Skip to content

Aggregation vs. networking: a conversation between Paolo Gerbaudo and Jeff Juris

December 19, 2014

These are the first few exchanges of an ongoing public conversation between the social movements scholars Paolo Gerbaudo and Jeff Juris, with Sasha Constanza-Shock and myself chipping in as required. It all started on Twitter a couple of days ago, but we then decided to move the conversation to a much roomier platform: Pirate Pad.

[JP update 19 Dec 2014. For readers new to this topic, here is the abstract of Juris, J. S. (2012). Reflections on# Occupy Everywhere: Social media, public space, and emerging logics of aggregation. American Ethnologist, 39(2), 259-279.

This article explores the links between social media and public space within the #Occupy Everywhere movements. Whereas listservs and websites helped give rise to a widespread logic of networking within the movements for global justice of the 1990s–2000s, I argue that social media have contributed to an emerging logic of aggregation in the more recent #Occupy movements—one that involves the assembling of masses of individuals from diverse backgrounds within physical spaces. However, the recent shift toward more decentralized forms of organizing and networking may help to ensure the sustainability of the #Occupy movements in a posteviction phase. [social movements, globalization, political protest, public space, social media, new technologies, inequality]]


I suggest we let Paolo begin by making his point about aggregation vs. networking, with citations if need be, and then Jeff can respond. Either Sasha or I could be the moderator (one moderator is better than two, I reckon).


Hi Guys what if you (John and Sasha) raise some questions about our views of aggregation and networking and we respond? That would give a stronger framing to the discussion.


I’m not so sure either aggregation or networking are new logics :)


Come on Sasha don’t open another battle line in this logic battle ;)


OK, here’s my kick-off question. Paolo, could you take us back to Sasha’s original tweet, give us a paragraph or two or three about the point you were trying to make? Then Jeff could respond, and we’ll take it from there. In other words, we’re reinitiating the original Twitter conversation from scratch but this time with room to develop points and respond, something that was not possible on Twitter. (NB. Bear in mind that some readers won’t be familiar with your work or Jeff’s).


Just finished grading, have a bit of time now. Remember: my initial query about Sasha’s tweet was in response to the implication that I somehow saw aggregation as negative. This was likely more a result of the specific properties of Twitter than anything else (John’s point: affordances anyone?). So, hopefully starting from scratch will allow for a more productive discussion. BTW, who reads this pad (nice to know something about audience)?


Re: who reads this pad, well it’s a public arena which anyone can read if they know where to find it, although we haven’t really explicitly publicised it other than indirectly via our Twitter exchanges. I was thinking we could publicise it once the conversation gets under way?


[why don’t we use this as a draft for an interview to be published somewhere on da web?]


An interview sounds like a great idea to me.


Hi folks. Thanks for getting this conversation started. I think the small Twitter misunderstanding we had is a perfect excuse to start a conversation I was very eager to have.

Jeff’s discussion of a logic of aggregation as the emerging communicative logic of the Occupy wave, and its difference from the logic of networking of no-global activists, which he had described in Networking Futures, has been one of the major sources of inspiration for the theorising I have been developing in Tweets and the Streets and thereafter (I have a book on protest culture coming out sometimes in 2015, which discusses very much these issues).

To start from the tweet, my reference during the Media Activism conference to the fact, that I had a more positive view of aggregation, was based mostly on two critical points made by Jeff on aggregation vis-a-vis networking in 2 separate articles.

1) in the Occupy Everywhere article, Jeff argued that the logic of aggregation had some problems compared with networking and in particular a more serious problem of sustainability than the logic of networking, because of its flash-mob tendency to aggregate and disaggregate. Connected to this diagnosis he saw in decentralized organisation (collectives, affinity, groups, community projects) a possible solution.

2) in another collective article ‘Negotiating Power and Difference Within the 99%’ while not referring to the notion of aggregation, some related criticisms emerged which I think ultimately have to do precisely with aggregation. In particular the collective tag 99% was seen as homogeneising, with the risk of eliding differences (class, gender, ethnicity).

Both articles are pertinent and they are right in signalling some risks. Yet, as far as I am concerned, online aggregation and its manifestation in unifying identities as the 99% constitute a clear advancement vis-a-vis the networking practiced by anti-globalisation activists and one which matches well the challenges of the present times.

In particular aggregation – as a process by means of which atomised individuals can be grouped in a collective category  as “the people” or “the 99%” – can allow to

a) supersede the profound divides created by decades of identity politics and the particularism and separatism it has engendered (this is were the 99% identity was useful – to say let’s leave differences aside for a minute, let’s use the economic battlefield as a gathering point. Otherwise they’ll do “divide and rule”)

b) construct a cross-class alliance to face the challenge of an oligarchic society, characterised by an alliance between the business class and the political class, and the presence of so-called “cartel parties” (Katz and Mair, 1995) that is parties that do not really compete with one another

c) overcome the atomisation of contemporary society (in the form of a networked individualism), and cope with the lack of strong categorical identities to be mobilised. As the historian of social movements Charles Tilly (1978) taught us with his concept of cat-net (network within a category) we need both net and cat . Imho at the moment we have too much net and too little cat ;)

d) overcome the self-ghettoising tendencies of small group politics (affinity groups, collectives), which I think were ultimately detrimental for the anti-globalisation movement and autonomous movements (if you are not part of the scene, you are not part of ‘us’)

This is why I think that developing an understanding of online aggregation is very a urgent political task and I welcome this discussion. This is a good point to end my first round.


Here’s my first post- think I got carried away:-)

Thanks for the clarification, Paolo, definitely helps flesh out your arguments a bit more than a twitter post! The twitter post was great for grabbing my attention and pulling us all together to have this conversation (perhaps a mini-example of aggregation), but then other tools/structures were needed to really flesh out our ideas and build a productive and more sustainable discussion (essentially a wiki, one of the classic tools of collaborative, networked writing that was widely used during the heyday of the global justice movement). This can serve as a kind of metaphor for the way I see the relationship between logics of aggregation and logics of networking. Each has specific effects, including significant advantages and challenges with respect to movement building and strategy, and I think movements would benefit from understanding how these logics work and incorporating elements of each. I actually don’t think it is possible that one is a clear advancement over the other in such an absolute sense. That’s the gist of what I argued toward the end of my American Ethnologist piece. I actually think this began to happen more and more within the Occupy movement, but, ultimately I don’t think it was enough, and the movement wasn’t really able to sustain itself in the same way for too long after the evictions despite the rise of many exciting initiatives like Occupy Sandy, Strike Debt, Occupy Boston Radio, etc. I was actually more optimistic at the time of writing that piece than I am now.

Paolo provided a lot to chew on and I want to briefly address his point about subjectivity, but before that let me address two potential misconceptions. I am NOT arguing for a deterministic relationship between certain technologies and particular movement logics. Rather, I am making an argument based on the idea of affordances: that certain technologies are more facilitative of certain kinds of practices and interactions than others, but that these practices and interactions are mediated by a host of social, cultural, and political factors. Nonetheless, it is interesting to think about the wider movement logics that may be partly shaped, at an early stage, by certain kinds of technological platforms and practices. Additionally, I use conceptual binaries like logics of aggregation vs. logics of networking as heuristic devices. In practice, these logics are never complete, they are always contested, and there is never an absolute divide between them. That is why I emphasize the potentially productive inter-relationships between them. Nonetheless, they can be helpful in terms of ethnographically interpreting (which is what I do) key movement dynamics as well as key cultural-political tensions and struggles within movements.

In terms of broad populist subjectivities like “the people” or “the 99%,” I think these played an extremely important and productive role within the Occupy movements (like the category of los Indignados in Spain). And I have specifically argued that they are related and partially shaped, if not determined, by the wider logics of aggregation within these movements (they are of course also a reflection of a widespread populist critique of the banks, Wall Street, financial capitalism, etc.). In a short Cultural Anthropology blog ( I try to ethnographically capture some of the visceral and political potency of these emerging insurgent subjectivities and to think about how to think about them more in performative than in representative terms (given the obvious pitfalls of trying to “represent” the 99%, which I don’t think is what people were actually trying to do). 

All that said, one potential problem of relatively universalizing categories, despite their clear productivity (again, I think in terms of strategic pros and cons, not absolute differences) is that they provide a language where it is often more difficult (not impossible) to articulate differences in ways that recognize internal stratifications, power relations, and exclusions. This means that members of historically marginalized groups may feel that their experiences are not recognized. This is precisely what we began to see in Occupy in relation to critiques of the notion of the 99%, the controversy over the Occupy Wall Street statement of occupation, etc. The point I have been trying to make in my writing is that 1) networking logics and discourses like unity through diversity, networks of networks, movements of movements, etc. provide a more fully developed language for incorporating difference (not that difference and power were effectively addressed in practice during the global justice era either!) and that 2) strategically, at least in the United States and other multicultural societies, it will be impossible to build the kind of diverse, cross-class, multi-racial movement that will be needed to win (whatever that means to you: to topple global finance, to achieve socio-economic and racial justice, to build an alternative society from below, etc.) without engaging difference. Again, rather than setting up logics of aggregation against logics of networking, this is a call to figure out ways of combining elements of each to find strategic ways of expressing broad populist sentiments that can produce powerful affective solidarities and link movements and communities together, while still recognizing differences and internal power relations.

This last point is perhaps shaped by my location in the United States, but here it is very difficult, if not impossible, to build cross-class, multi-racial coalitions by deemphasizing racial and ethnic differences and focusing primarily on class. This is independent of whether you think this would be a good thing. In strategic terms it is a non-starter. The goal, it seems to me, should be to find ways of conceptualizing and productively engaging differences of race, class, sex, gender, privilege, etc. in ways that lead, not to fragmentation and isolation, but to the building of links and connections across communities. This is where logics of networking have something to offer I think. But again, in my most optimistic moments, I believe there are ways to combine different logics and modes of subjectivity to move us forward and not continue falling into the same cultural-political stalemates. For me, conceptual and strategic innovation comes from creative mixing and mashing, not black and white kinds of oppositions (although those can be useful when confronting our political enemies!).

Continued here…

How information volunteers solve communicative issues during a disaster

December 18, 2014

Volunteers Playing with Children-Refugees
Volunteers play with children at a disaster refugee centre near Yogyakarta, in Indonesia. Photo by Eko Suprati.

This is an invited post from Kurniawan Adi Saputro (@ksaputro) who is about to complete his PhD at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. His thesis is a study of media audiences’ engagement in disaster response. He currently teaches at the Indonesia Institute of the Arts, in Yogyakarta.

The importance of ‘volunteer and technical communities’ (Meier, 2013) in today’s disaster response cannot be overstated. One of their key contributions is to help disaster-affected communities produce and obtain crisis information. They are especially needed to sift through a huge trove of crisis information, which is partly a product of widespread mobile phone adoption. Further, ‘volunteer and technical communities’ can lend their hand so that those affected by disaster can obtain local, up-to-date, and actionable information.

Much has been written about the technological issues of involving and serving the public in crisis communication. Here I want to highlight two communicative issues that these volunteers face, namely issue selection of the media and the public’s disconnection with the survivors. Jalin Merapi volunteers in Java, Indonesia, who provided alternative types of information and spaces of action from those of the mass media are a case in point.

Jalin Merapi

Jalin Merapi was founded in 2006 by a coalition of three community radios on the slope of Mt. Merapi, in central Java, two networks of community radio, and four local NGOs in the surrounding area. The coalition was formed after their realisation that during Mt. Merapi’s eruption in 2006 the people of Merapi needed to communicate more between themselves and that they could not rely on the mainstream media to voice their real concerns to the publics because the media listened to the authorities more than to them. In 2010, during the eruption of Mt. Merapi that claimed 367 lives and forced at least 410,388 people to evacuate the area (Surono et al., 2012), Jalin Merapi recruited and assigned approximately 700 volunteers to gather information about the refugees’ needs, to operate a media centre, and to help distribute the relief aid. In short, they created a medium whose central aim was to connect wider publics, especially potential donors, with the survivors.

Besides money, private donors in Indonesia are fond of giving in-kind donations. But there were two problems. First, there were thousands of them acting independently of each other. Second, different refugee camps might require different goods and services. For the survivors, Jalin Merapi provided an alternative channel to seek aid. For the donors, information from Jalin Merapi helped to determine what to provide in what quantity. It also helped donors identify which areas were still lacking supplies. Meanwhile the mainstream media would focus on the major refugee camps and the local governments were slowed down by red tape.

Reporting the overlooked

The 2006 Merapi eruption brought about Jalin Merapi activists’ realisation that they were being overlooked by the local government and the media. The local government’s disaster management was so weak that the people of Merapi had to pay for their own petrol to evacuate. On the other hand, the media could not be expected to voice their true concerns since, in the words of one of the founders, “… the media quoted the local government’s public relations. It might be due to their laziness, or due to them not knowing whom to talk to, that they did not go higher to the people’s place. They only went to the official refugee camps.”

This neglect motivated them to create an information network among the local people themselves, and between them and wider publics. The community radios on the different sides of Mt. Merapi supply the information and the NGOs in the surrounding cities help connect them with the wider publics. Their main tool of publication is the Jalin Merapi website, maintained by an NGO in the nearby city of Yogyakarta that specialises in providing technological support for communities.

Learning from the previous disaster, in 2010 Jalin Merapi stationed field information volunteers at or close to refugee camps. These were strategically selected so as to avoid those that had been well exposed by media. The volunteers were instructed to go to other refugee camps in the surrounding area and to report their needs. Along with bringing information from the less exposed area, Jalin Merapi actively posted messages on Twitter urging the donors to bring their aid to Muntilan and Magelang, not to the city of Yogyakarta which became the centre of attention. When a community living on the north-eastern side of the mountain refused to evacuate and, consequently, were isolated from the relief aid due to the police blockade, the information volunteers worked their way around the blockade and went back with a report. In another case, the public eye was focused on the refugee camps in the surrounding cities, whereas in fact more than ten thousands survivors took refuge in private houses in Gunung Kidul, 70 kilometres away from the disaster area. The citizen journalists brought up the issue and helped to turn the mass media and public gaze towards them.

The citizen journalists were required to focus on problems that were important to the survivors. Consequently, in the daily meeting they were encouraged to listen to the survivors’ problems, although they may have seemed trivial to outsiders. Furthermore, articles were not written to get a certain number of hits but to bring the survivors’ concerns to light. In the same spirit, the micro-blog channel was used to raise funds for the “pillow for Merapi” project whereby public could donated 10,000 rupiah (approx. one US dollar) for material that would be made into a pillow by volunteers. The website’s news section covered the refugees’ need for rubbish bins and paper wrap for food. The common interest of Jalin Merapi’s diverse media channels is its focus on the survivors’ immediate needs according to the survivors themselves.

Focusing on the survivors’ needs

Jalin Merapi learned a lesson when they attempted to connect the survivors with wider publics following the earthquake disaster in 2006 in the southern part of Yogyakarta that killed more than six thousand people. Seeing the disconnection between the supply of aid and the urgent needs of the survivors, they published print bulletins on alternate days and distributed them to the refugee camps. The problem was that they published the list of aid suppliers. Because the survivors’ needs were so high and the supplies were limited, the donors and the aid distributors on the list were overwhelmed with requests. Jalin Merapi was, in turn, reprimanded by the donors.

In 2010, Jalin Merapi decided to publish the needs, whereas the aid supply was published only occasionally and only if the donor specifically requested it. To solve the dilemma of speed vs. accuracy, Jalin Merapi chooses speed and treats the information as “accurate until proven otherwise.” This does not mean that there is no effort to verify the information. Efforts are made to make sure that the requests are correct and that the contact person exists and can confirm the request. From the audiences’ perspective, the voices of the survivors make the requests real, different from requests made by humanitarian organisation and the mainstream media. And the publics themselves love to see their aid reach the right person or, if possible, to distribute the aid in person and meet the survivors.

The weakness of this approach is that made-up requests cannot be distinguished from true requests before aid delivery. In fact, there was a case of a request for a generator that was later exposed by the donor to be fraudulent. Jalin Merapi published the story to warn other donors. Another problem it faces is that the requests may be made to many organisations simultaneously and can be fulfilled redundantly. Jalin Merapi cannot ascertain if and when a request can be fulfilled and by whom. Although Jalin Merapi manages the information centre and the aid distribution, the two operations are loosely connected.

Direct connection

The supply of information about survivors’ needs in disaster is an obvious problem to solve. There are many ways to go about it. The common approach is to rely on the authorities to source the information. This approach assumes the government and its agencies can keep abreast of the ever-changing circumstances of the refugees. During the Mt. Merapi eruption in 2010 the escalation of threat forced the refugees to evacuate three times, following the expansion of the safe zone threshold from 10 km to 15 km and finally to 20 km. The number of refugees surged from tens of thousands to about three hundred thousand people. The sudden change of reality rendered the hard earned data useless since refugees moved to new places and formed new groups. Furthermore, the way mass media covered refugees was aimed at creating an informed public, regardless of their action. Instead of helping the publics to donate themselves, Indonesian mainstream media liked to be the intermediary to whom people donated their money without being connected with the receiver (Abidin and Kurniawati, 2004; Heychael and Taniago, 2013). At variance with the media, Jalin Merapi provided information that could be acted upon by the publics and avoided standing in the way between the publics and the refugees (Dewi and Nasir, 2012).

Jalin Merapi changed the relationship between the subjects of news reports and the audiences by providing the opportunity to connect directly with the survivors. The phone number of the survivor or the volunteer was provided in the news article, in the micro-blog posts, and in the online live document. Concern over privacy was superseded by a more important objective, namely to allow the potential donors to contact the refugees. By calling the potential receiver first, the donors could spend their budget effectively. And after delivering the aid, the donors could keep themselves updated by maintaining a connection with the survivors. When the survivors moved, the donors knew how to reach them.

Two lessons can be learnt from Jalin Merapi’s information volunteers. One, we need to see beyond the traditional communicators of disaster (government and mass media) and pay attention to local people and ‘volunteer and technical communities’. Two, their strategic decision to put new and innovative technologies to use can be critical in disaster response.

Further reading

Abidin, H. and Kurniawati (2004). Galang dana ala media. Jakarta, Piramedia.

Dewi, A. S. and A. Nasir (2012). Solid@rity from the crowd: The use of ICT and collective action for disaster relief in Indonesia. In: CITS – ICT4D working paper series conference, August 17. Yogyakarta, Centre for Information Technology Study, Sanata Dharma University. Unpublished.

Heychael, M. and R. Thaniago (2013). Ketika televisi peduli: Potret dilematis filantropi media. Jakarta, Remotivi.

Meier, P. (2013). Strengthening humanitarian information: The role of technology. In IFRC, World disaster report: Focus on technology and the future of humanitarian action. Last accessed 18 December 2014 at

Surono, et al. (2012). The 2010 explosive eruption of Java’s Merapi volcano: A ‘100-year’ event. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 241, 121-135.

The making of a democratic citizenship in Spain, 1977-2004

December 17, 2014

Brief notes on Benedicto, J. (2006). La construcción de la ciudadanía democrática en España (1977-2004): de la institucionalización a las prácticas. Revista española de investigaciones sociológicas, 114(1), 103-136.

English abstract

This article examines the historical process of construction of citizenship in Spain from the beginning of the democratic experience up to the last general elections. This historical process can only be understood properly if we analyse its close relationship with the development of democratic culture and the huge modernization of Spanish social life. The contrast between the persistence of the transition legacy and the change in political cultural patterns, as argued in the article, has produced a model of citizenship that is not entirely clear, where the high degree of institutionalisation of civic rights contrasts sharply with civic practices that are quite limited, although there are interesting signs that this situation is undergoing transformations.

Keywords: Citizenship, Political Culture, Modernisation, Citizen Participation

p. 105. Post-Franco transition symbolic codes alive and well 30 years later, when this article was written (2005). Ideas and categories from that period of transition still being repeated by mass media, political parties and political leaders, incl. national consensus, overcoming the two civil war Spains, reconciliation among all Spaniards, symbolic value of the Constitution. [see also concept of “cultura de la transicion”].  This delimits actors’ space of possibilities.

p. 106 Political elites built a democratisation narrative around individual protagonists which over time came to be regarded as an unquestioned social fact.

p. 106. Although transition left an indelible mark on Spain’s political culture, we shouldn’t forget dynamic relation between change and continuity. The result has been ambivalence and a lack of clear models about what a democratic citizenry entails.

p. 107. Spain’s model of citizenship still a work in progress, with a high degree of institutionalisation when it comes to civic rights, in stark contrast with rather limited practices of citizenship.

p. 107 We need a dynamic concept of citizenship (Benedicto and Morán, 2004) as ‘an institution whose contents and meanings are redefined and transformed by the social practices of different actors and by broad processes of social change’.

p. 108-109. Spain’s democratic and civic modernisation is a long, unfinished process. It coincided with the global rise of neoliberalism from the 1970s. The result is ‘a spectacular crisis of trust in the political institutions’. However, this has not meant a decline in the support of democratic principles, quite the contrary.

p. 110-111. From the mid-1980s the aim has been to pursue an orthodox economic policy, with the goal of connecting Spain to the great fluxes of advanced global capitalism. Priority has been to maintain macroeconomic balance above social needs in order to adapt to an increasingly globalised economic system in which the market penetrates ever more spheres of life.

p. 112 Although the basis of a welfare state were put in place, this was always subordinated to orthodox macroeconomics both under socialist and conservative governments. p. 113. However, there was a discursive shift: from the socialists’ notion of the state as the key agent of redistributive action, we went to a neoliberal discourse of the citizen as a customer or consumer.

p. 114. Spain’s current socieconomic culture is a cross between liberal and statist values.

p. 114-117. Social transformations:

Rise in individualism. Shift in social mobilisation from earlier anti-Franco movements with universalist ambitions to more fragmented, single-issue movements. Secularisation, feminism, and especially huge rise in immigration were other key trends.

p. 118. Doubtless the most unique aspect of institutional model of Spain’s democracy is the system of autonomous regions. This meant a radical transformation of the organisational principles and distribution of political power in the state.

p. 119. There is a double cleavage complicating governance in Spain: ideological (left vs. right) and territorial.

p. 120. Most worrying is the domination of the institutions by political parties which allows for very few spaces for the irruption of new political actors in the public space [hence the significance of 15M movement, we could add with hindsight]. That’s why civil society groups and the citizens themselves only join political life sporadically, usually during periods of crisis or turmoil.

p. 120. Spain’s democracy riddled with ambivalence: coexistence of contradictory meaning, of ‘a peculiar mixture of innovation and tradition’, of authoritarian legacies along with new ways of understanding and making sense of public space and citizens’ role within it. All within an environment in which the defining feature is moderation, both political and ideological.  [Yes, but what about corruption?]. p. 121. Moderation is a cultural code that has greatly shaped and limited the political discourses, citizens’ practices, elite strategies, etc.

p. 122. As a result, there is a gulf between the normative prescriptions about the importance of an active citizen presence in public spaces, relentless repeated from the institutions, and generalised passivity and apathy. However, in recent years, some interesting participatory phenomena, esp. protests, have emerged which could help to reduce this gulf. After Luxemburg, Spaniards most protest-prone citizens in Europe.

p. 123. Historically, the most surprising part of the making of democratic citizenship in Spain was the speed with which civil rights, typical of advanced Western democracies, became recognised and instituted post-Franco. p. 124. Political elites strategy was to mimic the rules, norms and  patterns of Europe in order to reduce uncertainty, stabilise the situation and, above all, reaffirm their power within the new political order.

p. 125. Spain’s 1978 Constitution is much stronger on public freedoms that in its on social rights. p. 126. The welfare state as an ‘institutional formula for the expression of social citizenship’ developed in Spain at a time of profound crisis in the model that had triumphed in Europe in the mid C20. p. 127. Welfare state model in Spain still unclear, with family remaining a key institution to make up for its deficiencies.

p. 128. A chronic deficit of civic practices?

No clear conceptualisation of what it means to act as a citizen in Spain’s democracy has yet emerged. p. 129. Citizens regarded by elites as little more than audiences of the democratic spectacle put on by the political parties. p. 129-130. Widespread idea among people that the solidity of a political party comes from how firmly it conveys its position, regardless of whether it was arrived at top-down or through a democratic deliberation [contrast this with new citizen parties, e.g. Partido X, Podemos, Guanyem].

p. 130. Another weakness is that citizenship not adequately taught at school. p. 131. Plus idea of public space as space of citizenship not strongly implanted [shows once again, importance of square occupations by 15M movement in 2011, JP].

p. 131. So the state is once again the focus of all citizen demands and needs. Entrusted with meeting them, in exchange for not being put under true democratic control [cf. monitory democracy concept in previous post, so monitory democracy new development in Spain, pace Keane?].

p. 132. Spanish notion of citizen very close to that of subject (subdito). However:

In recent years there are signs that this limited and passive conception of citizenship is giving way, above all among the younger generations, to more active positions. As a result,  a greater participation and engagement of citizens in social processes is sought, often through various forms of protest.  These civic practices are configuring a new form of citizenship and possibly beginning to shape the prevailing political and cultural patterns of Spain’s democracy. These are issues that should be observed closely in the near future. [prescient concluding remark, JP]




















11. Monitory democracy in an age of media abundance

December 11, 2014

236407-719b294a-0328-11e4-8fce-3dc9660cd2acPublic accountability campaigns are on the rise worldwide, fuelled by a digital media bonanza.

IN 2009 John Keane, the Australian political theorist, published a book titled The Life and Death of Democracy. The book argues that a new political form has spread around the world since 1945: ‘monitory democracy’. This is the idea that decision-makers in all spheres of society – including government, the private sector and civil society – are subject to ever-increasing levels of public scrutiny. Such scrutiny can be done in the name of ‘the public’, ‘public accountability’, ‘citizens’, ‘transparency’, ‘democracy’, or some other entity (see also Strathern’s 2000 notion of ‘audit culture’). Monitory democracy does not replace representative democracy. Rather the two co-exist uneasily, with the irresolvable tension of mostly unelected actors guarding over elected representatives at its heart.

In a recent paper on Spain, Keane and Ramón Feenstra point out that monitory democracy must be understood today in relation to a ‘new architecture of communicative abundance’. In other words, we must take into account the explosive uptake of social and mobile media we are currently experiencing (Feenstra and Keane 2014).

In Spain, these authors found a huge profusion of monitory democracy initiatives. First, they found mainstream and alternative media investigations into high-level corruption. The most famous of these is arguably the ‘Bárcenas papers’ case. Luis Bárcenas, currently in detention on corruption charges, was the treasurer of the ruling Popular Party (PP) for twenty years. The case was uncovered by the left-leaning newspaper El País and its conservative counterpart El Mundo. It was then pursued in depth by civic groups linked to Spain’s indignados (15M) movement. Second, a new wave of collaborative citizen platforms such as Adopta un senador (Adopt a senator), inspired by Britain’s Daily Telegraph’s investigation into MP expenses, in which citizens monitor the expenses of Spanish senators; or 15MPaRato, a crowdfunded and crowdsourced effort that brought to justice the former IMF President Rodrigo Rato. Third, street protests and direct actions over specific issues. Among these the most prominent has been the anti-eviction platform PAH which has ‘successfully scrutinised and denounced Spanish mortgage laws, the banking system and the lack of response by elected representatives’. Finally, a whole raft of ‘anti-party’ parties like Partido X, Podemos (We Can) or Escaños en Blanco (Empty Seats) have emerged from the indignados movement to challenge the democratic credentials of the incumbent political class and demand urgent reform.

Indonesia’s election guardians

This is a compelling argument as far as Spain goes. But Feenstra and Keane claim that monitory democracy is ‘a global trend’. Is that really the case? How well does this model travel to countries with a radically different historical experience and political culture from Spain’s? As it turns out, it travels rather well.

Let us take the example of Indonesia’s 2014 presidential campaign. This election pitted Jokowi (pictured above), a middle-class furniture entrepreneur from central Java, against a member of the country’s ruling elite: a retired army general named Prabowo, the son-in-law of the former dictator Suharto. Whilst Prabowo’s campaign was bankrolled by his billionaire brother, Jokowi relied on his successful track record as the mayor of Solo and Jakarta for a strong grassroots support. Both candidates made extensive – and creative – use of social media to reach the country’s younger urban voters. In Jokowi’s case, this included countering a ‘black campaign’ (kampanye hitam) in which he was falsely accused of being a Christian of Chinese descent (in fact, he is a Javanese Muslim). In the end, Jokowi emerged the winner, but only by a small margin.

In a country plagued by corruption and ‘money politics’, many Indonesian citizens had concerns about potential ‘irregularities’ during the electoral process. Fortunately for them, Indonesia’s National Elections Commission (KPU) made all election data freely available on their website. This spurred a flurry of monitory initiatives, including crowdsourced vote counts such as Kawal Suara (Guard the Votes), Real Count, C1 Yang Aneh and Kawal Pemilu (Guard the Elections).

Thus the Kawal Pemilu application allowed over 700 unpaid volunteers to crowdsource voting tabulations (in Indonesian, gotong royong entri data) from across the vast Archipelago. The website linked to a Facebook page updated every ten minutes. Whereas Facebook helped to disseminate information, the website facilitated the process of manual tabulation of the vote tally. By 18 July the volunteers had collected nearly half a million votes.

Freedom technologists

But what part have freedom technologists (those pro-democracy bloggers, hackers, geeks, digital journalists, tech lawyers, and other tech-minded citizens that occupy us in this blog series) played in the reported rise of monitory democracy?

On first inspection (but further research is needed), it would appear that they have played a fundamental role. Let us consider, once again, Kawal Pemilu. In a post-election piece, the Indonesian scholar Ariel Heryanto suggests that it was the country’s masses, not its elites, that made all the difference to Indonesia’s exemplary voting process and to Jokowi’s success. Heryanto mentions Kawal Pemilu as one of many examples of election-related initiatives led by ‘ordinary commoners’. Yet on closer examination, the three masterminds behind Kawal Pemilu fit rather snugly the freedom technologists profile. For one thing, they all have strong technological backgrounds: while two are based at Silicon Valley, a third founder is a Nanyang Technological University alumnus now working in Singapore. Moreover, all three are rooted cosmopolitans – they may be living overseas, but their hearts and minds are still firmly set in their country of origin: Indonesia. Third, this was no spontaneous outburst of civic participation. In fact, it was the result of ten years of open government activism, as the internet scholar Merlyna Lim has suggested. Fourth, Kawal Pemilu did not mobilise the Indonesian ‘masses’. Instead, its 700 volunteers were mostly students and office workers with regular internet access and time on their hands (but not necessarily sophisticated ICT skills).

Or consider Spanish civic initiatives such as 15MPaRato and Partido X (which we have already discussed in this series) or the investigative journalism around the ‘Bárcenas papers’ by mainstream news media such as El País and El Mundo. Many of these are hybrid media initiatives led by freedom technologists who often found themselves at odds with powerful interests, especially those working for media organisations deeply caught in Spain’s thick tangle of corruption and deceit. Whilst some monitory technologists operate from within an establishment or mainstream institution, others do so from civil society outfits. But they all benefit from monitory initiatives that bridge the alternative vs. mainstream media divide.

Vigilance or vigilantism?

Earlier in the series I asked the question: ‘What do freedom technologists actually do?’. Building on research into the Occupy movement by Megan Boler and colleagues at the University of Toronto, I drew up a preliminary scheme consisting of four digital practices: adminning, documenting, connecting and mapping.

The concept of monitory democracy suggests the need to expand this list to include other digital practices, e.g. whistleblowing, researching, tabulating, analysing and crosschecking. For instance, when doubts are raised about the independence of their initiatives, monitory technologists in both Indonesia and Spain will point at the same publicly available mechanism: data crosschecking. Thus Kawal Pemilu invited sceptics to assuage their suspicions by simply ‘crosschecking both KPU’s data and their own data’. Likewise, Spain’s ‘Adopt a senator’ project encourages vigilant citizens to track and crosscheck individual senators’ assets.

This is encouraging news. Yet before we uncork the champagne bottles we must ask ourselves whether monitory democracy may, in some cases, be too much of a good thing. Feenstra and Keane (2014: 1265) write:

Within and outside states, independent monitors of power are beginning to have major tangible effects on the dynamics and meaning of democracy. By putting politicians, parties and elected governments permanently on their toes, monitory institutions [and civic initiatives, JP] complicate their lives and question their power and authority, often forcing them to chop and change their agendas—sometimes by smothering them in political disgrace.

This raises a number of thorny issues. For instance, what are the negative effects of applying excessive monitory zeal to public figures? Do they make some decision-makers overly cautious and timid? To whom are unelected civic watchdogs accountable? Where does one draw the line between vigilance and vigilantism? When does the ‘radical transparency’ advocated by freedom technologists of all stripes (from Assange to Zuckerberg) become oppressive surveillance?

Go to freedom technologists series

Further reading

Feenstra, R. (2012). Democracia monitorizada en la era de la nueva galaxia mediática: La propuesta de John Keane. Barcelona: Icaria.

Feenstra, R. A., and Keane, J. (2014). Politics in Spain: A case of monitory democracy. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, Online First, 1–19. doi:10.1007/s11266-014-9461-2

Keane, J. (2009). The life and death of democracy. London: Simon & Schuster.

Postill, J. (2014) Freedom technologists and the new protest movements: a theory of protest formulas. Convergence 20 (3), 402-418.

Strathern, M. (Ed.). (2000). Audit cultures: anthropological studies in accountability, ethics, and the academy. Psychology Press.

Photo credit

AFP (via The Australian)

New booklet and installation showcase popular anthropology

November 27, 2014

Originally posted on American Anthropological Association:

Today’s guest blog post is by Erin Taylor and Gawain Lynch.

Where are anthropologists publishing these days? Most of us probably know that Gillian Tett writes for The Financial Times and Sarah Kenzidor for Al Jazeera. Paul Stoller has a column in The Huffington Post, and there is also the AAA’s Huffington Post blog. We occasionally stumble across various other articles penned by anthropologists.

A couple of years ago we began searching for anthropology that is written for a public audience. We now have a rather long and impressive list, and we’ve only just uncovered the tip of the iceberg. Around the world, we’ve found anthropologists publishing in places like The Guardian, The Conversation, Nigerians Talk, the Jamaica Gleaner, The Big Issue, O Magazine, Psychology Today, Scientific American, and many more.

But most of use aren’t aware of the extent of popular writing that anthropologists do –…

View original 446 more words

What does anthropology have to say about social media and activism?

November 26, 2014

This is an early draft of a short invited piece for Anthropology Unbound: A Field Guide to the 21st Century, 3rd ed. E. Paul Durrenberger and Suzan Erem. Oxford University Press. The remit was to write a jargon-free personal narrative.

In the Spring of 2011 I took a short break from anthropological fieldwork among internet activists in Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain) to visit friends and family in Madrid, where I was raised. In a bar near the centre, over cold beers and tapas, I was introduced to a group of middle-aged, bookish people. When they learned I was living in Barcelona, the unavoidable subject of Catalonia’s national aspirations, which most Madrileños adamantly oppose, was raised.

Thankfully the subject soon changed to my research. Although I tried my best to explain what I was doing, I felt I was not getting through. When I reported, for instance, about the marches calling for ‘Real democracy now!’ to be held across Spain that coming 15 May, I only got blank stares. The same happened when I explained how organisers were heavy users of social media, or when I talked about the close link between the planned marches and earlier online protests to defend the rights of internet users.

There was one exception: a man in his 50s with an IT background did ‘get’ what I was talking about. He had followed events closely via social media and knew about the #15M demonstrations and their internet activism roots. This man spoke my language. Not the language of Madrid’s mainstream media, but rather the language of Spain’s (including Catalonia’s) online activism scene.

Then it struck me. For the past nine months I had been so fully immersed in the world of internet activism that my take on current affairs was coming from a small corner of Spain’s media landscape. More importantly, so was that of my research participants. We were all living in what I call a ‘viral reality’, the hybrid making and sharing of news by media professionals and amateurs via social media.

This experience got me thinking about the need for a more anthropological, i.e. more holistic, understanding of present-day media, one in which we question the assumption that ‘new’ media are replacing ‘old’ media. As a number of media scholars have argued, instead of replacement we have the co-existence and uneven mixing of countless media formats. The challenge for activists and academics alike is how to grasp this dynamic, rapidly changing complexity.

What can the anthropology of media offer towards this collaborative effort? First, we can offer firsthand experiences of immersion in small media worlds followed by ‘aha’ moments of realising their inescapable specificity, like the one I had in Madrid. Second, we can ‘follow’ hybrid media actors such as Spain’s Ada Colau or Malaysia’s Jeff Ooi, both activists turned politicians who have learned how to work across media platforms to reach new publics. Third, anthropologists have studied dynamic political systems for many decades in places as diverse as Highland Burma, urban Zambia and rural Mexico. We now need to connect this rich tradition to the study of digitally mediated political conflict instead of jumping on the latest bandwagon. Finally, we need to get politically involved. As Spain’s 15M (indignados) protesters are wont to say, this is only the beginning. There is far more techno-political change in the making than mainstream news of the rise and fall of protest movements from Wall Street to Hong Kong would suggest.











10. Freedom technologists series: a first recap (part 2)

November 20, 2014


This post completes the first recap of the ongoing freedom technologists series through a brief theoretical exercise, namely applying field theory to the empirical materials gathered so far. I do this via a new concept: ‘fields of civic action’. The intention is not to impose a rigid theoretical framework on the series but rather to try out some conceptual ideas in an open-ended, exploratory spirit, with the field concepts marked in bold.  

In this entry I wish to suggest that freedom technologists – those geeks, hackers, tech lawyers, bloggers, online journalists and other tech-minded specialists who actively use digital media to pursue democratic freedoms – are major contributors to the making of contemporary fields of civic action around the world. The discussion takes off from my previous anthropological work on internet activism and field theory (Postill 2011, in press) as well as Fligstein and McAdam’s (2011, 2012) sociological concept of ‘strategic action fields’:

We hold the view that strategic action fields (hereafter, SAFs) are the fundamental units of collective action in society. A strategic action field is a meso-level social order where actors (who can be individual or collective) interact with knowledge of one another under a set of common understandings about the purposes of the field, the relationships in the field (including who has power and why), and the field’s rules (Fligstein and McAdam 2011: 3).

By contrast, I will provisionally define field of civic action as:

A dynamic domain of social action entangled in a web of other domains and resembling a game in which differently positioned citizens and civic initiatives compete and cooperate over the same rewards, prizes and issue(s), often via digital media.

My working assumption is that freedom technologists’ intimate knowledge of digital media gives them an advantage over other ‘players’ in such fields. But is that really the case? Before we can begin to answer this question, let us break this statement down into its constituent elements.

A dynamic domain of social action…

Fields of civic action tend to be much more dynamic, unpredictable and short-lived than the more institutionalised fields we associate today with the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1993, 1996), e.g. the fields of art, sociology or journalism. This lack of institutionalisation means that field agents (both individual and collective) must work a lot harder at anticipating and interpreting other agents’ actions, seeking and maintaining alliances, finding useful ways of exploiting the field affordances of new technologies (i.e. their field potentialities and limitations), and so forth.

entangled in a web of other domains…

Social fields are never insulated from their environment. They are always part of much larger webs of fields – some proximate, others more distant. The following observation about the shifting boundaries of strategic action fields (SAFs) applies equally well to fields of civic action:

The boundaries of SAFs are not fixed, but shift depending on the definition of the situation and the issues at stake. So, for instance, imagine if [the US] Congress were to take up a sweeping reform bill that threatened to change the tax status of all institutions of higher education. [This] conflict would define a new field, comprised of all 2,500 colleges and universities [in the United States], which would probably unite and oppose such legislation. So fields are constructed on a situational basis, as shifting collections of actors come to define new issues and concerns as salient (Fligstein and McAdam 2011: 4, my emphases).

and resembling a game…

Although fields of civic action clearly are not games like chess, tennis or Minecraft, they nonetheless resemble games. For Prior (2008: 305) ‘the field is also a space of competition, the analogy being a game of chess where players enter the game and position themselves according to the powers and moves available to them’. Yet in contrast to a game of chess with its well-defined, unchanging rules, powerful field ‘players’ will also struggle over the definition of what counts as ‘the stakes in the field’ (Prior 2008: 305, quoted in Postill in press: 9). However, not all field players will be equally invested in the game. Some will play for the sake of playing, others out of obligation, or by mistake, or for any number of reasons. In other words, not all actions within a field are strategic. This means that Fligstein and McAdam’s (2011) concept of ‘field of strategic action’, for all its virtues, is problematic. My proposed alternative term, field of civic action, is intended to avoid this problem whilst being more pertinent to the question at hand, namely the contribution of freedom technologists to the new protest movements.

Virtually all social and political games played today go by clock-and-calendar time (Postill 2002, 2006, forthcoming). A crucial distinction to make in this regard is whether or not the fields of civic action being analysed come with an end date. We shall see shortly the significance of this seemingly banal distinction in the context of Spain’s indignados (15M) movement. Read more…


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 463 other followers