This project is positioned at the intersection of three research traditions with often overlapping objects of inquiry, and yet different in underlying philosophies and epistemologies: the inquiry into the relationship between new media and democracy based in media and communication studies; political science research into civil society organizations and contentious politics; and critical studies of culture, which draw on critical social theory, cultural sociology and textually oriented cultural studies. It will make use of concepts and insights stemming from all three traditions to address the interrelated research questions: Does the growing permeation of social life by “new media”, by which we mean digital media based on the Internet and mobile technology including the latest generation of “social media,” help strengthen civil society in countries where it has a history of weakness? And, if so, in what concrete ways do new media help develop and consolidate civil society in these countries? The area where we focus our attention comprises two new democracies on the fringes of the European Union located in the Baltics and the Balkans. Civil society in this region has been notoriously weak (Howard, 2003), and has failed to provide an adequate environment, oversight and corrective to newly formed political institutions at decisive historical moments.
The project will offer a critical review of the existing definitions of civil society, democratic participation and civic culture in order to establish criteria by which the role of new media vis-à-vis these categories can be evaluated. It will involve theoretical work which will push the boundaries of the inherited definitions of these categories with the goal of conceptualizing additional dimensions of civic agency that emerge in light of newly available forms of mediation. Through quantitative surveys and qualitative case studies the project will examine and compare initiatives launched, and outcomes achieved, by civil-society actors in the two countries so as to identify the role of new media in this context. The empirical results are expected to advance the theoretical understanding and practical knowledge of the utility of new media for civic and political participation in topical debates unfolding in media and communication studies, political science and cultural theory, and with respect to the concerns and needs of civic actors seeking to participate in democratic politics.