Category Archives: Articles & Papers

Hackers and Users in Anti-War Activism

Protesters at Labour Party Conference, Manchester, 2006.

Short talk for the ‘Internet for Activists’ day organised at SOAS, 15 March 2009.

The purpose was to outline two different ‘ideal typical’ attitudes that activists typically bring to their engagements with technology. Within recent anti-war activism most people have approached technology as users, interested in the technology itself only to the extent that it makes the ususal organisational and communicative tasks quicker or more efficient. The talk outlines a few examples of the hacker attitude in action in order to show some of the possibilities inherent in stretching and blending communication structures. This is not to say that we must all become hackers, rather that an awareness of what we intend with technological solutions should help us approach technologies in an appropriate manner.

The slides for the talk are available here: Gillan, ‘Hackers & Users’ SOAS Workshop.

This talk was a short version of a book chapter published in Net-Working/Networking: Citizen Initiated Internet Politics. A pdf version of the chapter is available here: Diverging Attitudes to Technology preprint.

Understanding Meaning in Movements: A Hermeneutic Approach to Frames and Ideologies

Social movements contain structures of beliefs and values that guide critical action and aid activists’ understandings. These are worthy of interrogation, not least because they contain points of articulation with ideational formations found in both mainstream politics and academia. They offer an alternative view of society, economy and polity that is grounded in protagonists’ experience and struggle. However, the ideational content of social movements is often obscured by a focus on particular, immediate goals; by their orientation to certain forms of action; and by the mediated, simplified nature of their communication. Continue reading Understanding Meaning in Movements: A Hermeneutic Approach to Frames and Ideologies

Diverging Attitudes to Technology and Innovation in Anti-War Movement Organisations

Chapter to be published in the forthcoming book, Net Working/Networking: Politics on the Internet, edited by Tapio Ha¨yhtio¨ & Jarmo Rinne (2008, Tampere University Press).

This chapter works with the categories of ‘hackers’ and ‘users’ that have developed out of sociological analyses of the adoption of new technologies. These terms have sometimes been used to describe particular technological subcultures such as Sherry Turkle’s work on the mainframe hackers around MIT in the seventies. More generally useful, however, is the indications of particular attitude – what Graham Kirkpatrick describes ‘computational temperaments’ – that structure the ways in which people engage with technologies. In this sense, the notion of the ‘hacker’ may be of much wider relevance than those who carry out highly esoteric modifications in computers’ hardware or software.

This chapter explores these notions in relation to data gathered for a book on Anti-War Activism, asking to what extent user and hacker attitudes to technology were witnessed among activists opposing the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. As the book argues, many movement groups were steeped in a highly mediated information environment, making use various technologies to gather information, organise activity and represent their views. Mostly, as this chapter shows, activists engaged with the technology with a user attitude. That is to say, technologies were adopted in order to make use of their most obvious, advertised benefits. The chapter also details a number of cases in which activists have applied a recognisable ‘hacker’ attitude to the technologies they work with. In activist circles we see this attitude applied at the level of the communication system, rather than a particular device, and often with an explicit aim of creating a horizontal communication structure that transcends the intended uses of the system. It is those areas where activist groups differ most significantly from the intended market of technologies (usually businesses or public sector bureaucracies) where the hacker attitude seems to hold most promise.

You can download a preprint of the chapter here: Attitudes to Technology and Innovation, preprint.

You can find out more about the book from the E-democracy webpage: Net Working / Networking.

The UK Anti-War Movement Online: Uses and Limitations of Internet Technologies for Contemporary Activism

Article to be published in Information, Communication and Society.

Abstract:This article uses interviews with committed anti-war and peace activists to offer an overview of both the benefits and challenges that social movements derive from new communication technologies. It shows contemporary political activism to be intensely informational; dependent on the sensitive adoption of a wide range of communication technologies. A hyperlink analysis is then employed to map the UK anti-war movement as it appears online. Through comparing these two sets of data it becomes possible to contrast the online practices of the UK anti-war movement with its offline ‘reality’. When encountered away from the Web recent anti-war contention is grounded in national-level political realities and internally divided by its political diversity but to the extent that experience of the movement is mediated online, it routinely transcends national and political boundaries.

An electronic preprint of this article is available here: Anti-War Movement Online, Preprint. The authoritative final version will be available online at: Taylor and Francis, ICS.

Transnational Anti-War Activism: Solidarity, Diversity and the Internet in Australia, Britain and the United States After 9/11

With Jenny Pickerill, published in Australian Journal of Political Science 43:1, pp. 59-78.

Abstract: The upsurge in activism opposing wars and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq appears to represent a significant process of transnational collective action. Using data collected through participant observation, interviews and website analysis this paper explores the role of the Internet in facilitating transnational activism between Australia, Britain and the United States. This research confirms Tarrow’s (2005a) assertion of ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ – a primary commitment to locally contextualised action combined with a desire for transnational support. The Internet is used primarily for gathering news and for sharing symbolic expressions of solidarity. In Australia in particular, with fewer domestic anti-war resources online, international networking proves particularly useful. To an extent, online networks reach across both political diversity and geographical boundaries. However, online resources do not appear to enable the more personal connections required to build stable, working coalitions across borders.

An electronic preprint of the article is available for download here: Transnational Anti-war Activism Preprint. The published version is available from the Australian Journal of Political Science 43(1).

Anti-War Activism and New Media: New Resource Structure or Creation of Symbolic Power?

Paper presented to the 8th Conference of the European Sociological Association, Glasgow, September 2007.

Abstract: Significant activist groups see information and communication technologies (ICTs) as offering substantial potential in empowering social movements in organisation, mobilisation, and communication of their critiques and demands. Academic studies have begun to demonstrate some of the creative and technologically sophisticated uses to which activists have put new media. However, emphasis on the novel tends to overshadow the degree to which activists’ everyday lives are structured by interaction with new communications media. This paper analyses informational practices among UK anti-war and peace activists, demonstrating a far more complex picture of the value of new media to campaigning organisations. On the one hand, we see informational practices that utilise the manifest functionalities of new technologies as absolutely pervasive in contemporary activism. On the other hand, we see some activist groups discovering the latent functionalities of ICTs through stringing together multiple modes of communication or combining technologies with the social and political networks in which they interact. Through such practices activists produce relatively novel communication structures that potentially offer new ways of exerting the power of collective action.

This paper may be downloaded in pdf format from this link: Anti-War Activism and New Media.

Understanding Activists’ Political Theories: A Hermeneutic Methodology for Frame Analysis

Paper presented to 57th Political Studies Association Annual Conference, University of Bath, April 2007.

At the heart of social movements lie structures of beliefs and values that guide critical action and aid activists’ understandings. These are worthy of interrogation, not least because they contain points of articulation with ideational formations found in both mainstream politics and academia. They offer an alternative view of society, economy and polity that is grounded in protagonists’ experience and struggle. However, the ideational content of social movements is often obscured by a focus on particular, immediate goals; by their orientation to certain forms of action; and by the mediated, simplified nature of their communication. Additionally, recent social movements display a tendency to coalitional action, bringing a diverse set of political understandings in concert on highly specific campaigns.

This conceptual paper seeks an approach to identifying the messages within social movements that remains sensitive to their complexity, dynamism and heterogeneity. Through a critique of the concept of ‘interpretative frames’ as developed in social movement studies, I describe the novel concept ‘orientational frame’. In contrast to social movement scholars’ tendency to focus on instrumental claim-making by movement organisations, I emphasise deeply held, relatively stable sets of ideas that allow activists to justify contentious political action. Through an engagement with Michael Freeden’s morphological approach to understanding ideologies I attempt to draw frame analysis away from the positivistic attempt to delineate general processes into a hermeneutic endeavour more suitable to understanding the context dependent, specifically realised ideas of particular social movements.

The full paper may be downloaded here: A Hermeneutic Methodology for Frame Analysis

The Terrorism Act 2000 and the Judicial Review Process: A Personal Story

This lecture presented a personal view of the judicial review process to law students at Queen’s University, Belfast. In 2003 I was subject to a stop and search by police, while on my way to a demonstration. The police used powers conferred on them by the Terrorism Act 2000. Ever since I have been involved with a case that has tested that piece of legislation, and the ways in which it has been used by the police. Essentially, our argument is on two levels. Continue reading The Terrorism Act 2000 and the Judicial Review Process: A Personal Story

Meaning in Movement. An Ideational Analysis of Sheffield-Based Protest Networks Contesting Globalisation and War

Thesis submitted for the award of PhD, University of Sheffield, 2006.


Since the late 1990s millions of people have been involved in political protest actions contesting globalisation and war. The two issues are interconnected by the continuing involvement of many of the same individuals, organisations and networks making political claims in opposition to relevant institutional actors. Social movements involved in these protests include a marked diversity of political worldviews.

This thesis analyses the worldviews informing particular instantiations of those movements. Social movements must be understood as continuous, dynamic processes which, at times, occur as large-scale public events. Participants’ political beliefs are formed, tested and reconstituted in continuous debate and action with their peers and opponents. Meaning results from the interrelations between concepts in larger ideational structures. Interpreting the worldviews presented by social movements therefore involves piecing together various ideational elements into reasonably coherent, interlocking structures that make sense of the statements and behaviour of social movement participants. It is through extended participation within social movement groups that discursive processes can be observed. An ethnographic methodology therefore forms the empirical basis on which this thesis develops an hermeneutic project that elucidates the meanings of social movements.

The activities of Sheffield-based participants in movements contesting globalisation and war offer the opportunity for an ideational study grounded in everyday activities and discourse. Three significant justificatory worldviews are identified: revolutionary socialism, direct action and radical liberalism. Understanding these belief structures as overlapping, in conflict and in competition will be valuable in interpreting particular phases of contemporary movement activity. The latter is demonstrated in detailed case studies of the anti-war and social forum movements. These cases illuminate complex connections between the local and global spheres of social movement action, offering understanding of how beliefs identified at the local level reflect claims made by broader social movements.

Scroll down for chapter summaries, or download the full thesis (2.5MB .pdf).

1. Understanding Social Movements: Towards a Theory of Interpretative Frames

This chapter begins with a quick tour of social movement theory since the 1950s. In particular I look at the ways that academics have tried to understand the role of ideas within social movements.

The main focus here, though, is to look at a body of research that examines the ‘interpretative frames’ that protesters and activists use to understand the world around them. We are all constantly engaged in processes of learning that reinforce or recreate our own set of beliefs and values. The concept of ‘interpretative frames’ is supposed to capture the way that these beliefs and values are structured. We become emotionally attached to certain ways of looking at the world so that new information is often framed within those beliefs we previously held. So, if you already believe that all government is the self-interested exercise of power in order to further enrich the powerful, you’re more likely to interpret, say, the Iraq war in this way.

The main contribution this thesis tries to make to the theoretical debate is to clarify the nature of these interpretative frames. Scholars have tended to see them as quite superficial, as if you could express different political opinions depending on which way the political wind blows. While may be true of the expression of beliefs, I doubt it is true of the holding of those beliefs. More importantly people’s beliefs and values – and especially activists’ beliefs and values – inform their decisions to act in certain ways. As most activists realise, people with particular politics will have a particular take on how to change the world. Academics have tended to separate ideas and action in their analyses, so that is one thing this thesis tries to put right.

Add in a bunch of fairly esoteric conceptual work and this chapter gets to the point of describing the ‘orientational frame’ as that set of beliefs that offers someone a view of the world, of their place in it, and of the ways in which social change might be achieved. So, it becomes possible to describe and analyse relatively stable structures of ideas that exist (in a particular sense) beyond any individual’s expression of them.

The key point to remember throughout is that it is not possible simply to write down a programmatic set of beliefs and pidgeon-hole people according to whether they fit or not. In the rest of the thesis I do identify three sets of ideas that tend to cling together (and also have relationships with socialism, anarchism and liberalism). However, these ideas are stuck together with the weak glue of shared culture, particular understandings of history, and trends in the sorts of experiences activists are likely to encounter. On exposure to these orientational frames (or structures of ideas) activists will interpret them in ways that depend on the individual journey they have taken through their political (and indeed non-political) lives. As such many people will rightly refuse to be pigeon-holed or categorised. Nevertheless, the ‘orientational frames’ can be discussed independently of individual interpretations. This chapter closes by explaining exactly how that can be achieved.

Download C1: Understanding Social Movements