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Challenges of Researching the Indignants (Aganaktismenoi) of Athens, Greece, Online

Challenges of Researching the Indignants (Aganaktismenoi) of Athens, Greece, Online

0 Comments 🕔03.Oct 2013

This article is part of our Enough! feature on Europe’s exploding social movements.

greek-protest

by John Karamichas

In late May/June 2011, the Troika (the European Commission, International Monetary Fund, and European Central Bank) produced an ‘interim program’ of austerity measures to be ratified in the Greek Parliament. The measures included a new wave of severe austerity cuts; cuts in public services and emergency taxation had been initiated when George Papandreou submitted his government’s stability and growth program in 2010 following Greece’s bailout package. In this context, a call for protest outside the Greek Parliament at Syntagma Square was made on a dedicated Facebook page on May 24, 2011. The call was very much inspired by another mobilization that was organized with the use of Facebook and Twitter; the indignados gathering of thousands of Spaniards in Puerta del Sol in Madrid, demanding ‘Real Democracy Now’ (Democracia Real Ya) on May 15, 2011. It tends to be forgotten by many accounts on these and other mobilizations that followed elsewhere (the Occupy movement, St. Paul’s protest camp in London) that the pitching of tents in protest camps in squares – which became one of the trademark signs of the Indignants/Occupy movement – was actually initiated on the other side of the Mediterranean in protest events in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

This essay discusses some of the issues and challenges surrounding my attempt to conduct research on the Indignants/Aganaktismenoi of Syntagma Square in central Athens by using the online medium. It also offers a brief account of some of the findings.

 

Method

Since the call for the mobilization was published online, it was only fair to make use of the Internet as a research medium. I was well placed in this direction with a ready-made survey at my disposal that I administered online by using the dedicated page on Facebook.[1] There I directed prospective participants to a survey link on SurveyMonkey. My call to prospective participants included a cover letter where I introduced myself and outlined the aims and objectives behind conducting research on protest mobilizations in general and the Syntagma protest rallies in particular. The letter included a link to my university webpage  that listed my qualifications, teaching and research interests, and publications. This was followed by a guarantee of respect of anonymity in an online environment.

The questionnaire was a modified version of the face-to-face questionnaire produced by the same research team. My version was translated into Greek and tailored certain questions (for instance, questions relating to educational attainment) specifically to the Greek context, since my questionnaire was exclusively targeted to a Greek audience.

The survey was completed by 453 persons claiming participation in the Indignant (Aganaktismenoi) mobilizations of Syntagma Square in Athens during May/June 2011.  Considering that the Greek Indignants Facebook page – the Aganaktismenoi of Syntagma Square – had thousands of visitors claiming their intention to participate in the Syntagma protest and the fact that the actual protest gathering had at some point, according to different media estimates, between 90,000 and 100,000 participants, this was a rather disappointing response rate. How could this be explained? The use of the online medium with a dedicated social networking site facilitated a degree of interactivity with some prospective participants that perhaps can explain the frame of mind that guided non-participants. Based on the actual interaction that I had, I decided to label them as Challengers. They were ‘waging their challenge’ along the following: 1) the scientific validity and reliability of the selected method and/or the research medium, and 2) the purpose of this type of research. As it’s going to be demonstrated, both types of challenge were in many respects quite entertaining.

 

Challenging the method

Some people were highly critical of the survey method’s suitability for conducting research on a protest event like the mobilizations at Syntagma Square. Some of them were outright rejecters, while some advocated the suitability of face-to-face, in-depth interviews and ethnographic (non-) participant observation. Such objections clearly subscribed to the traditional divide between qualitative and quantitative methods. My response pointed to the fact that each of these methods has advantages and limitations, and also acknowledged the potential disadvantages of conducting this particular research by administering an online survey.

In the ensuing exchange of comments, a few people referred to their own experiences with social sciences in higher education in order to substantiate their claims regarding the selected methodology’s unsuitability. One person in particular claimed that he held a sociology qualification at the post-graduate level and that I was using an ‘inadequate method’. I also found it really entertaining that a respondent claimed to have been born in 1900.

In my opinion, the majority of these challengers were for the most part unfamiliar with online research methods and/or the sociology of protest and social movements.

 

 Challenging the purpose

Many other respondents, without making any sociological claims, were vocal in expressing skepticism about the purpose of my survey and failed to appreciate any possible scientific interest in protest event analysis. Perhaps it’s fair to say that the numerous non-participants also had the same lack of appreciation or, more realistically, were completely unwilling to spend five minutes of their lives on a project with a rather nebulous objective.

Others were taken aback by the use of Survey Monkey. The truth is that, at the time, only a few social scientists in Greece were knowledgeable about online research methods in general, and about that strangely named online software and questionnaire tool in particular. Some participants, inspired by the medium used and exasperated by the unfounded view that they were becoming part of a scientific experiment – in addition to being stimulated by the fact that I was regularly calling for participation in the survey – characteristically exclaimed, ‘We are not your monkeys.’

Still other people suspected that the survey was an attempted profiling by the authorities. This was, of course, a bizarre perspective, but illustrative of the general paranoia that was prevalent at the time, with the unstoppable collapse and growing uncertainty that was experienced. This view perhaps also reflected the naivety that characterizes many young people who engage in politics online, especially since those who commented on the dedicated Facebook page shared so much information on what is essentially a tool ideal for conducting market research and advertising.

 

The findings

The use of the generic Indignants/Aganaktismenoi should not disguise the fact that the participants of the protest action at Syntagma Square included a wide range of individuals from various social sectors. However, a division between two clusters of demonstrators has been identified. The upper-square cluster attracted a mosaic of individuals who can broadly be seen as easily susceptible to populist/‘patriotic’ themes. That was visible by their adopted slogans, such as one from a bygone era, ‘Greece Belongs to the Greeks’, the rhythmic repetition of “Hellas, Hellas,” singing popular extracts from songs by composer Mikis Theodorakis. All of these were garnished with many coordinated moutzas (a traditional gesture of insult) and synchronized yelling of “Thieves! Thieves!” directed toward Parliament. There were also numerous Greek flags and a few individuals with shaved heads saluting like the Nazis and wearing tattoos depicting the Greek flag, in addition to young, apolitical football fans. Interspersed in this mosaic were families with children in strollers, a novel occurrence in Greek political protests.

The composition of the lower square couldn’t have been more different. Those active in that part of the square were highly politicized and committed activists, and included members of left-wing parties, such as SYRIZA and ANTARSYA (but not KKE), anarchists from AK, and others without a declared identification. Taken together, they approximated the Spanish Real Democracy Now of the Indignados of Puerta del Sol and the demonstrators of Tahrir Square with their pitched tents. For these participants, the protest was an opportunity to use autonomous organizational principles based on direct democratic procedures of the future society that they aspire to. True to such principles, they organized different task groups responsible for such things as food supplies, cleaning of the surrounding space, legal assistance, first aid, translation services, and entertainment that included plays for children and other artistic events. As expected, the online survey of the Syntagma Square Indignants has only captured a fraction of the sheer diversity of participants in that protest event. Judging by some of the results below – such as educational attainment – it seems that the majority of respondents were in the lower square.

For example, proclaimed participation by males and females is almost equal, with 51 percent male and 47 percent female responses to the survey. Some 63 percent were enrolled in or completed higher education (19 percent post-graduate). The overwhelming majority, 90 percent, expressed dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy. For 43 percent of those responding, the Aganaktismenoi mobilizations at Syntagma Square marked their first participation in a political protest; the most popular (27 percent) type of protest that respondents had previously participated in had been organized by a ‘trade union’. A staggering 88.6 percent of respondents claimed that they were disappointed with the functioning of democracy in the country, and 87.6 percent said they had been informed about the mobilization at Syntagma by reading a web page.

 

Limitations

One crucial limitation of administering an online survey had to do with developing a rapport with the gatekeepers that would allow for endorsement of the survey and its longstanding placement on the targeted web page. In this particular case, the administrator neither endorsed nor rejected my intention to include the aforementioned call for people to complete the survey. I had to resend my call for the survey at regular intervals, as it kept on disappearing from the top place on the wall of the Aganaktismenoi at Syntagma Facebook page, which was extremely busy. This caused great annoyance to a few, who didn’t hesitate to express it with a slew of abusive remarks, but it also increased survey participation by two to five respondents, which in my mind justified the continuation of the aforementioned practice. The administrator questioned my objectives at a later stage under the suspicion of profiling for the authorities. I replied by pointing to the fact that the vast majority of the participants on the Indignants at Syntagma Facebook page had open access to their Facebook profiles with private information. To that he responded that he was planning to deactivate the page anyway after the end of the mobilization.

 

Concluding remarks

There are many interesting findings in relation to the gender and educational profile of Indignant protesters that can be compared and contrasted with findings by other research projects in the same mobilization, and/or other square protests in other national contexts.  Here, I gave a brief account of the challenges faced by attempting to administer an online survey to people claiming participation in the mobilizations at Syntagma Square in Athens.  The main challenges related to the newness of the research medium employed and an unfounded – albeit not uncommon in this type of project – suspicion of the honesty behind the research project’s proclaimed objectives.

 

John Karamichas is a lecturer in sociology in the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work at Queen’s University of Belfast. His recent publications include “London 2012 and Environmental Sustainability: A Study through the Lens of Environmental Sociology,” Sociological Research Online 18, no. 3; The Olympics and the Environment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); and Olympic Games, Mega-Events and Civil Societies: Globalization, Environment, Resistance (edited with Graeme Hayes, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

 This article is part of our Enough! feature on Europe’s exploding social movements.


[1] Bert Klandermans, et al., “Manual for Data Collection on Protest Demonstrations: Caught in the Act of Protest – Contextualizing Contestation (CCC-Project) – Version 3.0”. 2011, available at: www.protestsurvey.eu

 

 

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