Official Thesis Proposal

11 Apr

I haven’t posted in a bit.  So many things have happened since my initial post that it’s impossible to count.  I’m still making sense of it all.  The main point of my initial post is now beyond dispute, “KONY 2012” was the most viral video throughout the world since the beginning of the Internet.  Many of my other thoughts still require time to answer.  I have decided to continue to maintain this blog as a part of my thesis, “using social media to understand social media” as my header says.

This post contains my official thesis proposal, and it will be the issues and questions contained within that I will be focusing on and learning about for the next year.

Once again, any and all feedback is highly encouraged and greatly appreciated!  Once I’ve started tackling some of these questions in greater depth I will post about my findings and how this idea is shaping up, as well as sharing particularly interesting bits of information I pick up along the way.


 Name: Julian Fenn

Student ID # xxxxxxx

Concentration: Globalization Studies

Independent Study title:

The Decline of the American Labor Movement

Term Completed: 11S

Independent Study Advisor: Dr. Ronald Edsforth

Title of Proposed Thesis Project: ????????????


1.    What is the issue that your thesis will address?

 On March 5th, 2012 a humanitarian non-governmental organization named

Invisible Children released a video on various popular media sharing websites (such as Youtube) entitled “Kony 2012”.  The video is thirty minutes long, and within a few short days it had been viewed over one hundred million times, making it officially the most ‘viral’ Internet video of all time.  The video has a simple message: make African warlord Joseph Kony famous enough that citizens  (particularly in the US) put pressure on their governments to assist in tracking him down and bringing him to justice.  A noble and idealistic goal, and one that the moviemakers consciously directed not towards the ‘educated’ public, but at the youth—young adults from middle school on towards their college years—perhaps taking a cue from the largely youth driven movements of the Arab Spring of 2011.  It represented a new form of activism.  Far from the arrests and marginalization of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has drawn largely on semi-traditional forms of physical protest (even the Occupy camps have their Hooverville precedent), “Kony 2012” threw itself into the mainstream in an instant as the baby boomer generation began to take note of ‘whatever it is’ that was stirring up so many young people who are by and large considered to be an apathetic and apolitical demographic, despite their generally progressive political and social outlook.

The backlash was intense and almost immediate.  Editorials, academics, bloggers, and news stations began to rip the movie and the organization apart for inaccuracies, oversimplification, misrepresentation, paternalism, and poorly handled finances.  Finally the arrest of the NGO’s leader for lewd behavior in public brought down a heavy hand, and the organization has been trying to re-assess and re-brand itself.

My interest in these events is largely twofold.  First, in response to film, its critics, and in the name of good social science, I want to take a step back.  I want to find out who Kony is, where his army came from, why it was formed, and other pertinent historical and political facts that will help shed some light on the ‘bigger picture’ concerning the video, movement, and the geopolitics of the region.  Second, and more importantly, I wish to address the interwoven issues of identity and youth politics in terms of social media and the potential it creates for new forms of collective action In other words, I am curious to find out if awareness and advocacy on a global scale will be the nesting place for a new form of action based on a ‘global’, rather than ‘national’ or ‘local’ identities among those who never knew the cold war or most of the actions of the twentieth century.

2.    Address the academic disciplines from which you will draw and explain which of these disciplines will inform the methodology you use.

 As an International Relations and Sociology double major for my bachelors, I

plan to draw mainly on those disciplines in order to understand both the highly complex political/military history and situation in Central Africa and the globalized movement which it has recently inspired.  In terms of politics and international relations, I intend to draw first up on American foreign policy in the region, followed up by a realist geopolitical assessment of all the actors in the region, particularly Uganan president Yoweri Museveni who first came to power in 1986 and the Lords Resistance Army precursor in Northern Uganda beginning in the 1970s.  Understanding how the US has ‘played’ Uganda and the region over time will help to reveal some of the depths to which this conflict has gone as well as suggest that historically preferential treatment of Museveni and his government may have added to the crisis, and the massacres.  A realist geopolitical perspective of the region (mainly Uganda, CAR, DRC, and Sudan) will help ‘depoliticize’ the issue and provide a factual basis from which to see the situation, free of the agendas of humanitarian groups, rebels, and governments alike.

This will serve to provide a proper contextualization for a sociological analysis and critique of “Kony 2012”, its fallout, and implications.  Essentially, I plan to use the event as a case study in new media, indentity politics among the youth, and the transference of social advocacy to social movement.  I will track the debate and any actions as it moves forward, watching events like the Kony ‘night of action’ on April 20th and seeing if the pressure created by the movie will actually influence American military operations in Central Africa.  Such an analysis may include comparisons with other ‘virtual’ movements of late—such as aspects of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Using mainly sociological theory and older case studies from the ‘analog’ era, I will ultimately attempt to show that “Kony 2012” is a unique event worth exploring that contains within it the seeds of a great deal of sociological information on how our world and its newest generation is changing.

I also created a small ‘experiment’ of my own in which I attempted to make a blog post about this thesis in order to see how far it would spread and how long it would last.  At last count the site had 591 hits from over forty countries, peaking within four days of release and dying out completely after about ten.  This, to me, serves as a reference point for the limits of an individual attempting to disseminate original information, and I was quite surprised as to how far it went, lending small credibility to the efficacy of the Internet as a tool for sparking the mind and movements.

 3.    What is the central research question you will address?

 If I had to reduce my research down to a single question, it would be this—is

it significant that over one hundred million people (mainly youth) watched and reacted to a semi-factual, semi-political movie in the span of just one week—and what does that say about the future of collective actions by large groups?  In doing so I will address many of the issues above, such as a growing personal belief (to be explored) that youth identity has in many ways transcended the nationalism of the 20th century and become global.  In other words, are we beginning to see ourselves first as citizens of the world, and then as constituents in a given nation?

The military/political analysis of the first part of the project is meant to demystify much misinformation on behalf and against “Kony 2012” since it came out, as well as offer a chance to discuss how the movie was received in its ‘native land’.  This should help to weave through ideology and political prejudice to produce a relatively objective view on the situation—and how that compares to Invisible Children’s own assessment of the situation.  This will allow for greater penetration into the workings of the debate and movement, as inaccuracies and false claims used towards collective ends will be picked up on immediately.  As this is obviously a working issue in progress, I can only speculate as to where it will lead, though I am confident that no matter the ‘outcome’ it will say volumes about youth, identity, and the era of the digital social movement.

4.    How does this thesis project relate to your coursework in the MALS program?

 This thesis relates almost directly to much of my coursework in MALS.  My

first class with Misagh Parsa, entitled “Globalization and Economic Development” taught me a great deal about the causes of poverty among African nations, and reinforced other economic and military issues to which I had already been exposed.  My final paper for that class, “Globalization: A Critical Examination From Both Sides of the Barricades” dealt largely with military and political issues, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The class “Globalization and Its Discontents” with Ronald Edsforth was the first to introduce to me to many issues related to identity, as well as the idea of a supranational outlook on the world.  My final paper for him, “The New Global Ethic” was my first attempt at discussing how the globalization process has brought together disparate parts of the world, led to greater cosmopolitanism, and perhaps begun to forge new patterns of identity among, especially, the youth.  That class was the spark for this project.

My independent study with Ronald Edsforth entitled “The Decline of the American Labor Movement” led me partially to the conclusion that ‘analog’ movements no longer have the effect they once did, partially as a result of repressive laws, and partly due to a paradigm of skepticism towards collective action by older Americans.  Reading about the floundering of most unions, called “great dinosaurs” by one social scientist freed me up to think about other modes of protest and other forms of organization.

Finally, my last class with Ronald Edsforth and his wife Joanne Devine, “Global Media and Culture”, taught me a great deal about issues of framing and media bias which will be an inherent part of my project.  It discussed the largely centralized media structure and those forms (i.e. the internet) which have still maintained relative decentralization and ‘digital democracy’.  It forced me to view all news through a highly critical lens, looking for motive and meaning behind the words presented to me and helped me to judge ‘good’ journalism from ‘bad’ in terms beyond simple bias.  The readings and discussion from that class will be key in helping me to maintain objectivity as I piece together my thesis bit by bit as events unfold.

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And please, if you made it this far, share the link to my blog!



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