Community Trajectories

Defining Trajectories from Cultural Participation to Political Action

Cultural theorists have long speculated about how our fantasy lives and cultural engagements might help inspire broader forms of public participation. In his book Understanding Popular Culture, for example, John Fiske describes one potential route which might lead a young woman from fannish interest in Madonna towards the resources, skills, and identities she needs to contribute to social change: "The teenage girl fan of Madonna who fantasizes her own empowerment can translate this fantasy into behavior, and can act in a more empowered way socially, thus winning more social territory for herself. When she meets others who share her fantasies and freedom there is the beginning of a sense of solidarity, of a shared resistance, that can support and encourage progressive action on the microsocial level....But the relationships among the interior, the micropolitical and the macropolitical remain a largely unexplored problem for the cultural theorists." Here, Fiske identifies a shift from the formation of fantasies of self-empowerment to a shift in public behavior, from the formation of a self identity to entering into networks with others and articulating a critique of the social structures that impact their lives. Fiske went on to argue that "It may well be that one of the most productive roles for the cultural critic is to facilitate and encourage transitions among these sociocultural levels of consciousness and action. Theory can help to cultivate a social dimension within interior or fantasized resistances, to link them to social experiences shared with others and thus discourage them from becoming merely individualistic; theory can situate the specificities of everyday life within a conceptual framework that can enhance the awareness of their political dimensions. It can thus facilitate their transformation into a more collective consciousness, which may, in turn, be transformed into more collective social practice." [176] Fiske suggests ways that researchers and theorists might intervene in this process, helping people to move further down that trajectory and to identify common interests which might translate fantasies into the basis for social change.

Building off of Fiske's model, we are now in a position to study a range of specific cases where these kinds of personal and social changes have occured, to identify the common features among them, and to map the trajectories that carry people from involvement in participatory culture to other forms of civic and political participation. We believe understanding these trajectories can inform policy interventions and inspire new forms of activist and civic activities.  We also think that there is a benefit to be gained by helping these various groups, many of which work in isolation, to identify shared principles and best practices which will allow them to be more effective at recruiting, educating, and mobilizing their members. 

Our trajectory-based approach draws on the Digital Youth Project's observed distinctions between "hanging out," "messing around," and "geeking out" as participation genres among young people. In an interview with Henry Jenkins, Heather Horst, a member of the Digital Youth Project team explains:"Hanging out is when kids are using technologies like IM, Facebook, or MySpace to hang out socially with their friends. Messing around is when they are looking around online for information, or tinkering with media in relatively casual and experimental ways. Geeking out is when they really dive deep into a specialized areas of knowledge or interest....Horst, Heather in conversation with Henry Jenkins     

We posit that "geeking out" about politics may be key to fostering a more participatory democracy, one whose success is measured not simply by increases in voting (which we've started to see over the past few election cycles) but also increased volunteerism (which shows up in survey after survey of younger Americans), increased awareness of current events, increased responsibility for each other, and increased participation in public debates about the directions our society is taking. "Geeking out" might mean we think about civic engagement as a life style rather than as a special event....In reality, young people have much greater opportunities to learn these civic skills outside school, as they "hang out," "mess around," and "geek out" online. This may be why so many of them use social network sites as resources to expand their contact with their friends at school or why they feel such a greater sense of investment in their game guilds than in their student governments, or why they see YouTube as a better place to express themselves than the school literature magazine. 

Our trajectories also address the changes that inform the transition towards more explicit civic action. Informed by Duncombe's definition of cultural resistance, we also
draw scale of engagement premised on three scale units: "To the left is the individual, creating and perhaps even living out a culture.... In the middle lies the subculture, a group that has been cut off, or more likely has cut itself off, from the dominant society in order to create a shared, inclusive set of cultural values and practices. To the right is society."Duncombe, Cultural resistance reader   Though we do not explicitly apply Duncombe's units, we do remain cognizant of the notion that our communities, and the individuals within those communities, pass through shifting relationships with each other and the broader society as they move along the trajectories between civic engagement and participatory culture.

In our mapping of these trajectories, we seek to identify what aspects of participatory culture, in particular fandom, may contribute to shifting the community towards civic engagement and what defines this shift on a personal and community level.. While still in process of development, we have identified some general characteristics of trajectories, as we define them in our project:

  • Mapping: Our trajectories map the multi-nodal and multi-directional flow from cultural participation to civic action. As such, we distinguish between 'cultivation' and 'mapping' approaches, with an understanding that cultivation theory basically suggests that long term exposure to media (classically, TV) makes one conflate 'reality' portrayed on TV with social, non-mediated, reality-reality. However, mapping shifts the focus of attention to highlight the process of actively mapping one's causes/civic engagement issues with one's cultural/entertainment/leisure interests.

  • Not Linear Paths: Unlike a "path" which implies one direction and one possibility, a trajectory suggests a general directionality with several possibilities and several start, interim and end points. Not one-way or prescribed, our trajectories are better thought about as movement-based articulations.

  • Process Oriented: Our notion of trajectory is intentionally exploratory and motivated by multiple desires, causes, community, connections and pleasures. Our notion of trajectories draws attention to the process rather than an end point - a notion that constantly recognizes being who you are vs. becoming something.

  • Networks and Ecologies: No individual or community trajectory exists in a vacuum. Rather, it grows out of and through very specific socio-historical and political contexts.  Moving forward, we conceptualize a network of trajectories, or an ecology of trajectories.

Even as we appreciate the general directionality of trajectory, we remain cautious in our conclusions of directionality and outcome. Here too, we draw on the work of the Digital Youth Project and their proposed notion of the the fluid framework, summarized by Heather Horst as follows: "What is important about this framework is that it is not about categorizing kids as having a single identitiy or a set of identities. What we are doing is identifying different ways that kids can participate in media culture, and this can be quite fluid."Horst, Heather in conversation with Henry Jenkins   Following this reasoning, our notion of trajectory distinguishes itself vis a vis developmental science ("stages") models that integrally include two elements: a dynamic drive that is continuous and relatively quantitative and a stage-like hierarchy that qualitatively outlines different experiences. Specifically, we are more interested in mapping the transitions that move communities and individuals along the trajectory.  We seek to understand how groups and individuals transform and the critical events or catalysts that inform this process. Moving forward, we are also interested in further delving into the intensity of these experiences. Further building on notions of fluidity, transitions, and in-between spaces, we remain constantlcognizanomulti-directionaanmulti-nodal nature of the trajectories we seek to map.  While we do conceptually imply general directional flows (from participatory culture towards civic engagement or perhaps its reverse) we aim towards a flexible rather than prescriptive understanding of such transitions.

As we talk about trajectories, though, we also have to guard against a tendency David Buckingham has identified to read youth activities in terms of "becoming" (that is, their value for their future selves) rather than "being" (their value for their present selves.) Each step along this trajectory is valuable on its own terms; each allows the participants to gain some ground, to acquire skills, to make a difference in their own lives and potentially in the world around them. While we certainly see a value in supporting more overt forms of civic involvement, we do not want to imply that those groups whose interest remains on the cultural rather than explicitly political level are "wasting their time" or have not yet reach their "maturity."