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Researching Social Movements

Researching Social Movements in Online Environments

Over the past two decades the use of networked digital technology has become part and parcel of social movement organizing for many, perhaps most, movements. Especially in the last five years, with the rise of mobile networked devices, the presence of these technologies in the very organizational structures of social movements has become essential to an analysis of political mobilization and social change. But how can we analyse the impact of these technologies? How can the use of digital technology be understood as part of a broader organizational process that takes place simultaneously online and offline, here and everywhere?

Where can the researcher position herself to be able to follow people, things, ideas, actions from the streets, homes, bars, meeting rooms to the tweets, Facebook posts, Titanpads, blogs, forums and visuals that are circulated across vast distances? How can researchers contextualize information in/from the virtual sphere? How can we understand the ways social movement actors contextualize and give meaning this information? Given that streets and bytes don’t map onto each other perfectly, and have very different spatial logics, how can we keep track of both at once?

Observing the digital traces left by social movements in online environments can yield rich insights for researchers. Yet, this research process can also create risks and pose challenges both for researchers and social movement participants around these interconnected themes:

• Establishing trust and credibility

• Drawing the boundaries between private and public

• Identity, anonymity and visibility

• The relationship between ‘online’ and ‘offline’

• Researchers, their “subjects” and the challenge of consent

Upcoming events: Please email Dr Anne Alexander (raa43 @ cam.ac.uk) for notification of future workshops on Researching Social Movements in Online Environments

Selected reading list – Researching Social Movements in Online Environments (with thanks to Marianne Maeckelbergh)

Public Sphere:

Boyd, D. 2011. “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications” in Papacharissi, Z. (ed.) A Networked Self: Identity, Community and Culture on Social Network Sites. Oxon &
New York: Routledge.

Kelty, C. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Papacharissi, Z. 2002. “The Virtual Sphere: The Internet as a Public Sphere” New Media & Society 4(1):
9-27.


Structuring Factors:
Deibert, R. 1997. Parchment, printing, and hypermedia : communication in world order transformation, New York, Columbia University Press.

Lessig, L. 1999. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. New York: Basic Books and Code v2 (2005), available online here
Longford, G. 2005. “Pedagogies of Digital Citizenship and the Politics of Code” Techné 9(1): 68-96.


Anthropology of:
Miller, D. and H. Horst (eds). 2012. Digital Anthropology. Oxford: Berg.

Postill, J. 2008a. “Localizing the Internet Beyond Communities and Networks” New Media & Society
10(3): 413-431.


Research ethics in mediated settings
Beaulieu, A. & Estalella, A., 2012. RETHINKING RESEARCH ETHICS FOR MEDIATED SETTINGS. Information, Communication & Society, 15(1), pp.23–42.


Lindlof, T.R. & Shatzer, M.J., 1998. Media ethnography in virtual space: Strategies, limits, and possibilities. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 42(2), pp.170–189.

Neuhaus, F. & Webmoor, T., 2012. Agile Ethics for Massified Research and Visualization. Information,
Communication & Society, 15(1), pp.43–65.


Some recent reflections by social movement/ NGO activists on their use of media

El-Hamalawy, H, 2013, ‘Communication technology and revolutionary organization in the 21st century’, www.3arabawy.org, 20 October 2013

El-Hamalawy, H, 2012, ‘What is to be done: the Website as an Organizer’, www.3arabawy.org, 6 September 2012,

Kennedy, G, 2013, ‘Organizing a revolution: the Tahrir Doctors’ experience of using social media’, www.smke.org, 16 October 2013

McPherson, E, 2013, ‘AVAAZ: A proprietary social media platform as an ‘awareness system’, rather than as a source of evidence’, www.smke.org, 7 June 2013

We are a network of researchers at the University of Cambridge who are interested in how the use of digital tools is transforming scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. This transformation spans both the content and practice of humanities research, as the diffusion of digital technologies opens up new fields of study and generates research questions which breach traditional disciplinary boundaries.

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