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Towards a Logic of Connective Action

The next speaker at ECPR 2011 is Lance Bennett, whose interest is in connective action (as opposed to collective action). Understanding the logic of such action is important, as it may mean that political organisations need to rethink their outreach activities.

There have been significant self-organising large-scale connective actions recently – from the Arab Spring to the Spanish Indignados –, with substantial media and political successes. Collective action, by contrast, has its problems: the free rider problem, for example, which can be addressed through formal organisation (but this in turn creates problems with resource mobilisation, collective identity and action framing, and other issues).

Connective action personalises communication, by relying on loose ties and choice in affiliating with organisations and others; by building on easily shareable symbolic content; and by using social media for passing along such personalisable memes. Technology becomes a network agent that changes the game, and personalised sharing overcomes the self-interest barriers to collective actions.

Connective action, then, can take place through self-organising networks or through organisationally enabled networks; this should be distinguished from the organisationally brokered networks of collective action. Self-organising connective action means that organisational costs can be reduced to a point where organisations are not required; communication technologies become agents in networks, which automate and organise flows of information and enable peer-defined relationships among collectives; and networks grow so that content themes are easy to personalise and share with trusted others, meaning that personal memes travel more easily across various network barriers than more exclusive frames tend to do.

Organisationally enabled connective action involves organisations which minimise exclusive definitions of their causes, form loose network ties with other organisations, and deploy personalised engagement mechanisms; resulting networks can be understood as flexible organisations in their own right, with capacity for personal engagement, abilities for self-definition (e.g. through measuring the dissemination of memes), adaptation to new political conditions, and political impact; and the power law of networks helps to explain these capacities of political networks.

Finally, then, the Net itself becomes an often imperfect but easily accessible archive of action repertoires and software, presenting a dynamic memory of action for future search and activities. This also explains the emergence of large-scale, rapidly organised protest networks – a kind of recombinant digital network action.