Tuesday 12 September 2017

ECPR 2017

I participated at the European Consortium for Political Research General Conference at the University of Oslo last week, presenting a pet project paper with my great friend Noomi Weinryb from Södertörn University College in the panel From Helping Hands to Molotov Cocktails – Understanding Citizens’ Miscellaneous Reactions to the Refugee Crisis.

This paper, The prevalence and durability of emotional enthusiasm: connective action and charismatic authority in the 2015 European refugee crisis, is basically a first attempt to make sense of a data set that has been generated from a large number of Facebook posts from groups and pages associated with coordinating volunteer work during the refugee crisis in 2015. What we do in this paper is that we are taking a look at how the use of a certain type of emotional language - emotional enthusiasm, we call it with a term borrowed from Paulo Gerbaudo - plays out in traditional civil society organisations as well as ad-hoc networks. We can see a clear boom-and-bust cycle in the Facebook activity of the ad-hoc or self-organising networks, where the activity is much higher in September than in October or November of 2015, whereas the level of activity in the civil society organisations is on a lower level but rather stable. But emotional enthusiasm remains as a proportionally important feature of Facebook posts in both organisational types.

At the conference we made contact with several other researchers who are working specifically with the refugee crisis in different ways, and we have several good ideas - not least because of good comments from our discussant Pascal König and the panel audience - how to take this forward.

Departing from previous research on digital action networks, this paper approaches the spread and emotional contagion of digital activism slightly differently, looking for it not necessarily inside the social movement itself, but rather outside it. By questioning the implicit assumption that the spread and emotional contagion of digital activism is contained only in the context of social movements, we explore emotional enthusiasm also in the social media engagement of other types of contemporaneous civil society organizations, viewing it as a manifestation of Weber’s concept of charismatic authority. Empirically, we study voluntary engagement and mobilization on Facebook in Sweden during the refugee crisis of the fall of 2015. In a mixed-method content analysis of 59 Facebook groups and pages, we trace the use of emotional markers in posts during the period September-November 2015. Our findings indicate that the prevalence of emotional enthusiasm outside of social movement, and the lack of durability of it both in organizations and in networks, points to the lack of stability that charismatic authority entails. As charismatic authority becomes institutionalized as a legitimate and predominant manner of organizing through social media, this may have large scale implications for societal organizing at large. The paper indicates that emotional enthusiasm in the form of charismatic authority not only provides democratic opportunities for protest and contention, but, given its emotional contagion, may also but democratic procedures and respect for bureaucratic structures at risk.