In her introduction to Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism (NYU Press, 2011), sociologist and Tufts University professor writes, ‘I thought this would be a book about how activist groups use presidential elections as moments of political opening, but as I spent time with activists engaged in campaign-related work I came to realize that first and foremost this is a story about activists and the news media’ (2). While it perhaps comes as no surprise to those familiar with Habermasian public sphere theory that collective attempts to transform or reform civil society become involved with the mass media, her findings may shock the technologically optimistic: Media-orientated activist strategies seeking to draw attention to a political message almost always fail.
This research presented in this book is based upon fieldwork with fifty voluntary associations, interviews with journalists, and participant observation at US presidential campaign events in 2000 and 2004. And with this wealth of information, Sobieraj recounts a troubling story. She shows that activist groups organize mobilizations around national presidential campaign events in order to attract journalistic attention to their political message. Unfortunately, the routines and interests of journalists exist in structural opposition to this desired outcome, and it hardly ever works. Furthermore, a media-centred strategy ultimately ends up compromising the quality of face-to-face communication with ordinary members of the public as well as harming intergroup solidarity. Worse still, she sees no evidence that the advent of new media and social media tools have in any way reconciled this dilemma. In this manner, activism usually fails to accomplish its goals, and as a democratic society we should be deeply concerned.
The penultimate paragraph of a book review is typically reserved for some sort of criticism of the book being reviewed, for drawing attention to a weakness in its execution, say, or to an opportunity the author has missed. I do not do that here, and that is quite simply because I cannot think of anything negative! Sobieraj’s book is as close to flawless as they come, its chapters tightly and artfully weaving ethnographically rich data and social theory together into a single convincing—and compelling—argument. Anyone who wants to know what a book-length scholarly monograph ought to look like need look no further. Indeed, doctoral students of the sociology of culture and media would be particularly well-advised to study Soundbitten closely as they write up their own thesis research.
And although Sobieraj writes about American activist groups mobilizing around American presidential elections, this book is a must-read for UK sociologists of all stripes, and not just social movement specialists, as well. With the advent of the REF’s so-called impact agenda, researchers are coming under intense pressure to ensure—and prove—that their work has made a difference. Unsurprisingly, suddenly everybody seems intensely fixated upon attracting mainstream media attention and using new social media tools. Yet I cannot help but wonder if UK scholars are going to be like the activists of Soundbitten, ignored no matter how hard we try and much worse off for even having tried in the first place. In short, this book is both an exhortation to do ‘impact’ differently…and a dire warning.