Discussion on Milkman and Soule

Our class discussion started with a discussion of sociologist, Ruth Milkman’s address to the American Sociological Association. The first question that we examined was: what is a political generation and what characteristics are central to the current political generation according to the text? Ruth Milkman drew on Karl Manheim’s argument that generations are formed from historical and sociological processes rather than biological processes.

Ruth Milkman builds on Manheim’s thesis to characterize U.S. Millennials as a new political generation “whose lived experiences and worldviews distinguish them from previous generations of youthful activists”. She defines a Millennial as anyone born since the 1980s. She argues that the Millennials have had a different lived experience for four reasons. First- because they are ‘digital natives’ and their lives have been profoundly shaped by the internet from birth. Second, although Millennials are more highly educated than the previous generation, they have been frustrated by a “precarious and polarized job market”, whose precariousness has only intensified since the recession in 2008. This lack of good jobs has created a sense of shared experience amongst Millennials. High levels of under-employment  and unemployement have increased the ‘biographical availability’ of Millennials to participate in social movements. Third, US Millennials are more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation, and yet routinely experience racism, sexism, high levels of income inequality and systematic discrimination against minorities, and have thus claimed the term ‘intersectionality’ to highlight the interconnections between their struggles.

We had a discussion about Milkman’s argument in class. Some members of the class noted from the onset that broadband access, corporate backed social media and sites like youtube etc really took off in the last decade or so, and therefore Milkman should have defined a Millennial as someone born later than in the 1980s and who were in their formative years (early 20s) when these sites took off. Building on this, we had a discussion on the very term ‘digital native’

It was argued that just because we live in a time that we have access to internet, doesn’t mean that that people are necessarily good at using the internet. The term ‘digital native’ flattens out people with varying skills, as well as the inequalities that cause this variation. Some of these inequalities are structural factors: schools, income etc. This quality of access to the internet also depends on factors such as whether people access the net through mobile apps/smart phones or laptops and PCs. It also depends on the level of internet access (fiber optic versus  DSL). FInally, the quality of participation in the internet must also be examined. Some people create content, others consume content, and by just looking at access to information, these differences are smoothed out.  Some of us felt that a more rigorous examination of the term ‘digital native’ was required to support Milkman’s further arguments. However, some of the class believed that Milkman’s article was talking about the larger societal impact of social media and the internet, and that people will feel the impacts of the these technologies, whatever the quality of their participation, and thus the rest of her argument was still valid.

We then talked about the typology Milkman creates for the four protest movements: Occupy Wall Street (OWS), Black Lives Matter (BLM), “Dreamers”, the Movement Against Sexual Assault she analyses. She examines the ‘Modes of Organization and Strategic Repertoires’ of each movement in terms of them being hierarchial or non-hierarchial and the ‘Social Characteristics of Activists and Leaders’  in terms of the organizers being ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’ for each movement.

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Member of the class thought this was a useful typology to characterise movements as it allowed us to see that despite the internet, ‘the Movement Against Sexual Assault’ and the ‘Dreamers’ were using traditional organizational forms. It allowed us to question why this was the case even though Millennials were shaped by the internet. It also allows to also examine leadership forms in various movements and appreciate that the social characteristics of organizers are not monolithic.

However, the limitations of the framework were also noted. By putting OWS in the traditional, insider box, it erased the participation of peoples of color and LGBTQ persons in the movement. It went along with the story of the main stream media that highlighted the stories of the ‘insiders’ protesting, but did not document that vast number of ‘outsiders’ who were also part of the movement. It was argued that this form of characterization hides the outliers.

Reservations were also raised about Milkman’s definition of the ‘non-hierarchical’ mode of organization. Joe Freeman’s ‘Tyranny of Structurelessness’ talks about the fact that seemingly ‘leadershipless’ organizations however, did have people who had more power and privilege than others. However, the counter raised to this was that just because structures tend to reproduce themselves doesn’t mean that we cannot strive for an egalitarian consensus building space.The framework also does not take into consideration that movements evolve.

We then examined each of the four movements within Milkman’s framework. It was noted that OWS purposefully did not have  a policy goal, although BLM did. However, BLM was placed in the ‘non hierarchical’ bucket. It was also argued that BLM did use narration as part of the movement, even though Millkman, by putting BLM in the bucket she did, seemed to imply the the individual videos of BLM were more important than the overall narrative of police killings and racism. OWS also used narration to further the movement. Indeed, OWS had a ‘Media and Communications’ tent which they used to train people how to tell their story to put wealth inequality back on the agenda. We are the 99%0 http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/ is another method OWS used to create a narrative

Afterwards, we discussed Sarah Soule’s Diffusion Process within Movements. The piece was written before the Trump Campaign and the 2008 movements. It is a literature review of historical examples. It depicts the narratives of Social Movement Diffusion including LeBon and Tarde theory. They hypothesized that the movements spread like viruses. Now, there are several people writing about networked social movements including intelligence agencies (FBI,NSA, CIA). They want to know why social groups form and their grievances. The use of social movement analysis has come to prominence as larger databases are available from social networking sites. Sasha pointed out that we could easily track different tweets or movements by following a hashtags or looking at prominent tweets, but they warned us that the social media aspect only tells one part of the story, and cannot do the entire basis of analysis.

In the pre-internet days, Soule looked at diffusion through Tactile DIffusion and Direct Diffusion. Tactile Diffusion was when a movement innovated a tactic, such as a banner hang. Direct Diffusion included physical ways and were less about tactics and more about the movement itself spreading, such as people talking. After we discussed the miners, some classmates expressed concern about calling Adendes a Marxist. Sasha explained that in the case of social media studies ideology is seen as a coherent system of ideas, and is not associated with negative connotations. We then discussed people who study social movements. Recently, the group of scholars has been more self critical and methodical in their approach to research. Some suggested that they participate in the movement that they study as well.

Then we moved on to the concept of Shanty towns and their success or failure. We highlighted the fact that its spread could have been due to novelty or “triability”.  Then we looked at ti’s effectiveness. Soule said ti was ineffective because it did not change policy, however, there are other ways to be effective. Perhaps the Shanty towns caused a cultural shift that Soule was not able to capture solely by looking at political changes.  There are several ways to measure effectiveness including Mobilization, Culturally, and Politically. Though some may seem binary, all fall on a spectrum which makes it difficult to evaluate effectiveness. Two examples we visited were Cosecha and the Roll call in Ayotzinapa. Cosecha diffused tactics from the DREAMers. And a famous person in Mexico uses of roll call on digital media.


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