Today I watched The Name of the Rose, a film featuring a medieval Sherlock Holmes named William of Baskerville (just in case the Holmes connection was not otherwise evident). It got me thinking about inductive and deductive reasoning.
In inductive reasoning we move from the aggregation of discrete observations to create a theory that explains them. In deductive reasoning we use a relevant theory to explain a discrete observation. As the diagram above indicates, the two are connected. We only have relevant theories because of previous inductive reasoning which was used to arrive at them.
Baskerville and Holmes are both deductive thinkers. They take their theoretic knowledge of physics and human behavior and apply it to individual observations to elucidate them. For example, Baskerville knows that stones role down hills according the qualities of the ground. So when he finds a body at the bottom of a hill he deduces that it might have rolled from further up, rather than falling direct to the bottom point (there are quite a few dead bodies in the film). Likewise, because he knows that poison can kill when ingested, when monks die with evidence of ink on their tongues, he deduces that the ink is poisoned (oops, hope that wasn’t a spoiler).
How does this connect to digital activism? We are in an interesting point in this field in that we have a wide range of theory from sociology, political science, network science, and applied sub-domains like social movement theory that can be applied to the use of digital technology by activists.
The only problem is that the pre-digital evidence on which these theories are built is different from the digital context to which they are now applied. This is not a problem if the context is fundamentally the same, and digital changes are only cosmetic. However, if the presence of digital technology alters the causal mechanism which gives the theory its explanatory power, then the theory is invalid when applied to the new context.
Whence comes the question: does the presence of digital technology make enough of a difference in the function of activism that old theories don’t apply? If this were true, it would incapacitate deductive reasoning in this field because pre-digital theory could not be applied to digital instances.
Fortunately, it’s not the case that previous theories are completely invalid. Anecdotal evidence shows that pre-digital theories such as information cascades and preferential attachment do have explanatory value when applied to digital phenomena. This is both good in that we have a body of knowledge to help us understand the phenomena of digital activism and bad in that we don’t know which theories apply and which don’t.
In one example of pre-digital theory challenged by observation of digital phenomenon, research by Alix Dunn of The Engine Room has shown that decision-making in social movements is possible without leaders because social media platforms like Facebook allow flat groups to make decisions collectively with the most engaged members playing the role of facilitator and influencer while many members of the group shape decisions collaboratively. This flies in the face of classical theories of political organizing, which require central leadership for strategic success.
This puts us in a dangerous epistemological position because if we apply pre-digital theories to digital contexts in which they are invalid we are left with inaccurate conclusions. We are in a minefield of sorts. We don’t know enough about the field to know where to step, yet we need to step through the field in order to know it.
One path through the minefield is to test pre-digital theories in individual contexts where their explanatory power can be verified. For example, scholar Zeynep Tufekci has shown that preferential attachment models explain the emergence of leader/influencers on Twitter during the Egyptan revolution. This is empirically valid, but it is slow moving. Just because a theory applies to one scenario does not mean it will apply to another which seems similar but which is actually causally different.
It is for this reason that I am a strong proponent of inductive reasoning in the field of digital activism. We need to start by observing a wide array of digital activism instances and analyzing that data empirically with as open a mind as possible. From this analysis we may find that certain pre-digital theories continue to hold explanatory value. We will likely also find that certain pre-digital theories no longer do. Some old theories will be tweaked, some will be discarded, and new theory will be made.
This is the empirical process of knowledge creation and it is the logic behind the Global Digital Activism Data Set, a set of over a thousand cases from over a hundred countries going back thirty years. We are currently in the process of coding these cases and then, by comparison, we hope to isolate causal factors. We are making our data open to anyone who wants to use it in the hopes of encouraging other researchers to analyze large and phenomenologically diverse digital activism data sets. We are also eager to know of others who are undertaking similar projects. If you are, please let us know.
image: Flickr/ EDUARDO URDANGARAY