In that weird synchronicity that sometimes surfaces in life, this morning in one of my other classes we spoke about Harold Garfinkel, the sociologist famous for establishing ethnomethodology and questioning the pervasiveness of normalcy in social interactions. This afternoon, at the #21M event, one of the participants (it was difficult to identify people via the livestream) emphasized the problems inherent in studying only social movements that succeed. A broader debate about what constitutes success and whether or not that’s a relevant outcome descriptor followed. Lost in the debate was the participant’s point: in order to unpeel social movement dynamics, it’s worthwhile to consider failures. And even if we debate measures of success and argue about outcome goals, we can often still identify and agree on failure. Garfinkel would contend that we should study the conflict, the failure, the unexpected break from normalcy.
But what is normalcy with regard to social movements? Jennifer Earl, in her 2010 article entitled “The Dynamics of Protest—Related Diffusion on the Web” raises an interesting point: an implicit legitimating system determines which social movements are deemed worthy of academic study and respect. She argues that the web enables not just diffusion of information but also diffusion of innovation and “infectiousness,” leading to spillover in the development of repertoires of contention from traditional social movements (i.e., the kind deemed worthy of study, tackling big serious issues like the environment and justice) to nontraditional ones (e.g., the movement to save the TV show Angel). She contends that social movement activity on the web not only draws in social actors who have not previously participated in activism, but also triggers the spread of movement tactics across other kinds of borders.
Without disputing the power of the web in enrolling new actors as allies and spreading practices, I question whether movements such as those to save television programs are new forms of social movement. After all, they have been going on at least since Star Trek, which was slated for cancellation after two seasons, only to be saved by a fan campaign organized in part by CalTech students. This, and other similar movements, drew on tactics also used in more traditional social movements, such as letter writing campaigns and demonstrations. It is, perhaps, not coincidental that the Star Trek movement occurred contemporaneously with the other, more traditional movements of 1968 (e.g., students at Columbia, in Paris, etc.).
To me, this suggests two things: 1. It isn’t the web that’s triggering this diffusion (although it may be amplifying it or otherwise influencing it), it’s something else; 2. When considering normalcy, we need to scrutinize our expectations of what makes a social movement normal and why—and ask not only why it succeeds, but also why it does not fall apart.