Social Movements and Political Agency in the Digital Age: A Communication Approach
Digital media pose a dual challenge to conventional understandings of political agency. First, digital media destabilize long-held assumptions about the nature of collective action, about social movements and their capacity to effect change. This is because digital media are thought to facilitate more decentralized, dispersed, temporary and individualized forms of political action that subvert the notion of the collective as singular, unified, homogeneous, coherent, and mass. One way of resolving this challenge is to view the collective in looser terms, as a process rather than as a finished product, a conceptualization that can be influence our understanding not only of social movements, but also of other political actors and of society as a whole. Second, digital media highlight the need to take communication seriously in how we conceptualize both collective action and political agency. Placing communication at the centre allows us to develop this looser and more processual understanding of the collective by studying it as a process that is constituted in and through communication. Inspired by organizational communication and particularly the work of Taylor and van Every (2000), this essay proposes a conception of collective action as emerging in conversations and solidified in texts. This conceptualization allows for a more multiplex and variegated view of political agency that takes into account the specific context where agency is exercised and the power that different actors can exert in a communicative process of negotiation, persuasion and claim-making.