Text as Data: A Call to Standardize Access and Training

Text as Fist

By Laura K. Nelson

Data come in all shapes and sizes, but in the past ten years we have seen huge leaps in the amount of data readily available in the form of unstructured or semi-structured text. This presents both opportunities and challenges for social science researchers, including social movements scholars.

Two sources of text-as-data have long been staples in social movements research: newspapers and organizational literature. Newspapers have been used as the basis for event counts (e.g., here, here, and here), as a measurement of movement frames, and as a movement outcome (e.g., here and here). Organizational literature is often used to show that the way social movements themselves express ideas is critical to their success (e.g. here, here, and here). Continue reading

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Big Data, Automated Textual Analysis, and Protest Events

By Alex Hanna

One of the longstanding issues with social movements research is the availability of reliable, timely, and comprehensive protest event data. Ideally, we would like to cover multiple movements and have adequate temporal and spatial variation. However, the generation of protest event data has usually meant many human hours dedicated to hand-coding, usually by farms of social science undergraduates. But the wide availability of electronic sources and advances in natural language processing – or in a word, “big data” – has the potential for pushing the boundaries of our field. Continue reading

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More Measurements, More Diverse Sources for Studying Mobilization? Yes, please!

By Benjamin Lind

The proliferation of ample, publicly available information from varied sources is an outcome that we should celebrate as scholars. While this proliferation does not offer a panacea for all research needs, it does offer numerous insights unavailable to scholars a generation ago. This potential for insight stems not only from increased data availability, but also from the sociological imagination and creativity of movement scholars who can leverage the flexibility afforded by modern information systems.

For this dialog, I would like to focus exclusively on “quantitative data” from publicly available sources, using passive data collection methods, for the purpose of better understanding social mobilization. In doing so, I will sidestep or only lightly touch upon subjects such as online activism and its implications offline, active data collection (e.g., administering online surveys), questions of research ethics and privacy related to online media, and methods of data analysis. Though these related topics warrant significant attention from the subject at hand, serious attention to these issues would divert from my ability to succinctly address this dialog’s theme. Continue reading

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A Cloudy Future: The Possibilities and Perils of “Big Data” for Social Movement Research

By Thomas Elliott

Technological developments in the past decade have moved an incredible amount of human interaction online. Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites have collapsed the producer/consumer dichotomy (and created the cringe-worthy portmanteau prosumer) such that nearly everyone online is generating an enormous amount of data about themselves and their interactions. Social scientists are gaining increasing access to this data, either through web scraping technologies or application program interfaces (APIs) provided by the services themselves. The web has also made it easier to collect data directly, through online survey services and other similar technologies. This has resulted in datasets larger than most sociologists have ever dealt with, which leads us to the frustratingly ambiguous term “big data.” Continue reading

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Do the Right Thing

Last night in our Post-Ferguson Film Series we screened Do the Right Thing (1989) by director Spike Lee. Having not seen it since I was an undergrad in a sociology course, it struck me how incredibly relevant the film remains today. Even 26 years later, it is still a great resource for teaching about race and protest tactics.

do the right thing

The film begins slowly, following various different characters on a hot summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The film documents the numerous subtle and explicit forms of inequality and racial tensions in this neighborhood. As the day goes on, and the heat increases, tensions build over a series of seemingly small, but symbolically laden, events between members of different racial groups. The film ends with an altercation between several black youth and Sal, the Italian owner of a pizzeria. This leads to the arrest and murder of one of the young black men in the altercation, Radio Raheem, by a police officer. In response to the unnecessary tragic death, the pizzeria’s delivery boy, Mookie (portrayed by Spike Lee) who is friends with Raheem, throws a garbage can through the window of the pizzeria. This leads to the complete destruction of the pizzeria and a riot in the neighborhood.

Do the Right Thing depicts, and holds in complexity, the many layers and forms of racial tension and inequality in American society, raising questions of how one can “do the right thing” in a society with such vast, entrenched, and diverse forms of inequality and injustice. It is a brilliant film, showing how a sense of hurt and injustice from a series of slights, degradations, and inequalities can slowly compound under difficult conditions (such as the symbolic summer heat), and combust in violent collective action. Continue reading

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More evidence for spontaneity: Accidental activation in online campaigns

By Gabriela Gonzales, Juhi Tyagi, Idil Akin, Fernanda Page, Michael Schwartz and Arnout van de Rijt

We are delighted by the renewed discussion of the role of spontaneous processes in social movements; especially since we have been working on ways to identify and measure emergent processes for the past two years. As pointed out in the previous by Jaime Kucinskas (Spontaneity: An important and neglected topic in social movements), sociologists have to be careful before attributing spontaneity to invisible or unknown mechanisms, which could well be the result of ‘a priori factors.’ This identification problem occurs in much ex post facto research, which is usually unable to control for these a priori factors in order to empirically isolate a mechanism of spontaneity. Continue reading

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A great social movement assignment – I promise!

I gave this assignment in my Social Movements seminar (30 students) last fall.   The assignment is an adaptation of the norm-breaking assignments that you often see in psychology or intro sociology. The overall goal of the assignment is for students to realize that social changes isn’t just about demonstrating or protesting but also everyday micro-level resistance.

Here is my money-back guarantee:

1)  your students will love this assignment

2)  you will love reading their papers (really)

Some examples of the experiences my students wrote about:

1. Going to a bar with full make-up and then the following weekend going without

2. Not trying to hide one’s weight under baggy clothing at the gym Continue reading


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