Media materiality theorists cast social movement theories in a new light


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This paper presented at the 2012 European Association of Antropologigists conference in Nanterre, France considers the role that media have played in shaping the structure and
outcomes of revolutions and revolutionary events. Inspired by the debate about the
role of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook in recent protests and revolutions in northern Africa and the Middle East, this paper turns to existing literature on social movements by sociologists, in which communication tools go
largely unnoticed, and puts it in dialogue with the work of media theorists. Setting
these theoretical bodies next to one another enables a different kind of discussion to
emerge; a discussion which offers a new lens through which to see social
movements in the digital age. Theories of media materiality help augment existing
social movement theories by making the experience, image and outcome of a social
movement dependent (to an extent) on the communication technologies used to
make it happen. Findings suggest that geography becomes just another aspect of the story told about or experience of a social movement today as our worldviews
increasingly adopt characteristics of the technologies we use to communicate.

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  • In 2009 and 2010, many observers were trying to make sense of the role new media tools like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, etc. were having on revolutionary events in the Middle East and Northern Africa. These discussions provide the starting point for the paper I present today. I will turn to examples from recent revolutionary events in Egypt, Iran, Tunisia and Libya to augment the theories I will present to you in the next few minutes.
  • In the US, a fierce debate has ensued which still seems to be blazing on, though it seems more sensible types of debate are rising to the surface and could soon drown out these more polarizing conversations. Shirky and Morozovposess two of the most distinct and polarizing points of view in this debate. It seems many are starting to see that the above isthe wrong question to ask. Instead we need to ask what role social media play. Our focus needs to be on understanding the artifacts, people and contexts involved and how they come together into an ecology or a particular configuration of use.
  • In this paper, I aim to start a discussion about how this might be accomplished. In doing research on this topic, I started to realize that two bodies of theory were relevant. Interestingly, these bodies seem not to be in dialogue with one another. In fact, it was very hard for me to find anyone, historically, who studied revolutions from a sociological point of view who acknowledged the importance of communication in achieving certain outcomes.The question posed here is meant to begin a discussion that helps us to start seeing the complexity of the intertwined social and technological strands that have given rise to these new political protests. Some more concrete answers will be provided in the conclusion.
  • These communication scholars wrote in 1994 about the 1978-79 Iranian elections and noted that revolutions have rarely been thought of in terms of communications. Most often they are thought of in models based on class, deprivation, conflict, social psychological phenomena, or structural processes. They note that when communicative elements are recognized, it has been as “epiphenomena, the detritus of the political process rather than central to it.” Yet, they claim, it is communications which is able to link the social, psychological and the structural in novel, conjectural ways.
  • In surveying well-cited literature on revolutions from a sociological point of view, I formulated a list of 6 factors which are largely responsible for the emergence of revolutionary events especially when they occur simultaneously in a given location/situation. The first of which is Modernization. According to Jeff Goodwin (2001), the twentieth century, as much as any before it, should be judged as an age of revolutions. Most of the revolutions of the past century or so have been rooted in the Third World, specifically in Latin America, Asia and Africabecause these are transitional societies undergoing very rapid (and uneven) modernization; “revolutions themselves, moreover, serve to push forward the modernization process” (Goodwin, 2001, p. 17). Some reasons for this include the fact that some parts of society are progressing at different rates than others and that modernization destroys the integrative institutions that held traditional societies together. (Goodwin 2001)
  • Mass frustration manifests in popular uprisings among urban or rural populations. A large proportion of a society’s population becomes extremely discontented, which leads to mass-participation protests and rebellions against state authority. (Foran, 2005; 2006; Goldfrank, 1994; Goldstone, 1991; 1994; 2001a; Greene, 1990)Revolutions that develop because of mass frustrations often occur when a gap between people’s expectations (regarding the lifestyle they feel they should be able to achieve) and their ability to satisfy those expectations develops. This can happen when living conditions suddenly get worse or when expectations suddenly get higher. Expectations are a function of people’s beliefs about what is possible and what is “right” (DeFronzo, 2011, p. 16). It should be noted, especially in terms of recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia where there is an abundance of educated young people who cannot find work, media have helped inform people about how foreigners live. Communication with outsiders can influence what people consider to be morally acceptable. (DeFronzo, 2011)Media, in this sense, help raise expectations of living standards in many cases and generate the frustration necessary for a social movement to gain momentum.
  • In this situation, divisions among elites, or the groups that have access to wealth or power, of various types or are highly educated and possess important technical or managerial skills) pit some elite members against the existing government. (Foran, 2005; 2006; Goldfrank, 1994; Goldstone, 1991; 1994; 2001a; Greene, 1990)Social theorists suggest that elite conflict can develop when technological and economic changes result in one type of economic activity replacing another as the major source of wealth within a society. Marx and Engles ([1848] 1972; Engles, [1880] 1972) proposed that the manufacture and sale of industrial products replacing farming and the sale of agricultural products could produce such a division among elites. The elites involved in the newly dominant economic activity struggle for and eventually win control of the political system from the elites that were in control of the previously dominant economic activity.As new technologies are employed to educate and create economic prosperity in modernizing countries, a new population of educated and politically conscious elites tends to develop as well. These individuals often demand participation in the government. When traditional elites cling to power and reject democratization, the newly educated elites often favor revolution.Elites usually play a role in formulating an ideology for the revolutionary movement. They provide an indictment and criticism of the existing power structure, a set of justification and a long-range plan and strategy of action. Children from well to do families, who feel a moral alienation from their society’s economic and political systems oftenparticipate in leading revolutionary movements. If these students live in an era when their frustrations coincide with the aroused discontent of the poor, they may achieve widespread support and the potential for victory. Examples such leaders include, V.I. Lenin in the Russian revolution, Mao Zedong, in the Chinese revolution, and Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution. Dissident elite political movements applies to events occurring in the Middle East and northern Africa today. As many journalists have noted, protests have been largely organized by tech savvy young people. They meet in cafes and are seen in photos in outlets like The New York Times smoking cigarettes, wearing trendy clothes, gathered close together around a table staring at a computer monitor. These individuals seem to fit this description of the children of well-to-do elites and future elites who are masters of the new technoscape.
  • The tendency for powerful motivations for revolutions to cut across major social classes. In this way these motivations act to unify the majority of the population behind the goal of revolution.In his review of a number of revolutionary movements throughout history, Green (1990) observed that it is extremely rare for a revolution to succeed without the backing of substantial numbers of people from most major social classes in history. In Egypt and the Middle East and Northern Africa today, though the revolutions have largely been organized and acted out by young people, they have also garnered the support of older people as well. This has been done through highlighting the incompetencies of autocratic leaders like Hosni Mubarak, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and MahmoudAhmadinejad among many others.
  • This factor describes a political crisis that occurs which paralyzes the state’s administrative and coercive capabilities. This kind of crisis may come about through a catastrophic defeat in war, a natural disaster, an economic depression, or the withdrawal of critical economic or military support from other nations. Any combination of these factors, may deplete the state of loyal personnel, legitimacy in the eyes of the public, and other resources. Ultimately, the state becomes incapable of carrying out its normal functions. (Foran, 2005; 2006; Goldfrank, 1994; Goldstone, 2001a)In the case of the 2009 Iranian protests, president Ahmadinejad was able to maintain control over the police and media and successfully quashed the unrest and protest through autocratic moves like making the telecommunications infrastructure inaccessible. In other revolutionary events, like in Libya in 2010, though Muammar el-Qaddafi wascaptured, at one time it was still not clear whether the police and military supporting the rebel fighters there or the old regime.
  • this, DeFronzo refers to whether or not governments of other countries intervene to endorse or prevent the revolutionary movement from developing and succeeding in a particular nation. (Foran, 2005; 2006; Goldfrank, 1994; Goldstone, 2001a)In the case of Libya, for example, the militaries from France and the United States, among others, have helped the rebel fighters there to capture leader Muammar el-Qaddafi and defeat the military in the hopes that a more democratic and pro-western government might replace the previous autocratic dictatorship. IN SUM:Existing theories of revolutions do help explain events going on in today’s revolutionary movements. Revolutions going on now are largely a result of mass frustrations, a new tech savvy elite is emerging who is motivated to protest and fight against the dictators who lead/or have led their nations’ governments. Because there are so many young people in these countries, though, it seems their influence is likely enough to put pressure on their leaders without appealing necessarily to older people. They seem to have garnered the support of the poor and especially the un-/under-employed. State control still remains a factor in whether or not the revolution has been or will be successful. In Egypt, the government finally stepped down when it was unclear who the military was supporting. In Iran, however, the regime maintained control of the military and the communications network and thus denied the success of the revolution. In Egypt, Iran and Libya, it is clear that the permissive world context has also come into play. In Egypt, U.S. perceptions of who should govern were announced and Mubarak was reportedly told, by U.S. officials to step down. In Iran, the U.S. government asked Twitter’s founder to keep the website up during a routine scheduled maintenance so that protesters could speak out against Ahmadinejad. In Libya foreign militaries are fighting on the sides of rebels. In all, the five factors outlined by DeFronzo mostly describe events occurring today as Middle Eastern and northern African countries are in a current state of political and social instability. These revolutions appear to be the result of a number of geographically proximate societies moving toward modernization, liberalization and democratization all at once.
  • Media materiality is “the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies” (Hayles 2004: 67) Futhermore, materiality should be understood as “existing in complex dynamic interplay with content, coming into focus or fading into the background, depending on what performances the work enacts” (71).This definition gives agency to non-human objects in the transference of meaning as humans interact with one another across space and time. This is a helpful definition for the present inquiry as it is our aim here to better conceptualize the ways in which revolutionary events are shaped and experienced by people using communication technologies to interact across time and space in an effort to organize and execute the collective negotiation of power within a particular nation state. Katherine Hayles is one of a number of scholars in the fields of Science and Technology Studies who have made an effort over the past two and a half decades to redirect analyses of material objects in the social world toward a grounding of ‘the social’ in ‘the material. (Simon & Barker, 2002) This focus on the importance of material culture in producing sociality has helped to deflect the idea of material objects being only reflections of the social systems in which they’re produced (Latour, 1994). Bruno Latour is a major contributor to the work done in this stream of thought. His work on Actor Network Theory and thing-politics (Dingpolitik) suggests that politics, economics, and discourse are not easily cast into a category of analysis separate from material called ‘social.’ In fact, he says, any of our actions as social creatures inherently involve negotiations of material (non-human) objects (nature). (Latour, 1999) Similarly, Mark Deuze (2012) argues that as humans we are indistinguishable from communication technologies and the media content that flows through them today. Our lives, he says, are lived in media not with it. There is no such thing, for him as “unplugging.” These theorists point to the importance that communication technology (a non-human object) plays in our experience of the social world. Another example of this kind of analysis is provided by media theorist, Brian Larkin. Larkin (2008), who studies the impact and experience of early cinema in Nigeria, shows that communication technologies, and what he calls infrastructures, offer scholars an object of study which illuminates otherwise hidden cultural and social phenomena. Larkin defines infrastructure as the “totality of both technical and cultural systems that create institutionalized structures whereby goods of all sorts circulate, connecting and binding people into collectivities” (2008, p. 5). He says, “media technologies are more than transmitters of content, they represent cultural ambitions, political machineries, modes of leisure, relations between technology and the body, and in certain ways, the economy and spirit of an age” (Larkin, 2008, p. 2). We think we know what a radio is, or what a cinema is used for, but these phenomena, which we take for granted, Larkin says, have often surprising histories. “What media are needs to be interrogated and not presumed. The meanings attached to technologies, their technical functions, and the social uses to which they are put are not an inevitable consequence by something worked out over time in the context of considerable cultural debate” (Larkin, 2008, p. 3). In short, Larkin suggests that a technology can shape one’s subjectivity and examining how a technology works is a powerful way of finding out what it is to live as a particular kind of subject.
  • Media theorist Friedrich Kittler (1999) offers an additional element to the notion that materiality matters. He suggests that each medium has a specific set of characteristics which uniquely shapes our experiences of space and time and human interaction. (1999) One must only imagine the difference in receiving a hand-written thank you card and a thank you email. Though it may not be easy to articulate, there is a qualitative difference in receiving one instead of the other. Following Kittler, we might determine that it is possible for revolutions and experiences of them to change based solely on the material capabilities and qualities of the communication technologies used in reporting the events and mobilizing support for dissidents and governments. Media theorist Henry Jenkins feels that each player, or actor if we think in terms of Actor Network Theory, is an organism with agency existing and impacting others who exist in relation to it. In his book, Convergence Culture, he suggests that individuals now have new powers to impact politics, economics, culture through the co-opting and mastering of today’s media tools. He sees current media technologies as fundamentally different from those of the past in that they make a more participatory and democratic social ecology possible. That is to say, elites are no longer creating and dispersing all mass mediated content. New technologies, according to Jenkins, now make it easier for individuals with certain skills to disseminate content, create public identities and organize across time and space.
  • As justoutlined, a growing group of scholars have found it useful to side-step the debate about whether our experience as subjects today is primarily shaped by technology or is first social and then embedded into technological forms. Instead, this group of scholars asks, “What is at stake in this discussion?” They tie these objects together into networks and ecologies where they are dependent on each other and possess greater or lesser amounts of power. Deuze argues that living out desires and experiencing human interaction (life) through communication technologies is an inherent quality of the human condition. Kittler adds to this suggesting that various media forms act to shape interpersonal communication through them differently. Jenkins suggests that we should see this is an empowering notion today, especially for skilled individuals, who wish to mobilize collectives to act against autocratic industrial and political powers. As we noted in the previous section, tech savvy political revolutionaries today, have made efforts in this direction in Iran, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Scholars of Middle Eastern politics, Eickelman and Anderson, capture the potential new media have to play in political negotiations by saying, “new media undermine the theatre of the state,…with the theatre of the street.”
  • At the beginning of my talk I posed the question, “What analytical advantages do we get from setting existing sociological theories of social movements in dialogue with theories of media materiality?” When we look at social movements as socio-technical configurations, or ecologies consisting of of artifacts, actors and contexts we start to be able to see the motivations of actors including protesters and governments, we see how the media system works and we realize that how the system works, is a diplomatic tool in and of itself.We can now say that communication technologies have agency when embedded in socio-technical ecologies. They, like the motivated people involved, shape events. They encourage a particular configuration of social interaction. They put autocratic institutions in direct confrontation with unsatisfied masses of individuals in ways old technologies could not. New technologies that governments put in place in order to modernize and compete with other countries have encouraged a new group of tech savvy elites to develop. These people are masters of new technologies, connect to people outside their local environments and learn about living standards in other places around the region. Through new media technologies like Facebook and Twitter, they see the protests going on in neighboring countries and utilize structures already in place with tactics they already know to mobilize their peers in acting out against an unpopular dictator. Also through social media tools, they are able to tell their version of the events unfolding on the ground. In previous socio-technical climates, these stories were censored and silenced by government-controlled mass media. The difference between media tools used in protests today and previous ones is in the material qualities of the technology and the social arrangements already configured around them in particular socio-cultural situations.In authoritarian, oil-rich countries, dictatorships are feeling pressure to modernize and democratize. They have implemented new technologies (like the Internet) so that their countries can keep up with their competitors. This effort has created a new body of educated and internationally connected young people who now can see better than any generation before them how people across the globe live. Because of this they have grown dissatisfied with their living standards and abilities to get jobs. The modernization efforts enacted by governments have been the same tools which may soon elicit their demise.Finally, in concrete terms, I offer two examples of how these material qualities and the social configurations in which they are embedded matter. First, they make it possible for people to participate in protests from afar and contribute valuable emotional capital to the revolutionaries. Second, they enable information from those who previously did not have a voice on a global scale, an avenue to spread information to the mass media. These, of course, are not enough to ensure victory for the revolutionaries, but they are advantages they did not previously have.
  • Media materiality theorists cast social movement theories in a new light

    1. 1. Media materiality theorists cast social movement theories in a new light
    2. 2. Egypt Iran LibyaTunisia
    3. 3. Debate: Do social media play a role in recent protests in the Middle East and/or northern Africa?Yes No
    4. 4. Connecting Two Bodies of Theory• What analytical advantages do we get from setting existing sociological theories of social movements in dialogue with theories ofmedia materiality? +
    5. 5. An example in which the two bodies are considered together.“All revolutions write their own scripts, and their media are part of the process. In such contexts, communication and politics are not separate acts, for the altering of public affect, the mobilization of opinion, and the promotion of further participation are part of the revolutionary process” –Sreberny-Mohammadi and Mohammadi, 1994: xxi
    6. 6. Sociology of Revolutions Theory• Revolutions are: “Rapid, basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures; and they are accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below… What is unique to social revolution is that basic changes in social structure and in political structure occur together in a mutually reinforcing fashion. And these changes occur through intense sociopolitical conflicts in which class struggles play a key role” (Skocpol 1979, Cited in Foran, 2005, p. 7).
    7. 7. Modernization
    8. 8. Mass frustration
    9. 9. Dissident elite political movements
    10. 10. Unifying motivations
    11. 11. Severe state political crises
    12. 12. A permissive world context
    13. 13. Media Materiality Theory
    14. 14. This is different from this
    15. 15. Artifacts & Ecologies
    16. 16. Conclusions:
    17. 17. Thank you! Scan for a link to my