Social movements as unfinished processes

Compared to other types of political actors, social movements are much more fluid, chaotic and difficult to define. It is for this reason that the Italian scholar Alberto Melucci urges us to study the process through which social movements are produced rather than consider them as a ‘finished’ product. For Melucci, social movements are never ‘finished’ –  they are diverse, open-ended and always changing. As he notes,

“Addressing the problem of how a collective actor takes shape requires recognition of the fact that, for instance, what is empirically called ‘a movement’ and which, for the sake of observational and linguistic convenience, has been attributed an essential unity, is in fact a product of multiple and heterogeneous social processes. We must therefore seek to understand how this unity is built and what different outcomes are generated by the interaction of its various components.” (Melucci 1996: 20).

In one of my favourite Occupy Wall Street tweets, we can see the same attitude of questioning, the same openness to the fact that a movement like Occupy may be constantly changing:

occupy tweet

Focusing on communication can help us understand the ‘multiple and heterogeneous social processes’ through which social movements are produced. This is because viewing social movements as communication phenomena focuses our attention on the interactions and communication practices with which activists organize, coordinate and create the identity of the collective. But how can we study social movements from a communication perspective? This post offers some ideas…


Melucci, Alberto (1996) Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age. Cambridge University Press.

Some broad research questions

Question Mark Graffiti, a photo by Bilal Kamoon on Flickr.

Question Mark Graffiti, a photo by Bilal Kamoon on Flickr.

The key question at the heart of this project concerns whether and how the use of certain technologies shapes the characteristics and effectiveness of social movements. As discussed in another post, this approach can be considered as part of a paradigm shift in the study of media and social movements, where the media are no longer viewed only as spaces for the representation of protest, but also as tools for organizing and coordinating.

To address this key concern, the project focuses on four broad research questions with regards to the role of the internet in the Occupy movement and networks/campaigns that emerged from it:

  • How is the activists’ internet use contributing to processes of organizing, diffusion and participation?
  • What are the implications for the power relationships both within the movement, as well as between movements and their targets or the mainstream media?
  • How do activist cultures with regards to the internet, strategy and organizing affect the activists’ use of these technologies?
  • How does the design and proprietary or non-proprietary nature of these technologies affect their use and implications for social movements?

In other words, the project is looking at the role of the internet in different activities of the movement and what it means for power – both power within the movement and the power of the movement (to effect change, to influence public discourse etc.). Conceptualizing these power relationships is difficult as it necessitates an understanding of how leadership works in social movements, as well as a clear framework for studying movement outcomes. It also requires a definition of power that not only captures the multiplicity of its meanings but is also empirically workable (this will be the topic of a future blog post…).

However, to forge a better understanding of the role of new technologies in protest, we need to take into account the activists’ experiences, expertise and attitudes towards the internet. Activist cultures with regards to strategy and organizing are also important as they affect how activists perceive and organize the communication process – who they think is authorized to speak, about what and to whom and through which tools. I talked about the intersection between internet and strategic/organizing cultures in a chapter for the book Mediation and Protest Movements (edited by Bart Cammaerts, Alice Mattoni and Patrick McCurdy). The chapter derives from earlier work on the Global Justice Movement and the European Social Forum in particular. Based on interviews with European Social Forum organizers, I identified two ideal-types of internet cultures with regards to the use of web and email: a broadcasting culture and an interactive one. The current project builds on and enriches these ideas, looking for instance at the impact of the cultures of tech activists – of people who have links with the hacker or the FLOSS communities – on the creation and use of online tools.

Finally, the design and proprietary or non-proprietary nature of the online platforms also shapes their role in protest. Internet platforms and services offer ‘online structures for action’ as Foot and Schneider put it. Proprietary platforms like Facebook and Twitter were not designed with protest in mind, but are commercial operations, profiting from users’ data. The ways in which they are designed, the applications they offer, the rules encoded in the software and their implied governance mechanisms influence the use of these technologies by protesters. The same is true for the platforms created by protesters themselves to coordinate their activity.

Yet in this project platforms are conceptualized in a more expansive terms. Although the focus is on online platforms and applications, physical spaces – the squares where encampments were set up or the rooms where meetings took place –  are also considered as platforms whose norms of use, architectural characteristics, ownership, accessibility and state regulation affect the types of communication and coordination that they facilitate. Movement activities transcend different spaces that are at once and at the same time both online and offline: we access the internet from physical places that are in turn always mediated in one way or another. Investigating the role of specific technologies in protest movements needs to involve a better understanding of their placement within the communication ecology of the movement.


Foot, A. K. and Schneider, S. M. (2006) Web Campaigning. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press.

Kavada, A. (2013) ‘Internet cultures and protest movements: the cultural links between strategy, organizing and online communication’ in B. Cammaerts, P. McCurdy and A. Mattoni (eds) Mediation and Social Movements, London: Intellect.

Paradigm shifts

There is a paradigm shift in the study of social movements and their relationship with the media. This is in no small part due to the emergence of the internet, which has highlighted an overlooked aspect of media: their function as organizing and coordinating mechanisms, rather than simply as public spheres or arenas of discourse.

It was in the end of the 1990s and in the beginning of 2000s when the greater popularization of the internet coincided with the birth of the Global Justice Movement that this shift became evident in both journalistic and academic accounts of the new movement.

For instance, as Naomi Klein put it in her 2002 book ‘Fences and Windows’,

“What emerged on the streets of Seattle and Washington was an activist model that mirrors the organic, decentralized, interlinked pathways of the internet’ (p. 17).

In a paper written at about the same time, Sidney Tarrow, an influential social movements scholar, noted that the internet seems

“to constitute a social network (which is) remarkably similar to the reticular structure of social movements’, so that ‘it is only a short step to regarding the Internet itself as a form of organization” (2002: 15).

If the internet is set up as a network of networks’ and the Global Justice Movement operates as ‘a network of networks’, the thinking went, then there should be a relationship between the two. However, conceptualizing this relationship in concrete terms and understanding empirically how it works has been a difficult task.

This is because for all the theories explaining the representation of social movements in the media, frameworks that help us conceptualize the role of the media as organizing mechanisms are scarce.

There are also few studies that allow us to see this role historically. A common criticism of scholarly work on social movements and the internet is that it is ahistorical and too celebratory of the power of new communication technologies. Yet for those scholars with an interest in the role of the media in the organizing processes of social movements, there very few historical studies we can base our research on. For example, there’s limited research on the role of telephone trees in the organizational forms of the Civil Rights movement or of the influence of the telegraph (if any) on the spread and transnational coordinating structures of the communist movement [I am probably wrong about this – in fact, I hope I am – so please send your suggestions of relevant literature that I’m not aware of in the comments below].

The need becomes even more pressing now when discussions of Facebook or Twitter revolutions are filled with polarized views that either place the media in a very central position or disregard their influence altogether. Moving towards a more sober and nuanced analysis requires solid conceptual frameworks that link mediated communication with organizing structures and practices.


Klein, Naomi (2002) Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the front lines of the globalization debate. Flamingo.

Tarrow, Sidney (2002) ‘The New Transnational Contention: Organizations, Coalitions, Mechanisms’, Paper presented in the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, Chicago, 31 August-1 September 2002.