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Call for papers n° 7: Political Forms and Movements in the Digital Era

Deadline for abstract submission: FEBRUARY 28, 2017

Issue edited by Célya Gruson-Daniel (UTC- Costech et USPC- Centre Virchow-Villermé) and Clément Mabi (UTC- Costech)

Digital technologies are progressively emerging as a major political resource. Mobilized in a wide variety of situations, they have become both an essential element in the toolkit of field actors and a mandatory component of discourses regarding the "transformation" of democracy; more broadly, they transform the media, the traditional institutions and organizations of political worlds, like the opposition or the expression of alternative ideas. That omnipresence, which is almost naturalized because it is seldom discussed, is rarely paralleled by a rigorous definition of what the "digital" is and what it allows to do. This phenomenon leads to obscuring the diversity of the political, social and technical projects it encompasses. Composed of a series of "black boxes", it is often questioned through its uses, without reflecting seriously on the political project that it embodies. The ambition of this issue of RESET is precisely to question how digital technologies, inserted in different contexts, produce new forms of political mobilization and organization, or stabilize old ones, while conveying multiple values ​​and principles which are, in turn, transforming these technologies.

In the academic literature, many works have focused on the renewal of collective action repertoires and have described the new forms of citizenship and activism that they entail (Downing, 2000; Norris, 2001; Cardon & Granjon, 2013; Mabi & Theviot, 2014b). They rely on research dealing with "online political participation" (Monnoyer-Smith & Wojcik, 2014), gradually overcoming the dichotomy between "cyber-optimists" (Castells, 2012) and "cyber-pessimists" (Morozov, 2011) to propose a "differentiated" approach focused on the change in repertoires of action and commitment forms engendered by the use of digital tools to "discuss politics" (Monnoyer-Smith, 2011; Mossberger, Tolbert & McNeal, 2007). This perspective, which highlights the link between the evolutions of cultural practices and the logics of political commitment, allows to apprehend the weight of the sociotechnical environment in the forms of citizen mobilization. Depending on the tools available to them, the repertoires of actions evolve and enable various forms of expression. Thus, the principles of "participation", "collaboration", "networking" or "common", considered as constitutive of the "digital culture" (Jenkins, 2006a, 2006b), influence the ways in which citizens posit themselves in public spaces and perceive their citizenship. The forms of commitment allowed by digital technologies construct a specific relationship with politics, anchored in self-organized means of expression, overcoming traditional representations (Cardon & Granjon, 2013). This logic would gradually lead to a shift in democratic legitimacy, moving from the work of institutions to the product of conversations among citizens and through more or less creative forms (Monnoyer-Smith, 2011, Cardon, 2015). But other studies also suggest that online participation remains embedded in social logics that have little to do with digital technologies, such as the size of the cities in which citizens live (Parasie, & Cointet, 2012).

Analyzing the emergence of "civic tech", of movements like Nuit Debout in France, of forms of "civic hacking" or even the multiplication of alternative places seems to be a fertile prism to observe the contemporary reconfigurations of our relationship with politics through the evolution of our sociotechnical environment. In this special issue, we seek articles presenting concrete cases which question the political and critical scopes of these organization forms, as well as their potentiality to experiment new ways of "making polity". In this logic, several questions can be raised: does the inrush of "multitudes" (Moulier Boutang et al., 2007) in the public area contribute to transform or overcome the traditional militant commitment anchored in organizations? To what extent can these new forms of engagement be seen as "participation" and political activity? How are the concepts of "self-organization", "collective emancipation" or "power to act" put to the test? Approaching in such a way the relationship between the "digital" technologies and politics invites us to reconsider some traditional political questions: to what extent can margins weigh on a system without investing its center? Is controlling institutions an indispensable prerequisite for any project aiming to transform society? What is the place and the status of debates in democracy?

The articles published in this special issue may address these questions, focusing on both the mobilized communities and the actors who compose them, their relations with the institutions they set up, and the renewal of the forms of social critique and of the way in which public problems are constructed. The very topic of this call can be of interest to researchers from political science, information and communication sciences, and sociology. But we also wish to bring together some works from a variety of disciplines in order to grasp the complexity of the topic: education sciences, anthropology, history, geography, economics, psychology, etc. In addition to crossing disciplinary perspectives, we encourage potential authors to submit paper with an international dimension.

Areas of research

We herein propose three indicative research avenues that papers may address.

The equipment of democracy in the era of "open", "hack" and "tech"

Today, a set of collective actions are worded through expressions referring specifically to the digital universes: open, hack, tech, and so on. It seems that a work of definition (and translation) has yet to be carried out around these political forms (open data, civic open, civic hacking). Among the most visible of them, some are called “civic tech” (for civic technology). They propose to mobilize the digital technologies in order to improve democratic processes and citizen participation (Kreiss, 2015). In this perspective, digital technologies are seen as ways to transform democracy and make room for active citizens. Civic techs allow disruptive discourses to multiply and emphasize their ability to radically transform democracy and to "hack" it, that is, to change its rules in relying on the elements it contains. Fueled by the same logic, the field of civic hacking is gaining visibility. It is an illustration of this hacking culture which seeks to widen the benefit of these digital initiatives towards improving the City and its citizens’ (especially disadvantaged groups) wellbeing. It may for example consist in developing applications (maps, and so forth) based on open data regarding health or economics, as the association Code for America does.

As it was the case in the early 2000s for online participation (Wojcik, 2011), supportive and positive discourses – sometimes acritical – are multiplying and announcing a recast of representative democracy through the renewed involvement of citizens. The latter would benefit from digital tools to launch a new dynamic likely to change the rules of the game. We expect some papers to deconstruct these discourses. It may then be necessary to understand these discourses in the light of the long-time history of democracy and its most participatory forms. This attention to history would allow to truly define the specificity of political participation using digital technologies and to begin a necessary work of definition aiming to characterize concepts used in contexts that are sometimes very different. It is also expected to question the effects of these discourses, which often put forward the "technical solution" to the problems democracy faces. This appeal of technology raises further questions: to what extent may the digital tools alone constitute a democratic process? In this perspective, can citizen participation be reduced to a communication process? When it is based on digitally equipped procedures, does “democracy” just live on or does it produce new "institutions" (in the broad, sociological sense)?

To avoid naïve enthusiasm regarding these matters, it is important to confront discourses with empirical investigations. One ambition of the issue will therefore be to give visibility to works that are paving the way for a detailed sociological analysis of these new social configurations and the trajectories of the actors who carry them. Thus, "democratic change" is driven by "cause entrepreneurs", actors who use digital technologies to bring about a renewal of the forms of citizen commitment. Who are they? What is their status? What relationship do they have with the economy, on the one hand, and state authorities on the other? Some papers are also expected to contribute to examine these initiatives through a socio-political analysis questioning the values ​​underlying them: To what extent do these “cause entrepreneurs” seek to constitute some "counter-powers" capable of modifying the organization of democracy and the power relations that structure it? How do they posit themselves within the objectives of social transformations that accompany the involvement of citizens in a democracy?

Mobilizations in the era of “doing together” and the commons

Social and citizen movements have been structured around collaborative practices in various fields (ecology, biology, medicine, economics, and so forth). Inspired by the maker, hacker, open source and free software cultures (Bosqué, 2016 ; Broca, 2013 ; Coleman, 2014 ; Himanen, 2001 ; Turner, 2012), these collective praxes now constitute a means for these groups to organize themselves and invent new modes of coordination (Mabi & Theviot, 2014a). The “doing together”, often put forward in these "collaborative cultures", seems to permeate the very constitution of these collective identities and may materialize in collective spaces such as third places (Antonioli, Bureau & Rouxel, 2016). These centers dedicated to encounters, experiments, training, but also production, are in particular based on digital technologies in various formats: digital self-construction in spaces such as FabLabs, makerspaces or hackerspaces (Lhoste & Barbier, 2016), organization and mobilization on social networks to increase one’s visibility (Peretti & Micheletti, 2011), or training in digital-related skills to enhance one’s action capacity (Burret, 2013).

Furthermore, the production of material goods, and also of knowledge generated by these practices, goes along with a way of thinking about politics (Cazier et al., 2016), which is based on the notion of commons, namely, according to Elinor Ostrom, those resources that are collectively managed by a community according to a form of governance that this community defines (Ostrom, 1990). Internet, as a symbol of sharing and decentralization, has contributed to the revival of this concept (Coriat, 2015 ; Dardot & Laval; 2014; Le Crosnier, 2015). Originally thought for material goods, the commons also refer to the immaterial legacy that we are building today (Le Crosnier, 2006).

Through the production of collaborative writings on "wikis", of participatory mappings with Open Street Map or the acquisition of environmental data using sensors based upon open standards, these commons are a vector of mobilization as well as a "horizon of meanings" (Peugeot, 2015), thus contributing to a reflection on the identities of groups formed around these goods. Raising the issues of ownership and governance of these shared goods leads to reflect both on the (economic, legal and technical) management of the commons and on the organization of these communities, which are sometimes subjected to contradictions between their efficient (but sometimes unequal) functioning and actual democratic functioning (Crétois & Guibet Lafaye, 2015).

In this axis, we expect articles which contribute to defining the contours of the “doing together”, by putting in perspective practices and meanings attributed to what is common in this digital context (free software, Creative Commons licenses, etc.). How are these digital commons defined by the actors themselves? To what extent are the public/private borders recomposed? What kind of values ​​do they carry? We invite the authors to come up with concrete examples of the collective action methods and the mobilizations implemented by these social movements and citizens structured around this "collaborative culture". It will be necessary to investigate what these new practices surrounding these immaterial goods do to the experience of "producing together". How do different collectives experiment, today, new forms of mobilization, combining collaborative actions and practices? How do they manage the material goods and the knowledge they collectively produce?

The making of opinion and its ecology

The development of the Internet and digital technologies has reformulated the features of freedom of expression and its links with democratic forms. Wikileaks is, today, emblematic of this reformulation (Jurgenson & Rey, 2014). But as soon as the world wide web has been deployed, it has triggered the emergence of renewed forms of participation in the public debate, through the opening of spaces for discussion (Flichy, 2001). Thus, the use of pseudonyms and the relative anonymity it allowed, may have been pointed out as a convergence between citizens and experts, since the latter would be more accessible (Auray, 2007), or as a deregulation of discourse, making people less responsible for what they express in public places – as exemplified by the "troll", this new figure of the provocateur specific to the digital worlds (Casilli, 2010). These early forms of anonymous participation may also have inspired some movements such as Anonymous, which proposes to use the Internet and digital technologies as a new means of tracking abuses of power, opposing the anonymity of the people to the impersonality of the apparatus (Coleman, 2016).

More broadly, the digital technologies increased the visibility of the social diversity of relationships with politics. The process of political education can be studied through the acquisition of a “political competence”, defined as the ability to recognize and name political personalities and to articulate political arguments in structured discourses (Blondiaux, 2007). This definition entails the risk of excluding other forms of political commitment relying on more emotional expressions, more frequent in populations with lower socio-economic status (Monnoyer-Smith, 2011). The question arises all the more acutely as digital technologies facilitate the use of images, intimately linking linguistic experience and sensitive experience. Youtube practices come to mind, but some other less polished spaces are also concerned, such as 4chan.

In addition to researching the circulation of discourses, one must study the circulation of other narratives, other experiences that appeal less to reason than to the feeling of being concerned – a logic which, moreover, may support progressive as well as conservative movements. And, as an answer to the debates on depoliticization, one can see, within the contemporary political movements, that a great deal of attention is paid to attachments beyond commitments. This can be observed, for example, in political movements’ dedication in providing people with the opportunity to “come and see”, to discover themselves as “concerned”. Digital technologies would consequently promote the building of solidarities and audiences based on the very experience of the disorder that a problematic situation would create (Boltanski, 2009; Céfäi & Terzi, 2014).

In the same way as cities in the late nineteenth century (Joseph, 2001), the Internet and digital technologies, since the end of the 20th century, transform the geography of political conversations, changing how opinion is made (Cointet, 2012). Conversations leave, in this media, more traces, which renews the interest of many economic and political stakeholders but also of many social scientists for Gabriel Tarde's proposal of a "science of comparative conversations" (Tarde, 2002). Research into the diffusion of opinions incorporates a new dimension: the democratization of the digital world and the joint development of the so-called social media (Cardon, 2010) seem to provide a new answer to the old ambition of grasping "what people think” (Kotras, 2015). Nevertheless, some observers quickly realized that the formats of expression proposed by the medium favor certain types of message. Moreover, the openness of the Internet to the plurality of discourses is counterbalanced by two recent trends. On the one hand, the algorithmic evolution of the online research and access to information tools tends to orient Internet users towards what they already like and know. On the other hand, social networks organize the circulation of information within cooptation spaces. Both of them rebuild homogeneous spaces for the making of opinions, in terms of belonging, values ​​and affiliations; spaces that have been described as "bubbles" from which plurality is driven out (Cardon, 2015).

All these opposing trends emphasize the present challenge to study empirically "the ecology of information" (Anderson, 2013). It is often in arbitrarily limiting the focus on the Internet that its "influence" has been pointed in public discourse, from the "Arab Spring" to the recent election of Donald Trump. However, the roles of traditional media and ordinary conversations are not obvious a priori, no more than those of “opinion-makers” or social networks (Chateauraynaud, 2014). Thus, the processes whereby opinions are formed in this new ecology of information, which involves the Internet and digital technologies, largely remains to be clarified as well: at the individual level, digital technologies constitute a resource for political learning; at the collective level, the Internet is a support through which groups are constructed and opinion movements extend themselves.

Practical information

Abstracts (max. 500 words) are due by February 28th, 2017. They should be sent to the following address:

The proposal, written in English or in French, will mention the research question, the used methodology and theoretical frame. It will highlight the scientific interest of the submitted article in regard with the existing literature and the call for paper. It can be accompanied by a short bibliography. We wish to draw the attention of the authors to the rubric « updating the classics », which aims to revisit classic authors and theories in social sciences through the prism of the Internet.

The abstracts will be reviewed anonymously by the editors of the special issue and the members of the editorial board. The authors whose paper has been selected will be asked to send their article by email before June 10th, 2017.

The journal RESET is also open, via its section Varia, to works from various disciplinary fields of the social sciences, dealing with the Internet as research object or research method.

Important dates

Deadline for article proposals (max. 500 words, spaces included, bibliography excluded): February 28th, 2017.

Answer to the authors: March 15th, 2017.

Deadline to send full articles (between 6 000 and 9 000 words, spaces included and bibliography excluded): June 10th, 2017.


Editorial board:

Editors of the present issue:

Clément Mabi

Célya Gruson-Daniel


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