Rajapinta January meetup: Organizing social movements, doing political science with computational methods

Our near-monthly Rajapinta meetup was organized on Monday 16.1. In addition to content presentations on themes of organizing social movements and doing political science with computational methods, we also worked on related things in practice: we set in motion the official process of incorporating Rajapinta as a registered association (more about this here), and worked out ways to combine the efforts of different research groups and projects in order to efficiently collect online data related to this year’s municipal elections.

In the first content presentation, Salla-Maaria Laaksonen presented a paper (co-authored with Merja Porttikivi) on the organizational elements of a social movement in Facebook. The case in point was the popular “Lisää kaupunkia Helsinkiin” group, an arena of lively discussion on urban planning in Helsinki with over 10 000 members at the moment. The group specifically focuses on the benefits of dense urban city planning, and tries to find out ways to make Helsinki more “city-like” in this sense. Arguably, it has had an effect on the discussion of city planning in Helsinki at large.

The data for the study were the private discussions between the administrators of the group, which allowed the examination of how and when the elements of organization appear. These tell-tale signs of organization include negotiations on membership, hierarchies, defining rules and monitoring them, and sanctioning. Summarizing the results, social movements online are highly constituted through communication and not so much through, for example, organizational structures. The “Lisää kaupunkia Helsinkiin” group initially seems to be an emergent, grass-roots level and network-like social order, but organizational elements are clearly present in the admin discussions. Salla-Maaria’s presentation slides can be found here (in Finnish).

In the second presentation of the day, professor Pertti Ahonen shared the experiences he has gathered over the years working on the edges of the mainstream research in political science. He has never identified with any particular school of thought and has gathered a lot of connections during his career to people working different paradigms. Long career has allowed him to get accustomed with multiple different philosophies of science and methodologies. Professor Ahonen has had his first contact to what has become “data science” very early. He reminisced the early days of R, which is now widely adopted open source tool in academia and business world. In the recent years, he has used computational tools in his research. As an example, he mentioned work where he applied topic modeling to study Finnish party programs.

Professor Ahonen stated that fitting social theory together with modern computational methods in a meaningful way is one of the key questions to be solved so that social sciences will be able to get the best out of computational research (Ahonen, 2015). In addition, Ahonen stated that computational methods should not be something to be afraid of: in many cases, one can also consider them as computationally assisted qualitative methods.

Rajapinta meetups will continue to be organized about once per month in the spring, details will follow. If you would like to take advantage of the chance to discuss your work with like-minded colleagues, let us know!