Campus Politics, Student Societies and Social Media

Friday 1st May, 2015

Samuel Burgum

While the Students Union is seen as a key site through which students are drawn into political activism, it has often be less clear precisely how this milieu facilitates the development of norms and encourages collective action. Sam Burgum reflects on a recent paper he co-authored with Brian D. Loader, Ariadne Vromen, Michael A. Xenos and Holly Steel in which they address this question through a consideration of the role of student societies in the development of a political habitus.

At least since the 1960s, the university campus has widely been regarded as a crucible for student protest and social movement activism worldwide, and our research in particular took place in the context of what might be considered a renewal or return of campus politics. Much of this return, particularly after the financial crisis, has focused on the ever-creeping neoliberalisation of the university – from fighting tuition fees in 2010 and the famous Millbank incident where student protestors kicked in the windows of Conservative party HQ, to broader concerns of the casualization of student-tutors and misspent university money on commercial enterprise (such as branding schemes). This is a politics that has not always been peaceful, and in the 2014/5 academic year alone we have witnessed the continuation of students being gassed, beaten and threatened with tasers (such as those who occupied Senate House in Warwick which led to a mass demonstration the next day), but also new student occupations, such as the Maagdenhuis (University of Amsterdam), KCL, Goldsmiths, and that historical centre of neoliberalism: the London School of Economics.

Not only have these movements focused on the marketization of a public institution, however, but also on how this has disproportionately affected different groups and has exasperated structures of long-term inequality. Concerns over pay gaps; departmental divisions of labour; the biased content of modules and conferences; who is disproportionately benefitting from market competition through research funding and promotion; the uneven treatment of colleagues and students; who has their needs met and who suffers from exclusion – all point to the blatant continuation of structures of patriarchy, post-colonialism, heteronormativity, whiteness, class, ableism and ageism, and have all been reiterated time and again by these student movements.

The focus groups we conducted in 2013, therefore, aimed to highlight the importance of the contemporary campus as a site for such politics – existing via both student societies and social media – which we considered as enabling and facilitating the consciousness of such issues amongst the student body. Rather than focus on extra-ordinary instances of protest, however, the aim was to look at the everyday development of political norms and active civic engagement of students, through social media platforms and student societies, which we supposed stimulated participatory practices and influenced political socialisation.

On the one hand, we saw student societies as potentially important in providing the interactional space and resources for generating and maintaining politics, cultivating such interests through time and enabling new members to occupy roles and engage in political issues. As a central part of the contemporary ‘student experience’, these societies not only seemed to represent the diverse interests of the student body, but also provided the focal point for those with similar affinities. They also, of course, allowed for experimentation, with not all students engaging with societies to the same extent.

And on the other hand, we saw digital platforms (which intersected with societies and the wider student body alike) as potentially important for three reasons: their cost effectiveness for instant communication and sharing content; their facilitation of networks; and their influence on mainstream politicians who are ever concerned with their online profile. Indeed, whilst student politics has a rich history, it is surely the novelty of social media which makes the contemporary experience particularly different and interesting, especially in the context of widespread praise for the democratic potential of such technology.

What I felt was particularly valuable about our research was the opportunity to compare these offline/online spaces across three different national settings, juxtaposing our data (University of York, UK) with data that had already been collected in Australia (University of Sydney) and the USA (University of Wisconsin-Madison). In the UK, we selected four student societies that fit certain criteria and were therefore comparable with societies at the other institutions: (1) a society affiliated with a mainstream political party (Green Party); (2) an issue-based group focusing on human rights (Amnesty International); (3) a society closely associated with identity politics (LGBQT Network); and finally (4) a ‘civic’ society with no explicit political affinities (Cricket Club).

The focus groups themselves were quite informal, semi-structured affairs and, whilst we had certain topics that we wanted to cover, each of the three researchers (in the UK study) felt it necessary to encourage and pursue unanticipated themes as they emerged through conversations. One of these themes which I personally thought it important to pursue was the threat of interpassivity when using social media (otherwise known, particularly in activist circles, as the ‘clicktivism’ or ‘slacktivism’ of ‘keyboard warriors’). For all the buzz around social media facilitating politics – particularly after the Arab Spring, Indignados, Occupy, Anonymous and Gezi Park protests – is there any evidence that it might in fact be a depoliticizing platform?

Firstly, it was of course important to recognise that this is a generation of students (undergraduates in 2013) which had grown up with such technology and treated the internet, emails and websites as everyday forms of communication and sources of information. All the societies used some combination of email, Facebook and Twitter to communicate between members, with only a couple of groups having dedicated websites. As one student noted, however, their society tended to ‘contact a lot more people than we actually see’ (UK Civic), suggesting that there was in fact a passive element in social media (allowing people to sign a petition, follow a group or a mailing list, or join an event without actually feeling the need to ‘act’ or attend physically).

Another theme which arose around this topic was that, whilst social media might be good for generating political discussion, this was often unmatched by the ‘quality’ of online politics. As one student put it from the American study, ‘anyone can put an opinion on Facebook, but that doesn’t make it a well-informed opinion’ (USA Issue). Indeed many pointed to the infamous ‘Kony 2012’ campaign to illustrate their criticism of social media, highlighting the ease of access, rapidity and viral dissemination of content as problematic for encouraging ‘misinformation’.
We found then, that whilst social media was ever-present, students were reflexive and critical whilst using it, recognising potential problems of bias, sensationalism, and interpassivity. It was interesting to observe, however, that these kinds of criticisms came more regularly from the societies with explicit political affiliations rather than those more civic and interest-orientated groups. This seemed to suggest a certain boundary-making or role distance on behalf of those who considered themselves to be ‘politically active’ identities against their apparently ‘apolitical’ student counterparts, granting them a certain self-assigned ‘authority’ or ‘authenticity’ over and above others. To put it another way, their identity seemed to hinge around the fact that what they were doing was politics proper; whilst the perceived ‘political’ concerns of other students was likely to be one of distance and apathy.

Indeed, as we enter the final run into the general election, much has been made about the apathy of 18-25 year olds and how they consistently are the demographic with the lowest voting turnout. This has included drives by student unions and societies to encourage people to register, as well as social media campaigns (particularly on Facebook) that have likewise pushed this group to ‘use their vote’. However, whilst this disillusionment with mainstream politics was evident in our focus groups, it is our contention that ‘politics’ is nevertheless alive and well, facilitated on campus by student societies and social (media) networks.

Reflecting back on the paper (and going forwards), it seems important that future research compares these findings with universities in other institutional and national settings to see whether the tradition and experience of student politics is similar or contrasting in contrasting political contexts. It would also be interesting to see whether the political trajectory or careers of society members explicitly feed into wider social movements or formal parties, and especially whether there was a discrepancy between the ‘political’ groups and the civic / interest groups in creating a platform for future engagement.

Finally, in the context of the ever-continuing neoliberalisation of UK universities, it seems important to question whether the experiences created by these societies could actually provide a challenge to marketization, or whether they are in fact an attractive brand for prospective students. Do 6th formers, for instance, actively seek out universities with ‘edge’, ‘excitement’ and a ‘politicized student identity’ provided by such groups? On the one hand, do neoliberal manoeuvres like the National Student Survey (NSS) – which reflect well upon universities which invest in their student union and societies – mean that such societies are complicit to marketization (even if they resist university commercialisation)? Or, on the other hand, do those groups which are brought together at university (even if under commercial circumstances) nevertheless provide and facilitate the common consciousness, resources, focal points and solidarities necessary for a more radical politics?

Sam is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Warwick and has been conducting research with Occupy London since 2012. You can follow Sam on Twitter (@sjburgum) or visit warwick.academia.edu/SamuelBurgum.

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