICTs). We are calling for papers that address problems or gaps in the state of the art in scholarship on ICTs, digital media and social movements.

Contributions may address some of the following issues, which we see as some of the most pressing in the current state of the art.

· For each new technological development – now social media, in the past, the Web or email or television – there has been a tendency to cycle through a particular kind of debate: optimists see democratizing potential, pessimists see the reconfiguration of traditional power structures in a new arena, while others seek a middle ground.

That debate is often unproductive and is indicative of three related conceptual problems:

o First, the novelty of particular technologies appears to create amnesia about past innovations. To keep up with the stunning rate of innovation in this field while also transferring learning from one phase to the next we need to be able to relate the particularities of new tools for communication to the general features of technologically mediated communications. Theoretical advances in relation to the latter should help us understand the former.

o Second, optimistic, pessimistic and ‘middle ground’ positions on new technologies are frequently built on overly simplistic conceptualizations of technologies as determinants of social change. This removes agency from social movement groups, their opponents and other actors in contentious political fields. Finding a better balance between technological ‘structures’ and movement ‘agents’ – however theorized – will likely also help us recognize the significance of the interaction of online and offline practices. We can no longer see these as separate spaces that impact each other, but must understand the ways in which they are mutually constitutive. Careful attention to the cultural aspects of ICT use offers one important corrective to tendencies towards technological determinism.

o Third, there is a recurrent problem of overemphasizing social media (especially Twitter) and a lack of attention to the impact and interaction effects of other forms of media, such as television and newspapers. This is compounded by a tendency to select “successful” cases where high rates of digital or social media use is concurrent with high levels of offline mobilization, leading to causal narratives that downplay or ignore other factors or field effects.

· When the agency of movement actors is recognized it is typically in studies of online communication as a mobilization strategy. So far, however, such studies have tended to treat recipients of movements’ public communications as little more than a passive audience, when for mobilization to occur there must be active processes of interpretation that leads to participation. Empirical studies of such processes will need to find new ways of systematically interrogating the relationship of protest participants to ICTs.

· The increasing focus on public communications has also led to neglect of the internal communications by which those involved in movements organize and strategize, debate political issues and develop collective identities. If understanding the interaction of online and offline practices is an important theoretical challenge in and of itself, then relating that to empirical studies of well-known movement processes is likely to be fruitful. Moreover, the mutually constitutive nature of online and offline life may be having an impact in breaking down boundaries between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ movement work in a milieu in which the individual’s relationship to movements cannot be simplified to roles such as ‘member’, ‘organizer’ or ‘bystander’.

· Finally, the current trend in empirical studies that focus on the users of particular communication platforms tends to present a picture of surprisingly homogenous groups communicating about a relatively restricted range of political issues. This neglects the various ways in which both movements and ICT use in general are cut across by cultural differences and digital divides. Hard divisions such as those around degrees of censorship or access to the Internet are plainly important in examining transnational movements in particular, but so too are softer divisions such as the degree to which there is affinity or conflict between increasingly important technological cultures (hacker or geek culture for instance) and the various political cultures that are embedded in social movements. Comparative work in particular would help illuminate the range and heterogeneity of digital repertoires across movement networks.

We are by no means alone in reflecting critically on the understanding of ICTs and social movements available in the developing literature. We welcome submissions that either address the issues noted above or identify new ones in full, original research articles (max 9,000 words).

Interested scholars should submit proposals of up to 300 words to the Editors at [email protected] by 27th February 2015. By 16th March 2015 a preliminary selection of authors will be invited to submit full articles by 30th July 2015 (max 9000 words, inc. all endnotes and bibliography). Please bear both the word length and the deadlines in mind when considering whether you would like to be part of the collection. Final publication decisions will be dependent on normal peer review procedures and the decisions of the Editors. We aim to publish this special issue in August 2016 as Social Movement Studies 15(4). Advanced online publication will be available for papers that are completed earlier. Once published in hardcopy the online papers will be available on an open access basis for a limited promotional period.

More Information

Abstracts due 27th February 2015

Submissions due 30th July 2015

Contact: [email protected]