Berkman Workshop Reflections: Identity in Social Movements

Reflections on the Harvard Berkman Center’s workshop titled “Understanding the New Wave of Social Cooperation: A Triangulation of the Arab Revolutions, European Mobilizations and the American Occupy Movement.”

After reading the notes for the Berkman Center event that occurred last week several times, I was able to make a short list of many of the recurring themes that were discussed. The themes include: solidary, collective identity, collective struggle, geopolitical context, geopolitical specificities, narratives, media attention, media framing, public discourse, gentrification of movements through media, interconnectedness, goals/demands, movement intellectual branding, youth involvement, generational dimensions, social media, anti-ideology identity, street politics, performativity, de-contextualization/a-contextualization, nationalism, and identity politics.

The list provided only consists of the themes that I personally was able to extract on the various topics discussed. If there is one theme that I think dominated the conversation, it would certainly be related to identity in social movements. Consider the following excerpts taken from the live notes that Sasha took during the event (I apologize for any improper citations that my arise. The live notes provided often cite specific speakers, but not always):

The format is a quote taken from the live notes, followed by my own questions.

Quote: “There’s something quite impressive in how this new generation of activists are vehemently anti-ideology. They speak an impressive language. You can tell they were a Trotskyite one-day and are sick of how ideology and organizational structures constrained them. We all prefer social movements to the old Marxist-Leninist party.”

Question: Is this a commonality among many of the global movements, where people refused to align their cause to a defined set of beliefs? Do social actors now care less about branding themselves with common ideological banners of the past, such as Trotskyism?

Quote: “In a way, this performativity was played out ahead of the revolution in the virtual space of social media; where digital identities thrived around their online activism. In a way, this performativity was played out ahead of the revolution in the virtual space of social media; where digital identities thrived around their online activism.”

Question: What are the dynamics of performativity, authenticity, and identity in online interactions? How is identity different in public space and in virtual spaces? More importantly, why is it important to distinguish between performativity and authenticity in online interactions? How does agency come into play when creating online identities?

Quote: “There was a moment when some of us were weary of the emergence of a void ultra-nationalist sentiment in Egypt. The revolution has restored an absent sense of pride. But that was turning into a dangerous sentiment of exceptionalism and this is when, we, in the media, became conscious of the importance of talking about other revolutions, both in the region and worldwide.”

Question: To prevent nationalism, people working in the news industry aimed to find the common links between the global mobilizations. In this sense, looking at regional movements from the framework of global scale served to counter rising nationalist tendencies. What is the role of nationalist identities in today’s world? Nationalist identities played a large role in the mobilizations of early and mid twentieth century movements, especially independence and decolonization movements, with mixed results. Are nationalist identities a thing of the past and should we avoid them?

Quote: “The need to talk about a global action now is also tactfully important for Egypt to shift the conversation from identity politics to real politics concerned with questions of liberties and social justice. Identity politics is at the heart of the Islamist state-building project and we’re going through a steady and consistent Islamist ascent.”

Question: What role are identity politics playing in mobilizations? What factors should be considered when looking at identity politics? How can we begin to evaluate when discussions of identity politics are constructive and when they are distracting from the movement?

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