The Media Activism Research Collective: An Introduction

The ProtestorIn 2011, Time Magazine famously declared the protester its “person of the year” in a cover story heralded by an illustration of a masked, racially ambiguous person whose gender identity remains unclear but who readers are meant to recognize as one of the many activists involved in social movements that burst onto the scene in the year prior. The image is iconic for the metonymic work it performs: the protester, extracted from any contextualizing information, is offered as a representative of the millions of people around the world who occupy widely divergent social categories and yet share the common experience of political mobilization and contestation. But the image, in its anonymity, also signified a shift in social movement organization away from visible leaders, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Corazon Aquino, all previous Time persons of the year, and toward collective action whose leveled crowds mirrored the massive networks of the social media platforms that sent them into the streets. From the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, from the Indignados to the American Tea Party, the anonymous protester transcends geographic, social, cultural, and even ideological boundaries in this age of digital media.


Three years later, in the fall of 2014, students and faculty at the Annenberg School for Communication and the Sociology Department at the University of Pennsylvania noticed that a critical mass of graduate students and faculty studying social movements, activism, and media had formed on campus, pursuing questions enmeshed in the protester’s symbolic power: What does the organizational structure of a social movement look like in today’s world? Why do some social movements successfully garner public attention while others fail? What are the implications of digital media for contemporary activism? How have certain inherited tactics, passed down from one generation of activists to the next, taken shape on- and offline? These questions, while driving the work of individuals positioned in distinct departments, require the type of interdisciplinary creativity that has characterized the development of social movement studies across the history of its development as a field. With support from Dean Michael Delli Carpini of Annenberg and Chair Emilio Parrado of the Sociology Department and under the guidance of Professor Guobin Yang, the Media Activism Research Collective (MARC) was formed to provide a space where graduate students, professors, and activists from various disciplines working at the intersection of media and social movements could meet and exchange ideas, collaborate on projects, and learn about the work of their peers. Since its launch in 2014, MARC has grown to include members from communication, sociology, political science, and education departments on and beyond Penn’s campus, and its student and faculty members have connected with the work of activist communities in the Philadelphia area.

This blog serves as an extension of MARC’s regular meetings, works-in-progress sessions, events, newsletters, and listserv discussions to help fulfill three key components of the Collective’s mission:

  • To provide a space for collective thought experimentation: Throughout the semester, MARC members meet to discuss current projects and engage in discussion through our listserv. The MARC blog is a venue for more sustained discussion on members’ own work, research in the field, events on our campuses, and happenings in our local activist communities. We also hope that blogging might offer an opportunity for creative thinking and experimentation unlimited by the formal structure and style of traditional academic writing. Check back regularly for posts on a range of topics, join the discussion in the comments section, and consider authoring a MARC blog post to start a new conversation.
  • To compile and share resources: On our resources page, you’ll find links to various archives, databases, journals, and calls for papers relevant to the study of social movements and media. In addition, we’ve included links to our growing collective Zotero library of articles, books, reports, and videos relevant to different topic areas within the study of social movements as well as our open source syllabi project, which includes syllabi from undergraduate and graduate courses related to media activism.
  • To connect graduate students, professors, and activists with each other: As a hub for research and events happening at the intersection of media and social movements, we hope the MARC blog can serve as one possible meeting place for both academics and activists. Find people working in your subject area on our members page and stay up to date on media activism in the Philadelphia area on our events page.

The protester, as Time explained back in 2011, is “a maker of history.” History defies the institutional walls that divide departments, disciplines, fields, academics, and activists. It is our hope that the Media Activism Research Collective might become a bridging force among the communities of thinkers and doers endeavoring to push historical change forward and trace its development over time.

Welcome, and please join our conversation.

Rosemary Clark, Ph.D. Student, University of Pennsylvania

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