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Liminal political spaces

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

Liminal political spaces— Thoughts on my (mediated) attendance of President Obama’s visit to USC and what it can teach us about participatory politics

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik

 

                During the last week, a popular conversation topic on the USC campus was the upcoming visit of President Obama. His visit was planned as part of a political rally, promoting voting for the Democrats in the upcoming California election. Interestingly enough, though, it seemed that a lot of the conversation revolved around the logistics of this visit. People wondered whether classes and events would be rescheduled, how crazy traffic and parking will be. When trying to probe with some of my classmates whether they were planning to attend the rally, most replied that it would be too much of a hassle to come to campus.

                Throughout this week I was deliberating on whether or not to attend the rally. As a non-American citizen, I cannot vote in the upcoming elections. Still, I can’t deny the attraction of potentially seeing an American president in real life, and not only an American president – one that seemed particularly endowed with a celebrity quality. Still, I too was worried about the logistics on campus, and – as a busy graduate student – was also anxious about missing too much precious work time. As a compromise, I decided to come to campus, but to arrive only shortly before Obama’s expected speech (hours after first attendees showed up), and to see how things go. In fact, they went much easier than expected, and I arrived at campus rather quickly.

                  Upon my arrival, I was at first surprised at how deserted the campus seemed. Getting closer to the area of the rally, I found that it was walled off with a large green fence, but a “jumbotron” – a large video screen – was projecting the rally onto the grassy area at the nearby Leavey library, where some students were sitting and watching. In the beginning, I still made several attempts to go into the actual rally. The entrance area to the rally at first seemed encouragingly empty, but then I found out that people had to first stand in a different line to get a ticket. I hung around that area for a while, hoping that somehow I would get in anyway, but it seemed that these tickets were necessary, and the line for it was just too long. The people in charge were warning students in line that they may not get in at time to see Obama’s speech, and their best bet would be to watch the event from the jumbotron. So this was what I did too – I sat on the grass on a sunny afternoon, leaned on a tree, nibbled on a bagel, and watched the President of the United States on the screen, just 50 feet away from me. It turned out to be a unique experience. Not, as I first hoped, because of seeing a president in person in a political rally, but through thinking of the unique characteristics of the perspective from which I viewed the event – that of the “jumbotron” crowd.

                Comparing the experience of attending a public event versus watching its mediated version is not new, of course. As early as 1951, the sociologists Kurt and Gladys Lang attempted to compare the experience of attending the “MacArthur Day” parade and watching its televised counterpart. They found that while the audience actually attending the event experienced it as dull and disappointing, when televised it seemed like a dramatic, exciting event. Lang & Lang attributed this gap to the practices of television, which structured the event according to its assumptions of the audiences’ expectations. They called this the “unwitting bias” of television.

                Sitting and watching the Obama rally off the jumbotron while sitting on the grass with other students can’t be put on either side of Lang & Lang’s spectrum. It wasn’t sitting at home, watching an account of the rally produced by commercial mass television, using different angles and perspectives. But it wasn’t the same experience as actually attending the rally, either. I was very close to the physical location of the rally, I had other people around me, yet the fence separating this viewing area from the actually rally served as a significant boundary. In this way, the grass on which I sat, together with other students, watching the screening of the rally, can be thought of as a  liminal political space, a blurry boundary zone between the world and politics and the “everyday”.  Neither watching from at home, nor “being there”, it took on some of the characteristics of its counterparts, creating its own unique experience for its dispersed crowd.

                    On the one hand, we—the “jumbotron” crowd—were barely 50 feet from the area were the rally was taking place, and where Obama would soon speak. On the other hand, separated from the rally by a large green fence, the “feel” of the experience was palpably different. Whereas inside the political rally, people could not go in with backpacks, food or drink, on the grass of Leavey the atmosphere closer resembled that of a picnic. The audience, mostly USC students but also other guests, were sprawled on the grass in the surprising afternoon warmth (after a chilly morning and a rainy week), looking in the general direction of the jumbotron, shading their eyes from the sun. Some were sitting on picnic chairs, one student had his shirt off. People were snacking on sandwiches and drinks. Some students, perhaps—like me—anxious about the work time they’re missing, were working on their laptops or reading academic articles. The atmosphere, similarly to that felt inside the rally, was that of waiting for “the big event” – President Obama’s speech. But in the meantime, the mood was that of a relaxed afternoon in the sun. The many political figures that appeared in the rally before Obama, and on our screen, were met with relative indifference. A possible cause, or perhaps reflection, of this indifference, was the uncertainty of some of the audience as to what this event was actually about. After a series of Democratic candidates came on stage one after the other and called the crowd to vote for the Democrats, I overheard a student next to me ask his friend: “So is this a Democratic event?”. His friend wasn’t sure.

                The strange quality of our liminal political space was perhaps most apparent during the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem. Looking around me, I could see people wondering, do I stand up or not? Do I say out loud the pledge of allegiance? Do I sing the anthem? Again, the boundaries were blurred. The national ritual was enacted in front of us on the screen, and in very close proximity to us in reality. But we were not really participants in the rally, were we? It seemed that for most, the compromise was to stand up, some said the pledge of allegiance, but only few sang the anthem. Others, however, remained quite serenely sitting down and chatting, or walking across the grass during the singing of the anthem – behaviors that would have most likely been inappropriate within the parameters of the rally. For me, this was quite a relief – I do not know the words of the anthem, and as non-American citizen, am not sure I would feel comfortable singing it even if I would. Standing in front of the screen, I wasn’t as anxious of this as I may have been inside the perimeters of the rally.

 

President Obama at USC, 10/22/2010, photo by Shotgun Spratling, Neon Tommy

                 After several more speeches, the moment we had all waited for had come – President Obama came to the stage. He was met with enthusiasm – though perhaps less than I had expected. We, the jumbotron crowd, clapped as well, and the excitement was heightened. Obama began his speech talking about Trojan pride and gesturing ‘fight on’ – which was of course greatly cheered by the USC crowd. During his actual speech, though, a strange anti-climax seemed to occur. The audience gathered around the screen had obviously been waiting for Obama’s arrival. And yet, two or three minutes into his speech, when he began addressing politics, the excitement around me very quickly waned. Some people were chatting with their neighbors, others standing up and leaving. The group of students next to me – those who wondered whether this is a Democratic rally – were deliberating whether to get up and leave, probably in order to avoid the heavy traffic when the rally was over. One of them told his friend: “We waited until now, might as well wait till it’s over”. Deciding to stick around for now, they listened to the speech, throwing occasional joking remarks. When the Obama’s speech was over, the crowd quickly dispersed, hoping to reach their cars before all the rally attendees (I know I did…). On their way out, some took pictures in front of the jumbatron. I sure wish I would have taken one – but at that point I didn’t think of this blog yet.

                The notion I would like to devote some attention to, then, is that of the liminal political space. Watching the rally off the jumbatron, just a few feet away from the rally, created a unique experience, one different both from actually “being there” at the rally, but also from watching it on television (or the web) or not watching it at all. Rather than thinking only about this event, though, I want to see whether concept of liminal political spaces, and my experiences in this particular example of it, can help us elucidate the phenomenon we’re interested in our research group: that of participatory politics, or the ways in which participatory culture can lead to political engagement. Using the Harry Potter Alliance as one of our key case studies, we are asking ourselves how groups can engage young people in the political process in non-traditional means, building on existing content worlds and fan networks.

                   Liminal political spaces, as I define them here, are spaces of ‘in-between’: in between politics and people’s every-day lives. These are spaces that relate to traditional political spaces, but yet are uniquely distinct from them. Thinking of my experience at the rally, I’d like to mention several possible advantages of liminal political spaces in terms of increasing participation in democracy.

 

Crowd waiting in line for the rally (not for the jumbotron…). Photo by Jennifer Schultz, courtesy of NeonTommy.

                      First, liminal political spaces enable much easier access, or in the political science lingo, reduce the costs of political participation. Those who wanted to attend the political rally had to arrive very early, wait excruciating hours in line, stand all day in the sun without food or drink. Some even waited in line from 3:30 am. On the other hand, I, like many of the “jumbotron” crowd, arrived only an hour before Obama came on. When it was over, we left to our cars quickly, and weren’t stuck in traffic. We managed to experience a presidential visit (more or less), with minimum hassle involved.

                     Second, they allow for a wider variety of people to participate. For example, Republicans would have probably not felt very comfortable inside the rally, which was very clearly partisan. In our liminal political space, some of the audience criticized Obama or joked about his speech – but they still listened to it, were still part of the experience. They too, then, heard countless reminders of the importance of voting in the upcoming election – though perhaps they took it as a reminder to vote for the “other side”. For me, as a non-American citizen, participation in the liminal political space was more comfortable for other reasons. Not being inside the actually rally, I felt more legitimate in my “outsider” status, where it was ok not to sing the anthem. Around me I saw many who seemed like international students, and I suspect some of them felt the same – wanting to get the experience, but not feeling enough belonging to be inside the rally.

                    In that way, liminal political spaces allow for participation “on your own terms”. We could “participate” in a political rally while sitting on the grass in the sunshine, munching on bagels and chatting. But we still felt like we’re a part of the experience (even if a marginal part).

                    It seems to me that many of these advantages can be applied to some of the case studies we’re thinking of. Let’s take the Harry Potter Alliance. In many ways, it enables youth an easier access to politics (widely defined). While the view of all youth as being alienated from party politics is an overgeneralization, it does seem to have a point. For many young people, volunteering to take an active part in politics may just be too disconnected from their daily lives. Participatory politics can help bridge this gap, by using current areas of interest as points of connection between the audience and the politics. For example, for a Harry Potter fan, attending a wizard rock concert that is dedicated to fighting for marriage equality is  a much smaller leap than attending a traditional political demonstration. Participatory politics furthermore allows political participation on young people’s own terms. The forms of engagement we see in the Harry Potter Alliance vary from raising money, signing online petitions, donating books, participating in beach clean-ups, and encouraging other young people to register to vote (no matter to which party). There are different levels of membership possible, different levels of engagement. Some volunteer 20 hours a week, some sign an online petition once a month. In that way, participation can be diversified, allowing those with different views and different motivations to be a part of the political process, and to define this part for themselves.

                On the other hand, the green fence separating our grassy area from the rally has tangible consequences. As liminal political spaces are distinct from traditional political spaces, we must also consider some of their weaknesses, or even dangers, from the point of view of democracy.

                A main problem seems to be lower accountability. For the jumbotron crowd, our participation was made on our own terms, but this also meant that we felt much less committed to the political cause. The aim of the political rally was to get people (or, more specifically, Democrats) active and energized towards the upcoming election. They called people first and foremost to vote, but also possibly to volunteer to “make phone calls and knock on doors” (just as a side-note, what year are they living in? have they not heard of social networks?). But our liminal political space just did not seem to have the same energy that fosters active political engagement. The jumbotron crowd heard the same messages but, without the energy of hearing it together with a mass audience in a rally, the effect just didn’t seem the same. Here, it seems that the opposite happened than for Lang & Lang. From what it seems from random interviews, it seems that participating in the rally was a much stronger political-emotional experience than watching off the jumbotron.

                Here, I don’t want to be too quick to make comparisons to participatory politics. In fact, in some cases accountability may be even higher than in traditional politics. The Harry Potter Alliance, for example, functions through a structure of chapters and houses, competing with each other on achieving their social causes. Connected through their shared interests, members in participatory politics may feel more—and not less—of a shared responsibility towards their shared social causes.

                Another possible challenge, however, is that of the illusion of participation. This may be the argument of many critics about experiences such as our jumbotroned rally: You felt as though you were participating, but in fact you were not contributing to actual politics in any meaningful way. For example, we probably weren’t counted in the number of attendees. Did our attendance still matter politically, if we were not necessarily affected by its political messages? Then again, how does attending the rally matter?

                In participatory politics there may be a similar danger. As some critics claim, while young people today are socially active in many ways, they are not involved in traditional politics and, for them, this is the politics that matters. According to their claim, party politics is how US democracy works. In order to make a political difference, you have to play the political game.

                Yet the advantages of participatory politics as liminal political spaces can be thought of in several ways.

                   First, they can be thought of as a step towards engaging with “real politics”. Watching the rally off the jumbotron, for me, still carried with it some feeling of disappointment, that I wasn’t really there. That perhaps next time I will take the extra effort, come early, wait hours in line, and have the “real experience”. Similarly, experiencing politics, even very widely defined, through the “safe spaces” of organizations such as the Harry Potter Alliance has lead some members to think of a future in politics, even if they view politics as dirty business.

                   But moreover, it seems we should value liminal political spaces for what they are, not only as a step in a trajectory. Counter to traditional notions that see such participation as trivial, we can think of ways in which it is in fact more meaningful to its participants than traditional politics can be. The political rally which we watched on the screen was mostly geared towards increasing political enthusiasm. This is one thing that organizations such as the Harry Potter Alliance definitely succeed in. By linking social causes to narratives, characters and content worlds which their audiences already feel strongly about, these groups manage to recruit fantasy worlds to the causes of current day politics, achieving some spectacular results. Traditional politics can still learn a lesson or two from these liminal political spaces.

 

The Harry Potter Alliance winning $250,000 in the Chase Community Giving action, achieved by receiving a top number of votes by members.

Structure of Feeling / Structure of Being

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Throughout the course of our investigations, we have garnered a much greater understanding of the relationship between activities grounded in pop culture and political movements, civic engagement, and public participation. Together we have begun to contemplate a multitude of frameworks and spheres ranging from social media—a member of our team, Kevin Driscoll, has recently responded to Malcolm Gladwell’s criticisms of Twitter—to DIY cultures and flash activism. Our thinking has been supplemented by insightful interviews and we have undoubtedly grown since our inception a year ago.  Yet, as with many other forms of research, hard work and findings, while fruitful, have also served to illuminate further areas of inquiry. For our research team, one of these subjects is the role and potential purpose of religion.

Going into this project, I feel as though our group endeavored to discover emergent themes:  although we each came to the table with a particular set of experiences, we used our backgrounds—a shared history of fan studies, civic action, popular culture, and cultural/media studies—to develop loose hypotheses regarding the various trajectories that groups might take. In some ways, then, it might make sense that we have only recently begun to dig deeper into religion’s role as the intersection between religion, media, and culture has only recently become a point of consideration; traditionally, scholars in various fields explored the overlap between religion/media, religion/culture, and media/culture, but not necessarily all three at once (Hoover and Lundby 1997).  (more…)

Perhaps a revolution is not what we need

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell joins a rising chorus of skeptics in his latest piece for the New Yorker, Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. Responding to what he calls an “outsized enthusiasm” for social media technologies as activist tools, he argues that the weak ties enabled by services like Twitter cannot inspire the kind of commitment and bravery required of “high-risk activism” like the civil rights movement.

It’s a compelling argument and, to his credit, Gladwell works hard to name the sources of this “enthusiasm”. Among his slacktivist hall of shame: oversold “Twitter Revolutions” in Moldova and Iran, massive awareness campaigns on Facebook, and the Legend of the Stolen Cellphone (as told by Clay Shirky).

Despite careful attention to some very real weaknesses of network activism, Gladwell’s argument suffers from a lack of detail in two important areas: technology and history.

What is “Twitter”?

Three different Twitter clients

Twitter is the representative social media technology throughout most of Gladwell’s article. But as an admitted non-user, Gladwell overlooks features and user scenarios that would add a critical complexity to his argument. Like email or the telephone, Twitter is a non-prescriptive communication platform. Each user experiences “Twitter” differently depending on the time of day and frequency she checks her feed, the other people she follows, and the interface(s) she uses to access the network. Because of this flexibility, norms emerge, mutate, collide, and fade away among Twitter users with a fluidity that may not be easily apprehendable to a non-user like Gladwell.

Twitter may feel like a new phenomenon but listen closely and you will find echoes of older technological paradigms at its borders. A Twitter feed is expressed using the same protocols that syndicate blog content and its famous 140-character limit ensures compatibility with a text messaging standard from 1985. These design decisions afford Twitter data a powerful mobility. You can subscribe to a Twitter feed with an blog reader and send a tweet from any old mobile phone. Technically speaking, there is little “new” about it.

Although Andrew Sullivan and others initially reported that the 2009 protests in Iran were coordinated by Twitter, it turns out that most of the Twitter activity was taking place in Europe and the U.S.. This narrative meets the needs of Gladwell’s argument – Twitter use did not contribute to direct action on the streets of Tehran – but misses an opportunity to investigate an odd parallel: thousands of people with internet access spent days fixated on a geographically-remote street protest.

Who was that fixated population? Amin Vafa suggests that young diasporic Iranians like himself (“lucky enough to move to the US back in the late 1980s”) may have played a critical role in the flurry of English-language activity on Twitter. He recalls obsessively seeking information to retweet, “I knew at the time it wasn’t much, but it was something.” Messages sent among family and friends within and without Iran provided countless small bridges between the primarily SMS-based communication paradigm in Iran and the tweet-based ecology of the US/EU.

Such connections among far-flung members of Iranian families represent strong ties of a type similar to those that Gladwell admires in the civil-rights movement. And Vafa’s experience suggests that the specific technological affordances of Twitter enabled people to exercise those ties on a transnational scale. This is not to recommend either Twitter or SMS as effective tools for organizing an uprising (when things get hectic, cell phone service is the first to go) but instead to highlight the critical importance of including technical detail in any discussion of social media activism.

What is “the civil-rights movement”?

Leaves blowing away

Gladwell presents the civil-rights movement as a touchstone for “traditional” activism. In vivid narrative passages, he recounts moments of breathtaking heroism among black activists in the face of hate, discrimination, and brutality. This bravery, he argues, was inspired by strong local ties and enabled by support from hierarchically-structured organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. The movement, as he finds it, was “disciplined”, “precise”, and “strategic”; systematically mobilizing thousands of participants in the execution of long-term plans toward well-defined goals. “If you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment,” he concludes, “you have to be a hierarchy.”

Absent from this discussion, however, is consideration for the role of history in our present-day understanding of the civil-rights movement. During a visit to our research group last week, Steven Classen reminded us that our cultural memory of the civil-rights era is built on an incomplete record. Civil-rights activism was, in Gladwell’s terms, “high-risk” activism and carried the threat of injury or death. For this reason, activist communication was covert and empheral; the kind that does not leave traces to be collected and preserved in an archive.

Before the civil-rights movement can provide data to support an analysis of hierarchical activist organizations, consideration must be made for the thousands of “silent heroes” whose whose risks and labor were not recorded in any official history. Classen’s interviews and archival research revealed an enlarged history of the civil-rights movement in which the highly-visible actions of centralized organizations were accompanied by small acts of resistance among seemingly autonomous groups in rural communities throughout Mississippi. How should researchers account for these gaps and discrepancies? In spite of the sheer quantity of data produced by today’s social media use, there will always be aspects of social movements that are lost, forgotten, obscured, and excluded.

The same risk of injury that once obscured many human stories from the dominant history of the civil-rights movement is fundamental to Gladwell’s categorization of different types of activism. On one hand, he is right to distinguish “high-risk” activism like the civil-rights movement from comparatively safe acts like joining a Facebook Cause but when he writes that, “activism that challenges the status quo […] is not for the faint of heart”, he seems to imply that violence is a necessary condition for effecting social change. In response, Linda Raftree recalls the nerve-wracking experience of carrying a politically-themed t-shirt through the streets of El Salvador in the early 1990s. The very same act that seems innocuous to a U.S. citizen can be extremely risky within a different political regime. As social media networks and their users increasingly cross national boundaries, the line between “high” and “low” risks will blur. Depending on one’s geographic, cultural, and religious position, participation in social media activism may involve considerable risks: social ostracization, joblessness, displacement, or spiritual alienation.

What works?

Screenshot from an It Gets Better video

The most hierarchical organizations in the civil-rights movement focused on (and succeeded in changing) the most hierarchical problems they faced: discriminatory laws and policies. But racism is not a highly-structured problem. In fact, racism is a dispersed, slippery evil that circulates, mutates, and evolves as it moves through groups of people across time and space. The hierarchical civil-rights movement defeated Jim Crow, an instantiation of racism, but could not eradicate racism itself.

Perhaps network problems like racism require non-hierarchical, network solutions. Stetson Kennedy’s “Frown Power” campaign of the 1940s and 1950s was an effort to address racism in a network fashion. To combat everyday racism, Kennedy encouraged anti-racist whites to respond to racist remarks simply by frowning. Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project is a similar present-day example. Angered and saddened by the persistence of homophobic bullying among high school students, Savage asks queer adults to speak directly to victimized teens using web video. Both campaigns are activism for the “faint of heart”. They effect a slow, quiet change rather than large-scale revolution.

And maybe a focus on outcomes is what this conversation needs. Creating a hard distinction between “traditional” activism and “social media” activism is a dead end. Whether the medium is Twitter, pirate radio, a drum, or lanterns hung in a Boston church tower, “real world” activism depends on the tactical selection of social media technologies. Rather than fret about “slacktivism” or dismiss popular new tools because of their hype, we should be looking critically at history for examples of network campaigns like Frown Power that take advantage of their culture and technological circumstances to effect new kinds of social change.

Civic Proportions: Jill and Jagruti in Community and Society

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

“(The Harry Potter Alliance is not about activism per se but rather is) a community that is active.” – An HPA staff member

“… there is something both exhilarating and disheartening about the graph of civil society responses this year. At one level, the public outcry against the miscarriage of justice in the Jessica (Lall) and Priyadarshini (Mattoo) cases has truly been a spontaneous act of citizenship from people normally not given to acts of citizenship. At the India Gate rally for Jessica, for instance, there was no mistaking the anger, the yearning for something purer… But a curious theatricality underran the entire evening. People were acting in unconscious facsimile. Several people who took the mike that day referred to Rang De Basanti: at times it seemed more than the injustice itself, the film was their inspiration. It had not just intuited a latent public mood; in a curious twist, it had become the mood itself.” – Shoma Chaudhury, writing in Tehelka on 01.07.07

I. [Introduction]

Community : Society

A. Community

When I came to the communication program at USC Annenberg a little over a year ago, I was puzzled by what people meant when they used the word “community”.

Examples (made-up or otherwise) of such usage are:

1a. “The PhD community at Annenberg is tightly-knit, kept apart only by people’s busy schedules.”

1b. “Los Angeles’ diverse neighborhoods are unified by a distinctive feeling of community.”

1c. “Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement.” (Jenkins et al., 2006, p. 4)

1d. “(The Harry Potter Alliance is not about activism per se but rather is) a community that is active.” (Member of the HPA interviewed by Ritesh on 8.14.10)

I asked myself: what do people mean when they use “community” in these instances? Is it similar to or different from the notion of “society”? In the India (Bombay) where I grew up, people hardly ever used the word “community”, let alone in the above manners. I am still in the process of grasping how “community” is used in America. In fact, the last usage example (1d), paraphrased from an interview conducted during our summer research with a member of the HPA, brought out most clearly one understanding of ‘community’. I tentatively put it forth as:

“a network of localized, neighbor-like involvements, geographical or virtual, through which one develops a sense of group identity, feels belonging with members of the group who are united by a sense of important purpose, and via whose goals and causes one contributes to the world-at-large.”

This understanding of ‘community’ is from the point of view of an individual member, and includes the aspect ‘contribution to a cause greater than oneself’ that is not lent to more generic understandings alluded in 1a-c above. For example, the understanding of “PhD community” in 1a does not suggest this aspect.

B. Society

What then do I mean by “society”? Let’s look at some examples of usage (made-up or not): (more…)

Glossary of Terms

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

I tentatively offer here in the space of this blog some of the definitions that Lana and I have been working on.  Since the blog has so far served as a platform for emerging (and not necessarily fully formed) ideas, it seems an appropriate place to share our work.  But I would like to further emphasize that this list represents only a first attempt toward definition, and that we look forward to much revision and sustained conversation on this subject. (and maybe one day we will remove this post from the blog so that it doesn’t live forever as a first edition….?)

(more…)

Methodologies for the Civically Engaged (shared reading)

Friday, August 20th, 2010

What innovative methods can fans and/or the civic-minded employ in order to engage in civics, politics, activism, charity, or active community?

Here, I want to share the following papers that directly address or allude to methodology: Photo Voice, Alternative Media (Small-format videos), and Global Microstructures. Thanks to my colleagues Nan Zhao and Lana Swartz for bringing my attention to Photo Voice and Global Microstructures respectively.

Photo Voice and Small-format videos can potentially enable civic-minded groups to innovatively document their observations, express their feelings and voice their concerns with regard to the communities or peoples they want to bring attention to. E.g., with Invisible Children, wouldn’t it be interesting if the organization facilitated bottom-up production of videos and photo collages, in addition to attracting membership via its own cool, top-down ‘branding’ videos? Members of IC would become documentary photographers and filmmakers, and as IC looks beyond Uganda for its raison d’etre, its members would be armed with new methods to showcase the plight of newer afflicted peoples, or more wondrous still, let those peoples document themselves.

Global microstructures are difficult to implement as a methodology, since as the authors observe, these microstructures are emergent and “temporally complex”. However, it is not inconceivable that civic participation could / does occur in this format. If so, it is important for researchers to be on the look out for, and for orchestrators to understand in order to execute . After all, terrorist cells a la Al Qaeda, this article discusses, allegedly operate as global microstructures.

Links to articles:

Wang, C. & Burris, M. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology and use for participatory needs assessment. Health, Education & Behavior, Vol 24 (3): 369-387. http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/2027.42/67790/2/10.1177_109019819702400309.pdf

Caldwell, J. T. (2003). Alternative media in suburban plantation culture. Media, Culture & Society, Vol 25: 647-667. http://mcs.sagepub.com/content/25/5/647.full.pdf+html

Cetina, K. (2005). Complex global microstructures: the new terrorist societies. Theory, Culture and Society, 5, 213-234. http://kops.ub.uni-konstanz.de/volltexte/2009/8098/pdf/Complex_Global_Microstructures.pdf

Charity vs Activism

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

Lana and I have been thinking about the distinction between charity and activism (a very similar project to Neta’s on “civic engagement”).  Here’s a preliminary list of texts we’re thinking of drawing on:

  • Eliasoph, Nina.  (1998)  Avoiding Politics:  How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life.
  • Blackstone, Amy.  (2004)  “It’s Just about Being Fair:  Activism and the Politics of Volunteering in the Breast Cancer Movement.  Gender and Society 18(3) pp. 350-368
  • Burgess, J. Harrison, C. M. Filius, P. (1998) Environmental communication and the cultural politics of environmental citizenship.
  • Burgess, Jean and Foth, Marcus and Klaebe, Helen (2006) Everyday Creativity as Civic Engagement: A Cultural Citizenship View of New Media. In Proceedings Communications Policy & Research Forum, Sydney
  • Kennelly, Jacqueline Joan. Citizen youth : culture, activism, and agency in an era of globalization. Dissertation – http://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/769
  • Jeff Goodwin, James M. Jasper, Francesca Polletta.  Passionate politics: emotions and social movements. Chapter:  “The Felt Politics of Charity:  Serving the Ambassadors of God and saving the sinking Classes”
  • Norris, Pippa.  (2002)  Democratic Phoenix: Reinventing Political Activism
  • Isin, Engin Fahri.  Being Political: Genealogies of Citizenship
  • Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History edited by Lawrence Freedman, Mark McGarvie Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003
  • Bremmer, Robert.  Giving: Charity and Philanthropy in History. By Robert H. Bremner.
  • McCarthy, Kathleen D.  (1990)  Lady Bountiful Revisited:  Women, Philanthropy, and Power.
  • Bickford and Reynolds (2002) “Activism and Service-Learning: Reframing Volunteerism as Acts of Dissent” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture  2(2)

It’s a difficult set of terms to parse, given that new terms keep popping up (“being political,” volunteerism, advocacy, etc.) but we’re hoping to start pinning down some key concepts that will be useful as we continue our work.  We’ll keep you up to date.

Interfaces — e.g., Introducing Youth to DIY Punk Activism

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

Earlier this week, I checked out an unusual intersection: two punk-hardcore activists were lecturing to 75+ teenagers at a Los Angeles university.   But this wasn’t music camp.  Rather, this was the last day of a college prep summer program, hosted at USC for low-income and first-generation youth.  Amazingly, the message stayed clear of “stay in school,” and focused instead on do-it-yourself (DIY) passion and activism.  There are implications for our research group.

Perhaps most importantly, the occasion underscored the “intersection dilemma”: how do learning institutions interface with civic sub-cultures (from punk activists, to the Harry Potter Alliance and Invisible Children)?  For me, this intersection is a goldmine – a space of real drama, where subcultures put on a public face, and where institutions give uncertain attention to these emerging civic modes.

Of course, the actual people matter enormously.  Justin Pearson and Jose Palafox (see above) are not your typical punk figures.  While Pearson never graduated college, he and Palafox have been key players in DIY hardcore-punk since the mid 90s.  They have been in countless bands – see, for example, this Swing Kids video with Pearson singing, and with Palafox on drums.

The activism of Pearson and Palafox is DIY, set against the punk subculture.  As friends and independently, their bands have supported organizations ranging from Planned Parenthood, to PETA and the Black Panther Party.  Palafox has made documentaries of the U.S.-Mexico border.  Pearson just released his autobiography, and was on Jerry Springer with a hoax involving bisexuality.

Very briefly, I want to examine Pearson and Palafox as a kind of baseline for our research.  Their example is valuable for its simplicity: compared to our current case studies, they do not have a fantasy content world (e.g., as compared to the Harry Potter fans); and second, the pair presented as individuals — without an organizational apparatus (such as the Harry Potter Alliance).

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Civic engagment – defined and redefined

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

Civic engagement – defined and redefined

Neta Kligler Vilenchik

 As our research team is interested in the ways in which groups that gather around shared interest and participatory culture may ‘evolve’ into civic and political engagement, the question of how to define these spheres of engagement has been raised several times.

Questions of terminology are of particular importance to our work, on several levels. First, we strive to understand how members of the organizations we are interested in define their own participation. Do they see it as charity? volunteering? civic engagement? political action? Second, and while taking into account the definitions used by interviewees, we need to establish the terms through which we as researchers discuss and interpret these activities. The terms and definitions we use must, in turn, be established in relationship and through conversation with other terms and definitions used in academia, whether in communication or in other, related disciplines. Finally, the ways in which we define these groups’ forms of engagement also have wider implications to the point we wish to make with our research. While being observers, we also have our own stake, in striving for wider forms of civic and political participation of young people to be acknowledged, accepted and valued.

                In this blog post, I would like to survey some work that was been done in the political science literature, which calls for accepting wider forms of civic participation of young people. The field of political science is often considered, within and outside of that discipline, as the ‘authority’ for questions of forms of political action[1]. Surveying this work serves to show the contribution of our own work, which calls for a dual widening of the sphere of the political: both in terms of the types of action that is acknowledged, and in regards to the diversified styles of action that is valued.

                A good starting point for this discussion is what Shea and Green (2007, p. 5) call “the myth of self-centered, apathetic younger Americans”. This refers to the view, common both in lay discussion and in many parts of academia, that young people in America are lazy, selfish, self-absorbed, and apathetic to civic matters. This myth, as Shea and Green quickly show, is very much mistaken. They cite studies showing that volunteering rates are higher among young people than among older adults, and higher among young people today than they were among the same age-group 20 years ago (see Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement). In contrast to what many think, young people volunteer not only due to service requirements in high schools and in order to be admitted to college, but—according to the amount of time donated—much beyond that. This tendency can furthermore be seen not only in college candidates, but throughout different ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes. Shea and Green conclude (2007, p. 5): “young Americans are anything but apathetic and immoral”.

                Why then the gap between reality and common perceptions? Here comes the main point Shea and Green (2007) are trying to make. Along with a group of academics (e.g. Longo, 2004; Colby, 2008), they are worried that while young people increase their civic engagement, this does not extend, and even comes instead of, political involvement: “While youngsters seem more than willing to lend a hand cleaning up streams, helping others learn to read, and volunteering at the community soup kitchen, they shun politics—the very process that could produce solutions to polluted streams, poverty and adult illiteracy” (p. 8). Longo (2004) calls this the “scissor effect”—the claim that while young people volunteer much more (Longo, p. 63, calls this “service politics”), but participate much less in actual politics. The alleged reason for this is that young Americans feel marginalized with the political process, and so prefer to volunteer in specific projects, which enables them to feel immediate, concrete paybacks of their involvement. This is seen as creating “nothing less than a crisis of our democracy” (Longo, 2004, p. 61).

                In fact, this view may be outdated, as recent findings show that political conversation among college freshmen in 2008 was at its highest in the last 40 years, and keeping up-to-date with politics was increasing (Higher Education Research Institute, 2009). But even if this were not the case, the problem with this point is the clear distinction it creates between political participation and civic engagement/volunteering. Political participation is implicitly defined here as engagement that happens within party politics, whereas volunteering—while appreciated—is deemed as politically insignificant[2]. But does this distinction hold water?

Consider the case of Mara. Mara, 22, was interviewed as a member of the LA chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance. Mara defines herself as politically active in a wide range of issues she sees as important, such as libertarian groups, gay rights groups, Jewish groups. Mara spends between an hour and two hours daily (!) as an ‘online activist’. She subscribes to the mailing lists of dozens of political groups, both ones she agrees with, and one she doesn’t, receiving and reading around 25 political emails a day. She researches about these groups, and uses her connection to groups she disagrees with in order to resist their efforts and send her own messages. For example, if an anti-gay-rights group calls members to protest companies that seem to support gay rights, she sends those same companies emails with the opposite message, calling them not to cave to the pressure of such groups. Several times a month, Mara attends events of the different groups she belongs to, and has been part of beach clean-ups, book donations, commemoration of soldiers and war victims, and other activities. But Mara is not registered for a political party, and sees the Democrats as being no better than the Republicans. According to traditional definitions, which see political action as occurring within the frames of party politics, Mara may be seen as another “disengaged young American”.

                This aspect of participation, however, is not completely lost within the political science literature. One example is Russell Dalton’s book The Good Citizen (2008). Refuting the argument of declining political participation among young people, Dalton calls to accept new forms of political activism. According to this argument, what is changing are the norms of citizenship: duty-based norms of citizenship, the ones stimulating political voting, are declining. However, “engaged citizens apparently are not so drawn to elections, but prefer more direct forms of political action, such as working with public interest groups, boycotts, or contentious actions” (Dalton, 2008, p. 55). Dalton claims that the repertoire of political action is expanding, including not only voting, but also actions such as contacting officials directly, protesting, or engaging in communal activity: working with others to address political issues (p. 62).

This aspect is increasing within the realm of the Internet. As Dalton (p. 66) argues, “the Internet is creating a form of political activism that did not previously exist. The Internet provides a new way for people to connect to others, to gather and share information, and to attempt to influence the political process… The potential of the Internet is illustrated on the Facebook.com Web site, where young adults communicate and can link themselves to affinity groups that reflect their values as a way to meet other like-minded individuals”. Part of the reasons for young people’s new forms of engagement, in his view, has to do with “the growth of self-expressive values encouraging participation in activities that are citizen initiated, less constrained, directly linked to government, and more policy oriented” (p.68). Thus, “The engaged citizen is more likely to participate in boycotts, “buycotts”, demonstrations, and other forms of contentious action”.

Dalton finally names two examples of these new forms of engagement (p. 76), the example of Alex, an 18 year old from California who switched shampoos over animal testing, does not buy clothes produced by child labor, and helped organize a protest over the genocide in Sudan in her high school, before she was even eligible to vote. Jaime, a high school student in Maryland, created a teen group to encourage high school students to become socially involved, which boomed through Facebook. Dalton claims: “These two examples are not representative of all young people, but they illustrate the new focuses and forms of political activism that exist beyond elections, and that can enrich our democratic process if we understand these new forms of political action” (p. 76).

                Dalton’s position, then, is much closer to the one our research team takes, than that of Shea and Green (2007), Longo (2004), or Colby (2008), in that it accepts and acknowledges new forms of engagement as politically significant. In the political science literature, Dalton’s expanded definition of what is seen as ‘engaged citizenship’ is seen as a “provocative thesis” (see David Magleby’s review of the book).

The work we do in our research team, however, goes a step or two further. We focus on these non-traditional forms of engagement, that do not consist only of voting, but include “boycotts, “buycotts”, demonstrations, and other forms of contentious action” (Dalton, 2008, p. 68). While some of this political action takes place in physical locations, much of it happens online, and this online action plays a big role in our research (whereas Dalton acknowledged it, but did not study it). Going further, the groups we examine show new ways of recruiting members and of creating shared grounds of interest and commonality among them. For the Harry Potter Alliance, for example, a shared love for the content world of Harry Potter enables participants of diverse backgrounds, ages, and views, to come together for political action such as protecting marriage equality and other actions we are now learning of.

This review of some of the literature in political science assists us to base our claims within an ongoing scholarly conversation. The argument we make and the cases we examine place our research team in a key position in this conversation, not only implementing the up-to-date arguments in the field, but taking them several steps further. Still, we must also keep in mind that the dominant view of many is that politics only matters when it is performed within the frame of political parties. The argument that other forms of politics matter too will need to be justified in response to such claims.                

References

Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, see http://www.civicyouth.org/

Colby, A. (2008).  The place of political learning in college.  Association of American colleges and universities, Spring / summer, 4-12.

Dalton, R.J. (2008).  The good citizen: How a younger generation is reshaping American politics.  Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA (2009).  The American Freshman: National norms for 2008.  Los Angeles, CA. Available:  http://www.heri.ucla.edu/publications-brp.php

Longo, N. (2004). The new student politics: Listening to the political voice of students. The Journal of Public Affairs 7(1), 1-14.

Shea, D.M., & Green, J.C. (2007).  The turned-off generation: Fact and fiction.  In D.M. Shea and J.C. Green (Eds.), Fountain of youth: Strategies and tactics for mobilizing America’s young voters (pp. 1-18).  Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.


[1] Thanks to Ben for raising this point, as well as challenging it.

[2] Colby (2008), who is also worried that the increase in civic engagement does not lead to political learning, but still thrives to accept wider forms of participation, sees as a key criterion of distinction that “political activities are driven by systemic-level goals, a desire to affect the shared values, practices, and policies that shape collective life” (p. 4).

Explain yourself: Bridigng Discourse and its applications to Participatory-Civic Engagement Groups

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

When individuals engage in behavior that might be considered inauthentic by other group members, they, or other members, often engage in bridging discourse to explain why the behavior is congruent with the idea of being period; in doing so, they demonstrate that their behavior is linked to the same ideology to which other group members link their behavior. When group members engage in behavior that others see as incongruent with the group’s ideology, they risk portraying themselves as deviant and indicating that they believe the ideology of the group is unimportant. Other group members may feel that such actions reflect poorly on the group as a whole, and this may change the collective identity of the group. When individuals engage in bridging discourse, they protect themselves, or others, from stigma but also maintain the collective identity of the group. Members accomplish this by reinterpreting the group’s ideology, redefining their behavior, or offering explanations as to why they should be excused from meeting the group’s standards.

Decker (2010)

Stephanie Decker’s recent article in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography argues for the idea of bridging discourse, that is, discourse that individual members of a group may employ in order to explain inconsistencies of action with the overall group identity, in an attempt to maintain cohesion. While the ethnographic research that serves as the basis of the paper is focused on participants in the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism), this model of intragroup discourse may prove useful for the group, especially in discussing groups that have a upper management which may be attempting to change the group’s focus/direction.

Decker’s piece as well as the work she draws on is primarily based on Goffman’s frame analysis work. Decker’s work builds from Snow et. al (1986) work on frame bridging. While frame bridging refers to the connections between two or more different, but compatible organizations with each other or an organization with an individual who has a different, but compatible frame, bridging discourse deals with intragroup discussion between individual members or between a member and the group in whole. Decker also cites research on frame alignment by Oliver and Johnson (2000), which focused on recruiting practices in social movement groups. Here Decker is trying to expand the types of groups this sort of research can focus on, but it is worth noting that, given the research group’s focus on social groups that are also, in various ways, social movement groups, that this line of work bears further inquiry.

Briefly, bridging discourse is described by Becker as a set of strategies employed by group members to help ease incongruities between their actions and the group’s overall identity in order to smooth over those differences and maintain group cohesion. In her work with the SCA, she describes several instances of members employing bridging discourse to explain their actions. In particular, the main use of bridging discourse in the SCA was explaining why someone was not in period dress. Sneakers and rubber soled boots in particular served as a focus for group dissonance since one of the group’s overall tenet is to maintain the illusion of period (medieval and early renaissance) garb. Examples of bridging discourse used was claiming to be a new member and therefore ignorant of group policy, apologizing profusely and claiming a time/logistical snafu prevented the proper garb from being worn, or (in cases where members are in period, but culturally clashing garb) by incorporating the seeming inconsistency into an elaborate backstory for the persona one was portraying in SCA events. Members who are reacting to this discourse may make exceptions to the behavior, especially if the deviant member in question is considered a valued member of the group, in order to maintain group identity.

Of course, this bridging discourse has certain limits. Members can choose not to employing bridging discourse and accept a reputation as a deviant within the group. Secondly in particular, if enough members behave consistently outside of the group’s frame, it may shift the frame of the group so that members are no longer deviating from the group. Decker notes that “[group members] explained that, while they did not want to include members who did not make an attempt to be historically authentic, they found it important for the sake of the group to accommodate members with various interpretations of the ideology… while such members often noted that this flexibility alters the concept of authenticity and lowers the groups standards for historically accurate behavior… this flexibility ultimately made it possible for the group to survive,” (292).

Bridging discourse, then, might be something worth noting in our conversations and other research on the group we are looking at. Especially considering groups such as Racebending and the HPA, which have or are planning to change the scope of the group’s identity from a top down angle, it may be useful to see how individual members react to this shift and whether bridging discourse is utilized to either enforce the old group identity or the new one. In a group such as IC, it may be useful to see if bridging discourse is utilized among members when talking about events or the group identity in itself.

Reference

Decker, S. (2010). Being Period: An Examination of Bridging Discourse in a Historical Reenactment Group. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 39(3) 273-296.