What’s in a Name?
By Jennifer Earl and Zizi Papacharissi
I like to say that technologies network us, but it is our stories that connect us. Identify us. And potentially, divide us. But presently, it feels like we are connected and disconnected at the same time. And not sure about our identity. Participatory media can enhance our storytelling ability; they can help us tell stories that make us feel more connected to our experiences and that also help us make sense of our experiences. We are everyday sensemakers, through storytelling. Participatory media afford tiny acts of political participation (Margetts, John, Hale & Yasseri, 2015 ), and further fill in, punctuate, or become grammar to our stories. But I often worry that participatory media also always and constantly invite us to tell a story, and by doing so, they further amplify not just our storytelling ability, but our need to tell stories. Our need to make sense of everything. And thus, our anxiety when things do not make sense instantly, as is often case. And in so doing, it is possible that we experience the tyranny of turning everything into narrative; of finding some meaning everywhere immediately; of seeking to make sense of everything; when in fact some things are senseless and have to be processed as such. I know Jenn has been doing work exploring how people come to identify as activists, and I want to invite her to tell us a little bit about that process. Is it a path to sensemaking?
How people come to make sense of who they are and what they are committed to is really important to participatory politics and social movement activism (the kind of engagement I study the most). Prior research shows us that seeing yourself as an activist is consequential for one’s continued likelihood of engaging, with some research even suggesting that activist identification may impact how you behave offline and online when you talk about the issues you care about. But, how people come to see themselves as activists isn’t at all straightforward. Indeed, many people who engage in participatory politics and even clear forms of activism (whether online or offline) don’t see themselves as activists. For instance, in the mid-2000s I was studying a range of online spaces that facilitated, invited, and/or organized activities that to a social movement scholar looked like activism (e.g., organizing letter-writing campaigns, offline rallies, etc.). I interviewed a random sub-set of the organizers of these spaces and asked as part of the interview what sites they considered their peer sites and whether they considered themselves activists. I quickly found out that most did not see themselves as activists and did not identify activist peers but instead saw their peers as online spaces that had similar topical interests, even if not engaged in some form of action (e.g., many fan activists I interviewed didn’t see themselves as activists and saw their peers as other fan sites). Since then, my research group has found that lots of young people who are really active don’t necessarily see themselves as activists either. More broadly, research in social movements finds that even amongst persistently active individuals, not all see themselves as activists. Given the benefits of activist identification to supporting future engagement, I have been thinking a lot about how we could recognize the actions people are engaged in and help connect their participation to deeper senses of identity and belonging within cause-oriented communities. I am wondering whether Zizi has any insights into how to support that kind of identification or at least undermine cultural messages that make activist a hard to achieve and relatively exclusive identity?
It would seem to me that attaining an identity is both an empowering and restrictive exercise. I do believe that naming is an exercise in power, so the ability to claim a name, and be the first to do so is a form of turf claiming. On the one hand, the reluctance to claim the activist identity might reflect a tendency to disassociate oneself from how activism has been claimed as a way of being political in the past. On the other hand, these kinds of tiny acts of independent or coordinated participation or activism have often been termed slacktivism, and so people are reluctant to be tagged as slacktivists for engaging in political activity of this nature. But I wonder if there is also something else going on here, reflective of a tendency to renegotiate what activism stands for and at the same time retain an elusive, reflexive and fugitive identity for activists. By fugitive I mean both on the run but also reluctant to conform to societal norms we embrace as normative.
I loved your first sentence – the empowerment and restriction of identities are both important to consider and often the restrictive elements of identities are not paid equal attention. For the people I interviewed, and the young people that members of my team interviewed, there was rarely a sense that the nature of activism (e.g., engaging online) was what drove their lack of identification, even though there are plenty of negative cultural messages about online activism (don’t get me started here—I have a whole rant about the problems with the term of slacktivism and the ideas that often underlie that label!). It seems instead like there is some cultural archetype of activist that is so invested in a movement that few can meet that standard. In my mind, that is a risky vision of activism to cultivate because its exclusivity tells people the actions that many people can take aren’t important enough. But, research by Heidi Reynolds-Stenson shows that the exclusivity of these identities also helps keep long-term activists engaged, even in the face of repression. Assuming that both are true—that a restrictive identity both keeps highly committed people engaged but keeps people with an interest and willingness to participate, but not as a central component of their lives, from seeing themselves as engaged—movements need to consider how to balance these because movements need both types of people to succeed. Do any of these themes resonate with your work on visions of democratic participation?
Yes. Throughout my work I have been able to trace a general reluctance to identify with this imagined archetype of what being an activist means. Instead, I notice that people find greater meaning in activities naturally gravitate towards, activities that frequently fly under the radar. They are often misread as apathy or cynicism and do not count as activism because we do not have labels for them. I have never interviewed anyone who enjoyed being labeled! Likewise, in observations of civic behaviors, I often notice that people enjoy remediating, poking fun at, and playing with conventional labels, often turning them into hashtags, memes, gifs or other forms of transmedia common reference points that we affectively coalesce around. I like that and it is part of why I have always enjoyed the work I do.
I will say this though: As much as I enjoy the openness of expression that exists beyond labels, I am concerned with the obsession others exhibit in ascribing labels, especially within populist narratives. So in electing an activist path, one must be pro Brexit or against, pro Bernie or against, pro AOC and against, and so on. These binary frames are often imposed by narratives presented by both politicians and the media, increase polarization, and define expectations. So yes, I am for rejecting labels. But I worry about whether that makes us vulnerable to ascribing labels to us, and whether we possess the literacies and the antibodies, if you will, to reject the process of retrofitting our opinion, our activities, our sense being into prescribed categories.
I liked the imagery of antibodies and the freedom represented by a lack of labels, but I fear that whether I am for or against labels, there will be labels. So, my position is not that there should not be a label of activist, but rather that since there will be, that the label be more accessible and the implications of exclusionary access be contemplated more fully. For instance, I think it would be very positive if social movement organizations and actors more consciously considered both the benefits and costs of encouraging a more exclusionary boundary that only qualifies the most committed amongst them as activists. But, one need not focus exclusively on labels as places that participatory politics could be made more participatory—in other work, my colleagues and I have argued that there are a host of ways that social movements could be more inviting to a wider array of potential participants, including making much greater efforts to recruit young people, particularly embracing their fuller intersectional identities (e.g., young gay men, young lesbians of color, etc.). Simple things like explicit invitations really matter and so inviting young people from a variety of backgrounds to get involved may be as initially consequential to their sense of belonging, and the identities they develop, as preconceived ideas about labels such as “activist.”
Jennifer Earl is a Professor of Sociology and (by courtesy) Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona. She is Director Emeritus of the Center for Information Technology and Society and Director Emeritus of the Technology and Society PhD Emphasis, both at University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research focuses on social movements, information technologies, and the sociology of law, with research emphases on Internet activism, social movement repression, and legal change. She is the recipient of a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for research from 2006-2011 on Web activism. She is also a member of the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics. She has published widely, including an MIT Press book, co-authored with Katrina Kimport, entitled Digitally Enabled Social Change, which examines how the use of Internet affordances are reshaping the basic dynamics of protest online and was awarded an Honorable Mention for the Communication and Information Technologies Section of the American Sociological Association’s Book Award in 2013. She was inducted in 2016 to the Sociological Research Association, an honorary association for sociological researchers. She is also the winner of a career achievement award from the Communication, Information Technologies, and Media Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association, the recipient of a university-award for excellence in undergraduate research mentoring in 2010-2011, and the recipient of a university-wide award for the most outstanding assistant professor on her campus in 2005-2006. She has received over 1.25 million in grant funding post-PhD.