Bruce Bimber: Collective Action within Organizations in the Age of Digital Media

Notes from the research seminar Organizations and Political Participation in the Age of Digital Media held at the Open University of Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain, on January 18th, 2010.

Collective Action within Organizations in the Age of Digital Media
Bruce Bimber

This seminar is based on a project by Bruce Bimber, Cynthia Stohl and Andrew Flanagin.

We find new ways to organize people around causes, like Immigration Reform on Facebook. The question is: under what circumstances do we need these new ways of organization, and under which do we need traditional ways of organization (i.e. around institutions and gathering in brick and mortar buildings). What does it mean to be a traditional organization? What does it mean to be a member of a traditional organization in a digital environment?

What does organization-based collective action look like today in the US? People in the US belong to 1.98 organizations on average (twice the average in Europe, 5 times the average in Spain). Thus, we cannot (only) look at memberships, as “everyone” is a member of an organization.

Literature on participation tells who is more likely — depending on personal attributes — to participate in an organization, but not which organization is more likely to be more popular or have more members. So, we should focus on organization-specific attributes:

  • Goal agreement: people will participate more in organizations whose goals are more in line with theirs
  • Value agreement: people will participate more in organizations whose values are more in line with theirs
  • Civic & social motivation: reasons why you join a community (complaint, meet kindred souls, etc.)

On the other hand, we can also find literature on the impact of digital media on participation. But, again, over time the Internet will be less likely to discriminate behaviour as time and frequency of being online, or digital skills become generalized across socio-economic statuses.

Last, traditionally organizations have been classified in discrete categories: civic associations vs. interest groups, centralized/bureaucratic vs. decentralised/horizontal vs. networks, online vs. not-online. Our perspective is different: interaction is impersonal vs. personal, engagement with goals and activities of the organization is institutional vs. entrepreneurial. Combination of these:

  • Entrepreneurial + Impersonal
  • Entrepreneurial + Personal: e.g. support group, where members decide what to do and on a very personal basis
  • Institutional + Personal: e.g. institutions that open chat groups, send personal mail
  • Institutional + Impersonal: e.g. World Wildlife Fund, where the institution mainly tells their members what to do

Amnesty International spreads over all categories (skewed towards Institutional + Impersonal), like Greenpeace (more centred than Amnesty International).

To test the hypothesis, surveys run on three organizations, different amongst them in their typology: American Legion, People’s Lobby and The Voters.

Dependent variables: participation in pursuit of group goals via writing, volunteering, donating; identification with the group.
Independent variables: standard predictors of participation, controls for level of participation in other activities, interaction and engagement, organization-specific attributes, technology use.

A first result, though very week, is that being on an entrepreneurial+personal organization makes you more participative in comparison with being in other organizations. Civic and social motivation is also a good explanation for people being more participative. But, in general, results are not very strong (R2 below 0.4 for participation, below 0.5. for identification).

Regarding the relationship between engagement and interaction, the extent of within-group variation in interaction and engagement is comparable to that of across-group variation.

The predictors of participation in collective action vary by quadrant across collective action space.

  • Entrepreneurial + Impersonal organizations have individualists: people hard to predict, motivated people but with no specific profile
  • Entrepreneurial + Personal organizations hold embeddeds, people with high motivation and faithful to the organization, and with high(er) levels of education
  • Institutional + Personal organizations have traditionalists, people with high motivation and that are faithful to the organization
  • Institutional + Impersonal collect instrumentalists, lowest level of trust with the organization and the values, and the members are involved in many activities for several and different reasons


  • The four quadrants of collective action space are associated with four reasonably distinct collective action types
  • Civic and social motivation is the most important predictor
  • People’s involvement in other civic activities translates into contributions to collective action mainly for individualists
  • Technology use is associated consistently with participation for all four types
  • Technology use matters chiefly when it is tied to the organization itself, rather than in the form of general computer skills or time online
  • Membership looks somewhat different for different people, as a function of interaction and engagement
  • What matters about organiztions is how hey facilitate interaction and engagement, not just their objective structure
  • People are less similar than commonly assumed, while organizations are more similar, but to see this we need to look at both together.
Embedded video at


Q: Can people have different profiles depending on the organization they’re in? Bimber: (we don’t have time series but, so we don’t know, but) it is probable that this happens and, indeed, that people change profile over time. Nevertheless, we do not know and it can be true that what really happens is that people have a specific way of doing things.

Ana Sofía Cardenal: how is motivation measured? Isn’t it “suspicious” that motivation always comes so strong? Bimber: motivation is measured in different ways so to avoid cheating. But there might be some degree of endogenous relationships between variables. But people have different reasons for joining in and these reasons matter.

Michael Jensen: How do we cope with people being that different and nevertheless joining “similar” organizations? Bimber: More dynamic organizations engage in conversations with their members and adapt to their needs/requirements, so there is a feedback that redefines the organization. But still, technology is only a context, there is no core technology.

Derrick de Kerckhove: how are the four categories related with people’s lifestyles? Bimber: It would be interesting to know how an individual evolves through categories as his own personal lifestyle varies.

See also

Bimber, B., Stohl, C. & Flanagin, A. J. (2008). “Technological change and the shifting nature of political organization”. In Chadwick, A. & Howard, P. N., Routledge Handbook of Internet Politics, 72-85. New York: Routledge.

Citizen politics (VII): Round Table

Notes from the workshop Citizen Politics: Are the New Media Reshaping Political Engagement? held in Barcelona, Spain, on May 28-30th, 2009. More notes on this event: citizen_politics_2009.

Rachel Gibson

All politics is both personal and local… and national… and… Have to manage the way to connect the personal to the local.

Emergent e-campaign strategy: depends on infrastructure and the tools; and of the logic of networked communities, whether they are autonomous or not. A difference between building “real” communities, or populist platforms addressed to many in general (to the “herd”).

A major challenge: how to measure actions, people, quality, etc. A need to modelize “digital natives” and the way they interact between each other and through technology.

Main research approaches in Politics 2.0, all of them interrelated:

Foci, key factors /
Level of Analysis
Internal External
Elite (supply) Campaign change, tools, national/local power, adoption diffusion Inter-party comptetition, campaign site analysis
Mass (mass) Party membership, supporters, volunteers Electoral mobilization

Víctor Sampedro

We should not embrace the discourse and language of marketing or consultants, of populism, of counter-hegemonic collectives.

We have to assess the validity of our data, and collaborate both with the industry and the subjects of our studies.

We have to clarify what we understand by counter-power measures of ICTs and also, the concept of empowerment, and the concept of mobilization.

Is it a grassroots approach really a better system? Shouldn’t leaders lead? Is there still a role for leaders to “educate” the voter or to find “better” solutions and show them to the citizen?

Brian Krueger

Everything that’s great can be used against you: we should be thinking about Internet surveillance and monitoring. We know little about it and should be paying more attention to it. And this includes the sheer sensation of being monitored, as it has behavioural effects (e.g. self-censorship). Evidence shows that people feel monitored if they’d type “impeach Bush” or “assassinate Bush”. Open political criticism is tied to the feeling of being watched. And this sensation of being watched most probably changes your own behaviour, even if you’re not actually watched. And it’s likely to change how and how much you are participating.

Bruce Bimber

Motivation, attitudes, trust… the umbrella were to begin exploring participation. And then focus also on the changes that the new media are infringing to the landscape.

How would the landscape look like when “all” the people would have been socialized with these new media?

How different Web 2.0 tools differentiate one another? What different specific applications do they have?

We’re right to talk about choice, but we do still have not good models how to measure how choice happens and why.

More effort should be made in analysing how citizens can affect agenda-setting, on a decentralized and bottom-up communication scheme. And also how horizontal communication happens, how peer-to-peer can pass the message on.

Should focus more not on how people mobilize, but what the specific motivations and contexts are. What keeps people awake at night.

Andrew Chadwick

We need more appreciation of social network environments (i.e. tools), and balance technological determinism with social determinism, keeping in mind how technology did change some human behaviours.

How do we contextualize a campaign or social movement, specially when social movements increasingly look like parties and parties increasingly look like social movements, and borrow each one’s instruments and techniques.

Look at how citizens cognitively negotiate information overload in an age of information saturation (not scarcity).

Can we do politics in a space owned by the market and private interests? Can the citizens build their own forums, create their own network effects and avoid commoditized online spaces?

We do need to start looking in more sophisticated ways how people are exposed to online content, including accidental exposure.

There are many cross-section analyses, but few panel-data analysis, which are usually acknowledged to be more robust (though more difficult and expensive). And we should use more the “free range” data that people automatically create with their actions (e.g. logs) instead of “battery raised” surveys. And combine methods.

We should be aware of how mobile technologies might be changing the economy of attention and politics.


Bruce Bimber: mobility is more about time, more about “always on” rather than physical space or ubiquity (Chadwick fully agrees).

Rachel Gibson & Bruce Bimber: there are places where the local factor really matters and shapes how the institutions work or are built and managed.

Citizen Politics workshop (2009)