Network Activism, Technology and Identitarian Connections
– New Perspectives from Social Movements


Prof. Dr. Machado, Jorge Alberto S.

School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities

University of São Paulo.


Paper presented at Internationl Sociological Association Conference, Durban, South Africa, 20 July -22 July, 2006. 

The full version got the "High Commended Paper" award from ISA YS World Competion, 2005

Full version (in portuguese)


This essay aims to shed light on the basic characteristics of the new organizational forms that social movements have developed, on the basis of the growing incorporation of new information and communication technologies into their strategies of planning, articulation and action. My argument here is that such technologies have not only become instruments of a fundamental importance for the organization and articulation of such social collectivies but that they have also led to the emergence of new social movements and new forms of activism.

The new strategies for action that social movements have developed draw our attention to their innovative character, as movements in which the sharing of goals, alignment of strategies and formation of coalitions and alliance of global scope play a central role. These are frequent and recurring elements, resulting from the geography of the cultural and linguistic communities they bring together, or through the identification of shared values.

This phenomenon has opened up a wide range of social changes and transformation that point to the emergence of new dynamics of collective action based on complex identitarian networks, guided by values that are increasingly “universal". The analysis that follows examines these new tendencies in collective action.

Changing Conceptions of Social Movements.


There are a wide variety of theories that attempt to explain the behavior of social collectivities, and of social movements in particular. The complexity of the issue and the diversity of contexts and objects have made it into an almost unlimited source of study, analysis and new theoretical developments. Rather than going into the conceptual debate on the meaning of social movements, I prefer to cite Melucci’s claim that in their effort to define social movements, the majority of authors who write on this subject do little more than isolate particular emprirical aspects of collective phenomena, accentuating  distinctive  features and in doing so, making any kind of comparative work only more difficult.  According to Melucci, the concept of social movement “is always an object of knowledge constructed by the researcher or theorist”, since it cannot “coincide with the empirical complexity of action.”  (Melucci, 1996: 21-2).

The diversification of social movements has taken place within a process that was intimately linked to the deepening of democratic mechanisms and institutions in Western capitalist societies.  Even though they could be seen as an expression of class struggle or social inequality, the strengthenng and proliferation of social movements has been more associated with the maturing or transformation of democratic institutions and of civil society’s ability to organize itself.

In the midst of  globalization and a deepening crisis of the State, social movements have taken on a new face.  Particular aspects of an identitarian nature, linked to the growth of multiculturalism and to the expanding sphere of action of individuals, have taken on an ever-greater importance as bonds between subjects and social collectivities.  This universalist dimension is connected with the ever-greater sharing of values related to minority rights, freedom of expression, rights of cultural diversity, religious liberty, environmental conservation, demands for racial and gender equality , the quality of life and a more just distribution of social benefits throughout the global economy, etc. It is no coincidence that these are also issues that occupy a central place on the agendas of governments and multi-lateral organizations . style="color: blue;">

Notwithstanding this formal change in the relationship between governments and civil society that, since the crisis of socialism, has taken place in the way civil and social rights are dealt with, it must also be stated that the relationships between social movements and institutions, governments and corporations are permeated with conflict.

  Before moving ahead, we should clarify the three fundamental factors that will provide the groundwork for our analysis.  They are linked to  interdependence, loss of control, and the empowerment of social and economic agents:

i) Interdependence and reactive interconnection. There is an increasingly widespread situation of indefinition that characterizes the relationship between local and “global” government.  Decisions made by local governments not only affect the State or their own particular areas of jurisdiction; unfortunately, these governments must also respond to situations that occur beyond the pale of their control.  Attempts to “re-order” or establish new conditions of equilibrium  must inexorably pass through the political concert of the actors involved. International treaties, agreements and pacts become increasingly more necessary in establishing cooperation, partnerships and alliances with other social actors working in other places and environments. If the growing interdependence of the local and global has caused the decisions that affect political communities to “escape” local control, the reactive interconnection between local actors contributes in some way to the continuous undermining of local democratic government.  This goes on through a process in which attempts to obtain control lead to the creation of new connections.

ii) The gray areas where control is lost. Many actors, as is the case for large scale economic corporations, fall increasingly outside the realm of control of democratically elected governments.  This means that they act within juridical contexts which are unstable or perhaps even non-existent, in a “gray area” in which it is possible to protect oneself from or even escape from local jurisdiction and the control of organized civil society within States.  We refer here, for example, to the movement of capital (allocation of investment, international remittance, transactions between branches of a firm), to the use of labor, respect for environmental law and social and labor rights, among others. This in turn produces a context of conflict that poses considerable challenges to democracy.

iii) The empowerment of social agents. In places where there is no government or legitimate authority in charge, the instruments that have been created by an information society contribute to stimulating competition among social agents. The opportunities and risks of businesses that are increasingly complex and venturous and the instability of national markets integrated within a gigantic global market pose growing challenges to the intervention and control of nation States, taking their toll on governability and accountability.  On the one hand, as Held (1997) has observed, a considerable amount of the decisions that affect people’s lives are made in juridically undefined places, where public opinion and national majorities hold little influence. On the other hand, this very scenario has made increasingly complex levels of organization, exchange and action possible, on the part of individuals, groups and social organizations -  to an extent that would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago.

Technological tools have made it possible to greatly potentialize the action of a scant handful of individuals.  Such a scenario brings with it conflicts that are difficult to mediate, marked by virtual, electronic action and organization that are increasingly de-territorialized, and mobilized by a wide range of often unsuspecting social actors. This recent “empowerment” of  social and individual actors is an element that has still to be subjected to more intense analysis and study within the social sciences.

Within this  scenario, and in convergence with the tendency present in other sectors of society including the economy, a new moment in the history of social movements emerges, involving action through a new type of organization which establishes networks of global outreach and articulation.  This becomes the most efficient way to work against the grain of large scale organizations and corporations that have increasingly global power – beyond the sphere of local governments’ democratic control- in an environment in which local institutions are increasingly undermined by such actors.


Collective action in a new context.


          The possibility of quick, inexpensive and wide-reaching communication has made the Internet the main instrument that civil society organizations, social movements and citizens groups use for purposes of communication and articulation.  The web has become a fundamental public space for the strengthening of social actors’ demands, and is put to use to widen the reach of their action and develop more efficient strategies of struggle. Bringing tens and even hundreds of organizations of different scales and cultural, linguistic and identitarian worlds together, through the infra-structure of a worldwide network, they are able to provide an efficient and effective source of uniting voices of discontent in ways that channel broad and complex synergies via global action.

  For the social and collective actors who in other times were scattered, unconnected or isolated, there is now the possibility of concentrating their actions in the name of a common cause, on the basis of ever-expanding networks of solidarity.  New alliances and the exchange of  information and support between different networks of social collectives can be observed, in which elements that are held in common can be explored. Thus, we are able to speak of networks including hundreds of entities that exchange information, form pressure groups and provide mutual support. These networks are incomparably larger than those that existed a scant tem years ago, when people began to speak of them.

The basic raw material used by this new form of organization is information that is generated and efficiently distributed.  This power results from the growing ability to produce, reproduce, share and disseminate facts, ideas, values, world views and individual and collective experiences regarding interests, identities and beliefs – and, as we should add, all within a very short period of time.  This sharing of values occurs in ways that are increasingly less mediated and without direct interference from governments and corporations.

Information-sharing has a key role for the construction of shared frameworks of meaning that is part of political activity.  It is carried out by way of alliances of local groups that are connected to an international network.  Such networks exercise growing symbolic influence on accountability. This goes on through the strengthening of information and counter-information, the alignment of strategies for action, sharing of goals and other types of mutual support. 

This type of action makes it possible to integrate or connect immense and diversified networks through only a very few nodal points. The complexity of such connections has not yet been sufficiently studied, yet such characteristics do probably represent a landmark in changing forms of social movement action.  It is undeniable that we are witnessing very strong tendencies for change, particularly regarding forms of social movement organization and action.  Such networks, along with other known forms of organization, are characterized by volunteer work, reciprocity and horizontal models of communication and exchange.  There is little novelty in this. What draws our attention is the fact that such elements have been enormously potentialized through the use of information technologies.

Some characteristics of social movement activity.

         Following this brief description of changes in the forms of social movement activity, I would like to present an analytical summary of its main characteristics, relating my interpretation to some recent work by Giddens, Castells, Stuart Hall, Melucci and other authors who have written on social movements and identity.

1) The proliferation and ramification of social collectives. The scope and speed of new information technologies has allowed for a proliferation of civic organizations and social collectivities, as well as an efficient and strategic integration among them.  Flowing basically from the idealism and volunteer spirit of their members, new forms of alliances and synergies of global scope emerge. Thus, there is a significant increase in forms of mobilization, participation, interaction, access to information, provision of resources, individual affiliations and ramifications among social movements

2) Networks as horizontal and flexible. Organizations tend to be increasingly horizontal, less hierarchical, more flexible, with multiple ties and connected to numerous micro-networks or cells that can be quickly activated.  According to Castells (1999:426), new social movements tend to be increasingly characterized by “forms of organization and intervention that are de-centralized and integrated through networks

3) Coalition-building tendency.  Social movements tend to act more and more through coalition networks (Diani, 2003, Escobar, 2000) that are global in scope, based on common interests and depending on the communication infra-structure provided by the Internet. Tendência coalizacional.

4) Dynamic and event- or goal-related existence. These movements tend to be extremely dynamic in their emergence and their ability to attain certain goals, to cause impact and repercussion,  and  to mobilize around a particular political fact; similarly, they may also rapidly fall apart or disappear, due to a particular situation (an event that is over, an objective reached or failed).

5) Organizational and material minimalism. Physical headquarters become irrelevant. Fax, telephone and postal address take on secondary importance.  The possibility of operating at a very low cost motivates individual affiliation, the emergence of new social movements and the linking of movements among themselves. .

6) The universalism and particularism of causes. Ideals may be of a universal or particularist nature.  They may refer to one desire or to a series of aspirations of social collectivities that are very small and specific (and for that matter, geographically separate).  However, although tied to a specific cause or theme, struggles may be increasingly oriented in such a way that they are tied to a wider scenario of struggles that include principles of universal acceptance, such as sustainable development, human rights, people´s rights to self-determination, the fight against racism and other forms of discrimination, democracy, freedom of expression, etc

7) Great ability for articulation and efficiency. This permits the organization of simultaneous protests in different cities and countries, as well as the local articulation of a variety of groups of scattered demonstrators.  To the contrary of what many would assume, the convergence of interests is not limited to “virtual” expression.  It materializes in concrete actions as well.  This is the case, for example, of actions taken by groups such as  Move On, No Border, Oxfam, Confédération Paysanne, ATACC, Okupa, among others that could be listed.. Their geometry may be variable, concentrating and activating their ties and making use of a variety of strategies, as necessity dictates. 

8) Strategies based on shared ideologies lifted from local contexts. Strategies adopted are lifted from local contexts and  flow across spatial boundaries.They attempt to tie identities, goals, ideologies and shared world views. Identity and solidarity play fundamental roles in the formation of such networks.  These characteristics are associated with what Castells has called “identities of resistance”. According to him, the latter pertain to “civil societies that are enmeshed in processes of desintegration”, in which identity becomes an element of communal resistance.” (1999: 25).

9) Multiple identities/circulation of activists. Networks promote the circulation of activists.  One same activist can be envolved with a variety of causes and collective actors; s/he may participate in a variety of movements and even transmit demands through the different networks of participation (through identitarian connections); since the unity of its members may only be transitory or linked to a specific demand, it is not uncommon for one individual to participate in different social movements, sharing a common interest with people with whom in other aspects of life, hold very different beliefs, values and aspirations.

For Giddens, self-identity is a fundamental characteristic of “late modernity”.  According to him, in a scenario of growing connection between the “intentionality”  and “extentionality”  of individuals, the latter are able to negotiate a series of life styles and options, building their identity in the terms of supplied by their dialectical interaction with the global.  This network-based circulation of activists that is carried out through multiple identities finds support in Hall´s (2004) thesis on the fragmentation of identities as a characteristic of the contemporary world.  From a different point of departure, Castells speaks of the social construction of identity, referring to “the identity of projects” in which “social actors, making use of whatever type of cultural material they have at hand, build new identitites). (Castells, 1999: 24). From his perspective, the “identity of projects” is related the construction of life projects through the widening of individuals’ identities and experiences, and in turn give rise to the emergence of new subjects. (id., ib.: 26 )

10)  The diffuse identity of social subjects. Anonymity and multiple identities are potentializing for forms of activism.  It is also for this reason that it has become increasing difficult to deal with social movements´ issues of identity. The interests of individuals that are  linked through networks are increasingly diverse, intersected and frequently even tenuous. Struggles are increasingly built less from individuals and more in terms of the construction of social subjects.  This characteristic complexity of contemporary social movements was captured by Melucci, who argues that their structures are increasingly more difficult to be identified as collective actor, holding “increasingly indistinct shapes and variable densities”.  (Melucci, 1996: 114)


Throughout this text, I have sought to demonstrate the existence of new forms and tendencies in social activism. The new social movements’  “appropriation” of places and spaces within the world wide web has contributed to the strengthening of social demands insofar as it offers certain types of organization, forms of articulating actions and engaging in politics that did not exist hitherto..

  Demonstrations receiving wide and diversified support and involving large scale articulation such as those that took place on the occasions of the world summit meetings of the G7, OMC, IMF, World Bank, and World Social Forum could not have taken place had it not been for the use of information and communication technologies.  In all these cases it has been noted that, with a certain independence from traditional means and mechanisms of social control and involving hundreds of us, members of groups and activists of all types, there has been an enormous flux of information circulating, resulting in an efficient articulation of means, resources and strategies for large scale mobilization.

These new forms and instruments of organization have enabled not only the constitution of but also the existence of new political entities. As we have described, various social actors have emerged, formed through the support they receive from smaller networks and sub-networks, a type of “dormant” structure of cells that can be activated at any given moment, according to a logic that is related to elements of identity, value and ideology.  It is a scenario in which multiple social identities, interests and ideas are articulated and combined with considerable dynamism around specific goals and objectives.  The social movements that are articulated in this network have the ability to aggregate these “individual identities”, which are frequently anonymous and diffuse, activating the identitarian elements of solidarity.

  In order to confront the interests of powerful and large-scale social actors, social movements use information as their primary – and sometimes only – resource. Strategically disseminated and allied to more tradition forms of articulation – such as demonstrations, protests and worldwide campaigns – information and knowledge are able to effectively unleash processes of social change.  Since information is but a raw material that can be transformed into an ideology, social movements are increasingly more oriented toward means of communication – whose power of persuasion can be, at times, much greater than the power of force – in order to disseminated and share values, world-views and experiences.

Through this interpretation, we can identify an intersection that is very favorable for the development of network connections between social movements.  In this regard, we should remember Tilly’s (1978) notion of “repertoires of collective action.  Learned through political tradition, participation and media-based forms of circulation, these “repertoires” are responsible for the greater scope and possibilities for collective action.  Through this approach, innovation, dissemination and incorporation of certain forms of collective action depend on the populations’ routines, the experiences, organizations and models of society to which they are exposedWith the growing use of information and communication technologies, these repertoires are ever-growing. Experiences, social models, values and signs are increasingly disseminated, confronted and shared, creating a wide horizon of social and symbolic transformation..

The tendency for the greater part of social movements to be guided, through the network, by universal values such as human and minority rights, freedom of speech, environmental preservation and so forth, is consolidated, as they thus claim their rights to the guarantees provided by the laws of modern democratic states – albeit in the interests of their transgression.  These values, since they are increasingly universal, create a strong sense of identification that facilitates integration at the axiological and symbolic level of social movements. style="" ">

The networks of these social collectivities are woven through the relationships, conflicts and social and political processes that go on in society, whose causes and consequences are linked in the increasingly shared daily life of social actors.. These conflicts and processes of change reverberate and are disseminated through telematic networks until they encompass people’s daily lives and “conquer” their minds.  Actions geared toward social change are carried out within new boundaries in which interaction, intention, connection, identity and action carry out increasingly fundamental roles, giving social actors a scope of influence that is constantly expanding and creating an environment that is favorable for new forms of collective action.

Attention should be drawn to the fact that such changes in the structure and forms of social movement activities is still in an initial stage. There is still a wide horizon of change ahead, if we consider the persisting lack of connection to many parts of the world, digital illiteracy or the difficulties and the predominance of middle class segments in such organizations and, above all, because we are dealing with transformations that for the most part are coming from a younger generation that is yet to assume more prominent positions in society.


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