Conceptualising Digital Activism: A theoretical exploration into Disruptive Spaces
Paper presentation at IR13.0, Salford, UK.
The aim of this paper is to revisit classic cultural theory to bridge the divide between hopeful and skeptical perspectives on digital activism. This discussion is needed since there is a tendency towards polarisation in this field. A large amount of literature is extremely optimistic in praising the revolutionary potential of digital media as a means for democratisation and rebellion. On the opposite side, there are accounts of commercialisation, brainwash and control. The debate is, in fact, not entirely different from the mass culture debate some 100-150 years ago when mass culture critics feared the new culture would mobilise the working class to overthrow capitalism, while the critical theorists of the Frankfurt school warned that the same mass culture would simply dumb down and control the public.
What was needed then, and what is needed now, is a more nuanced perspective that acknowledges the large potential of the new platforms, while not losing sight of power relations and the fact that actors will have different resources and skills to begin with.
The paper will start from the classic subcultural theory of Hebdige and move on to discussing the critique of it in terms of the fragmentation of culture as a homogenising concept. The work of Jenks, and other scholars within the post-subcultural field will be addressed. The overarching aim of the chapter, which will draw on a set of empirical examples of online engagement from the author’s ongoing research into this area, is to arrive at a revised theoretical perspective on digital grassroots politics.
The suggested perspective will learn from literature on participatory culture (Jenkins), networked publics (Varnelis), smart mobs (Rheingold) and peer-production (Benkler), but resist throwing the baby out with the bath water. Classic (sub)cultural theory (Hall; Hebdige; Bourdieu; Thompson; Foucault) has a critical sensibility, as regards class, gender etc., that some cyberculture scholarship lacks. Retaining the critical edge of classic cultural studies and critical theory while updating it to accommodate more complex social and spatial relations, the paper introduces the notion of disruptive spaces. Disruptive spaces are virtual nexuses of innovation, creativity, engagement and activism from which disruptive currents emerge that interfere with hegemony in any given field, or several fields at once.
The paper will argue for the development of a theory of disruptive spaces that is based on (classic) cultural sociology. It will introduce a combination of concepts from the likes of Foucault, Bourdieu, Hall, Hebdige and Melucci, as a toolbox for critically approaching the potential and limitations of digital spaces as sites of activism and mobilisation.
Claiming that the advent of digital technology automatically leads to ground-breaking and amazing possibilities for people to make their voice heard and to circumvent traditionally structured flows of communication and knowledge would be to oversimplify things. Reality is of course more complicated than that. Not only because there are significant class-based, gendered and generational differences as regards the access to – and the knowledge of how to operate – digital media. But also since these participatory tools are often used in unexpected and innovative ways. Such resourcefulness and creativity come about for a number of reasons that undeniably demand refined theoretical tools — grounded in historical experience — if we are to better understand contemporary as well as future forms of cultural and political involvement.