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Leaderless collectivity

Simson Garfinkle has a piece in this month’s First Monday, titled Leaderless Resistance Today. He discusses the use of (usually) violent direct action by individuals and groups whom he argues are affiliated only through the loosest of web-enabled ties; in essence, such actors comprise isolated cells that are hard to track or to police.

Garfinkle employs case studies of several such instances of leaderless resistance, from animal rights, environmental, and terrorist groups, and proposes some solutions to the problems of identifying and preventing violent leaderless resistance.

Contemplating a dissertation that explores online social movement activity and its offline consequences, I’m interested in Garfinkle’s work. However, I cannot help but think that, as it relates to collective behavior and social movements, “leaderless resistance” is lacking a substantial theoretical and empirical background. For instance, one of Garfinkle’s premises seems to be that “fertile minds” are susceptible to the media-conveyed (via web sites and conventional news coverage) images of terrorism, vandalism, and other direct action. This concept of the mindframe of participants in collective action is rather dated, and doesn’t really take into account the complexity—and genuine difficulty—of mobilizing participants to potentially risky activism.

Further, for someone who has been involved in issues of online security for so long, and is broadly experienced with internet issues as Garfinkle is, the piece has a particularly high “wow” factor *. That is, Garfinkle tends to overemphasize the ways in which the technology at hand determines behavior, while underemphasizing the role of prior attitudes and social ties (Mark Granovetter makes an argument against similar tendencies to perceive actors as either under- or over-socialized in his article “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness”). Although I think leaderless resistance is indeed a worthwhile subject, Garfinkle has undersocialized it dramatically.

Right now, there isn’t much good research on how—and how effectively—participants to offline collective action are mobilized by online influences. Any account of leaderless resistance (or some of the “smart mob” activity that Howard Rheingold has recently talked about) needs to work to fill in this gap, which is as much methodological as it is theoretical. The dynamics of offline-online contention are tricky.

Watch for that dissertation in another year or so. I’ll keep you posted.

* Kieran has more humorously noted the propensity of internet scholars to take up a pronounced “Doctor Evil” disposition, in which “the internet” takes on a “laser beam” level of unfamiliarity.