The individual and collective in networked collective action

This is a continuation of yesterday’s coverage of the Jeffrey Juris interview.

One of the questions is significant to us, and asks the question: what is the right organisational form for networked action?


I would say the distributed network form of organization reflects a particular strategy for balancing individual and collective needs, interests, and desires. Rather than less commitment, it reflects a broader shift toward what the Sociologist Paul Lichterman, in his book “The Search for Political Commitment,” calls “personalized commitment.” That said, it is true that diffuse, flexible activist networks have generally proven more effective at organizing short-term mobilizations and events than the kind of sustainable organizations needed to generate lasting social transformation. There is often a false debate between “movement” or “flexible networks” and “institutionalization,” as if there were only one way to institutionalize. Institutions are generally associated with the kind of centralized, top-down bureaucratic organizations inherited from the industrial age. However, if we see institutions more broadly as simply sustainable networks of social relations along with the organizational and technological infrastructure that makes such relations possible then there are many ways to institutionalize. In this sense, there is no necessary contradiction between sustainable organization and networks. The key is to create new kinds of sustainable institutions that reflect and incorporate the networking logics I explore in my book. For example, what would a political institution look like that is sustainable over time and able to generate more effective coordinated action, yet is still based on directly democratic forms of decision-making, bottom-up participation, decentralized collaboration, etc.? As I understand it this is the crux of what you, Ned Rossiter and others are talking about when you argue for the need to move toward organized networks, at least in the realm of new media. I agree that something similar is needed in the realm of political activism. I think there will always be a role for more flexible, diffuse networks to plan and coordinate specific actions. And there is nothing wrong with letting these networks fizzle out when they are no longer needed (in my experience old networks rarely die, they simply cease to provide a forum for active communication). However, I do think it is important that we build new kinds of networked institutions (contra institutional networks) that reflect the best of what distributed networks have to offer, but are more sustainable over time. At present, I think the social forums, with all their problems, are the best example we have of this new kind of organized network in the realm of political action. As I mentioned above the forums are hybrid organizations, combining vertical and horizontal organizing logics. Many radicals have criticized the social forums precisely because of the participation and influence of traditional reformist institutional actors. However, in my view, it is precisely at the intersection of these different sorts of political and organizational logics, and in the context of the associated conflicts and debates, that new kinds of sustainable hybrid networked institutions will emerge. This is why I have consistently argued over the years that more radical activists should engage the forum, even if from the margins, creating autonomous spaces to interact with the forum process while promoting their more innovative horizontal networking practices. Again, it is through this kind of ongoing interaction and conflict between different organizational logics and practices that new kinds of organized networks will emerge in the political realm. It is no accident that of all the projects, networks, and institutions that have been created by the global justice movement the social forums remain the most active and vibrant, despite, or perhaps precisely because of, the continued critiques. To go back to your first question, PGA remains closest to my heart, but the social forums may ultimately turn out to be a more lasting and influential organized network. One of the more interesting projects I have taken part in over the past few years, the Networked Politics initiative (, has been an effort on the part of activists and engaged scholars to think more deeply about how to develop new forms of politics and institutions that are sustainable yet reflect the kinds of networking logics and practices that were particularly visible in the context of the global justice movement.”

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