Sunday, December 4, 2011

Castells: Social movements in the age of the #

If I can offer one piece of worthwhile advice to anyone who reads this blog, it would be to subscribe to the Public Lecture podcasts from the London School of Economics. If you're interested in anything from contemporary global politics to in-depth discussion of philosophy, the LSE has had the leaders of the field come and lecture about it for their students and - kindly enough - the general public. Not stopping there, they also appreciate those of us outside of the general area and post the lectures for free online, youtube and at itunes.

This, however, is not a treatise on how awesome the LSE is, nor it a discussion about online learning (though that would be an interesting discussion on international communal learning... maybe another day. Instead this is about a recent lecture by an author we have discussed at length this semester: Manuel Castells.

He discussed how the internet offers a new forum for social movements to form and gain traction citing the #occupy movement, the Egyptian revolution and the April 26th movement, and the "indignants" movement in Spain. It is well worth a listen as there is far too many points of interest to discuss here, however, there were a couple of points that stood out to me that I would like to touch on.

Firstly, Castells sets the stage in constructivist terms, points that social movements have existed in various forms for millenia, however, the internet offers a new way for oppressed groups to exert counter-influence over those in power. He suggests that this medium allows for people to gather information from sources other than traditional (and conservative) media.

He also extolled the groups formed on the internet for coming up with original solutions to current problems in a democratic manner. Maybe I didn't listen as closely as I should have done, but I felt that this argument was a little flawed. Early on in his remarks he argues that social movements are different from political movements because they don't try to offer political solutions to problems. Social movements express the need for a social change to take place while political movements advocate for a solution. He does acknowledge that a social movement can turn into a political movement and vice versa, however, he seemed to suggest that they cannot coexist.

I question this for two reasons, firstly, because he seems to contradict himself later in the discussion when he talks about the indignants of Spain developing a new constitution as well as how Iceland's social movements have revolutionized their government following the 2008 collapse. They both take action as well as express dissatisfaction with the status quo. Secondly, it implies that a step-by-step approach to change is not feasible. I suppose this makes sense within the constructivist framework where there is a constant struggle for power, and only major power shifts create significant change, but I don't believe that reflects what happens in the real world. I may be naive, or I may simply not be a constructivist, or I may be misrepresenting Castells' argument. In fairness, all three are possibilities. So judge for yourself, listen to the lecture and let me know if I'm off base.

What other points that Castells makes stand out for you? One, off-hand, remark that he made that I think is worth exploring moving forward is the power of cell- and smartphone technologies as "defensive weapons." Castells suggests that their capability to take photos and videos on command allow for greater freedom of information and challenge portrayals of events from those in power that may not accurately illustrate the actual events. While I question the concept of a "defensive weapon" as a contradiction in terms, I think that he does have a point here. Cell phone footage of major events have significantly altered the frame of major media stories over the last decade from the video of Saddam Hussein's execution, to youtube video of students at UC Davis being casually pepper-sprayed by police during a peaceful protest. A picture speaks a thousand words and makes for an extremely powerful message.


  1. Thanks Evan! I will definitely look into the London School of Economics podcasts. This topic is particularly interesting for me because we're doing our project on the way social media can have dual purposes. It is often framed as a tool for social progress and democracy, as Castells seems to phrase it. Does he ever go into the idea that social media can also be used for oppression or suppression, whether by governments or other powerful groups?

    I also think it's interesting Castells calls cameras "defensive weapons." I can definitely see the context for that, but I also think they can be "offensive weapons" for powerful entities. It's just as easy for those in power to use media to their advantage to show their side of an event. For instance, the government could use only video of a few extremely violent protesters to show the public that whatever imaginary protest we might be talking about is not a peaceful affair, as the protesters are trying to tell people. Or the drug cartels, who are the de facto power in Mexico, can use video and other multimedia to frame major news stories. They often tell news organizations what multimedia they can use or post that information on the PR websites. They also use it to intimidate by releasing photos of torture and murder.

  2. Social communication