By Sarah Hendrica Bickerton –
This blog post outlines the key findings of my PhD research, which is located in the context of contemporary constructions of political participation, with a particular aspect looking at how this manifests online. Below I will outline my research question, then briefly discuss the background to the research, what my key findings are, an outline of my methodology, and finish with some of the policy questions arising from my research.
“How do women Twitter users in New Zealand construct political participation?”
My PhD research was driven in part by the fact that amongst international literature, historical research on the potential of online locations as political spaces has tended to be technologically deterministic and dichotomous (i.e. either utopian or dystopian). Furthermore, contemporary quantitative research into the impact of online politics on offline political participation has identified a gap. Specifically, this gap is that the qualitative particularities of political participation online have not been sufficiently researched to provide a more nuanced and complete understanding that can then be measured quantitatively. In a New Zealand context, what little empirical research there has been on online politics has taken a top-down approach. With a focus on political parties, political figures, and campaigning, there has been very little research into bottom-up citizen-focused online politics, nor political participation construction more widely in New Zealand. It is in these gaps that this research is positioned.
My key findings can be grouped into four areas or themes:
1. A propensity towards prioritising primary relationships over secondary relationships in political behaviour, with such being rooted in concrete personal experience, the everyday, and prioritising social location and relationality (and particularly the latter in the primary political behaviours of discussion and debate, reading and listening; a very discursive and interactional construction of political behaviour, one which is contrary to traditional hierarchies of political behaviour, which place such lower than activities such as voting or joining political parties).
2. Political participation is performed via issues, and not via organisations, dipping in and out depending on salience, or what other requirements are demanding time and energy at different points of life, and particularly prioritising an empathetic imperative (i.e. foregrounding the experiences of others in different social locations and identities, particularly so those with less power). Participation here was around the everyday, both in terms of the issues my participants saw as most salient, but also how individual personal experience was seen as crucial in how an issue was to be understood, and how they saw everything they did as being political, or involving politics.
3. Online political behaviour sought impact as a primary motivating factor, but it was impact as indirect rather than direct, and collaborative rather than individual. Participants saw, for example, that contributing to the way in which an issue was framed and talked about, would be political efficacy. However, regardless of how indirect it would be, efficacy was crucial in motivation to participate. Many participants described traditional political participation forms as lacking such, and hence why they avoided such. Further, while they saw the online as a political space where they could better manage their safety and level of involvement, they actually saw their ‘echo chambers’ as more porous than offline, far more complex that contemporary discussions suggest, as well as allowing a larger diversity of voices.
4. This last findings theme looked to the narrative constructions around small size, isolation, and the implications of small tight networks for how my participants saw what might be ‘unique’ about New Zealand politics. The ‘two degrees’ construction was often mentioned by my participants as characteristic of NZ politics, sometimes with a negative slant when talking about potential consequences of those tight networks. This was something particularly mentioned by participants who were public service employees, who often spoke about negotiating their careers. Further, this was evidenced in the location of New Zealand in wider global political narratives, both informing and being resisted for local political issues. A potential conception of being political in New Zealand was forwarded by a participant around ‘whakawhanaungatanga’, that pulls through the emphases on primary relationships, an empathetic imperative, the high degree of relationality, the views of others, the tight small networks, and the impact prioritisation that my participants saw as kaupapa.
I shall be returning to these four themes in more detail in further blog posts.
Methodologically, twenty-five unstructured interviews were conducted using prompt-style questions, either in person or via video-call software, with women based in New Zealand who were active Twitter users. Selective snowball sampling was used as a recruitment strategy, providing a range of participants from different ethnic backgrounds, locations around New Zealand, and levels of political involvement. The reason for women being selected exclusively was due to previous research all agreeing that men and women experience political participation differently.
Should political participation policy rely solely on attention to traditional forms of political participation such as voting? It is apparent from my research that it should not. None of my participants saw voting or signing petitions or getting involved with political organisations/parties at the primary forms for their political participation, rather these existed at a secondary tier, and as such were not motivations to be politically involved, whether such could be done with ease or not. Given the centrality of discourse as a primary political participation form, policy approaches encouraging this via the above understandings of primary relationships, affect, relationality, with an understanding of differential access and impact dependent on social location, is crucial.
Can political parties, organisations, and politicians justify merely using social media as a broadcast medium? My research suggests not, and that online political participation motivation occurs best through bi-directional interaction, not merely through broadcast use. While this certainly does mean that political parties and organisations will have to give up a certain degree of control of message, doing so will encourage further engagement that will be present across online and offline contexts.
Is it possible to address political polarisation with policy? Approaching such via political echo-chambers or bubbles will require attention paid to both offline as well as online contexts, but also looking to the manner of, and reason for, such ‘bubbling’. Simple exposure to different viewpoints is not sufficient, and a more nuanced approach that takes into consideration such things as power differentials and protection for vulnerable groups is necessary.
Could an approach to policy dissemination, engagement, and consultation that shifts away from traditional abstract framing be attempted? As political issues are interpreted via experience and relationality, policy proposals that centre individual experience, affect, and the ability to empathise will resonate more than rational abstract approaches to description. However, the particularity of such is dependent on the individual understandings of different groups.
Should a focus on encouraging traditional political participation forms that require more time and commitment be continued with? As my participants did not carve out large periods of time to ‘being political’ but rather intertwined their politicism in both their everyday lives and everyday issues of self, a policy approach that assists everyday ‘micro-participations’ that allow citizens to dip in & out, with low barriers to involvement/entry, could be more effective.
Finally, an overarching policy implication arising from this research is that many of the strategies that government is enacting in terms of political outreach, particularly online, seem to be operating without an academic research basis for how political participation might specifically be being performed in New Zealand in a qualitative sense. What motivates New Zealanders to engage politically, to feel fulfilled politically, and retain that engagement, are crucial to delivering policy solutions to political participation problems. This research begins a discussion on what might be unique in the New Zealand context.
Sarah Hendrica Bickerton is a post-doctoral researcher at the Public Policy Institute at the University of Auckland. Sarah has a background as a sociologist, earning a double degree BA-BSc in Physics and Sociology at the University of Canterbury, where she also gained her Honours and Masters degrees in Sociology. She also attended graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Her personal interests include both US and NZ politics, science fiction & fantasy literature, comics, film, and TV, as well as travel, good food, good espresso, excellent craft beer, spending too much time on Twitter, and urban design & architecture.