Social movement communication

Social movement communication: Language, technology, and social organization in an urban homeless movement

Amoshaun Toft

This study examines three overlapping campaigns that occurred simultaneously in the local Seattle homeless movement in 2007-2009: the “No New Jail” campaign to stop the building of a proposed misdemeanant jail, a project aimed at creating a self-managed semi-permanent community to house up to 1,000 people called “Nickelsville,” and a campaign to “Stop the Sweeps” of homeless encampments in parks, under freeways and in wooded hillsides around the city. The study engages a multi-level, multi-methods approach to the analysis of social movement communication in each of the three issue campaigns. I argue that social movements only exist in the context of issue areas, and that issue areas offer affordances to participants that structure material and symbolic actions. I offer three key findings of interest to scholars in the fields of communication technologies, organizational communication, and discourse studies. First, I found that Internet enabled communication technologies were important for social movement communication, but that their use was highly structured by material inequality. While the emphasis on material poverty within homeless organizing processes may have highlighted inequalities in access and skill when it came to technology use, and encouraged participants towards particular strategies of use in this context, I suggest that all efforts for social change take place within contexts of material inequality, and urge future research to consider technology use within the broader context of communication practices – be they technologically mediated or not. Second, I found that communication was at the heart of social movement organizing efforts, and took place within two areas of communicative activity: issue contestation and participant mobilization. Issue contestation was divided into two aspects: materiality and subjectivity; and participant mobilization involved three types of communication processes: institutionalizing the movement, taking collective action, and community organizing. I suggest that this typology may be usefully employed in other social movement contexts, even as the words and meanings that populate them would change. Third, I found that formal organizations continue to play an important role in social movement activity, even as technologies of communication augment organizational capacities, with traditional authority markers continuing to predict organizational prominence in hyperlink issue networks.
Toft, A. (2010). Social movement communication: Language, technology, and social organization in an urban homeless movement. Dissertation, Department of Communication, University of Washington.
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