Tactics, causes, and theory: Who gets to define what counts as “activism”?

by Carla Ilten

Recently, I gave a presentation at Theorizing the Web 14 in New York. It was entitled: “Activism 2.0: The Politics and Business of Platforms Built for Social Change.” When the presentation got sorted into a panel called “(Ref)user: Movements of Resistance,” I knew I would have to do some good justification work. The audience would expect stories of grassroots uprising, of feminist resistance and of e-bandits (as my co-panelists offered); hopefully heroic, but certainly not for the dark side of the force! The cases I presented, Sparked and Kiva, two platforms that organize micro-volunteering and micro-lending, fall short of heroic, high-stakes activism. No, worse: what they organize in an extremely efficient, online-only way, rubs “social change” the wrong way for some of us. Yet, as I argued, the two platforms exhibit what newer social movement theory on online activism (Earl/Kimport 2011) would consider the most cutting-edge “internet-enabled” organization of participation – low cost, high outcome mobilization! Not least, the people who engage in these micro-actions feel that they are making a difference of some sort. I tried to highlight this finding – I will call it a contradiction for want of a more nuanced analysis at this point – as the starting point of a research journey. Not completely successfully, as the following exchange occurred on twitter after my talk:


As a political and interested human being, of course I have (strong!) preferences with regard to causes and visions – I make normative judgments about what activism I find legitimate and desirable. As a sociologist, though, I can and must analytically distinguish between activism and causes, or between movement tactics and movement goals. What is more, when the people whose activities I observe use those terms to describe what they’re doing, then I have to take them seriously, all the while making my own, possibly counter- analysis. That is indeed what I presented in my talk: a project that started out looking for activism online, found something that looked similar but different, and concluded that it was not the wrong case, but… a case of what? This is where things get interesting.

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Inspired or Civic: The Value of Art in Various Settings

by Michael De Anda Muñiz

This past week I was able to attend a 96 Acres event (96 Acres is an art project on the Cook County Jail) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a Latina artist’s job talk for a university position, and a steering committee meeting for 96 Acres. It was a week that exemplified my main interest in Latina social justice artists. In one week, Latina artists interacted with a major art institution, an academic institution, and community members in separate settings. Each brought them into contact with very different audiences, and in each setting 96 Acres was one of, if not the, main focus.

The event at the museum was “an intervention”. This means that the museum had all its galleries open, and individuals involved in 96 Acres did performance art throughout the museum. Therefore, visitors were able to see the museum’s collections but were also confronted by performance pieces throughout the night. For example, as visitors looked at paintings, performers would engage with them in various ways, such as spoken word poetry or by repeating phrases and words. Additionally, as visitors moved throughout the space, they had to contend with the bodies of performers. Some laid on the stairs repeating words and phrases. Others stood in the middle of a gallery. The university job talk involved a Latina artist presenting her artwork and her pedagogical philosophy to an art department. She shared information about her personal background, her artistic approaches and themes, her pedagogical approaches, and her current work. Then, she took questions from current faculty. Lastly, I attended the steering committee meeting for 96 Acres. The lead artist, a graduate student, a high school art teacher, and two high school students attended this meeting. The central topic of the meeting was discussing possible summer projects and installations.

Value and worth are among the major concepts that came up during my observations. In the various settings, individuals had different understandings of the value and worth of artwork. At the museum, visitors had several reactions to the performances. Some visitors were uncomfortable and confused about what 96 Acres was about. Others saw the performances as nothing beyond the performance but did not seem to connect it to critiques of the criminal legal system and incarceration. The audience at the job talk seemed more interested in the social critiques behind the art. They asked a lot of questions about how the art connects to social issues, the philosophy that motivates the art, and art as a educational tool. The steering committee focused on the process behind the projects. They asked who should be involved in the planning of projects, what form they should take, what topics they should cover, and where they should be located.

In all of these cases, actors judged art and 96 Acres using different “orders of worth” (Boltanski and Thévenot 1999). Some museum visitors judged the project on an inspired order of worth. 96 Acres was only worth their time and money if they felt it was creative and incited some emotional response. Steering committee members and job talk audience members used a civic order of worth. They judged 96 Acres based on its commitment to equality and justice. 96 Acres is only worth their time if it results in projects that are aimed at bringing about positive changes for those affected by the jail and criminal legal system. Interestingly, even those using the same order of worth – civic – had some disagreement about what “justice” and “equality” looked like and how to get there. Latina artists must deal with all these competing orders of worth. They must maintain the cooperation and support of actors with conflicting orders of worth. This is one of the more interesting parts of Latina social justice artists’ work.

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American Federation of Teachers Conference Highlights Commercialization of Higher Ed

by Lydia Hou

The American Federation of Teachers 2014 Conference was held April 11-13 in Baltimore Maryland, offering numerous panels and keynote speakers exploring concerns and advancements of higher education in the United States. Some notable individuals who presented research and policy work at the conference included: Charlie Eaton of Berkeley, Erica Smiley of Jobs with Justice, Sara Goldrick-Rab of University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Tressie McMillan Cottom of Emory University, among many others – all of whom were addressing core themes of the AFT conference – including various levels of examination of the commercialization of higher education. I attended this conference as a representative of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Graduate Employee’s Organization IFT/AFT Local 6297 (AFL-CIO). Some of these considerations included strategies to uncover the influence of Wall Street on institutions of higher education, the impact of for-profit universities on transitioning structures of traditional colleges and universities, and the influence of corporate industry on undergraduate and graduate students’ experiences with debt.

One particular theme included the transition of organizational structure in colleges and universities to incorporate corporatized efficiency as much as possible – less faculty would have influence over university decisions or policy, profit would be a signal of success, and curriculum would be transferred online as much as possible in order to take the “human” aspect out of teaching due to the costs (monetary, timely, and otherwise) that are attached to those who instruct college students. Many attested to the fact that corporate companies who sponsor various features of universities – banks, sports, etc. – are impacting the quality of education due to increases in prioritization of profits.

Many important questions are being raised in the context of commercializing higher education – perhaps most importantly, is higher education a public or private good and can it be considered a human right? As we look to the future of higher education and the importance of providing opportunities for mobility and equality among future generations, one must question the transition of education to a corporate structure. Higher education is now necessary in the same way that primary education is viewed, needing equivalent structural support that it now seeks through corporate sponsorship. Moving forward to a future of more corporate influence and higher student debt on college and university campuses has the potential to increase disparities as fewer and fewer individuals are able to access higher education that should be viewed as a human right rather than a social privilege.

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Cultural Patrimony versus Monetary Debt: What are “Public Goods” Worth?

by Claire Smith

What is the value of art?  Does it have different value when it is under public ownership?  Art is something that defies standard valuation metrics of commodities as it holds value beyond a market-driven price.  Symbolic meaning is a fundamental aspect of prices, particularly in the case of such things as art where price as evaluation metric is taboo; art has meaning and value beyond its monetary worth.  When art is held publically, there is an additional dimension of value – that of the public good.  What is the public good and what is it worth?  Who decides the answers to this question?  The bankruptcy of Detroit and the potential sale of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection illustrate the ambiguity and tension in determining the value of a collection of art.  At stake is the dire financial situation of the city, the creditors, the pensioners, art lovers, donors of the art, and the public good, and they all have unique perspectives and stakes in the final outcome of the debate over the fate of the DIA collection.  The incommensurability of the value of cultural patrimony and the monetary value of the debt leads to a lack of coordination of valuations; there is no single quality by which you can compare the value of paying down Detroit’s debt and the value the art holds for the collective good of the people of Detroit.  How do you compare the pensioner’s interests in receiving the pension they were promised to the symbolic value of public art and the cultural heritage of a city?  The process by which that decision is made begs questions pertaining to what exactly is the “common good” and how are relations of power and inequality manifested through such decisions?   Whose art is this and what is its worth? Is it worth paying down the debt?  Is it worth boosting the financial stability of the pensioners?  Is it valuable because of its potential to foster economic revitalization, or is it valuable for something more such as a symbolic, commonly held, unpriceable good?  The relational nature of how these decisions are made and how value is assigned and negotiated are important questions and Detroit serves as an illustrative example because so much is at stake – a renowned art collection with historical roots to the city, the urban distresses of the contemporary city, and the complex interconnectedness between them.

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Chicago Ethnography Conference 2014: elite parties, youth empowerment, and lots of economic relational work

by Carla Ilten

The Organizational Dynamics course we are currently working through at UIC has introduced me to a mind-blowing range of theories around value, both economic and social, and relationality. Not surprisingly, this is the lens through which I saw just about everything I encountered at the 16th Annual Chicago Ethnography Conference that was held at Northwestern University this past Saturday, March 15.

In the first keynote, Nina Eliasoph talked about “Rendering Invisible Dilemmas Visible.” In her ethnographic study of organizations whose goal it is to empower disadvantaged youth, she discovered that actors had to juggle different values and identities depending on whom they faced. The dilemma was particularly salient for the needy, to-be-empowered youth who had to perform both categories at the same time: when funding was applied for, youth were presented as needy. When awards were received for engagement, youth were (and requested to be) presented as empowered. The simultaneity of “problem” and “solution” was solved through the earmarking of monies (funding versus awards) as well as through the relational (identity) work of the involved youth. The teenagers oscillated between object and subject status in this relation with the environment: either as objects of the organizations’ work, or as empowered, entrepreneurial agents in volunteering.

The second keynote was fascinatingly entertaining – Ashley Mears picked her empirical field wisely and apparently had quite a bit of fun while analyzing elite “bottle parties” all over the world. The theoretical fruits of studying the performance circuits that underlie the organization of those parties are no less exciting. In what she calls a “relational approach to ownership,” Mears shows how “Party Girls” not only have bodily capital, as the Bourdieusian sociology would have it, but circulate as bodily (partily?) capital enjoyed by super-rich men in the process of elite conspicuous consumption. Girl capital is administered by a group of intermediaries, who also translate the exchange from monetary (the club-intermediary link) to in-kind (the intermediary-Girl link). This translation helps actors maintain the precarious boundary between this specific form of performance – let’s call it party work – from taboo sex work. Scrumptious dinners, drinks and fun are acceptable compensation for supplying feminine decoration, whereas hard cold money would defile the actors in the exchange. Again, actors walk the tightrope of objectification as well: Party Girls are circulated as embodied capital for someone else’s profit, but in order to be legitimate, the whole operation requires Girls to perform as voluntarily partying subjects.

Trades involving bodies require much relational work and the drawing of boundaries through distinct practices. Whether needy youth become the capital of an empowerment organization, or model-like girls the capital of elite parties, a great deal of fine tuning is required to navigate the morality of these economic exchanges.

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XXXIV Sunbelt Conference: Picking up new methods on the beach

by Tünde Cserpes

The perks of academia: the XXXIV Sunbelt Social Networks Conference of the International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSNA) made me leave the Chicago winter to spend a week in sunny St Pete Beach, Florida. The conference organizers even went to such lengths to encourage us to take a break during during lunch time and “take a swim, go wind surfing, or do other sunbelty things”. This was my second time presenting at this conference. Last year we were in Hamburg, Germany, under much less welcoming weather conditions.

 Sunbelt is a relatively long conference: it ran from Tuesday through Sunday. Besides having regular and poster sessions, the organizers made sure that there were opportunities to pick up new analytic skills (hence the workshop sessions stretching up to one and a half days long) and to socialize. Jeffrey C. Johnson from Easy Carolina University delivered the keynote speech on Thursday. Each evening, a hospitality suite facilitated the mingling of participants.

 I am sure there are many ways in which people go about participating in conferences. Personally, here is my approach: I always skim the whole program ahead of time, circling presentations I am interested in. I also e-mail those scholars with whom I really want to meet and have questions to ask. This, year I met some fellow graduate students and familiar professors as well. I think it is nice to make arrangements beforehand because, in my experience, I am often busy with other things during the conference.

 The “short” program for this year’s Sunbelt was about 30 pages long. Sunbelt has a nice tradition which encourages ‘session hopping’. After listening to a presentation in a panel, you can leave the room and go to another panel. The drawback is that your 20 minutes presenting time remains even if there is someone missing from the program. There was a great variety of sessions, ranging from the deepest technicalities of using ERGMs, stochastic actor-network modeling, and treating missing network data to mixed-methods and historical approaches. Moreover, there were also panels on substantive issues such as political structures, organizational dynamics, market formations, and collective action. I have also seen some great examples of mixing cultural sociology with text analytic methods. Apparently, natural language processing has set its foot on social network land as well.

 The multi-disciplinary nature of Sunbelt does teach you patience and open-mindedness. You will eventually run across presentations, which – although in a statistically sophisticated way but – conclude that the social factor is important (Ta dah!). On the other hand, I have seen presentations which made statisticians’ hair stand up on the back of their neck when the social scientist used OLS regression to analyze interdependent data. Overall, Sunbelt is a great place to pick up new methods, find allies from other fields with whom you can collaborate in the future, and expand your theoretical horizons in ways you might never have dreamed of. Sunbelt is the antithesis of the idea that social network analysis is a purely methodological field. Methodology is indeed an important aspect, but from what I have seen so far, those who remain at the center of the field are able to interrogate their data using these new analytic techniques and, in addition, make a theoretically interesting contribution to their field of study.

 Ps: at the conference you had a chance to buy a “Can’t we all just get along” t-shirt featuring the co-citation network of social networks and network science. If you want to replicate the results, no problem: the corresponding data file is on the flash drive you got at the registration.


Can’t we all just get along

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Art, a Weapon of the Weak?

by Michael De Anda Muñiz

As part of preliminary research for my dissertation, I have been working with local artist Maria Gaspar, who is part of a public arts project that is focused on the Cook County Jail. The aim of the project is to use art as a way to spark a dialogue and reflect on the jail’s effect on the surrounding predominantly Latino, low-income neighborhood, Little Village. Part of the project is to transform the physical space around the jail’s 25-foot-tall, 800-foot-long wall. What effect does the presence of one of the country’s largest pre-detention facilities have on Little Village and its residents? This question has various aspects to it. The jail, the largest infrastructure in Little Village, not only affects the physical landscape, but also the emotions and psychology of local residents. Residents must contend with the physical infrastructure of Cook County Jail, but many have also visited friends and family who have been incarcerated there. This project is a collaboration between Enlace (a community-based, non-profit organization in Little Village), the Chicago Public Art Group, and local artists, educators, and community members. The Cook County Sheriff’s Department has expressed support for the project, but the county must approve any temporary or permanent art pieces. The project is currently in the planning stage.
I have had several conversations with Maria and recently attended a steering committee meeting. This project is an agglomeration of various individuals and organizations, all with various, sometimes contradictory interests. Enlace’s economic development specialist, Dahriian Espinoza, has expressed his hope that the project would be used to make the jail less of an eye sore, which would increase economic investment and help local businesses. Additional funding from the Special Service Area #25, a tax district designated for beautification and other improvement project in Little Village, also reflects this goal. However, some of the smaller projects planned by steering committee members are intended to incite dialogue about, even critique of, the jail and criminal legal system’s relationship with violence and other issues in Little Village. The state, through county government, ultimately has the final say in the content of any public art instillations around the jail. The County Sheriff would likely be more in favor of a beautification project, than a critique of the criminal legal system. However, those involved in the planning do not want this to be a beautification project.
This project could be an interesting case of what Sarah Soule calls “weapons of the weak” (2012:1724). Local community members and artists might have different visions for this project than the non-profits and the state. How will these community members, who may recognize that their interests will not be supported by the more powerful organizations, use this project as a form of resistance? How will the various project partners’ interests affect what this project produces? What will be the result of this ambitious project? The first installation of public art is expected to take place in the next couple years.

Soule, Sarah A. 2012. “Social Movements and Markets, Industries, and Firms.” Organization Studies 33(12): 1715-33.

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