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Intellectual Agenda: Understanding communication in changing civic landscapes

Recent debates on both sides of the Atlantic have raised questions about possible declines in the psychological importance and organizational coherence of traditional politics. Some observers offer gloomy views about contemporary civic life, as reflected in diminished confidence in government institutions, declines in voting, and shifts in political identity and identifications with others in society. Proponents of the civic decline school often argue that these changes are caused, or at least aggravated by communication. Popular communication-centered explanations for civic decline include the isolating effects of ever more personalized media, the sensationalism of the news media, and the rise of political marketing techniques that break up society by appealing to immediate individual emotions over broader social identifications.

In contrast, other observers argue that changes in national institutions and citizen identification patterns simply mark a transition from modern to late- or post-modern society. In these views, new forms of public identity and civic life are emerging even as old patterns fade away. From this perspective, changes in political rhetoric, marketing methods, campaign techniques, or news formats are less the causes of, than they are responses to, changing societies. For example, new forms of family, community, religion, work experience, and social association may be accompanied by more fluid social identities. Accompanying forms of civic engagement may be more closely linked to personal lifestyles. Indeed, for many of today's global citizens, the very private activities of consumption are regarded as having public and even international consequences for human rights, labor conditions, life in fragile democracies, and environmental quality. From these standpoints, politics is still thriving, but political engagement may be closer to home, less conventionally organized, and more likely to be defined in terms of struggles over evolving notions of rights, morals, and lifestyle values. It is increasingly likely that engagement can occur on both local and global levels without traditional participation through traditional government or national institutions. In this view, the forms of public life, and the ways in which communication organizes them, are not only changing, but they require new concepts and methods for study.

These broadly different views of social and political change raise important questions about the political uses of communication, and the very definitions of politics and citizenship in democracies. It seems particularly important to design new research that helps to identify new patterns of communication and civic engagement in order to understand the way in which they fit with more traditional political communication forms, and to compare those patterns across different societies. The agenda below illustrates the range of projects of interest to the research faculty affiliated with CCCE.

Reassessing traditional media and citizen information needs

The agenda-setting function of the daily news is challenged by the proliferation of communication channels and the fragmentation of news audiences. What are the political implications of the decline of traditional media gate keeping both for public opinion formation and for the political communication strategies of parties, interest groups, leaders, and candidates?

The fragmentation of media audiences and the growing personalization of information delivery raise a host of questions about how people process similar topical information from different media. Is the role of entertainment media in framing social issues increasing as the resources and reach of conventional news declines?

How do people talk about social issues as conventional vocabularies of politics become less desirable in everyday communication?

Do alternatives to conventional journalism such as blogs and citizen news sites point to new directions or add new confusion to the information landscape?

How can the growing access to public networking technologies and the Internet facilitate citizen networking and two-way communication between citizen networks and elites? What communication formats are most attractive, and what vocabularies, information retrieval, and communication options motivate continued engagement?

Understanding the rise of "lifestyle" politics

How have the symbols of politics, along with the communication strategies of political actors, changed in nations undergoing declines of traditional party and national identifications?

Are people who are less likely to respond to collective and traditional political appeals more likely to engage with concerns about life quality, such as threats to the environment, rights, or labor conditions surrounding the production of consumer items?

Can disaffection from traditional politics be countered with lifestyle and consumer based value appeals? If so, does such engagement translate into identification with other causes, or to renewed interest in more conventional politics?

Addressing the decline of common political experiences

As traditional symbols of political identification become less commonly shared, what kind of communication will constitute shared engagement with public issues for different kinds of people?

What kind of imagined communities (either virtual or socially constituted) will new generations find and join?

How are national and international boundaries, identities, and political regimes being shaped by the Internet, and by its growing use to promote global issue and cause campaigns?

How do people engage in local activism on social issues such as pornography, violence, drugs, crime, traffic congestion, environmental quality, and youth mentoring? Are these concerns regarded as political? How is information gathered and shared? And how can both traditional and new media facilitate such engagement?

The changing politics of digital media and the Internet

Beyond the uses of the Internet for traditional political communication about issues and elections, there are many political aspects of cyber politics that are relatively neglected.

How are largely Internet-based issue advocacy campaigns organized, what is their growth rate, and how can we assess their effectiveness? How does participation in networked campaigns differ (both for people and for the policy impact) from more conventional group and institution based political engagement?

How can we best understand Internet activism and the surrounding struggle over commercial and public uses of the Internet? What is the underlying ideology and role of the open source movement? How is the participatory media culture changing the way in which intellectual property is used and licensed?

What methods can be developed for mapping advocacy networks, charting their changes over time, and assessing their effects?

Global activism and large scale public networks

While some observers see little change for conventional politics stemming from the Internet, others see the emergence of new network politics joining individuals across national boundaries in new political regimes dedicated to supra-national issues of a global order.

In what ways does it make sense to distinguish network action from group based social movement activism? How can we conceptualize net-based issue and cause campaigns, and how are they distinctive in their communication patterns, stability, membership commitments, and political effects?

With regard to what issues and campaigns (e.g., genetic modified food and organisms, environmental issues, human and labor rights) does it make sense to think about a convergence of local and global politics? And how does communication and participation in such campaigns differ from traditional interest campaigns oriented toward policy change through traditional participation in government institutions?

How can we measure the growth of global cause networks? How should we conceptualize the effects of participation in such networks in terms of consciousness, community building and policy change?

What are promising new technologies for developing effective citizen networking strategies?

 

Center for Communication & Civic Engagement