Institute of European Ethnology
Digitally changing democracies? Techno-cultural transformations of local politics within three European societies
Hard- and software technologies permeate our life ever deeper. The social networks, alongside the digital infrastructures, create specific spaces of communication, which may be labelled “online-offline” or “hybrid”. What consequences do these new socio-technological fields of politics have with regards to our democracy? Taking the example of three local spaces of politics, my research project analyses this “political cyberspace”, the changing patterns of action, and the impact on institutionally well established values of society in Germany, Spain, and Israel.
How is democratic action reorganized in times of digital transformation? This is the key research question of my PhD project. To receive a profound and empirically based answer, I will analyse three specific socio-technological fields of politics at three local European locations on and offline. Digital infrastructures and social networks create spaces of a new type of communication within a variety of political fields ranging from traditional democratic parties into public administrations’ participatory tendencies (“open government”) to democratic grassroots activism. Therefore, using qualitative methods, the aim of research is to inquire into a broad range of cyber-political patterns of action in order to better understand the limitations, inconsistencies, and opportunities of networked political culture within increasingly digitalized democratic societies.
- In Germany, taking the example of a political party, I will analyze hybrid online-offline politics within the Pirate Party of Munich.
- In Spain I will explore cyber-political action on the net, and by means of network technologies within the social and political movement "Democracia real YA" in Murcia.
- And within the city politics of Tel Aviv my focus of research in Israel is on the development and functioning of the digitally networked public space „City for All“.
For there seems to be a lack of empirical ethnographic work regarding these sorts of issues, I have set up a grounded theory research design (cf. Corbin/Glaser/Strauss) that may help to gain an exciting insight into contemporary socio-political phenomena, which might not only be interesting from a democratic theory point of view. In terms of Cultural Anthropology, the PhD thesis aims to understand what type of political culture evolves within spaces that are populated by digitally interconnected individuals who articulate the defined goal to reconstruct the thinking of democracy as well as the acting in it. How do style, language and performance of politics change? To what extent do the symbolic and material technologies (hard- and software) transform the social relationships of political actors? How do these individuals negotiate democratic values and norms alongside cyber-technological infrastructures? Do they renegotiate inclusion, participation or representation, and if so, how? Do alternative direct-democratic procedures of interest-based bargaining exist? Is it even possible that digital technologies enable a “culture” of sustainable political decision making?
This set of questions already emphasizes that within the three ethnographic fields of research it is not about technology by itself but about its practical application within everyday politics –– actors negotiating social reality “techno-democratically”. Cultural values like…
- transparency (e.g. of decision making processes),
- power (e.g. to make decisions),
- publicness (e.g. as an instrument of democratic control),
- anonymity (e.g. during secret ballot voting)or privacy (e.g. as a form of informational self-determination)
…are not only likely to show a novel techno-cultural texture in all three case studies, but might as well contradict each other, since they are also political values. If one, more generally, defines “the political” as a certain tension between conflict and cooperation, and conceptually understands “political culture” as a historically specific mode of practice which organizes ultimately inevitable contradictions of values in a particular material and symbolical manner, it will become obvious that this PhD project can not only focus on the positive potentials of digital technologies. The plan is also to analyze to what extend cyber-political practices may challenge dominant political cultures –– quite conflictually, at times fundamentally? What tensions and contradictions rise within people who gather in the public and political sphere, once these novel socio-technological online-offline practices encounter on institutionally well established patterns of democratic action. And what creative cultural strategies exist in order to cope with the clash of cultural logics in one’s daily political routine?
Thus, my research project asks for the social and socio-political dynamics and consequences of digital communication technologies: How is democracy reorganized in times of digital transformation? And how are humans, as acting subjects, involved in and affected by these ongoing deep societal changes?
Supervisor (Cotutelle de thèse): Prof. Dr. Johannes Moser & Prof. Dr. Jacques Picard