Methods for Social Change

Posted by Denisse Albornoz at Nov 30, 2013 06:15 AM |
On this brief introduction, I outline the main targets of my research project for CIS and the HIVOS Knowledge Program. As a response to the thought piece ‘Whose Change is it Anyway’ I will explore civic engagement among middle class youth over the course of the next 9 months by interviewing change makers and collectives that are part of multi-stakeholder projects in Bangalore.

Why look at the civic engagement of digital natives?

Some of the main knowledge gaps in the literature revolve around understanding the type and extent of political motivation and engagement of citizens (Fowler and Biekart, 2011) and how these motivations translate into sustainable and meaningful participation (Cornwall and Coelho, 2007) in the public space. Having the digital platforms as a space of participation, expression and experience (Cornwall and Coelho 2007, Pleyers, 2012) is necessary but insufficient infrastructure for civic engagement. It is the equivalent of building highways to improve the mobility and communication transactions of a community, disregarding the extent to which it connects the interests, knowledges and identities of those who transit these roads. Through the ‘Methods for Social Change’ project I want to explore the different factors behind building a strong sense of citizenship and sustained civic engagement through technology-mediated change practices.

The project seeks to respond to the questions around change-making raised in the thought piece  'Whose Change is it Anyway?', as part of the Making Change project. One of the main challenges today is how to move beyond the ‘spectacle’ created around digitally mediated change. The third axis of the piece specifically refers to what Shah calls the ‘spectacle imperative’, and suggests us to take a look at the less visible, undocumented narratives that are currently shaping change. Maro Pantazidou also makes the distinction between mass events and every-day practices of change; an interesting complement to Shah’s critique. Both frame ‘spectacle’ events that signal change in the public space as frequently short-lived instances of change, that lack a strong foundation to carry the “revolution” forward through every-day behaviour and practices.

This is not to say I am discrediting the impact of visibility of mass event citizen action. Change must be tackled from different fronts; whether it is by occupying the social imaginary through highly visible displays of civil disobedience or by tackling smaller community battles. However, according to John Gaventa and Gregory Barrett and their findings on mapping the outcomes of citizen engagement, there must be two elements to sustain activism culture: a) the presence of informed active citizens in the movement and b) practicing prefigurative activism, which is establishing horizontal democratic values in the internal organization of this movement. In other words, one of the ways to move beyond the ‘spectacle’ paradigm in citizen action, is through embedding civicness and solidarity networks in its citizens. Hence, my research will be based on the hypothesis that in order to make a transition from spectacle to quotidian activism, change practices must be infused with citizenship-building methods and the negotiation of the citizen identity in public and private spaces.

Who, Where and How

From this proposition, there are three areas to be explored:

First, the profile of our change agents. The population interacting with political and social issues through digital technologies is a very specific and privileged demographic. This group, assuming motivation and disposition, must count with the corresponding access and resources to act. As brought up in the Mapping Digital Media: India Report, recently published by the Open Society Foundation, middle class activism is not only on the rise but is currently experiencing the highest visibility when compared to political and social activism. This is the case not only for India but also for emerging economies in the Global South where the internet penetration rate is very much related to socio-economic status as well as to the urban-rural divide. Shah refers to this as the gentrification of contemporary politics and it is one of the core poignant critiques of his piece.

However, it also leads to the question of how to channel the resources and privileged accessibility of this group for the 'greater good'. Instead of focusing on the problematic behind this power inequality, I would like to look at how this group is using these resources to create partnerships that allows them to disseminate knowledge, awareness and confidence to other citizens; the formula behind strong citizenship and willingness to act according to Gaventa.  This underscores the need for a mapping exercise that looks at the Indian political and social context in Bangalore and India, and identify the main challenges and opportunities to build citizenship and engagement among the middle class.

Second, the spaces where responsible citizenry must be instilled. As mentioned above, one of the main questions is how to translate the horizontal values of pre-figurative activism proposed by Gaventa into the horizontal forms of organization at the community level proposed by Pantazidou. The latter claims that establishing solidarity networks fights citizen alienation by providing a sense of belonging and adds that in order to strengthen these communal relations, citizens must be fully active, present and available in the social arena. In this respect, the possibilities for collaboration through online tools are grand for activism. Online tools and net-ability as pointed out by Fowler and Biekart in their exploration of post-2010 trends in activism, increase connected solidarity and collective consciousness, which are paramount for engaging the populace with its civic duties both in the community as in the larger public space.

Nevertheless, digital tools remain neutral in the question of how to translate it into sustainable every-day practices for change. In order for online engagement to be truly sustained it must be backed up by a solid offline community that carries this lifestyle forward; a question at the backbone of this research. I will be looking at individuals and collectives from different fields that build partnerships to create positive and sustainable change in Bangalore and India. The objective is to see how further collaboration between change agents translates to the ground level by bringing new groups of people, with different skill sets, lenses and networks into the field of social change. Another interesting possibility is exploring whether these new amalgams of change practices prove to be more enticing and provoking for the 21st century citizen.

Along these lines, the methods utilized to engage this group will be the third area of research. Although the prevalence of the ‘spectacle’ blurs the lines between engaging in meaningful civicness and succumbing into the fad of ready-made activism, it would be interesting to look at what makes the ‘spectacle’ appealing and borrow some of those elements to improve advocacy practices. As outlined in the piece, events of change now seem to demand three characteristics to be effective: legibility, intelligibility and accessibility. Creating an image following these criteria provides the message a degree of visibility and clarity that enables its recognition and further amplification through digital technologies.

Therefore, the final research goal is to explore multi-stakeholderism and its potential to enhance visibility for social change. Identify artists, graphic designers, start-ups, entrepreneurs and collectives who are remixing their skills with technology to revisit the question of impact and influence on their audience. I would like to test whether Pleyers’ thesis on the cross-fertilization of activisms also applies to strategie and analyse whether this approach helps overcome the limitations of each tactic, foster ownership by different stakeholders and ultimately empower citizens. Furthermore, as part of a generation that is highly stimulated by the 'visual', I am curious to see how the role of aesthetics and inter-disciplinary collaboration behind middle class activism unfolds. Particularly in Bangalore, a crossroads of technology, activism and creativity, innovation is becoming a praxis norm among change makers. What is left to explore is the extent to which this creative ecosystem can produce and attract the apathetic citizen into the camp of sustainable civic action.

All interviews and change-makers profiles will be published regularly on the Making Change page on the CIS Website.


Sources

  1. Biekart, Kees, and Alan Fowler. "Transforming Activisms 2010+: Exploring Ways and Waves." Development and Change 44, no. 3 (2013): 527-546
  2. Cornwall, Andrea, and Vera Schatten Coelho, eds. Spaces for change?: the politics of citizen participation in new democratic arenas. Vol. 4. Zed Books, 2007.
  3. Gaventa, John, and Gregory Barrett. "So what difference does it make? Mapping the outcomes of citizen engagement." IDS Working Papers 2010, no. 347 (2010): 01-72.
  4. Open Society Foundations “Mapping Digital Media: India, 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/mapping-digital-media-india-20130326.pdf
  5. Shah, Nishant “Whose Change is it Anyways? Hivos Knowledge Program. April 30, 2013.
  6. Pantazidou, Maro. "Treading New Ground: A Changing Moment for Citizen Action in Greece.
  7. Pleyers, Geoffrey. "Beyond Occupy: Progressive Activists in Europe." Open Democracy: free thinking for the world 2012 (2012): 5pages-8.

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