Overview

“Online political participation and its critics” will gather researchers together in roundtable discussions to discuss a central issue in many studies of digital politics: Can we analyze online political participation through the theoretical approaches traditionally used in the social sciences? Or does research on the political uses of the Internet and social networks require us to rethink existing theoretical approaches and perhaps even develop new concepts?

Answers to these questions will vary according to the definitions of political participation used by researchers and depend upon the hypotheses mobilized about the real contribution of the Internet to evolutions in political practice. For example, many studies on online political discussion question the accuracy of the Habermasian model of the public sphere: but beyond the critiques of rational-critical models of deliberation, and the subsequent need to consider a wider range of forms of expression and spaces of public deliberation, what might alternative conceptualizations of online discussion and participation look like?

For some scholars, online political participation is simply a transposition or an extension of participatory practices usually observable offline: chat and forums would therefore be the online version of public debates and meetings. For others, the boundaries between expression, participation, community engagement, and mobilization are somewhat blurred online and one could see the emergence of new forms of political participation that have little to do with traditional political behavior. Some propose to overcome this binary perspective with the concept of “expressive political participation”. This broad approach to political participation meets a recurring debate in political science about whether a minimal form of interest in official politics is an indispensable component of definitions of political participation. Consequently, methodical and rigorous evaluation of various analytical frameworks underpinning theoretical work on online politics appears both as a condition of their strength and as a contribution to the possible renewal of the many disciplines in which they register.

Theoretical reflection is also challenged by rapid technological change. Thus, some political upheavals seem to coincide with the spreading of social networks (the Arab spring for example). The enthusiasm aroused by the uses of new devices or digital techniques by politicians or citizens, sometimes leads researchers to neglect their previous fields of investigation. For example, political blogs, which were at the center of many researches during the years 2005-2010, are now given up for the benefit of social networks. The proposals which we received for a “young researcher day” confirmed this trend. This pursuit of hot topics sometimes develops itself to the detriment of lessons learned from previous studies on “new technologies” and lacks the necessary distance from the object of research. It also tends to forget 15 or 20 years of research on political use of ICTs (even 30 years if we include academic work on French Minitel, community TV and cable networks). Nonstop technological innovation is both a challenge and a constraint for academic research which needs both distance from observed political phenomena and adequate time for conceptualization and theorization.

Drawing on the academic literature about political practices and digital networks, the DEL symposium will therefore focus on the two preliminary questions stated above. The roundtables on June 20, 2013 – and the ensuing publications – will invite speakers to reflect on and question the relevance of their theoretical and analytical frameworks in relation to these questions.