Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Mobilize me

It usually feels good when somebody agrees with you. Also, when somebody else is able to articulate what you have been thinking, but have not been able to put into words. Even better when that somebody else has a high-profile perch from which to persuade, perhaps, still others. This is how I felt when I read Malcolm Gladwell's article, "Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted," in the October 4th issue of The New Yorker.

Gladwell is critical of the hype surrounding Facebook, Twitter, and other "social media" as instruments of social change. To make his point, he contrasts the example of sit-in's in the segregated south during the 1960s with one man's recent campaign to get back his friend's Sidekick from a teenager who found it in a NYC taxi... In part, what is contrasted is the cause (or in the case of the Sidekick, "cause"), but it is also the mobilization of people behind it.

Notably, Gladwell describes how and why civil-rights organizations of the 1960s successfully organized volunteers to make great sacrifices (including their lives) in pursuit of their cause. Not being an expert on social movements, I do not feel that I can evaluate his suggestion that the success of the civil-rights movement is due, in part, to its hierarchical structure. Then again, this being Gladwell's reporting, I am guessing that the hierarchy hypothesis is drawn from scholarly works that are not cited here. (See my post from yesterday on journalism's reliance on scholarly sources...)

Technomongers today insist that social networks motivate people. "But that's not true," Gladwell writes. "Social networks are effective at increasing participation - by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires." For example, he mentions that the Save Darfur Coalition has a Facebook page with 1,282,339 members, "who have donated an average of nine cents apiece." On the one hand, more than 1 million x 9 cents each still seems a sum worth cheering. Also, it seems to demonstrate what happens when "everyone" shares the burden. However. Pocket change does not make social change. "Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice," Gladwell writes. "We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro."

In describing what Facebook's strengths are, Gladwell references the work of sociologist Mark Granovetter in suggesting that social media "lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It's terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism."

The observations here about weak ties and strong ties led me to think about points that I try to make in ANTH 100 lectures on how / why we need to think about economic activity as cultural and economic activity. The French sociologist / anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) wrote an essay called "The Gift," which has been influential in anthropological studies, not only of economics, but also of kinship, gender, and reproduction. Mauss observed that there are no "free" gifts: Receiving gifts obligates persons to other persons: One must eventually reciprocate. Giving gifts - whether yams, pigs, or women-as-brides - establishes and maintains obligations between persons. In effect, both giving and receiving gifts can "cost" persons. Yet, it might be that the higher the price of giving and receiving, the mightier the obligation, the stronger the tie.

The strength of ties with other persons depends on the demands that we make on other persons and that they make on us. I have been thinking lately about how we see this in our everyday experiences. This is not to say that we in fact expect our friends to give or do - it is that we can. Or could. That is what makes us friends...

Perhaps what civil-rights organizations did so successfully depended not only on hierarchical structure, but also, in fact, on demanding so much of persons?


  1. I read and enjoyed the Gladwell piece, too, and am also dubious about the claims about social media enabling social change. Probably, social media is good for broadcasting activism when it happens, but not for instigating or sustaining it.

    I taught excerpts of Mauss's "The Gift" in my writing seminar courses a few years ago, and really love it. It really challenges students to think about social relations in different ways; the students who got it wrote some wonderful arguments using the logic of the gift economy.

  2. Mauss rocks. There is an edited volume - I am ashamed that I forget the title, but Linda Layne is an editor - that applies the framework of gift economy to reproduction, including the adoption of children. Thought provoking. Or at least gets a rise out of students :)

    I also want to teach a course on the anthropology of the body, in part just to be able to assign Mauss' pieces on "Body Techniques" and "The Concept of the Person."

    Geeky thoughts on this Thursday evening...