A Research Design for the Examination of Political Empowerment Through Social Media

A Research Design for the Examination of Political Empowerment Through Social Media

Marius Rohde Johannessen (University of South-Eastern Norway, Norway)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-0377-5.ch003


The chapter presents a research design for examining social media use in political contexts, framed as the methodology community case study. The main difference from a traditional case study is that the focus is on online communities rather than single organizations. The chapter presents the case study methodology along with the individual methods that have been applied in community case studies: interviews, stakeholder analysis, the Delphi method, social network analysis (and other digital methods), document, and genre analysis. The chapter concludes by discussing possible types of insights gained through applying these methods, and presenting a few example findings from previous research. The design has been successfully applied in the author's PhD thesis and later work, and is presented here in the hope that it might provide aid and inspiration for graduate students facing similar research problems.
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1. Introduction

A thriving democracy should encourage citizens to participate in the democratic process through voting and active membership in political parties (Dewey, 1927; Oppenheim, 1971). Citizens should contribute to the public debate through participation in various discussion spaces and involvement in the political process within the confines of representative democracy (Brooks & Manza, 2007).

However, societal trends are moving away from these ideals, and new media technologies such as social media are changing political communication (Kruikemeier, Sezgin, & Boerman, 2016) Our democratic societies are facing a series of changes, and multidisciplinary research using a set of on- and offline research methods is needed to understand these changes. In the majority of European countries, party membership has strongly decreased since 1998 (Van Biezen, Mair, & Poguntke, 2012). Governments rely increasingly on expert assessment, leaving less room for public opinion (Rayner, 2003), and market forces are pulling power away from parliamentary democracy (Østerud & Selle, 2006). Fewer citizens vote in elections (Gray & Caul, 2000), citizens are losing interest in the broad social movements of the past, and the voluntary sector is moving towards a market-driven logic, becoming more professionalized, and less of an alternative democratic channel (Sivesind, Lorentzen, Selle, & Wollebæk, 2002). These factors have led to a general feeling that politicians have become removed from the citizens they are elected to represent (Narud & Valen, 2007).

In an attempt to renew citizens’ public engagement, governments have introduced a number of Information and Communication technology (ICT) projects. However, these projects have struggled to engage a sufficient number of citizens, or citizens have left the project after an initial burst of interest (Sæbø, Rose, & Nyvang, 2009), often due to a lack of purpose, etiquette and rules for conversation (Hurwitz, 2003). Citizens appreciate the ability to communicate, but do not believe these ICT initiatives will improve democratic engagement (Kolsaker & Kelly, 2008).

There are those, however, who believe that civic engagement is not disappearing, but rather changing form (Bimber, 2003). Government-driven traditional ICT programs often fail, but there is evidence that other forms of participation and civic engagement are emerging in social media. Citizens are not necessarily less civic minded today. Rather, their engagement finds new forms and new outlets. A survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 39% of Americans have performed at least one political activity in social media (Rainie, Smith, Schlozman, Brady, & Verba, 2012) Activist groups and political parties alike gather support and spread information through social media (Segerberg & Bennett, 2011; Sen, Spyridakis, Amtmann, & Lee, 2010). A new sphere for civic engagement and empowerment, with a new form and tone of communication (Graham, 2008, 2011), is emerging in these online spaces (Chadwick, 2009; M. R. Johannessen, Sæbø, & Flak, 2016). There is a need to understand how these new arenas for participation works, and how they can contribute to democracy.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Community: A social unit based on commonality – for example common values, beliefs, interests, roles.

Case Study: A research method aimed at in-depth, detailed examination of a defined subject (the case).

Political Communication: The study of how information and deliberation spreads and influences citizens, the media and policy-makers.

Social media: Computer systems that are available on the Internet, facilitating information creation and sharing, community and networking and collaboration. Different social media emphasize different aspects.

Research Design: The set of methods and procedures used in collecting and analysing data for a research project.

Political Empowerment: Empowerment refers to the degree of self-determination and autonomy people and communities have to represent their own interests. Political empowerment refers to empowerment in a political context.

eParticipation: An interdisciplinary research field examining ICT-supported political participation. Examples of disciplines include political science, information systems and media studies.

Citizen Initiative: A democratic process where citizens take initiative to propose new legislation or policy change.

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