Digital Activism Through the Lens of Social Movement Theory

When I first became interested in digital activism in 2004-5 I was convinced it was an entirely new phenomenon. The longer I’ve studied it the more I’ve become convinced that understanding digital activism means having a foundation in a variety of related fields, most of them relating to the “activism” rather than the “digital.”

I’ve looked to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) and people like Meta-Activism Project advisors Hardy Merriman and Patrick Meier for a deeper understanding of nonviolent civil resistance. Marshall Ganz taught me about political organizing. Collaborators like António Rosas, Research Coordinator of the Global Digital Activism Data Set, have given me an eye into network science. Now, thanks to nudges from Phil Howard and Zeynep Tufekci, I am exploring social movement theory. Yes, this Harvard drop-out is getting herself a new education.

I am just starting the book Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, by Doug McAdam, an academic pioneer of the political process model of social movement analysis. I am still in the introduction and the quantity of notes and underlining already indicates that this will be a tremendously useful body of theory for understanding digital activism.

Table: The Implications for Digital Activism of Key Social Movement Theories



Above is a schema for how I think three core social movement theories could increase our understanding of digital activism, presented in a good ol’ 3×3 matrix. On the left axis I have written key macro, meso, and micro theories of social movements presented by McAdam. (McAdam also presents some interesting critiques of these theories. I will consider these critiques in my analysis in subsequent posts, but for the sake of simplicity I will present the theories here in their classic form.)

Key Social Movement Theories

  • Opportunity Structures: This macro frame describes “the particular set of power relationships that define the political environment at any point in time,” the variation of which “help shape the ebb and flow of social movement activity.” For example: an economic crisis, a demographic shift, or the re-alignment of government alliances.
  • Mobilizing Structures: This meso frame describes the “organizational vehicles” of “established organizations or prior network ties” that are “available to the group at the time the opportunity presents itself” that determine the group’s “ability to exploit the new opening.” For example: a church congregation, a Facebook group, civil society broadly writ.
  • Framing Processes: This micro frame describes the “shared meanings,” “cultural understandings,” and “collective identities” that bring people to an instance of incipient political contention. At minimum people need to feel collectively “aggrieved” (angry) about the current situation, yet “optimistic” (hopeful) that they have the ability to make change happen. This is one reason why Shepard Fairey’s “HOPE” poster of Obama was such a powerful mobilizing image for progressives in the 2008 election.

On the top axis I am using a framework presented by Jennifer Earl and her colleagues from UC Santa Barbara in her recent paper “Changing the World One Webpage at a Time: Conceptualizing and Explaining Internet Activism”. Though Earl refers specifically to the Internet, I believe her framework applies equally to digital activism more generally (that is, to technologies that use a digital network other than the Internet, such as mobile SMS).

Digital Activism Implications

  • No Change: “In the long run there will be no real lasting effect of Internet usage
    on social movement processes (Tarrow 1998; Diani 2000; Tilly 2004).” (It is interesting that the great pioneers of pre-digital social movement theory, like Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly, are being essentially conservative in denying the meaningful effect of a new structural factor on the phenomena they study.)
  • Scale Change: Though digital technology helps to “super-size” activist capacity, the underlying social movement processes are not altered and pre-digital theories remain intact. For example, an e-petition allows the organizer to collect more signatures more quickly and at lower cost than a paper petition, but does not change understanding of how petitions function within a campaign.
  • Model Change: “Some uses of the Internet may actually change the dynamics of activism in important ways. Foot and Schneider (2002) refer to these as ‘model changes’ because basic theoretical assumptions and/or robust social movement explanations don’t as readily explain the dynamics of some types of Internet activism.”

The matrix lays out what I believe is the full range of effects that digital technology (DT for brevity) can have on these three key social movement theories. As I continue through McAdam’s book I will tease out whether the role of digital technology in social movements results in no change, scale change, or model change for each theory. I also look forward to having your input.

5 thoughts on “Digital Activism Through the Lens of Social Movement Theory

  1. re: I am still in the introduction and the quantity of notes and underlining…

    Marginalia? Previous owner, yours, or both?

    I’m curious to see a list of words you underlined in the introduction. Just the words; no notes or thoughts about context, meaning, etc.



  2. Critt, they’re my own notes. I’m very visual, so when I read I underline and write in the margins of my books. When I see that I’ve taken a lot of notes, I know I’m reading a useful book! In the intro I was basically underlining content about the 3 theories in this post.

  3. Tilly died in 2008 and as far as I know Tarrow is not focusing on this area of research (how ICTs affect his body of research on social movements), so how do we know that they would, in light of recent events especially, advocate for “no change”? As far as i know Ganz is also not honing in on tech driven social movements and how they interact with his prescriptions for organizing. But I could be wrong?

    • Susannah, On Tilly and Tarrow I am just going by the citations in Jenn Earl’s paper: “In the long run there will be no real lasting effect of Internet usage on social movement processes (Tarrow 1998; Diani 2000; Tilly 2004).” In my interactions with Ganz I found him to be skeptical of the value of tech, and to see it as, at most, capable of scale change in organizing. I was his student back in 2008 though, so his opinions may have changed since then.

  4. Pingback: Who’s First? : Elites, Challengers, and Political Opportunities | Meta-Activism Blog

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