Week 3, Thursday: Social movements and the structure of communication in society

An article I was reading today was Robert A. White’s ‘Democratization of communication as a social movement process’, published in a reader on The Democratization of Communication (1995).

White’s main point is about the overlap between communications theory and social movement theory.

Social movement theory is broadly about why social movements occur, and how to understand their structure. As observed according to the theory, the protagonists and members of a social movement are those who are ‘marginal in some degree to the central communication and exchange networks’ (101) of a society. A corollary of this is that the potential protagonists of a social movement begin ‘in a dependency relationship to the leaders of the hegemonic coalition’ (101), through whom their access to resources and information is mediated (the proverbial gatekeepers and power-brokers).

The overlap with communications theory is that society can be analyzed as some pattern or structure of communications. Social movements can thus be thought of as attempts to ‘renovate’ (93) the communications process. The author suggests that for many societies the structure of communications is largely an ‘institutional’, ‘hierarchical’, and ‘non-democratic’ structure, and thus social movements arise in opposition to this structure and seek to modify it.

A point for further exploration is that while we can think of society as the range of institutions and forces which structure communication, i.e. as that-which-structures communication, society can also be thought of as that-which-is-structured-by communication, which is closer to the frame theorists of mediatization adopt.

White’s analysis of the actions and implications of a social movement is worth reproducing in full:

A social movement begins when the marginal groups cut their ties of dependency through more central exchange and information networks and begin to mobilize an independent base of resources in order to gain more direct access and stronger influence in the collective decision making structure. Often this can mean a fundamental change in the bases of cultural power so that the cultural capital of the subordinate groups has much more validity (101).

Reading the above passage, I found his description of the point of departure of a social movement particularly compelling, and in keeping with his preceding exposition on the nature of what a social movement is. However, I could not resist also feeling that this 1995 analysis is in severe need of an update to take into account the present-day state of technology, and social and media discourse. This is one source of motivation for my case-study.

Something else that White’s analysis illuminated for me was what I found compelling about my case-study. It is really the politics of the situation which I find to be revealing about the nature of communication technology. While the politics of the situation is entangled and fraught, I find it to also be very clearly readable. Reading this into the responses of the various parties to what they understand as ‘media developments’ could tell us something about the nature of communication technology.

The suspicion is just that communication technology has a fundamentally political dimension. In that sense White’s analysis that it is the structure of communication which is the object or site of contest remains as timely as ever.


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