I’ve become obsessed with “Un village français.” No, it’s not an idyllic town in Provence. It’s a French television series set during World War II. The show follows the residents of one French town as they navigate the German occupation.
I tell myself that I am already into the 6th season (thank you, Netflix) because it helps me learn the language. I have just started a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, based at the Toulouse School of Economics. And I do need to brush up on my French. But admittedly, I am fascinated with the drama and romance of the TV series.
But I have also realized that the show mirrors the way I approach my research on social movements, social media, and social class. It focuses not on the big heroes, or iconic giants of history, but on the average people. And rather than dwelling on extraordinary events like big battles involving thousands of troops, the shows unfolds slowly as we watch these regular people struggle with everyday circumstances.
These days, coverage of revolutions or protests tends to focus on the big dramatic moments, when people take to the streets or rise up in some fashion. The narrative often focuses on a single individual as the catalyst, or credits social media as galvanizing an instant “Twitter revolution.”
In reality, these events are typically the culmination of a long, slow organizing and educational process that takes place under the social media radar. Sometimes, then, the power of the ordinary is slow, long, and, yes, sometimes less about the spread of communication and more about how it’s not spreading.
“Un village français” turns the lens away from those extraordinary events, and puts is squarely on those more quiet, mundane moments that play out over long stretches. As a kid, I learned about World War II, both at school and in the movie theater, through sweeping narratives of epic battles or heroic leaders. Instead, this TV series examines the complexities of war through the interactions and actions of the ordinary, not the extraordinary, French citizenry.
The series opens with a scene of an elementary school field trip in the countryside, when all of a sudden German airplanes carpet bomb the area. Some students and a teacher die from the bombing. Ok, this sounds like a horrific and, well, extraordinary event, and indeed it is. But the next day, a teacher that survived has to start pouring ink into the students’ inkwells and resume teaching.
The drama expands with the introduction of a web of people in this small town who face constant and evolving choices as to how to respond to the German occupation. Some characters, including police officers, farmers and teachers, begin to join the resistance, eventually known as the Maquis, in rural France. They also join forces with the communists in a weak and strained coalition.
We see in the show how the French resistance used bicycle messengers, coded notes, occasional phone calls, and even a radio broadcast. In fact, an entire season of the series focuses on the resistance trying to get such a radio up and running. From the person who parachuted in and died to deliver the radio, to those arrested for trying to replace a part in the radio, people risked their lives for it. What the show shows us in painstaking detail, however, is that it wasn’t just the radio broadcast itself that ultimately was dramatic, it was all of the organizing around it.
But what about the school teacher who survived the bombing? It takes her into the 5th season, 3 years later, before she does a task for the French resistance. What was the school teacher’s first task for the resistance? She snuck into a military communications room and dismantled the military’s radio in order to protect a defiantly public Maquis action in this small town.
The problem today is that stories around digital activism cherry-pick snapshots of extraordinary elements of extraordinary events. For instance, an object of fascination is the Twitter stream from large protests, whether in Tahrir square or Wall Street, rather than the years of injustices, inequalities and organizing that led to those events.
Well, you may say, that was then, and this is now: People may be mobilized much quicker with digital technology. But this 1940s French teacher knew about the resistance long before she participated. Similarly, people today don’t start participating in political actions only because of a hashtag activism campaign or a Facebook post, however important social media are now. These new digital tools are simply newer, albeit much faster and more efficient, than older communication tools.
Studying hashtags, and other online Big Data sources, are trendy objects of study. I analyze them myself, but they do not represent a social movement. Instead, they are part of a social movement. Let me emphasize that – a part, perhaps big, perhaps small. There are no Twitter or Facebook revolutions. These are imaginaries of our fetish with the extraordinary.
To counteract this tendency to equate the digital with the extraordinary, with one of my research projects on digital activism, I incorporated all of the groups organizing around a political issue, not just those with the loudest digital bullhorns. This approach enabled me to understand the daily practices of how most political, labor and social movement activists do their work, as I was able to capture groups on the right, such as Tea Parties and conservative think tanks, as well as on the left, such as labor unions and student groups. I was also able to unpack class differences across the organizations, as the digital divide is still very much at play with online activism. The result is that each type of group approaches digital activism differently.
One takeaway in my research is that these digital tools are just one of many that people use to get folks involved and to organize their movements. This is not to underestimate the role of communication tools, digital or otherwise, in political movements throughout history, as this dramatic series on 1940s technology of letters, phones and radios shows. The same goes with a viral tweet or hashtag campaign. This form of activism also usually has a story behind those who are promoting a movement’s message through social media.
The great pains that the characters in this show take to getting out their message on the radio reminded me of Patricia, whom I met during my fieldwork. She is a nursing assistant in a small rural town in the southern U.S. and one of the leading digital users in her union. At one visit to her house, she showed me, after 30 minutes trying to get her dial-up Internet to work, how she was learning how to post photos of her union’s events to Facebook. While the stakes seem low with Patricia, compared to higher risk activism in the Maquis, communicating with other workers had its risks. I accompanied Patricia and other organizers to a facility they were trying to organize. As we were all standing on public property next to a rural highway, the police came to stop them from handing out flyers. I often witnessed these everyday challenges through my fieldwork.
But the marvel of the unsung ordinary is not only discovered in interviews or observations with qualitative research. From calculating “digital activism scores” of different groups’ online postings or, in an earlier project, the rates of online content production based on social class, race and gender differences, I have also used online quantitative data to examine what a broader swath of people are, and are not doing, online, not just those tweeting in extraordinary circumstances.
The upshot of my research is that the Internet, then, is not as democratic as we think, as structural barriers to online political participation exist just as with other forms of political participation.
In terms of its impact on social movements, well, the Internet is having one. But it may neither be as simple or as fast as commonly assumed when a burst of Facebook posts and tweets suddenly appear in our streams. What you’re seeing may feel like the beginning of something extraordinary, but harder to see is the months of years of ordinary work that laid the foundation.
The challenge is to look past those status updates and discover the ordinary work that went in to making that extraordinary moment become reality.
Mobilizing Ideas asked the Contributing Editors to write posts about our research. As this was supposed to be a post about my work – I will conclude with an abbreviated, Twitter length bio: While currently at the IAST & the TSE, I recently finished my PhD in Sociology at UC Berkeley. You can find out more about my work on social media, social movements and social class at www.schradie.com or on Twitter @schradie.