Relationality, Social Media, Dissent and Protest

The abstract for a presentation I’m doing at the BSA Media Study Group in Leicester next Wednesday:

In this presentation I draw on critical realist theory, particularly the work of Margaret Archer and Christian Smith, to offer a tentative framework through which to study the impact of social media upon social practices of protest and dissent. I argue for the need to distinguish between the structural, cultural and personal dimensions to social life: between social institutions, communicable ideas, social networks and the individual actors within them. Through doing so I suggest it is possible to gain greater analytical purchase upon the role social media has played in the genesis, sustainability and general character of a variety of recent political movements, thus unpacking a number of distinct causal processes which can otherwise be conflated. I develop my argument through a number of case studies: ethnographic observations from my experience of jointly co-ordinating the blog & e-mail for a university occupation in 2010, as well as the wider student movement and the rapid international growth of slut walks.

The study group meeting is exploring the role that social media is playing in contemporary protest. There are a number of distinct themes I want to explore:

  • How a theory of social domains (i.e. grounding explanatory programmes in terms of the distinct spheres of the social world, their distinct characteristics and the causal interfaces between them) can provide an overarching framework within which the implications of social media can be fruitfully analysed.
  • The particular consequences that social media holds for the ecology of communicable ideas in late capitalist society.
  • The increasing differentiation of the structural and socio-cultural domains: between social institutions and networks of individual actors. Not entirely a product of social media but existing tendency is being radically intensified by the widespread uptake of social media.
  • The consequences of the emerging ecology of communicable ideas for the cultural environment each individual confronts, the dynamics of commonality & difference within the social world and their orientations towards collective agency.
  • The  role that social media played in the genesis, sustainability and general character of the student protest movement of the last year in the UK. Got fascinated by this when taking part in the Warwick Occupation where I was doing lots of the social media stuff. The pre-existing WordPress blog and soon created facebook group allowed a breadth and depth of communication which would formerly have been impossible in that situation.
Right now I’m going to go read about mimetics and social movements for a few days. Will try to write the presentation at the end of the week.