Hopeful Action: An anthropological take on Ushahidi, Digital Activism and Hope

[Guest Post by Maria Grabowski. Maria Grabowski holds a M.Sc. in social anthropology from the University of Copenhagen. Based on fieldwork in Cairo and Nairobi, her Master Thesis from 2013 explores Ushahidi through an anthropological take on social movements, digital activism and hope. Maria has also been active in various groups within Global Voices Online, and offline she leads a series of ethnographic documentary film screenings in Copenhagen, where she is based. Maria’s fundamental interest is in people and society, social change and human rights – and her passion is to document in photo and sound.]
With empirical point of departure in the online platform, Ushahidi, this thesis explores how digital technology has created new premises for activism. The study is based on fieldwork in Egypt, Kenya, and online over the summer and fall of 2011. An audiovisual multimedia product that introduces the field, complements the written thesis.
Ushahidi has widely been used as a tool for mapping elections, natural disasters or other urgent conflicts, but is also used for more proactive projects – projects driven by interests groups or informal groups that work to create social change. The latter are the focal point of this thesis.
The thesis erupts from a curiosity about, why and how individuals and groups resort to digital tools as Ushahidi – and which kind of motivation that lies behind. The central question for this study is: How does activists use Ushahidi and what characterizes the related digital activism in terms of social movements and hope? The thesis describes how the users of Ushahidi are objecting towards their surroundings, and argues that this attempt to change the surroundings can be an expression of a political action – and that their often ‘instinctive’ reaction comes from a more or less conscious form of resistance.
The first part of the analytical discussion opens by describing ‘traditional’ social movements to show how the premises of creating change, have changed. To get closer to Ushahidi, New Social Movement theories are introduced. Alain Tourain’s concept of historicity is used to demonstrate the activist’s reflexive consciousness about their own field of action and the way they creatively work to create alternative ways forward – acting independently from the state (2008). Arturo Escobar’s ideas of everyday practices (1992a), combined with Michel de Certeau’s notion of resistance in terms of tactics – ‘small procedures and ruses in the realm of everyday life’ (1984) – together help to understand the underlying sparks of motivation that make the deployers take the matter into their own hands in the first instance.
The second part of the analysis discusses the potential that lies in digital activism, to better understand the online aspect of the practices around Ushahidi deployments. An idea of interplay shows how actions offline and online are interdependent and reinforcing, and a passage on solidarity, demonstrates how a local cause may trigger international solidarity that again feeds support back to the local event – and further, how solidarity can be expressed through different actions, from protesting on the street to clicking on a Facebook post.
The final part of the analytical discussion adds an important feature to the exploration: Hirokazu Miyazaki’s notion of hope as a something that can be practiced (2004), elaborated with Stine Krøijer’s figurations of the future (2011). These perspectives show how something constructive happens in that very moment, when Ushahidi deployers make attempts to change a situation without knowing the outcome, and how the hope here becomes a tool for creating an unknown future. To start an Ushahidi deployment, to send in a report from the street or to support online are in this context all expressions of constructive actions. Ushahidi is here presented as an example of digital activism – a new type of informal activism, where doing something can be the goal itself.
The thesis shows that digital technology as Ushahidi does not only create new activist  practices, but also opens up for new interpretations of what activism can be. At the same time the thesis demonstrates how new technology does not replace physical interactions and actions, but complement and reinforce them.
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Read Maria’s Thesis(PDF)