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Citizenship in a Digital Age

Final Report Summary - CIDA (Citizenship in a Digital Age)

The Citizenship in a Digital Age research project explored if and how digital technology impacts the way people experience citizenship through the lens of small scale citizen projects. The project is based on in-depth ethnographic research (long-term participation and analysis) of citizen projects mainly in the San Francisco Bay Area. By working closely with citizens who are trying to transform key aspects of the political structures that they encounter in their daily lives (e.g. schools, housing), the project assessed how important the role of digital technology is, and if and how these technologies might impact the way people understand and experience unequal citizenship. The research was organized around four main research sub-questions: 1) Which mobile internet and/or networked forms of digital technology are being used by citizens involved in the selected citizen projects? 2) How often and for what purposes do they use these technologies? 3) Which claims of ‘substantive’ citizenship – rights, equality and participation – are emerging within these citizen projects? and 4) How do citizens use digital technology to pursue these claims? The main work task in the first two years was to take on an active role within the citizen projects by participating in all of the groups’ activities and to analyse information from the social networking and online platforms used by the selected citizen projects. Although not originally foreseen as relevant, legal documents, public records, archival materials, statistical reports, and news articles related to the work of the citizen projects were also collected. One dimension of the first two years of the research project was to participate in the co-design of an App for democratic assembly and collective action as part of the AppCivist research team based in the Social Apps Lab, The Center for Information Technology in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) at University of California, Berkeley.

The link between the digital technology and experiences of citizenship proved less salient than anticipated and the key finding of this research was that another factor was far more central to understanding differentiated citizenship. However, some significant insights on digital technology and citizenship were generated:
1. The research project provided the time required to trace and analyse how citizens create elaborate media infrastructures that bridge online and offline worlds by altering the intention and political meaning that they bring to the use of specific digital technologies. The embedding of specific technologies within a larger political infrastructure facilitates collective action and partially transforms the power and meaning of the digital tools themselves.
2. Through active participation in the design of an App at the Social Apps Lab at the University of California, Berkeley that provides “a platform for democratic assembly and collective action” the notion of technology was engaged as a “design space” to explore how specific technical affordances combine with design processes produce particular forms of democratic practice and kinds of users/citizens.
3. In one citizen project technology often proved to be more of an obstacle than an advantage (due to the make up of the citizens, e.g. many older or not very tech savvy participants, no time to maintain/manage digital platforms), but one way that digital technologies were used by some of these citizens was as an important space to assert/make visible their own definitions and notions of citizenship – defining in the process what it means to be “from San Francisco” as well as developing a discourse about who belongs in the city and who does not and why. The criteria of rightful belonging mobilized by citizens was often different from those of politicians or policy makers and digital technologies create a space for these alternative criteria to be expressed, and in some cases, acted upon.

However, the key analytical finding of this research lies in the field of citizenship rather than that of technology: It is the realisation that an unexpected 'value' is far more central to the research participants' notion of citizenship than the researcher had originally envisioned – this central value is that of 'property' and the role that property plays as a building block of democratic governance. Property is a central theme in the literature on citizenship and democracy, but the literature tends to view property as a positive and essential component of citizenship rights. The citizens at the heart of this research project, however, were living through experiences of high housing insecurity and as a result they grew to view property as an obstacle to the attainment of full citizenship. This contradiction became an important and unavoidable focus and generated a clear need for future research that disentangles the various structures and discourses invoked by the notion of property in the analysis of citizenship. An ERC consolidator grant has been acquired to pursue this crucial and unique discovery through further research on Property and Democratic Citizenship in a cross-cultural perspective (five countries). The hope is that this further research will significantly expand our understanding of how citizenship functions, what ‘substantive citizenship’ is and ought to be, and how and why differentiated citizenship persists.