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The multilinearity of protest

October 19, 2013

Forthcoming chapter to appear in Othon Alexandrakis (ed). Method Acting: The Anthropology of New Social Movements. [PDF]

To cite: Postill, J. 2013. The multilinearity of protest: understanding new social movements through their events, trends and routines. Melbourne: RMIT University. Available at:

NB – This is work in progress. For the final version see the above edited volume in due course.


Clock-and-calendar time is integral to the planning and coordination of modern socio-technical practices and ‘assemblages’ in our increasingly digitised world, including collective actions such as protests. With this premise in mind, in this chapter I explore the heterogeneity of protest-related time through three concepts borrowed from the historian and social theorist William H. Sewell (2005), namely events, trends and routines, in the context of Spain’s indignados (or 15M) movement. Rather than deploying these concepts synoptically, I do so diachronically, drawing a separate protest timeline (or set of parallel timelines) for each concept. This multilinear approach allows us to explore the highly diverse temporality of digitally assisted protest, yet without overlooking the ubiquity of clock-and-calendar time.


multilinearity, temporality, time, clock-and-calendar time,  new social movements, protest, Spain, 15M, indignados, anthropology


Recent contributions to the study of temporality in anthropology and neighbouring fields have stressed the need to attend to the heterogeneity of time. For instance, in her anthropological work on cultural production, Georgina Born (2010: 195) follows Foucault’s lead in distinguishing ‘three modalities of difference’ when tracing cultural genealogies, namely synchronic, diachronic and analytical modalities. Born argues that we should ‘read the ethnographic material for its encapsulation of currents or dynamics of different temporal depth’ in order to effect, quoting Foucault, ‘a sort of multiplication or pluralization of causes …  [which requires] analysing an event according to the multiple processes that constitute it’ (2010: 195). In a similarly plural vein, the political scientist Anna Grzymala-Busse (2011) calls for analyses of temporality in relation to causal processes and mechanisms. Basing her discussion on research into institutional change in former communist regimes, she argues that aspects of temporality such as tempo, timing, acceleration and duration ‘allow us to predict which causal mechanisms can unfold and to differentiate causal sequences’ (2011: 1267).

These works are but two examples of promising recent forays into a more complex, multidimensional theorisation of temporality and human life than has been the norm in the past. At the same time, they pose a serious challenge to social theorists, including anthropologists, steeped in traditions that have long had troubled relationships with history, time and social change. These are traditions in which one key dimension of modern temporal heterogeneity, namely its ubiquitous mediation by clock-and-calendar time, has been all but ignored (Postill 2002). Take, for example, the strangely ahistorical case of the anthropology of time. In a much cited review essay, Nancy Munn (1992: 109-111) examines how certain ‘calendric and related time shifts’ reach into ‘the body time of persons’ by grounding them and their daily activities in ‘a wider politico-cosmic order’ (Postill 2002: 254). Munn provides three historical instances to explore these shifts (or trends): the Gregorian calendar introduced into the Solomon Islands by European missionaries, the secular calendar of the French revolutionaries and the diffusion of industrial time in nineteenth century America. As I have argued elsewhere,

these examples exhibit a common social/cultural anthropological feature: they are not presented in any coherent world-historic frame. We do not get a sense of scale, or an idea of how those ‘wider politico-cosmic orders’ may have inter-locked with other orders as the European powers and the United States expanded beyond their shores. What came first, missionising in the Pacific or the French Revolution? How did U.S. economic and military expansion in the twentieth century transform time notions and practices in the Pacific, including the Solomons? How do these three country-specific ‘time shifts’ fit into the common history of humankind? (Postill 2002: 254).

This lack of fit between anthropological theory and world history extends to the study of social change. Although anthropologists have been concerned with matters of social change for many decades, most have to date paid far more attention to ‘social changing’ than to social change. In other words, they have tended to discuss how matters were changing at the time of fieldwork rather than how they actually changed, say, in the late 2000s, or in 1939-1945, in any given locale. In this respect they are no different from most scholars who study contemporary lifeworlds. This is no doubt partly an artefact of the ethnographic genre in its current incarnation. While earlier generations of anthropologists denied their research participants coevalness by writing in the ethnographic present simple (Fabian 1983, Postill 2006: 31-33), the current generation writes in the ethnographic present continuous as it strives for an ‘anthropology of the contemporary’ (Rabinow and Marcus 2008, Budka 2011).

To further complicate matters, most anthropologists today exhibit an aversion to the idea of temporal linearity, preferring received invocations of ‘non-linear’, ‘contingent’, or ‘ad hoc’ time. The reasons for this aversion are complex, but we can assume that they are partly related to the firm rejection of the notion of teleological progress, a rejection deeply set in the field’s discourse, and partly to the field’s 1980s postmodern turn. For instance, Estalella (2011) has studied ‘passionate blogging’ in Spain through the prism of actor-network theory. His Latourian approach works well in a number of places (e.g. when defining blogs as databases) but it runs into difficulties when broaching the temporality of blogging. Although rightly dismissing fanciful – and dated – notions of ‘cyberspace’ as a paradoxical realm of ‘timeless time’ (Castells 1999) and identifying some of the clock-and-calendar aspects of blogging (not least the folk definition of blogs as diaries displayed in reverse chronological order), he then follows Latour into a world in which time and space are the ad-hoc products of agents and actants constituting one another. To recall an insightful remark by Gell about the anthropology of time, this Latourian world is a fantasy, ‘engendered in the process of scholarly reflection’ (1992: 315).

In fact, as we all know from personal experience, modern life is fully mediated by clock-and-calendar time – arguably the most universal of all human codes and one of our species’ greatest achievements (Postill 2002). Granted that in recent decades most of us have experienced an ‘acceleration’ of social life (Eriksen 2001, 2013, Wittel 2001), the fact remains that our worldwide standard of time-reckoning and scheduling has not changed at all. Our days still have 24 hours, and there are still seven days in a week. Governments, markets, protest movements and digital technologies may come and go, but this ubiquitous code remains firmly in place around the globe, with no signs of a replacement code being needed.

It follows that clock-and-calendar time is integral to the planning and coordination of modern socio-technical practices and ‘assemblages’ in our increasingly digitised world, including collective actions such as protests. With this fundamental premise in mind, in this chapter I explore the heterogeneity of protest-related time through three concepts borrowed from the historian and social theorist William H. Sewell (2005), namely events, trends and routines, in the context of Spain’s indignados (or 15M) movement. Rather than deploying these concepts synoptically, I do so diachronically, drawing a separate protest timeline (or set of parallel timelines) for each concept. This multilinear approach will allow me to explore the highly diverse temporality of digitally assisted protest, yet without overlooking the ubiquity of clock-and-calendar time.

The temporality of social movements

Scholars working on the question of social movement temporality have approached it from three main angles. First, there is a growing literature that locates social movement temporality at the meeting of individual or collective life histories and the history of a particular movement. Thus Bosi (2007) asks when and why individuals became involved in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, arguing that researchers must pay more heed to the timing of involvement. This author found that in the early stages of a movement, most individuals were moved primarily by instrumentality. Later on, however, their involvement had more to do with ideology and identity.  Similarly, Lorenz-Meyer (2013) investigates the ‘timespaces’ of activism through the ‘trajectories, encounters and timings of Czech women’s NGOs’, including the lifecourse timing of their incorporation. For her part, Vaillant (2012) discusses the ‘politics of temporality’ among contemporary leftist activists in Uruguay, revealing a problematic relationship with ‘significant generational others’, namely leftists from an earlier ‘revolutionary’ generation.

Second, a growing number of authors focus on the micro-temporality and momentariness of protest movements. For instance, Lee (2012) points out that theories of social movement temporality have so far emphasised mid- and long-term processes, not the ‘micro-dynamics of protest’. Taking the 2008 anti US-beef protests in South Korea as the case study, Lee tracks ‘the political and discursive opportunities for protests to develop’ over a period of 121 days, arguing that we must measure the effect on political processes of short-term protests by studying ‘how they develop in interaction with their external environment every day’ (2012: nnn). Kurzman (2012) also looks at the micro-dynamics and opportunities to protest, in his case with reference to the Arab Spring and the phenomenology of protest. This scholar investigates ‘how actors changed as they perceived the possibility of protest’, zeroing in on those ‘twists of history that confound social scientific explanation’ (see also McAdam and Sewell 2001). For instance, the sudden surge of bravery is best understood not as a causal variable but rather as ‘a disposition that may appear and disappear with the vagaries of the moment, altering the micro-flow of events and making a noticeable, if tiny, difference in the course of mass protests’ (2012:nnn). Also in the context of the Arab Spring, Howard et al (2011) found that a ‘spike’ in revolution-related conversations online often signalled major developments on the ground.

A third group of scholars add an explicit spatial dimension to their temporal analyses.  Thus Andrews and Biggs (2006) track the ‘dynamics of protest diffusion’ in the 1960s struggle for racial equality in America’s South, finding three main channels of diffusion: social networks, the mainstream media and movement organisations. In my own Spanish research, I have called for a ‘media epidemiography’ of protest that can monitor and analyse the ‘viral’ circulation of digital contents (Postill in press a). Other studies have highlighted the simultaneity of protests across locales aided by new networked technologies. Thus Davies (2009) examines the relation between ethnography, politics and space in relation to the Tibetan Freedom Movement, suggesting that the global-local dichotomy plays down ‘connections, disconnections and process[es] that occur between places’. Along these lines, Monterde and I have tracked the simultaneity of connection across squares aided by smartphones, aggregator sites and social media in the 2011wave of international protests (Monterde and Postill in press, see also Gerbaudo 2012, Haug 2013, Kornetis 2009, Panelli 2007, Panelli and Larner 2010).

Absent from all of these studies is an explicit theorisation of the part played by clock-and-calendar time in the birth, growth and decline (or demise) of social movements, or indeed in their tactics and strategies, including the emergent convention of naming the new movements by means of a Twitter calendrical shorthand (e.g. #jan25 for Egypt, #feb17 for Lybia, #15M for Spain, or #15O globally). To rectify this problem, in the following section I make clock-and-calendar time a necessary, but not sufficient, part of my proposed model.

A theory of multiple timelines

The working theory of new social movement temporality that I am proposing elaborates on Rinke and Röder’s (2011) synthesis of the media ecology, communication culture and spatio-temporality of protest. I do so with reference to a dynamic version of field theory (Postill 2011, forthcoming) as well as to Sewell’s (2005) conceptual trinity of events, trends and routines, both of which I explain below. Basing their model on preliminary research in Cairo during the early phases of the 2011 uprising, Rinke and Röder (2011: 1274) describe their approach as consisting of three ‘centrepieces’:

 (a) the media ecologies of the anti-authoritarian uprising—that is, the availabilities of different forms of communication to different actors involved in the revolutionary processes at different points in time; (b) the cultural specificities of the Arab world with regard to what and how communication is socially acceptable, conducted and furnished for social change; and (c) the dynamics of how the anti-authoritarian movement unfolded over time and across distances within the nucleus of protest—the capital—and beyond.

Critical of academic and media hyperbole surrounding the role of ‘new media’ in the Arab Spring, Rinke and Röder argue that earlier forms of communication should not be ignored when studying the day-by-day unfolding of a protest. This may include a consideration of ‘the multiple functions a single medium and different media may have at different points in time during the regime-changing process for different groups of actors’ (2011: 1274-5, see also Monterde and Postill in press).  Their second point (b) refers to the need for an awareness of cultural difference, specifically in the context of communication. Whilst careful not fall into the trap of cultural essentialism, these authors rightly contend that ‘the communication cultures of the Arab world generally differ from those in the Western world in some notable ways’, e.g. the part played by Friday mosque gatherings in political communication (2011: 1275). The third, and equally cogent, point is to advance the analysis beyond the current focus on ‘prominent individual events taking place within a narrow spatial and temporal frame’ in order to trace the entire arch of the protest movement from its inception to its ‘final outcome’ – in the Egyptian case, regime change.

In the present chapter I wish to expand on this powerful model by understanding protest movements as special kinds of ‘fields’ that differ from those traditionally studied by Bourdieu and his followers. In my 2010-2011 anthropological fieldwork in Barcelona (Spain), I observed firsthand the dynamic, dialogical nature of interactions taking place both within the indignados ‘movement-field’ (Juris 2008) as well as with external actors such as the police or the press. In an earlier work among internet activists in the Malaysian suburb of Subang Jaya, I introduced the concept of ‘field of residential affairs’ to refer to the domain of contention in which residents, politicians, journalists, civil servants, business people and other local political agents struggle over local issues through a global technology – the internet (Postill 2011). Here my aim is rather to ‘scale-up’ the analytical level in order to investigate the multilinear temporality of what we might call Spain’s ‘field of national affairs’, a domain in which the struggles are over national, not local, issues. This is a field whose establishment players witnessed in shock the sudden irruption of new actors onto the political scene in mid-May 2011 as tens of thousands of ‘indignant’ citizens peacefully occupied the country’s main squares demanding ‘real democracy now’.

So far scholars and activists linked to the indignados movement have produced a number of timelines to chart its birth and development through either its main events or trends (e.g. Vallina-Rodriguez et al 2012), but to my knowledge no multilinear account has yet been written for this or comparable protests in other countries. As said earlier, to this end I will incorporate Sewell’s (2005) temporal typology of events, trends and routines into my protest field model. Sewell argues that the temporality of any historical sequence is complex, for it is invariably a combination of ‘many different social processes with varying temporalities’ (2005: 273). Out of these various temporalities he singles out three:

  1. Events. These are not merely notable incidents, but rather ‘temporally concentrated sequences of actions that transform structures’.
  2. By contrast, trends are those ‘directional changes in social relations’ that historians typically mark with terms such as ‘rise’, ‘fall’, ‘decline’, ‘proliferation’, and so on.
  3. Finally, routines are ‘practical schemas that reproduce structures’, whilst institutions are ‘machines for the production and maintenance of routines’.

Sewell’s historical case study is Marseilles’ dockworkers in the 1814-1870 period, a ‘golden age’ of high wages and political privileges for these proletarians. This situation can be explained, he suggests, as ‘an outcome of the specific trends, events, and routines that made their detailed control over work on the docks acceptable to Marseilles’ merchants and municipal authorities’ (2005: 280). For Sewell this episode exemplifies the ‘uneven development’ of capitalist temporality, as argued long ago by Lenin, Trotsky and others, a temporality in which profit-making opportunities vary hugely across time and space and as the capitalist order itself evolves over time (2005: 277-8). By analogy, I am suggesting that Spain’s indignados movement, which is still evolving two years after its inception, can only be explained as an outcome of the specific protest-field events, trends and routines that make its demands appealing to the majority of the Spanish population. To flesh out this working assumption, I turn now to each of those temporalities in turn, starting with some of the field’s main events to date.

Protest field events

Adapting Sewell’s definition to the case at hand, we can provisionally define protest field events as those temporally condensed sequences of actions that transform a protest field (see also McAdam and Sewell 2001). This definition makes a field event distinct from a ‘media event’ as normally understood in the literature (Dayan 2010). Although protest field events will sometimes be media events as well, this is not always necessarily the case, much to the disappointment of publicity-seeking activists. In the Spanish context, we can single out three main events that transformed the field in the middle of 2011, only one of which – the square occupations – was undoubtedly a media event as well. These three events are: (a) the 15 May pro-democracy marches, (b) the mid-May to mid-June occupations of squares across Spain, and (c) the vacating of the squares in mid-June.

The choice of Sunday, 15 May 2011 as the date of the marches was no accident. This was a carefully chosen date as it fell exactly one week before the local and regional elections to be held in many parts of Spain on 22 May. Here we see clearly the importance both of timing (remarked upon by a number of protest scholars, see above) and of clock-and-calendar time (a taken-for-granted universal code ignored by protest scholars). The proximity of the elections lent the 15 May demonstrations a mirror quality, creating the desired effect of contrasting peaceful marches by outraged citizens with a discredited political system. From a media event perspective, the marches were, however, a disappointment to activists who had hoped for wider mainstream media coverage, although many celebrated the fact that the marches generated a great deal of social and citizen media ‘buzz’ (Postill in press a). Nevertheless, from a field theoretical perspective, the marches can indeed be regarded as an event in that they transformed the protest field. After several months of intense online and offline planning in small groups, these had finally morphed into on-the-ground multitudes traversing highly visible public space.

That same night, some 40 protesters, inspired by the occupation of Tahrir Square earlier that year, decided to spend the night at Madrid’s iconic Puerta del Sol square, Spain’s geographical, temporal and symbolic centre (it is from here that the New Year is traditionally ushered in via a television broadcast to the whole nation). For the hacktivist group Isaac Hacksimov, this action was ‘a gesture that broke the collective mental block’ (quoted by Sanchez 2011). Concerned that the police may seek to evict them, as eventually came to happen, the pioneers sent out calls for reinforcements through their smartphones. They were soon joined by others who had learnt about the sit-in not on television but through Twitter and other social media sites. By 17 May there were 200 campers in Puerta del Sol and by 20 May their numbers had risen dramatically to nearly 30,000. As argued by Nanabhay and Farmanfarmaian (2011) for Tahrir Square, these occupations constituted a ‘media spectacular’ that globalised Puerta del Sol through both social media streaming and traditional broadcasting. By then numerous cities around Spain had their own encampments and the fledgling movement had become a global media event.

The encampments and assemblies reconfigured the young protest-field, transforming not only its demographics, but also its relationship to urban Spain’s existing spatio-temporalities:

Whilst the encampment (acampada) is organised as a parallel city (with its own allotment, clinic, cleaning services, library, etc.), the assembly transforms the square from a place of passage into a meeting point and a space for discussion and deliberation – [in other words], it transforms it into an agora. The open-air assembly is part of the appropriation of the city; it breaks the urban rhythm and foregrounds the bodies of its participants (Martín Rojo 2012: 279, my translation).

The third event I wish to highlight is the abandoning of the squares in June 2011. By the middle of June, most acampadas across Spain had been dismantled after exhausting deliberations. The stated aim was now to take the movement from the central squares to the neighbourhoods (barrios), but not before informing the authorities that they reserved their right as citizens to reoccupy the squares in future. As a result, neighbourhood assemblies mushroomed throughout the country, albeit with highly uneven levels of attendance and engagement (Corsin and Estalella 2011). At the same time, the protests ‘returned to the internet’, a realm where some of the leading activists and networks felt more at home than in the unwieldy assemblies, and more energies were now focussed on elaborating concrete goals such as the right to a home, a fairer distribution of work, or stripping the political class of its privileges (Castells 2011). This relocation constituted another reconfiguration of the protest field, namely a move from the anchoring of the struggle in large physical spaces (the squares) to a more scattered, mobile universe of practices and actions that are still evolving as I write these lines in October 2013.

As we can see, protest field events are instructive both in their own right and as temporally condensed sequences of collective action and communicative praxis that mark the transition from one phase of the movement to another. In the indignados case (and parallels can be drawn here with the Arab Spring, Occupy, etc.) these key foundational events took place over the relatively short period of a month. They are proof of the naturalised predominance of the clock-and-calendar code across the entire media ecology, from ‘old’ media such as radio, TV or newspapers to new platforms such as Meneame, Facebook or Twitter, in the latter case through the ubiquitous hashtag device applied to dates of particular significance to protesters (e.g. #15M, #27M, #15O).

At this juncture, it is important to stress that not all field incidents, however dramatic or meaningful to participants at the time, can be fruitfully regarded as events as I am defining them here. For instance, many indignados remember to this day the violent eviction of peaceful demonstrators from Barcelona’s Placa de Catalunya by the regional police. News media and citizen videos of these incidents were widely shared and caused outrage, but they did not usher in a new phase in the field’s evolution. Similarly, the harassment of Catalan parliamentarians by irate protesters on 15 June attracted huge social media interest, but along with a peaceful counter-demonstration that took place shortly thereafter, this incident only served to reaffirm the participants’ commitment to a nonviolent strategy in the face of police brutality (Postill in press b). In sum, they did not transform the field.

I should also note that there is a great deal about the 15M movement and comparable movements elsewhere that an exclusive focus on events would leave unexamined. To recall a point made earlier: it is not sufficient to stay at the site of momentous historical events, we must follow the unfolding of social upheavals across other sites and over a period of time (see also Postill 2012). With this crucial point in mind, I turn now to some of the field’s main trends and routines over time.

Protest field trends

The study of trends has been popular in fields such as finance, fashion, crime, or sport for many decades. Indeed, this year’s Nobel Prize for economics was won by three American economists specialising in the study of trends in asset markets (The Telegraph 2013). In social movements research, this is also an area of growing interest. Thus Valenzuela et al (2013) have tracked the ‘time dynamics of the social media-protest relationship’ in Chile’s youth mobilisations of 2009-2012, conducting a ‘trend study of social media and protest behaviour’. Weber et al’s (2013) Twitter investigation of ‘political hashtag trends’ in the US is also a trend study, in this case from a computer science perspective.

In the context of Spain’s 15M movement, Garcia Canclini et al (2012) highlight the emergence of a new research area focused on the relationship between Twitter ‘trending topics’ (the most popular Twitter topics at any given point in time) and events such as the square occupations of May 2011. These authors contrast the current tweet-driven age of a ‘perpetual now’ with an earlier age in which the mainstream media set the news agenda in an orderly, scheduled manner. The indignados’ ‘real time’, they add,

is a vertiginous, heteroclite, fragmentary chronotope in perpetual motion. It gathers around it a human collective with diffuse contours whose link is the present in the strict sense of the term, [a collective] lacking territorial boundaries, history or a common project. Pure present (Garcia Canclini et al 2012).

This view of the 15M movement is held by other Spanish observers, such as the leftist rapper Nega (2011) who dismisses the indignados as ‘slaves to the ephemeral’ forever attentive to the latest fad. It also echoes moral anxieties around the world about the rise of a superficial ‘viral culture’ marked by the acceleration of news cycles – what Wasik (2009) terms, in the context of US political campaigns, an age of ‘nanopolitics’. To be sure, there is some truth to these reports of the ephemerality of shared contents in the digital age, but they are far too reductionist to help us understand the significance of trends in today’s social movements. Adapting once again Sewell’s (2005) terminology, I define protest field trends as those directional changes in techno-political relations that protest scholars and participants typically mark with terms such as ‘rise’, ‘decline’, ‘fall’, ‘acceleration’ and so forth.

Just as soap opera researchers study these genres over a period of time – at least a season or two (see Mankekar 1999) – social movement scholars cannot but regard protest-related trending topics as episodes in a series rather than as isolated phenomena. For example, a study of the most popular hashtags (keywords) employed by Twitter users in Spain from March to May 2011 discovered

a shift from a general political vocabulary (with terms such as ‘politics’, ‘corruption’ or ‘elections’ being commonly used) to what today we recognize as a distinctive 15M language (‘streets’, ‘Sol’, ‘real democracy’). Thus Spain’s ‘trending topics’ for the 10-15 May period included hashtags such as #15M, #15Mfacts, #tomalacalle (#takethestreet), #15Mpasalo (#15Mpassiton) and #spanishrevolution (Monterde and Postill in press).

Leading 15M activists are not merely caught up in trends not of their own making, but have actively sought, so far with a large degree of success, to (a) set the country’s civil society trends and (b) reverse what they regard as pernicious trends, e.g. an increase in protest-related violence. First, over the years 15M activists have learned how to ‘work the algorithm’ so that their campaigns will trend on Twitter and reach wider publics, both through the mediation of journalists and directly to fellow citizens (Postill and Pink 2012). But to say that they are so immersed in this activity that they are unable to see past the horizon of the next trending topic would be a gross misrepresentation. In fact, as we shall see shortly, 15M activists combine in their praxis a diverse suite of orientations towards the future, from the here-and-now of a trending topic, to the long-term dream of a truly democratic Spain.

Second, core activists keep a watchful eye on field-specific trends and seek to warn one another of any deviation from the movement’s aims and objectives. For example, in November 2012 the author Isaac Rosa (2012) published a piece in an online newspaper warning fellow indignados about the trend towards the ‘normalisation’ of police brutality in Spain through the habitual sharing of violent videos on social media. Another example would be the collective displays of nonviolent behaviour following incidents that may be construed by the mainstream media – and especially by the more conservative press and TV stations – as signalling a trend towards an increase in violence by the indignados, a worrying prospect that they have managed to keep in check for over two years now.

Elsewhere I have written about the indignados ‘perpetually transient temporality’, an orientation towards the future whereby ‘the immediate and ephemeral are accorded the same weight as the enduring and long-term’ (Postill in press b):

On the one hand, the indignados borrow from Mexico’s Zapatistas the idea that ‘We walk, not run, because we are going very far’ (Sitrin 2005) […]. On the other hand, indignados’ personal and collective actions are characterised by an ‘inevitable and attractive aesthetic of the urgent and fleeting’ (Albeida 2011: 98). In the occupied spaces, new forms of popular action arose that did not require to be expressed ‘through lasting artistic manufactures, but rather through a common creativity that emerged spontaneously out of the need to be there and to protest’ (2011: 97) (Postill in press b).

On reflection, the situation on the ground is more complicated. At least four temporal horizons co-exist in the indignados imaginary: the present moment (e.g trending topics, Facebook threads, assembly meetings), the short-term (preparing an action two weeks in advance), the mid-term (planning a mobilisation a year in advance), and the long-term (changing Spain’s political system). It is at the intersection of these different timescales that trends are set, observed, encouraged and checked. As with the vast majority of modern practices (Postill 2002), indignados trend-related practices would be unthinkable without the fully normalised mediation of clock-and-calendar time.

Protest field routines

Whilst the concepts of events and trends would seem to possess a logical affinity with the diachronic approach to the theorisation of protest fields I am advocating here, that of routines appears at first sight to jar with it. After all, aren’t routines, by their very logic, recursive phenomena that help to maintain a social field rather than to change it? How then can routines be studied diachronically, as distinct lineages in a multilinear model? What can they actually tell us about the collective life course of a rapidly changing social movement?

As it happens, field routines can tell us a great deal about both continuity and change in the internal and external dynamics of a protest field over a period of time. Like any social life form, routines have their individual and collective biographies. They may reproduce social fields such as the indignados movement, but that does not mean that they remain frozen in time, impervious to the waxing and waning of collective action. Concretising yet again Sewell’s (2005) general definition, I will define protest field routines as practical schemas that reproduce the field. Additionally, instead of Sewell’s notion of institutions I will use the Giddens-inspired term ‘field stations’ to refer to those sites of socio-technical intercourse where protest routines are regularly produced and maintained, which in turn help to sustain the station (Giddens 1984, Postill 2011). Examples of indignados stations include key ‘meme factories’ such as the free culture centres Conservas in Barcelona or La Tabacalera in Madrid, high-traffic social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Meneame, or pro-15M news sites such as Publico or El Diario.

Not all field stations, however, are as long-lived as these examples may suggest. A multiple timeline approach requires that we consider the continuities and changes in the 15M web of routines before and after major events such as the 15 May 2011 marches, the subsequent May-June square occupations, or the mid-June vacating of the squares – and that we do so in chronological order. Let us consider, therefore, the occupied square routines. How did they differ, if at all, from pre-occupation routines? What new routines emerged in the squares that were not in existence prior to the encampments and what routines were carried over from an earlier phase? With what consequences for the future development of the protest field? The following passage provides a first step towards an answer:

The encampments rapidly evolved into ‘cities within cities’ governed through popular assemblies and committees. The committees were created around practical needs such as cooking, cleaning, communicating and carrying out actions. Decisions were made through both majority-rule vote and consensus. The structure was horizontal, with rotating spokespersons in lieu of leaders. Tens of thousands of citizens were thus experimenting with participatory, direct and inclusive forms of democracy at odds with the dominant logic of political representation (Postill in press a, see also European Revolution 2011).

In other words, the protesters recreated three conventional civic formations (the encampment, the popular assembly and the committee) in unconventional places – Spain’s main squares. The committees were an early by-product of essential day-to-day routines such as cooking, cleaning or communicating. Occupiers took it in turns to act as spokespersons, another practical schema that reproduced the protest field during its square-centric phase. As always, clock-and-calendar time was the universally shared temporal code both online and offline:

“These assemblies are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week”. This is how Olmo Galvez, one of the social network stars of Democracia Real Ya, explains the online assembly process. “The information is constantly being updated, the ideas keep coming chaotically, but it works, it produces results. It’s as if the networks had their own thinking brain. Proposals are put forth, an agreement is reached, and then it’s back to work” (Elola 2011).

However, after four weeks of gruelling collaborative work both on- and offline, the transient universe of square-focused routines came to an end, as protesters reached the conclusion that the encampments were not sustainable:

On a tactical level […] a very simple problem arises: the squares can reproduce everyday life on a small scale but they are not everyday life. The encampment is not the world. In the long run the ‘tent cities’ become unsustainable, which is why in many cases (such as in Puerta del Sol), it was the campers themselves who decided to dismantle their small settlements (Moreno-Caballud 2013: 125-126).

After taking apart the encampments, many indignados became active participants in neighbourhood (barrio) assemblies. Again, these assemblies exist not in a postmodern realm of timeless time, but in the familiar worldwide code of clock-and-calendar time. The anthropologists Adolfo Estalella and Alberto Corsin provide evidence of this chronometric logic in connection to the 15M assembly of Lavapies, in central Madrid:

During its first year of life, the Lavapies assembly has met regularly every week. The assembly has been held in different squares across the barrio, except during the winter months when it took up residence in two self-managed centres (centros autogestionados), one of which is a squat (okupado) (Estalella and Corsin forthcoming).

These meetings are not random encounters where ‘anything goes’ but rather highly routinised affairs ‘ordered through formulas that repeat themselves like litanies’.

During the first months there are almost ten people taking care of the meetings, each responsible for a specific function: moderation, facilitation, turn-taking and minute-taking. The shared responsibility of all [participants] is to maintain a dialogical and respectful atmosphere in the assembly space. There are other regulated aspects of the assembly besides the roles. A language of hand gestures has the purpose of promoting participation and generating an atmosphere of conviviality. There is no clapping; instead, hands and raised and waved about. When someone takes up too much time and repeats herself, forearms begin to spin like windmills to indicate: “You’re jabbering on” (Te estás enrollando) (Estalella and Corsin forthcoming).

As we can see from this ethnographic snippet, assembly routines show both continuities and changes with regard to the square routines that preceded them. Among the continuities we can single out the fact that the barrio assemblies still occupy the same region of the protest field, namely the citizen sector, as opposed to the state and industry sectors occupied by social agents such as politicians, journalists, financiers or the riot police. This location lends the assemblies their ‘horizontal’ and homophilic (or ‘birds of a feather’) character. These are spaces in which participants have learned over time to contribute to the joint effort through skilled embodied practice, quintessentially modern ‘third places’ where conviviality is paramount; places that are neither the home nor the workplace (Oldenburg 1989).

Among the breaks (or discontinuities) with the square assemblies we can highlight their unique chronological position as immediately post-square practices (with some overlap) at a time of intense debate about the uncertain future of the movement, and the markedly different character lent to them by their much smaller scale and location within neighbourhoods. Thus, although many of the barrio routines and sub-routines (e.g. the nonverbal forms of communication) were inherited from the square phase of the movement, their social import and meaning underwent significant changes as they were re-embedded in a new environment.

This account of the relationship between field routines and events over time would be incomplete without at least some mention of field agents other than assembly participants. How did field players such as journalists, politicians, financiers, spies, academics and others adapt their day-to-day routines to the changing trends and configurations of the 15M protest-field? The evidence on this matter is still scant but two recent studies offer us some clues. Thus in my own social media research practice during the prehistory and early stages of the indignados movement, I developed five main digital sub-practices (or routines), namely catching up, sharing, exploring, interacting and archiving. Although these routines ran through the entire period of fieldwork in 2010 and 2011 – with some modifications as time went by – there were also times of great upheaval when my habitual day-to-day activities, like those of my research participants, were overturned. As recounted in Postill and Pink (2012):

Fieldwork often shifts between periods of relative calm and periods of intense activity, even turbulence. Thus, following the 15 May 2011 demonstrations across Spain, in which John marched through the streets of Barcelona with tens of thousands of protesters, Spain’s social media landscape underwent a prodigious transformation as countless citizens rushed to share digital contents across blogs, microblogs, social networking sites, and a myriad of other platforms […]. Under such conditions, social media research is anything but routine!

To my knowledge, little has been written about changes and continuities to journalistic and other professional routines as the 15M movement gathered momentum, but this passage does suggest an important shift related to the mid-2011 explosion in social media uses by activists and the general population, at least within some sectors of Spain’s journalistic field:

The contributions of the indignados eventually entered the traditional news media, signalling a change in the routines of news production and a reconfiguration of news-making. Although some voices, perhaps many voices, criticised the excessive, uncontrolled use of social media linked to an inability to tell apart rumours, truths and falsities, there is no doubt that social media are today an integral part of the news media landscape (Fundacion Telefonica 2013).

Even less is known about how Spain’s powerful elites, the country’s 1%, adjusted their daily routines, if at all, in response to the popular uprising of May 2011 and its aftermath. This is a crucial area of investigation in need of urgent research (Postill 2013a).


In this chapter I have explored the multilinearity of protest, that is, the idea that a protest movement is made up of countless timelines. I have argued that we must overcome our reliance on single, event-driven protest timelines and develop instead accounts of the new protest movements that bring together multiple concurrent timelines, such as those of trends and routines. This multilinear approach, I suggest, can help us produce accounts of the protests that foreground the continued centrality of clock-and-calendar time worldwide, as well as allowing us to track the dynamic co-evolution of protest practices and actions across time and space.

This emphasis on linearity does not commit us to a Whig version of history as the relentless march towards greater progress (Stocking 1968). On the contrary, it provides us with a robust analytical methodology to track the often meandering paths taken by movement-fields as they unfold over time. Whilst the passing of world historical time is a linear, non-recursive process (i.e. the year 2012 will never return), social protests and other forms of collective action are open-ended, non-teleological processes. We can be certain that 2015 will follow 2014, but have no way of predicting the birth or shape of protest movements that will unfold that year, if any.

What did this analytical experiment teach us about the temporalities of the new protest movements? First, we learned that while it makes sense to draw a single timeline of protest field events (in the sense of transformative moments in the life course of a movement), this is not the case for field trends and routines where we need to draw a larger set of partially concurrent timeliness. We saw, for example, how a distinctive vocabulary emerged on Twitter in the April-June 2011 period, a vocabulary we now recognise as distinctively 15M/indignados. But this was not, of course, the only trend at work during that period. Other trends included the sharp rise and fall of public space participation in the protests by Spain’s general population, the roughly concomitant growth and decline of social media sharing of 15M-related contents, the ongoing politicisation of geeks, hackers, tech journalists and other techno-libertarians (Postill 2013b), and so on. Second, we found that protest-movements trends do not just happen – they are made to happen by committed activists using a range of techno-political tools, including Twitter’s trending topics facility. Here I took issue with those commentators who have taken the ephemerality of Twitter to represent indignados’ seeming obsession with the here-and-now. In fact, 15M’s informal leaders are highly adept at juggling a number of temporal horizons in their day-to-day activities, and more than capable of realising that a long sequence of fleeting trending topics adds up to a grand narrative of popular struggle against an unjust system. Third, there appears to be a close link between protest field events and routines; more precisely, between the specific stage of a protest movement and the social meaning of routines found within it. Thus we saw how a range of assembly routines survived protesters’ relocation to the barrios, e.g. the use of a basic sign language, but under very different conditions that changed their social meanings and outcomes. Other square routines did not make the transition and fell into disuse.   

Future research could develop the core idea of the multilinearity of protest in new directions through interdisciplinary collaborations among qualitative and quantitative scholars, comparative studies in different national and regional contexts, further theoretical work on the interrelations between the three key temporal concepts (events, routines and trends, e.g. on the hybrid notion of routinisation), on the spatial dimensions of these heuristic devices, or on the part played by the 1% in the multiple timelines that make up a protest movement.

Update 13 March 2014: Example of protest trend management via Twitter (see discussion on trends above)

Zeynep Tufekci@zeynep 1h  After a death in Okmeydanı, Istanbul (still unclear how) conversation on Turkish Twitter is all about how to avoid a descent into violence.


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