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The critical analysis of social change actors on the Internet

Date & Time:
14:00:00 - 15:30:00,
Tuesday 26 June, 2012


Despite the Internet’s oft-touted revolutionary impact on society, there is little empirical analysis of online actors which adopts a critical perspective. After sketching the main divisions in the field of online research, this presentation will define why a critical approach is necessary, and propose a generative model of online social change actors, such as participants in online collaborative projects and in online social movements.

Referring to a now-classic distinction in France between critical sociology (aiming to unveil hidden domination) and the sociology of critique (based on the actions and judgments of ‘ordinary people’), the presentation will suggest that these approaches are not incompatible with one another, or with a network-theoretic perspective. Against definitions of power as wholly diffuse and decentered, an actor-based definition of power will then be proposed, in terms both network-theoretic (as the capacity of actors to occupy central position and to influence diffusion of the terms of debates and controversies) and organisational (as the capacity of actors to legitimately exclude participants or contributions).

Finally three research projects which operationalise these concepts will be presented: (a) a network-theoretic analysis of hyperlink structure and frame diffusion in the online environmental activist field; (b) an ethnographic analysis of authority and critique in online collaborative projects; (c) a network-theoretic and ethnographic examination of class formation and conflict in online collaborative projects and the online environmental activist field.

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  • Name: Associate Professor Mathieu O’Neil
  • Affiliation: Universite Paris Sorbonne & Australian National
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  • Bio: Mathieu O’Neil lectures in American politics and society at the UniversitÈ Paris Sorbonne, where he is the Deputy Director of the Travail, Culture et SociÈtÈ research centre. He is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the ANU’s Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute, where he helped to establish the Virtual Observatory for the Study of Online Networks in 2005. In 2008-2009 he worked as a researcher at the Australian Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. His book Cyberchiefs: Autonomy and Authority in Online Tribes was published in 2009 by Pluto. His article (co-authored with Robert Ackland) ‘Online collective identity: The case of the environmental movement’, published in Social Networks, was awarded the 2012 Communication and Information Technologies Section of the American Sociological Association (CITASA) Paper Award. He is the founder and editor of the Journal of Peer Production, and in 2010 he joined the board and bureau of Les Amis du Monde diplomatique.