Snail’s Pace; Feelers Out

26Sep08

Weeks 3-6: I’ve come so far, and have so far to go.

It has been a long time since I have been in a position to learn and study this intensely, and it is very enjoyable. I wrote the following screeds over a period of 3 weeks (Weeks 4, 5 & 6 of my PhD) as I was reading relevant books and articles. I feel like I have barely touched the surface, however I also feel like I already have a much better understanding of the full picture of my topic than I did at the start of this process.

Disclaimer: Writing is the way I think, my brain never holds anything for long (as my mum would say, my mind’s a sieve), so writing is really the best tool I have for hashing out and playing with ideas. Accordingly, a bunch of this might seem naïve or even ignorant. Feel free to point this out to me. It’s not meant to be academic writing at this stage. It’s also a bit TL:DR (Too Long: Didn’t Read) for a blog but that’s okay as well. I have tried to cut it down as much as possible while still keeping it useful for myself to look at and build on later.

In any case, ideas and feedback are very welcome.

Possible gaps in social movement research and leads to follow

Over the last couple of weeks I have been reading books and articles on social movement theory as well as brushing up on recent Australian feminist history. I have already read several and this week’s selection could have been more cohesive or representative, but nonetheless I would like to begin some analysis into what social movement theorists see as missing from the current social movement theory in order to start to think about ways that my research might help to explore these gaps in information.

Researchers have often focused on visible movement actions such as protests rather than exploring “the way that activists make meaning and produce culture” (Melucci 1989). Melucci sees movements as “fluid networks that can erupt into collective action from time to time” (Staggenborg 2008) and emphasises the importance of those activist relationships that are “vital but hidden”, called “submerged networks” (Maddison and Scalmer 2006). Thus Melucci has been a highly influential proponent of looking at the cultural as well as the structural and organisational aspects of social movements.

Feminist researchers Leila Rupp and Verta Taylor have been pioneers in the development of this idea – they explore the concept of “abeyance structures” (1987). Maddison and Scalmer (2005) explain that these two concepts both point towards the possibility that the downtime for social movement action can be crucial to later success, however they ask what makes people participate in these “abeyance structures” or “submerged networks”? Maddison and Scalmer (2005) ask why it is that:

It is here that most scholars fall silent. Little interest has been shown in how activists understand the time they spend ‘between the waves’. If their actions are now acknowledged as vital, their motives remain frustratingly opaque. Why do they struggle on?

Staggenborg (2008) also identifies a need for social movement research to go beyond the publically visible face of social movements and their interaction with the state:

To explain the maintenance and development of a movement such as the women’s movement, we need to look for social movement activity in a variety of venues rather than only in publicly visible protests targeted at states. And, although it is convenient to talk about ‘waves’ of the women’s movement and ‘cycles of protest’ generally, we need to recognize that many social movements continue even when periods of heightened protest subside and the activities of particular movements become less visible.

Theorists have often promoted an “immaculate conception” idea of social movements – the abeyance model (Taylor 1989) is an alternative view. That is either because scholars are more interested in active movements rather than those in decline/equilibrium, or because movements have been traditionally viewed as “numerically large and mass-based”, therefore excluding abeyance organizations which are small and exclusive.

Verta Taylor (1989), in her analysis of movements in abeyance, tends to see organisations as the most important structures. Paul Bagguley (2002) takes the concept of abeyance and applies it to the women’s movement in the UK. He argues that it is a limitation of abeyance that it has such a narrow focus on formal social movement organisations. He argues that the concept excludes from consideration movements which have not necessarily set up extensive formal structures, and that may depend on “more informal network-like forms of association”.

Bagguley (2002) says that Taylor’s work brings up other questions as well for social movement theorists:

Does Taylor’s analysis give sufficient attention to social movement success? To what extent are counter-movements significant? What impact does political and cultural incorporation have on social movement’s abeyance? In what ways do changes in the wider political opportunity structure affect feminism?

Bagguley makes the distinction that insurgent or active movements have an outward critical orientation, whereas movements in abeyance tend to have an inward-looking, identity based culture. Activities may be limited to things like “lobbying, negotiation, service provision or support for individuals”. Movements in abeyance exist in the context of a hostile political environment – they may find it difficult to attract new recruits especially from the younger generation whose political priorities may have shifted. Because of the lack of receptiveness in the broader culture, participants may be relatively passive. Women’s studies within universities has been accused of becoming professionalised, cut off from practical political activism outside the academy. However Bagguley (2002) considers that Women’s Studies could be considered an abeyance structure, “supporting feminism during a period of reduced mobilization through sustaining feminist ideas and networks”.

Counter-movements may have formed in opposition to their goals and Bagguley (2002) argues that the effects of such counter-movements require further research.

Ann Mische’s paper for the conference on Social Movement Analysis: The Network Perspective proposes that it is now widely understood in social movement theory that both networks and culture are significant for the outcomes and activity of movements, however she argues that the connection between these two is underdeveloped in social movement theory (Mische 2000). Maddison and Scalmer (2006) discuss the making of counterpublics – blogs are the making of a counterpublic in action. I think that the concept of counterpublics (and related ideas) will be a particularly important one for my thesis.

My current thinking is that I will be concentrating on the micro-level of social movement theory – the concepts that really interest me are political motivation, identity formation through activist communities, and individual agency. I am also interested in the process by which people choose to join activist communities, particularly young people. It is a question that was also asked by Chilla Bulbeck in Living Feminism: “How did ‘ordinary’ women find out about feminism?”, and I think on the personal level my thesis will have some goals in common with Bulbeck’s (1997) goals, except that it will also have theoretical implications for social movement research as well as helping us to understand personal relationships to feminism in Australia (if this is indeed where I eventually decide to concentrate my enquiry).

Feminism: issues for my research

Young women are often criticised for not being active, and yet it is also frequently argued that feminism originally sprang from structural circumstance rather than a spontaneous radicalisation of women – i.e. people made the movement happen, but they were encouraged to act only at the point when they were radicalised by their circumstances. Women were being granted more opportunities for education and work in early life, and the high level of education combined with the experience of independence to make women agitate for change. The conditions were such that the system was able to shift to make these changes, and in fact the changes may have occurred to some extent regardless of the push the women’s movement gave it (Kaplan 1996). The real success of feminism was to change people’s belief systems, make people aware of sexism and to make sexist attitudes less acceptable. As a result, young women have been raised to believe that they can do anything.

These days, young women are going to school in an atmosphere of far greater equality of opportunity. They are staying in school in greater numbers, are doing well and going on to university in closer-to-equal numbers with men. It may be that many young women don’t feel they are being discriminated against or treated differently. They may feel that they have as many opportunities as men. However, it is clear to many others that feminism has NOT achieved equality for women. If opportunities have improved for women, outcomes have not (Caro and Fox 2008).

But is it possible that young women, since they are not meeting barriers earlier in life (at the stages of education and jobhunting), are only confronting contradictions between formal equality and their actual lives at the stage of childbearing? Since women are having children later, this changes the point at which young women may potentially be radicalised. As Deborah Siegel (2007) points out in Sisterhood Interrupted, the environment young women are living in is “no less complex than the one Boomer women faced. The difference, and the problem, is that they often lack an awareness that many of their conflicts are shared”. But not only this, they may only come to a realisation that there are structural impediments to their success at a later stage in life, when having children and trying to raise them in a mess of contradictions and conflicting expectations. As Caro and Fox (2008) say in the Australian context,

Our concern is that younger women than us are also being effectively gagged by the overwhelming sense they are at fault for any difficulties they encounter as they pursue a career, a role in public life, or simply raise issues that are specific to them.

Now, a question which I would like to answer in my thesis is this: Taylor (1989) conceives of abeyance as something which enables social movements to survive in hostile environments. I need to discuss why Australia’s relationship to feminism constitutes a hostile environment. I don’t think this will be particularly difficult to do, but because feminism still has its place in mainstream popular culture, it does appear in some ways to be “out there”. I have to gain a stronger understanding, first of all, of what Taylor means by hostility, and where this concept is located in social movement theory.

In Living Feminism, Chilla Bulbeck (1997) attempts to explain what has happened to Australian feminism in hostile social environments:

When the women’s movement has resonated with structural changes and been supported by other political currents, women have made gains in status; these seem to stall when the claims of the women’s movement cannot intersect productively with structural shifts or when confronting hostile ideologies, such as economic rationalism at the present time.

Also, I am studying Australian social movements and feminism, but internet communities tend not to be contained within national borders. This has several implications for my thesis and research. Firstly it makes it difficult to focus exclusively on Australian sites/blogs without excluding a significant portion of Australian feminists active on international internet communities and secondly it has implications for the way that Australian feminists’ relationship to policymaking processes and political culture will continue to develop. i.e. they will be influenced by and will influence overseas political culture but may not necessarily have a great deal of impact on local/national political culture and policies.

In conclusion, for the next little while as I look into Australian feminism, as well as reading generally, I plan to look for research and studies that have been done into the current political climate for feminists, the receptiveness of mainstream Australian culture to feminist ideas, as well as how the concept of “status vacancies” (Taylor 1989) might relate to the contemporary Australian political elite.

The next step, however, is to begin to look at the literature on internet research to see what direction the current research on internet communities is going in, particularly as it relates to political participation, social movements, and youth culture.

Internet communities and current research

I have been looking at several anthologies of online research along with some journal articles as the beginning of a survey of the current academic research into online communities. The books I have read include Globalization From Below: Transnational Activists and Protest Networks (Della Porta et al. 2006), Critical cyberculture studies (edited by David Silver and Adrienne Massanari), Digital Generations: Children, Young People, and New Media (edited by David Buckingham and Rebekah Willett), and Girls Make Media by Mary Celeste Kearney.

I have also started to build a link library although I’m just getting the URLs down in list form at this stage. Later I would like to have a small bio or blurb for each one so it can actually be useful as a directory. Also since I am just poaching them indiscriminately from blogrolls and so on I think many of them are either not feminist blogs per se or are overseas. I don’t necessarily think this makes them irrelevant as it is difficult if not impossible to keep an online community within the borders of one country and many of the blogs cover mainstream progressive politics as well as feminist issues.

Some theorists seem concerned about online communities because they might “generat[e] alienation by eliminating face-to-face contact” (della Porta et al 2006 in their study of “internetworking” in the anti-globalisation movement). However, I would argue like many others that this concern is overwrought. Other theorists have emphasised the revolutionary nature of the internet and its transformative properties (Rheingold [1993] and Castells [1996] in Wilson and Peterson 2002). There was some debate in the early 90s about whether online communities could be studied as communities at all (Wilson and Peterson 2002). Wilson and Peterson (2002) go on to explain that a consensus has since developed that yes, communities can be looked at in roughly equivalent ways regardless of how participants interact. Baym (2006, 82-83) explains that:

Too often internet researchers take the stance that since the internet is new, old theory has nothing to offer its exploration. This assumption is wrong. The theories that we have developed to explain social organization need to be able to address new media.

She also makes the very significant point that:

My final point is that really good internet research, be it qualitative or not, does not really believe in cyberspace in the sense of a distinct place that stands in contrast to the earth-bound world. How online spaces are constructed and the activities that people do online are intimately interwoven with the construction of the offline world and the activities and structures in which we participate, whether we are using the internet or not. Offline contexts always permeate and influence online situations, and online situations and experiences always feed back into offline experience. The best work recognises that the internet is woven into the fabric of the rest of life and seeks to better understand the weaving. (Baym 2006, 86)

Online communities have a particular part to play in social movement framing an identity construction. Langman (2005) points out that the success of a movement “depends in part on developing a belief system that resonates with potential participants and encourages them to join in”. Online communities can collectively frame issues, create a discourse that explains the basis of problems (consciousness raising), provide a vision of alternative futures, and suggest strategies for creating that future (Langman 2005). They can serve to delineate what we, as a movement, should unstintingly reject.

In his paper on “Youth, Time, and Social Movements” Melucci emphasises the need for young voices in movements because young people have a specific ability to see things differently, with greater clarity perhaps, because of the “availability of social possibilities, the variety of scenarios in which choices can be situated” (Melucci 1996, 8). He says that:

[M]ovements function for the rest of society as a specific kind of medium, the chief function of which is to reveal what a system does not say of itself: the kernel of silence, of violence, of arbitrary power that dominant codes always comprise.

The discounting of youth media and youth culture has been a continual feature of Australian society. This can lead to a cultural split, a politics without maturity (or with only maturity) that doesn’t challenge itself because the would-be challengers are considered lacking in the political cachet, the experience to challenge. Youth media forms are frequently denigrated to the loss of our society. Combined with the devaluing of women’s voices, young feminist ideas can seem invisible, and thus sexism and young women’s issues themselves lose primacy in mainstream social awareness. Online communities and blogs provide a venue for young women to hash out their ideas.

Over the next few weeks I would like to look at methods of online research in more detail as well as existing studies into online communities, but most of all I think I need to focus on getting my head around social movement theory. + I will try to import my open source database to EndNote and hopefully that will not be too much of a pain.

Conclusion: current thoughts on research methodology and other potential ideas to explore

I think at this point there are several streams of research strategies that I should be looking at, whether simultaneously or separately.

• Firstly, I should look at doing a discourse analysis of Australian feminist blogs – this is as simple as identifying the ideology and the origins of the ideological – whether all the blogs have come to share this ideology or whether there is a strong diversity of ideas, and looking at the ways that ideas and subject matter travels from blog to blog e.g. use of the word “trigger”.
• Secondly a network analysis of Australian feminist blogs. This probably only needs to be a visual representation with a little explanation. In the first instance I need to find a program that will actually do this for me with a minimum of fuss. I can either use a program that will poach links for me (although this has its own problems) or use an excel spreadsheet and enter the data manually before feeding it into a network visualisation program.
• Thirdly, a series of unstructured interviews (verbal) combined with a series of open-ended questionnaires. The purpose of these would be to get both an indepth understanding of several important figures (or network hubs) in the Australian feminist blogging community, as well as some insight into the motivations for participation of people on the periphery of the network. I probably will need to do my network analysis before undertaking interviews in order to get a better idea of the structure of the network. I think that the idea of network hubs (committed actors) is important for the concept of abeyance, because it is something that Verta Taylor emphasises which would normally not be true of internet sites (because they by nature come and go) – fixed reference points or sites that provide some stability would possibly be an important aspect of the abeyance process (we might even be able to call them structures).
• As previously mentioned I was also interested in looking at adolescent internet exploration and the ways that younger people come in contact with these ideas. This would be significant for the concept of abeyance as well because it would really show how it, as a process, helps to maintain feminist discourse. However I feel that if I were to interview teenagers the percentage of them that would actually have come across feminist ideas online in any substantial way would be first of all potentially very low and also it would be very difficult not to ask leading questions or impress expectations upon them. This is not a result that would disprove the abeyance theory, however, since the idea of abeyance is like a hard kernel, a minority by definition. So what may be a better way of discovering these things is to ask bloggers what their formative internet experiences were as well as how they themselves came across feminist ideas and the history of their own personal online involvement. Individuals can go through so many incarnations on the web that perhaps feminist blogs were not their first and only space for web-interaction and activism. As part of interviews perhaps I could ask for women’s online life stories!
• Which brings me to the concept of temporality: I think it might be interesting to try to understand the history of the online women’s movement in Australia. Currently we have a well-developed blog network among other things, but how did the network develop? What were the previous incarnations before political blogs became such a popular and versatile form? Are there time-based archives of the internet that we can look at or will I have to rely on verbal histories and blog archives themselves? Will this be enough and if not, is it necessary to cover it? I think it would be interesting and potentially significant to look at the way the network has grown.
• It would be interesting and perhaps necessary to look at the way national political/feminist culture is constructed on the internet. Apparently very little, but some, research on online communities look into this (Mallapragada 2006). How is it possible for online communities to maintain an identity based in the national, in a media format which is so global? Online communities somehow manage to maintain this in spite of an outward-looking and inclusive focus which includes extensive links to and often inclusion in overseas networks. How does this work and why? It is fascinating.
• Feminist mothering as a significant subset of blogs.
• Trolling on feminist sites and in feminist communities can be particularly vicious and has led to a more conspicuous exclusiveness (or exclusion) on feminist websites compared to other blogs and websites. As Caro and Fox (2008, 14) put it:

The extreme misogyny expressed by some bloggers and forum-posters in the free-for-all that is the internet has brought us face to face with just how much some men (and some women) still hate and resent every small step towards freedom and respect women have taken.

What are the strategies that blog owners and forum/community moderators develop to handle this problem?

  • Bagguley, P.
Contemporary British Feminism: a social movement in abeyance?
Social Movement Studies, 2002, Vol. 1(2), pp. 169-185
  • Baym, N.K.
Finding the Quality in Qualitative Research
in Silver, D. & Massanari, A. (ed.)
Critical cyberculture studies
New York: New York University Press, 2006, pp. 79-87
  • Bulbeck, C.
Living Feminism
Cambridge University Press, 1997
  • Caro, J. & Fox, C.
The F Word: How we learned to swear by feminism
University of N.S.W. Press, 2008
  • Kaplan, G.
The meagre harvest: the Australian women’s movement 1950s-1990s
Allen & Unwin, 1996
  • Kearney, M.C.
Girls Make Media
New York: Routledge, 2006
  • Langman, L.
From Virtual Public Spheres to Global Justice: A Critical Theory of Internetworked Social Movements
Sociological Theory, 2005, Vol. 23(1), pp. 42-74
  • Maddison, S. & Scalmer, S.
Activist wisdom: practical knowledge and creative tension in social movements.
University of New South Wales Press Ltd, 2006
  • Mallapragada, M.
An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Study of Cybercultures
in Silver, D. & Massanari, A. (ed.)
Critical cyberculture studies
New York: New York University Press, 2006, pp. 194-204
  • Melucci, A.
Youth, time and social movements
Young, 1996, Vol. 4(3)
  • Mische, A.
Cross-talk in Movements: Reconceiving the Culture-Network Link
Social Movement Analysis: The Network Perspective
2000
  • della Porta, D., Andretta, M., Mosca, L. & Reiter, H.
Globalization From Below: Transnational Activists and Protest Networks
University of Minnesota Press, 2006, Vol. 26
  • Siegel, D.
Sisterhood Interrupted: from radical women to grrls gone wild (and why our politics are still personal)
Palgrave Macmillan, 2007
  • Staggenborg, S.
Social Movements
Oxford University Press, 2008
  • Taylor, V.
Social Movement Continuity: The Women’s Movement in Abeyance
American Sociological Review, 1989, Vol. 54(5), pp. 761-775
  • Wilson, S.M. & Peterson, L.C.
The Anthropology of Online Communities
Annual Review of Anthropology, 2002, Vol. 31, pp. 449-467
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