Director of UCSB Ph.D. Emphasis in Technology and Society and Associate Professor of Sociology at UC Santa Barbara
Jennifer Earl is the Director of the Technology and Society PhD emphasis and an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She studies information technology, social movements, and the legal system. She has been the recipient of major funding awards, including a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for research in 2006-2011. She has published widely, including in major sociological journals such as the American Sociological Review and the Annual Review of Sociology, as well as in respected specialty journals such as Sociological Theory, Mobilization, and Social Science Computer Review. Current projects include CAREER award-funded research on internet activism and a study of arrests made at the 2004 Republican National Convention.
Links: Home page | Center for Information Technology and Society
Research Sample: Excerpt from Earl, Jennifer and Alan Schussman. 2003. “The New Site of Activism: Online Organizations, Movement Entrepreneurs, and the Changing Location of Social Movement Decision-Making.” Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change 24: 155-187.
Prior research on e-protest has focused on street movements that went on-line. By adding Internet activities to their tactical repertoires, these street movements substantially increased their reach while decreasing costs. However, as movements increasingly emerge and survive on-line (Wray 1998), they invert the relationship between street activities and Internet activities, making street mobilization only one part of a larger, more electronically based repertoire. Our case study of the strategic voting movement demonstrates the likelihood of such eventualities. That is, while traders, swappers and conscience voters coordinated their votes on-line and importantly subverted and challenged institutional politics in the U.S., these participants still had to fill out their absentee ballots or go to the voting booth.
Our case study also demonstrates that conceiving of e-movements as business as usual in the world of social movements fails to appreciate significant differences regarding the importance of organizations, resources, members, leadership, and systematic decision-making processes to street movements versus the importance of movement entrepreneurs, technology and users to e-movements. Specifically, we found that the infrastructure of the strategic voting movement was built around MEs and their websites, not organizations or even decentralized, segmented and reticulated networks (Gerlach and Hine 1970). This had important consequences for decision-making processes by decreasing the importance of leadership and increasing discretion. It also had consequences for the types of decisions which were important: the form of activism and the design of websites were relatively unproblematic when compared to decisions about organizational form by street movements. Finally, there were also important consequences for the substantive concerns which informed ME decision-making. Decisions in the strategic voting movement were based largely on ideological and technical issues and were importantly unrelated to concerns of organization development or maintenance. As well, in many cases prior experience on the Internet informed decision-making more than prior political activism.
While the differences between the strategic voting movement and traditional street movements may suggest that new categories, in addition to new theories, are necessary, we contend that the strategic voting is still best understood from the perspective of social movement theory. Certainly the infrastructure of strategic voting was not traditional nor was the relationship between the organizers and movement participants, or “users.” Nonetheless, the core phenomenon of collectively challenging institutional politics using non-conventional means remains a common denominator between e-protest and street protest.
While it would be easy to dismiss these findings presented here as an isolated case or to conjecture that these MEs would follow their forebearers and create informal or formal SMOs, this seems unlikely. The declining importance of resources, the emphasis on entrepreneurial action in Internet culture, and separation of abeyance on the Internet from organizational structures suggests that if organizations are formed in the next Election cycle by MEs from the strategic voting movement, it will not be for the reasons social movement scholars would expect.
We have also argued the rise of an entrepreneurial infrastructure and the transition from “members” to “users” as participants in e-movements could result in fundamental changes to decision-making processes which mimic the changes we observed. By removing factors which have contributed to the importance of leadership and the systematization of decision-making processes, decision-making in other e-movements may look more similar to that of strategic voting than that of street movements which have added on-line tactics or technologies.