On Transmedia and Transformative Politics: An Interview with MIT’s Sasha Costanza-Chock (Part One)

I have had a chance to get to know Sasha Costanza-Chock through the years — first as a PhD candidate at USC Annenberg, finishing up his degree as I was arriving here, and now, more recently, as a faculty member at the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, where he has been active in the Center for Civic Media. I have developed enormous respect for Costanza-Chock’s skills as a scholar and commitment as an activist. He is someone whose work contributes much to our understanding of emerging forms of political activism, which he has variously characterized as  Transmedia or Transformative Mobilization.

His earliest work centered around the immigrant rights movement in Los Angles and has culminated in Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement,  published earlier this year by MIT Press. More recently, he has expanded his focus to deal with the Occupy movement and even more recently, to do work on GLBT activism.

Costanza-Chock’s work is deeply grounded in the life of the communities he is researching — we might think of his approach as being as much about collaboration, researching with, as it is investigating, researching about, and in this interview, he has much to say about the ethical principles he thinks should govern academic researchers doing work on and with oppressed peoples. I was lucky enough to have been able to read his original dissertation and we drew extensively on his work for the section on activism in Spreadable Media and it has been an important influence on our thinking as we developed By Any Media Necessary, my team’s forthcoming book on contemporary youth and the civic imagination.

I was delighted, then, when he agreed to do this interview, and even more pleased when I read his substantive, thoughtful, and challenging responses to my questions. You are in for a treat.

You describe this project as emerging from a process of participatory research. In this case, what shape did this participatory research take? How would you characterize your relationship to the movements you discuss here?

Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog! I really appreciate the opportunity. I should start by making clear that while I’m informed by Participatory Action Research (PAR) as a research stance, Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets! isn’t itself a participatory research project. I say that because the research agenda and questions that the book addresses are mine, as are the instruments, the analytical process, the conclusions and recommendations. The questions I explore in the book, about the relationship between social movements and the rapidly changing media ecology, are not questions that first and foremost came from the immigrant rights movement groups I worked with and researched.

In PAR, joint inquiry centers the research agenda of the community. The community partner defines the area of investigation, and, if there is an outside researcher at all, they work together to develop the research questions, choose methods, develop instruments, collect observations, and analyze the findings together, in order to inform the next stage of action. This is the iterative cycle of reflection and action, built around situated and contingent knowledge, that Dewey talked about as joint inquiry, and that Freire described in terms of praxis.

That said, during the time I worked on the book (2006-2014), I did take part in a number of participatory research and participatory design processes with immigrant rights organizations. For example, while I was a doctoral student at USC Anneberg I had the good fortune to take Sandra Ball-Rokeach’s course on engaged scholarship (Comm 653, Research,
Practice, and Social Change), a course that she co-teaches with Barbara Osborn from the Liberty Hill Foundation. That course provided a crucial space for me to learn about the underpinnings, history, theory, and challenges of engaged research, while working closely with the Garment Worker Center to co-develop the Radio Tijera project.

Radio Tijera was an audio production workshop, pirate radio station, and CD series that mixed popular music with personal stories, history, and know your rights PSAs. It was produced by garment workers from the Garment Worker Center in LA’s Fashion District, with support from simmi gandi, Amanda Garces, and myself. Audio pieces from Radio Tijeras are still available online.

It was participatory design that felt really grounded in the needs of the community and the organization: hundreds of the CDs we produced were handed out and passed from person to person in the garment sweatshops in downtown LA, where many people listen to music all day, in part because in some shops they are told by the boss that they’re not
allowed to talk to one another. The CDs (we called them Discos Volantes, a Spanish language double pun on ‘Discs,’ ‘Flyers,’ as in an event flyer, and ‘Flying Saucers’) were used as an organizing tool to bring a number of new workers into the orbit of GWC, where they got involved in struggles for higher wages, safer working conditions, and human dignity in the garment industry. Steve Anderson from the Institute for Multimedia Literacy and the Cinema school also guided an independent study with me that gave me space to do community based multimedia work.

And while at Annenberg I had the chance to work with the Mobile Voices project, with all of the folks from the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA) and the team from USC, led by Francois Bar, which used participatory research and design to build the award-winning VozMob project . All of this work, and other participatory research, design, and media-making projects that I describe in more detail in the book, informed my understanding of the immigrant rights movement, grounded my research in real world experience as an active ally, and helped me build trust and credibility with many of the immigrant rights activists I later interviewed.

But I’m emphasizing that the book itself is not PAR, because it seems like a lot of researchers from the academy pay lip service to participatory research (and participatory design). Many are honestly excited by the idea, and that’s an important shift that should be supported. Unfortunately, there’s also sometimes a tendency to run a workshop or two with a community based partner and start calling the process participatory.

In the worst cases, this can actually end up masking an extractive process, where knowledge, ideas, design possibilities, and so on are generated by community members, whose ‘participation’ is limited to particular stages of the process (for example, brainstorming or taking part in a design charette). Participation in this mode produces ‘raw materials’ that are taken away by outside researchers and designers to be reworked and synthesized in ways that generate benefits (publications, products, attribution for concepts, and so on) that accrue primarily to the research or design professionals. The extractive process is usually not intentional (although occasionally it is, that’s another conversation), but it does do damage, not least in terms of the time and energy it takes up from people with scarce resources.

Happily, that’s the worst case 🙂 There is also a growing community of people who are working to advance strong, grounded, meaningful approaches to participatory research in a wide range of fields. For example, the UCLA Labor Center  does an incredible job at this, as does the Public Science Project at CUNY. There are vibrant spaces outside of the academy, such as the Research Justice track at the Allied Media Conference, that are hubs for community based researchers. My partner Chris Schweidler has been working with this network for years, and is now developing and sharing concrete tools for participatory research through the worker-owned cooperative Research Action Design (RAD), of which I’m proud to be a founding member and worker/owner.

You suggest you want to move us beyond current debates about social movements and social media. What do you think partisans in those debates get wrong and what does your book offer as an alternative?

If I had to boil it down I’d say there are at least three places where most of the current debates go wrong. The ‘offline/online’ distinction, the ‘clicktivism’ conversation, and the technocentrism of most analysis of social movements and ICTs. There’s also the failure to focus on the transformative power of media making in a social movement context, where one of the most important outcomes is that people, through making media, become personally, deeply transformed in the process.

As for the first point, the ‘online/offline’ debate seems to be finally (if slowly) dying. As the net becomes fully integrated into everyday life, and as internet enabled mobile devices become more widespread, it’s become increasingly clear that people who participate in social movements do so both ‘offline’ and ‘online,’ and don’t tend to think about their own participation in these terms at all. If you care about something, and take part in a social movement, you aren’t sitting there as you share something on social media ‘Oh, now I’m an online activist!’ When you go to a ‘face to face’ rally or protest action, you’re not thinking ‘I’m taking part in offline social movement activity!’ You’re probably taking pictures at the ‘offline’ action and sharing them via social media, or sending SMS to friends about it. Since I’m a fan of grounded theory that draws from, reflects, and is useful to the ways people think about their own activity, I’ve never thought the online/offline debates were very interesting.

More recently, analyses of survey data are increasingly supportive of the idea that the distinction doesn’t hold much water. Most (but not all!) people who are politically active are active both ‘online’ and ‘off,’ (whatever ‘offline’ means for most people today). I’m not articulating this well; I’d recommend Paulo Gerbaudo’s excellent book Tweets and the Streets for a more lucid breakdown of the point.

For a counterargument, check out Oser, Hooghe, and Marien, 2013, who review the 2008 Pew data that was analyzed by Schlozman et al in 2010; they use latent class factor analysis of 5 offline and 5 online measures of political participation, and find that there are clusters of people who are politically active both online and offline, a cluster of people who are politically active just offline (they don’t have much internet access), and a (majority) cluster of people who aren’t politically active at all (online or offline). They do identify a small cluster who are more politically active according to online measures than offline measures, and they take that finding to imply that there is indeed a useful distinction between online and offline activists.

However, I read their findings to primarily indicate that most people are politically active or they’re not, both online and off, unless they don’t have much internet access. Hirzalla and Zoonen find that for young people, distinguishing between online/offline may not make much sense (Hirzalla, F and Van Zoonen, EA (2011). “Beyond the Online/Offline Divide: How Youth’s Online and Offline Civic Activities Converge”, Social Science Computer Review, online first December 4, Social Science Computer Review, 29(4), pp.481-498.)

Gibson and Cantijoch (2013) draw similar conclusions from a factor analysis of a 2010 UK survey with 18 questions about online and offline political participation (Rachel Gibson and Marta Cantijoch. “Conceptualizing and measuring participation in the age of the internet: Is online political engagement really different to offline?” Journal of Politics 75, no. 3(2013) : 707-716. eScholarID:178410 | DOI:10.1017/S0022381613000431).  Here I’m summarizing a longer discussion of this literature in soon-to-be-published work by Benjamin Bowyer and Joseph Kahn.

For the second point, I also think we can move beyond the so-called ‘clicktivism’ or ‘slacktivism’ question, most famously raised by Malcolm Gladwell, of whether the internet weakens social movements because it allows people to think they have done something meaningful with a mouse click. This mistaken debate is easily sidestepped by talking to a few real world organizers and activists, who learned quickly and early on about the ladder of engagement, where your job is to connect with people who take a small action (say, clicking ‘share’), find the subset of those people who are willing to take a slightly larger action, then identify the subset of those people who might be interested in
themselves becoming organizers, and so on. The more sophisticated version of this argument is about whether people are now abandoning social movement organizations and political parties, which had staying power, in favor of networked activism, which can move quickly but is often a ‘flash in the pan.’

That’s interesting. If it’s true that people are abandoning deeper engagement in political, civic, and social movement activity, and focusing primarily on networked forms of participation, then for the most part, institutional actors just need to learn how to weather the storm – not a good outcome for democracy. On the other hand, how do we reconcile the argument that people no longer want to participate in ‘real world’ organizations, with the continued mushrooming of those organizations? Just look at figures for the long term growth in the number and size of 501(c)3s over time, for example (there are around 250,000 in the US, according to the Urban Institute.

It’s also arguable that we’re entering a ‘golden age’ of movement activity, where people participate in networked activism, get politicized quickly, and later join the ever more diverse array of movement organizations, where they connect and stay for the long haul of institutional change.

How about the question about whether ICTs make social movements ‘more participatory?’ To me, in this frame technology adoption is conflated with forms of democratic participation. In other words, an alternate hypothesis might run as follows: there are strong or weak, top down or bottom up, institutional or participatory, forms of democracy. Any particular institution, organization, or network may be evaluated along these lines, independently of the communication technologies that are popular (widespread) at a given moment. It still seems to me to be an
understudied question: what, if any, is the relationship between the dominant forms of technology and the strength or weakness of participation in democratic institutions?

For one thing, some indicators of democratic participation (voting rates, for example) imply that widespread adoption of the internet produce a steady decline in democratic participation, although I believe that’s correlation, not causation. In fact the height of democratic participation may have been during the age when newspapers and radio (top down, broadcast, one way, for the most part, although not entirely) were dominant!

For another, we now know that networked ICTs are quite excellent tools for top down communicative processes, like political parties, corporations, or military organizations. For example, the Obama campaign’s masterful use of the net and social media incorporated participatory elements, but was ultimately a top down show that was shut down as soon as he won the election.

More broadly, I just don’t know why there is so much writing that is platform-centric. This goes as follows: pick a platform, then study whether activists are using it for something. Then, when you find that they are, write about how the affordances of the platform are so enabling for a new generation of activists. Really?

To me, it makes so much more sense to start with social movements. Start with the activists. Pick a movement, connect with it, engage with it, and then ask questions about how the activists, organizers, and everyday people in that movement are using media and ICTs. What do people do with these tools? They use them to create and circulate narratives, ideas, proposals, and demands, to invite and incite, to get people out in the streets and onto the net, to build the power of their movement.

Real world social movements aren’t platform specific. They aren’t making a ‘Twitter Revolution.’ They’re using any media necessary. They’re engaged in transmedia organizing.

Sasha Costanza-Chock is Associate Professor of Civic Media at MIT. He’s a scholar, activist, and media-maker who works on co-design and media justice. Sasha is Co-Principal Investigator at the MIT Center for Civic Media, creator of the MIT Codesign Studio, and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. His book Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement was published by the MIT Press, 2014. Sasha is a board member of Allied Media Projects, a Detroit-based nonprofit that cultivates media strategies for a more just, creative, and collaborative world. He’s also a worker/owner at Research Action Design, a worker-owned cooperative that uses community-led research, transformative media organizing, technology development, and collaborative design to build the power of grassroots social movements.