Social Movement Data II

The availability of previously unimaginable volumes of text and network data on new forms of communication (e.g., “big data” from Facebook and Twitter) and other technological advancements that allow researchers to collect new kinds of data on old forms of communication and participation (e.g., using drones to photograph and analyze protests events, or using nationally representative survey data to map protest events), have led some to predict that social movement research is on the cusp of new discoveries concerning social movement processes. Others are less optimistic that more data leads to better theory.

For Mobilizing Ideas’ next essay dialogue, we are inviting contributors to reflect on both the promise and limitations of innovative techniques for collecting data on social movements and protest. In what ways, if any, do new sources or forms of data allow us to test classic theories (of movement emergence, recruitment, diffusion, outcomes, etc.) or to generate new ones? Which methodological problems of “old” collection techniques are solved by new methods, and which persist? What new hurdles are posed by the availability of “big data”? In what ways does our methodology restrict the kinds of questions we ask? What types of questions are new forms of data best suited to address? What impact will all of this have on the long-term future of social movement research?

Adding to last month’s essays, we are posting 4 new insightful contributions. Many thanks to our cast of contributors:

Jen Schradie – University of California, Berkeley (essay)
Fabio Rojas – Indiana University (essay)
Jennifer Earl – University of Arizona (essay)
Neal Caren – University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (essay)

As always, we invite you to join the dialogue by posting your reactions to these essays in the comments sections.

Editors in Chief,
Grace Yukich, David Ortiz, Rory McVeigh, and Dan Myers

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The Path to Big Data Sociology Isn’t Obvious

By Neal Caren

Hand in hand with the rise of the “big data” in the social sciences is an enthusiasm for incorporating new methods to analyze these data. Most prominent among these are topic models for analyzing text data and random forests for modeling categorical outcomes. Just as the rise of new, large-scale, real-time data sets presents challenges and opportunities to social movement researchers, many of the standard methods used to analyze this new data presents promise for scholars, but it won’t be necessarily be easy. Continue reading

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Call for Papers: Social Movements and the Economy

Northwestern University
Kellogg School of Management
October 23-25, 2015

We invite submissions for a workshop on the intersection of social movements and the economy, to be held at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management from Friday October 23 to Sunday October 25, 2015.

In recent years, we have seen the rise of a vibrant literature engaging with questions of how social movements challenge firms, support the rise of new industries, and engender field change in a variety of domains of economic activity. A growing amount of attention has also been devoted to the ways that actors with vested interests in particular types of economic activity may resist, co-opt, imitate, or partner with activist groups challenging their practices. On the whole, there is now substantial evidence of a variety of ways that social movements effectively influence the economy.

And yet there has been less recent attention paid to the inverse relationship: classic questions related to how economic forces – and the broader dynamics of capitalism – shape social movements. This is all the more remarkable given the major economic shifts that have taken place in the U.S. and abroad over the past decade, including economic crises, disruptions associated with financialization and changing corporate supply chains, the struggles of organized labor, and transformations linked to new technologies. These changes have major implications for both the theory and practice of social movement funding, claims-making, strategic decision-making, and the very targeting of states, firms, and other institutions for change.

This workshop seeks to bring together these two questions in order to engage in a thorough reconsideration of both the economic sources and the economic outcomes of social movements, with careful attention to how states intermediate each of these processes.

The keynote speaker will be John McCarthy, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Pennsylvania State University.

The workshop is planned to start with a dinner in the evening on Friday 10/23, to conclude with morning sessions on Sunday 10/25. Invited guests will be provided with domestic travel and accommodation support.

Submissions (PDF or DOC) should include:
– A cover sheet with title, name and affiliation, and email addresses for all authors
– An abstract of 200-300 words that describes the motivation, research questions, methods, and connection to the workshop theme
– Include the attachment in an email with the subject “Social Movements and the Economy”

Please send abstracts to walker at soc.ucla.edu and b-king at kellogg.northwestern.edu by May 15, 2015. Notification of acceptance will occur on or around June 15. Contact Brayden King (b-king at kellogg.northwestern.edu) or Edward Walker (walker at soc.ucla.edu) for more information.

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It’s All in How You Use It

By Jennifer Earl

When Internet use was beginning to grow in the 1990s, a now decades-old debate started over whether the Internet would bring vast improvements to society, social relations, and individuals or lead to greater inequality, more anomie, and a much thinner civic core. As time wore on, many scholars studying information communication technologies (ICTs) and society were influenced by earlier work in science and technology studies (STS), which suggested that technologies themselves had no direct impact on society, but rather that their impact depended on how the technologies were used (and misused). And, after watching conflicting findings on the impacts of Internet usage roll in for about a decade, the majority of researchers in this area began to support a much milder conclusion: Internet usage would produce some social benefits and likely some social difficulties and the mix and appearance of those would depend on its usage. Continue reading

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Big Data and Social Movement Research

By Fabio Rojas

“Big data” sounds fun and exciting but it has also been heavily criticized. But now, it’s time to step back and treat “big data” as we would treat any other form of data. We should identify its strengths and weaknesses and ask how it can help us with our own specific research goals. So let’s start with an obvious, but under-appreciated, point about empirical research: there is no such thing as perfection in data. Every method for generating and collecting data has strengths and weaknesses. Thus, we should be interested in data collection methods where the positive points outweigh the negative points. For example, experimental data has a great virtue – those who receive the treatment are randomly selected, thus eliminating bias. Experimental data also has a serious drawback. Experimental settings may not reflect “real world” processes and are often not generalizable. This is a serious problem for biomedical research, for example. A drug tested in a highly controlled environment may work differently than in the actual setting of a hospital. Yet, we value experiments because they do one thing exceptionally well – they eliminate selection bias and address the issue of confounding variables. Continue reading

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5 reasons why online Big Data is Bad Data for researching social movements

By Jen Schradie

bigbaddata

I know, I know, it’s digital blasphemy to say that using Internet data is a terrible way to study social movements. What about all of those Twitter and Facebook revolutions of the Arab Spring? And Occupy Wall Street? #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter spread like wildfire, for God’s sake.

You may think that I’m a luddite who doesn’t see the sheer statistical splendor and speed of social network diagrams or automated text analyses made from Tweets.  Or, perhaps you’re thinking that old-school scholars just don’t get it: digital activism is the future, so we need to disrupt, innovate and flatten those hierarchical Marxist social movement sociologists.

But before you reach through your screen and strangle me with your iPhone charger cord, consider these ways in which online data, whether social media or otherwise, might not be as representative or generalizable as they are fast and efficient. Continue reading

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Protesting Inequality

Wall Street Protests Fort LauderdaleIn a recent (March 23, 2015) article in The Nation, Robert L. Borosage proclaimed that “the populist movement has finally arrived” and that “we live in an Occupy movement.” Borosage alludes to several key issues about the recent mobilization around inequality. First, new political opportunities have emerged where political elites in both parties have discussed inequality as one of the most significant problems facing the country today. Of course, their stance on inequality is in part a success of the Occupy movement which raised the salience of the issue, but also reflects potentially new opportunities for legislative change (although neither party has really proposed a systematic policy solution to the problem).

Second, despite the more recent focus on the Occupy movement, inequality has actually been on the rise for decades. This point reminds me of an activity developed by William Gamson for the participants of the 2011 Young Scholars in Social Movements Conference (I was one of those participants). He distributed a prompt that read something like: “Until recently, there has been no popular surge of moral indignation at the unfairness of it all, and no social movement to demand to stop and reverse the trend. People may be aware of this fact and angry about it, but their attention and anger doesn’t seem to get channeled into organized collective action.” Note that the conference was in May of 2011, months before the beginning of the Occupy movement.

Third, unlike the inequalities and disadvantages that are the product of so-called modern progress, globalization and other broad social forces, the “new inequality isn’t an act of nature,” Borosage writes. This suggests that people have increasingly come to see inequality as a manmade injustice. Fourth, social movements matter! They matter precisely because neither party has provided the public with choice when it comes to solving the problem of inequality. Borosage argues that like the civil rights movement, women’s movement and gay liberation movement, the Occupy movement is a “civilizing movement” that fights against these injustices.

Belgians-protestFinally, it is not enough for movements to increase awareness about unjust inequality. They must also persuade activists and the public that they – their participants – have the ability to affect change. As Borosage writes, “As awareness grows, movements must offer a real hope that things can change. Joining a movement often entails facing mockery, scorn and ostracism as well as taking great risks. Few people are ready to make pointless sacrifices, to beat their heads against unmoving walls. Movements must offer more than solidarity; they must offer the hope that the time for change has come.”

My colleagues, Katie Corcoran, Jacob Young, and I, sought to investigate some of these issues (especially the last two points) in a recently (March 2015) published paper in Sociological Inquiry. Using cross-national, individual-level data from 29 countries, we investigate whether and how feelings of efficacy, perceptions of injustice, and the interaction between the two, shape the likelihood of individuals to participate in low, medium and high-cost forms of political action. We treat signing a petition or joining a boycott as low cost action, participating in a lawful demonstration as medium cost, and unofficial strikes or occupying buildings/factories as high-cost forms of collective action. We used the classical definition of efficacy which refers to how much freedom of choice and control individuals have in their lives. Respondents were also asked why people in their country live in need. Individuals were asked to select from four different reasons. We treated “modern progress” and “injustice in society” as measures of structural explanations of disadvantage (the former as legitimate disadvantage and the latter as unjust disadvantage) and “unlucky” and “laziness/lack of willpower” as individual-level explanations.

alg-union-square-protest-jpgIn sum, we found that individuals with perceptions of both legitimate structural disadvantage and perceptions of unjust structural disadvantage have higher chances of participating in all types of collective action. However, while we also found that efficacy is not associated with participating in high-cost forms of action, efficacy does explain participation in high-cost forms of action when individuals also perceive inequality as rooted in structural injustice. In other words, our key finding suggests that in order for individuals to turn to higher cost, more disruptive forms of action, such as unlawful demonstrations and occupying a building, they must both perceive structural disadvantage as being unjust and also believe that their participation can affect change.

Returning to Borosage’s point about the role of social movements in mobilizing individuals around unjust inequality, our findings suggest that social movements play an important role in helping individuals overcome the costs of political participation. Social movement organizations and leaders do so not only by raising awareness about inequality but also by changing perceptions among potential activists about the value of their participation in affecting change. Borosage’s article also alludes to the issue of timing – what is about inequality today that has mobilized the people? Our findings shed some light on this question. In addition to current events and new political opportunities, there is a growing view among the publics of many nations that inequality is unjust and that there is something they can do about it through disruptive action rather than more institutionalized means like voting.

 

 

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