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From Networked Individualism to Collective Action: Understanding Mobilisation in a New Media Environment


Abstract

From a sociological point of view, new media have been proven to contribute to a trend defined as “networked individualism.” At the same time, in political science circles, a lot of discussion has been dedicated to their potential to enhance citizens’ political participation. This paper focuses on the question whether and how these two opposite tendencies fit together. Networked individualism, typically, remains detached from any forms of civic participation. It is the prevailing relationship between new media and the unengaged, the non-activists. Collective action directed at a political goal, on the other hand, is one of the most powerful manifestations of civic engagement. Under what circumstances does networked individualism transform into collective action? What are the precipitating factors and the stages of this transformation? The paper examines closely three cases of civic mobilization in Bulgaria which led to effective interventions of civic groups in law- and policy-making. In all three of them different kinds of online media emerged as decisive catalysts of the collective action. The focus of the study is on the processes through which private individuals connect with others around social and political interests; the ways they build civic bond and solidarity and the novel strategies (involving new media) they invent for organizing collective action. This investigation opens a window into the complex links between mediated interpersonal and public communication and political involvement. It presents an exciting opportunity for teasing out the connections between the lifeworld and the world of politics. Through qualitative case study methodology employing discourse analysis of online discussions as well as in-depth interviews with key informants, the research follows the development of the three civic initiatives under consideration. The analysis illuminates the web of interactions, relationships, organizational structures and cultural practices that underlie the collective action that led to their success. It tracks the trajectories of several key actors and documents the journey of these characters from the preoccupations of their everyday lifeworld to their active involvement with civic causes in the political sphere. The array of communication media and practices that help to bridge the private and the public worlds is brought to light.