Review (Guest): Digitally Enabled Social Change – Activism in the Internet Age

5 Star, Change & Innovation, Civil Society, Information Society, Information Technology
Amazon Page
Amazon Page

Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport

5.0 out of 5.0 Stars Paradigm-challenging

By Bruce B on September 19, 2011

Earl & Kimport take on what I like to think of as the silent debate between scholars of digital media and collective action on the one hand, and many traditional experts on social movements, protest, interest groups, and political mobilization on the other. The traditional view encompasses the concession that collective action can happen quickly now because of digital media; but that view has been, frankly, rather skeptical that anything important is happening. Or at least that digital media are really central to those visibly important developments that do occur in the present era.

Earl & Kimport throw down a serious challenge, by arguing that there is more going on than decreased costs and speed in the world of protest and social movements: resource accumulation is not a pre-requisite, organization-building is not necessary, co-presence is not necessary, and neither is a strongly shared collective identity. They are interested in what this means theoretically.

A key part of their argument is that digital media make costs a variable, whereas costs were previously understood as a fixed requirement of social movements. When costs are variable, then so are things that depend on costs, such as organization.

This is a solid idea and they are almost certainly right. I would like to see this argument fleshed out further, however. They make the case that digital media may in some cases not change the underlying dynamics of collective action but simply magnify or accelerate some aspects of it, which they call the “supersize” effect. In other cases, use of digital media transforms collective action into what they call the world of “theory 2.0.” Their argument for what regulates these two pathways is how effectively people exploit two key affordance of digital media: sharply reduced costs, and freedom from requirements for co-presence in time and space. This may under-specify the problem.

Their argument amounts to the case that these developments break the reigning social movement paradigm, they don’t just stretch it. This paradigm-challenging character of digitally enable social change explains why, in my view, the academic debate has been often silent. For the most part, it is new generations of scholars who are fascinated by digital media and who are pointing to ways that it challenges old theory. Advocates of old theory often avoid joining the debate, in favoring of doing pretty much what Thomas Kuhn describes as happening when anomalies arise in existing paradigms, namely looking the other way. This book should be read and assigned not only by scholars of digital media, but those who teach classic social movement theory.

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