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Internet Politics: States, Citizens and New Communication Technologies

Author: Andrew Chadwick
Publisher: New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006
Review Published: December 2006

 REVIEW 1: Viviane Serfaty
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Andrew Chadwick

Andrew Chadwick's Internet Politics: States, Citizens and New Communication Technologies is a three-in-one publication: it is a traditional textbook; it is a thoughtful take on the conceptualization of a recently formed field of study; and it comes with a website, complete with visual aids and addenda to the print publication.

As a textbook, it is organized with a very keen awareness of pedagogical requirements: each chapter starts with a "chapter overview" outlining the main points discussed by the author. Pivotal definitions or quotes are labelled "exhibits" and highlighted by being printed against a dark grey background, offsetting them from the rest of the text. All technical terms are defined with precision and thoroughness. Each chapter is followed by "discussion points" which may serve either as essay subjects or as starting points for class discussion. Suggestions for further reading are provided with critical commentaries. All of these features make for clarity and accessibility.

The website functions as a companion to the textbook. The themes analyzed in each chapter can be downloaded as Powerpoint slides. Data that did not make it into the book are made available. The website's overall tone is close to that of a blog, giving a conversational, seminar-like feel to the online material. Thus, the textbook plus online material provide an excellent example of the kind of media convergence that is increasingly the rule in pedagogical practices.

Chadwick's approach to his material is carefully thought out. In his introduction, he delineates the thesis underlying the book's title and contents; his work's "organizing assumption," he writes, "is that the Internet is now more heavily politicised than at any time in its short history" (2). Politicization is then defined as "a struggle for control, coupled with new uses of its technologies for political ends" (2). Chadwick thus opens up for himself two fields of study of unequal size. The first one is the struggle for institutional control over the network; although the issues at stake here are considerable, the conceptual scope remains relatively limited, as will become apparent later on in the book. The second field of study, on the other hand, is that of the political uses of the Internet, and its conceptual reach is anything but limited. Indeed, like Braud (1995) and other theoreticians of political sociology, Chadwick defines politics as a specific social interaction between individuals on the one hand, and individuals and institutions on the other hand, and points out that the central political question is that of control and lawmaking. With this two-faceted politicization thesis, Chadwick is able to cover in-depth both the individual and institutional aspects of the political uses of the Internet. Although most of the focus is on the United States and the United Kingdom, the comparative approach used throughout makes for useful analyses of the increasing transnationalization of many of the same issues.

Part One, entitled "Contexts," contains three chapters, the first which provides conceptual tools essential to the understanding of the ongoing academic discussion of ICTs. Chadwick explores the competing approaches of technological and social determinism, seeking "a virtuous path" (21) halfway between these two extremes. Thus, he relies on Langdon Winner's (2000) political theories when he writes that "many of the issues around the politicization of the Net arise from the nature of the technology and ... this, in part, structures political and social action" (20). He then qualifies this statement by adding: "The Internet is an inherently political set of technologies, but its politics are subject to decisions made in supremely political contexts" (21). The one example given in support of this consensual stance, while convincing enough as it stands, hardly constitutes a sufficient demonstration of the usefulness of conflating two so-called determinisms into an all-encompassing theory. In addition, Chadwick seems to disregard the fact that the diffusion of any innovative technology depends not only on political decisions or technological features, but also on another crucial factor -- social practices. What really tips the scales is not determinism of any sort, but the myriad, often unexpected uses emerging with the technology and giving rise to widespread social debates that eventually translate into specific social choices (Marvin 1990; Bijker 1995; Rhys-Morus 1998; Serfaty 2000). This particular controversy is, however, less than central to Chadwick's work, and the following section brings the book back on track as it outlines the "eight key conceptual themes" (22-36) that have informed much of the academic debate centering on Internet and politics. Chadwick reviews the essential literature in political sociology as well as in communication theory as they apply to the Internet, all the while insisting on the cross-disciplinary approach required by Internet studies -- a position I fully endorse in my own research, given the protean nature of the field.

The remaining two chapters in Part One show that, despite all claims to the contrary, Chadwick is not so much attuned to any sort of determinism as to a conception of the diffusion of innovations based on social and political choices. He thus offers a historical perspective on the development of ICTs, followed by an analysis of the digital divide, both of which stress the importance of human agency and the considerable part played by pre-existing social and political structures (78-9), as well as pre-existing social capital -- or lack of it (96).

Part Two, entitled "Institutions," is devoted to the fields traditionally covered by political science -- democracy, mobilization, campaigning, and government -- all with the e-prefix of course. This is where the author gives the full measure of his erudition and analytic abilities. Consistently relying on his extensive command of political science theory, Chadwick covers a large number of examples in each chapter and elucidates the ways in which the Internet has modified political practices and, in the process, generated new versions of existing political theories, notably the threshold theory and Olson's "free-rider" theory (140). Chadwick traces the gradual insertion of the Internet in the political repertoire through a study of online campaigns from the 1990s to the present (151-7). Even though Internet fund-raising and vote trading received nationwide attention both in the U.S. and the U.K. in 2000 (157-62), Chadwick shows that "politics as usual [has] move[d] online" (149) in both countries. He concludes with the assessment that "Internet-only campaigns are clearly unsustainable" (167). His thorough analysis of the 2004 presidential campaign moves from a description of the Dean, Kerry, and Bush e-campaigns to an analysis of the effect of "resource inequalities on parties' online competition" (168). He then addresses the issue of the possible impact of the Internet on voter turnout (169-173) and on campaigning itself (173-4). Chadwick steers away from hasty generalizations and idealizations and emphasizes throughout how ICTs merge and mesh with pre-existing technologies and power structures (174).

The third and last part is entitled "Issues and Controversies" and covers four sensitive issues in as many chapters. Chapter 9 lists and describes the key organizations set up by bodies such as the U.N., the G8, or the WTO to regulate the information society. Chapter 10 further explores the same terrain and provides an analysis of current Internet governance, with a focus on its legal aspects. The next chapter covers security and privacy through the lens of four theories of surveillance, concluding that Haggerty and Ericson's "surveillant assemblage theory" (2000) seems closest to the mark as it "manages to capture the decentralized but pervasive nature of Internet surveillance" (287). Chapter 12 closes the third part and investigates the political economy of the Internet through a comparison with traditional print and broadcast media in terms of concentrated ownership and news distribution, as well as examining several intellectual properties issues, including file-sharing. True to his ongoing stance, Chadwick debunks Internet-related myths of disintermediation while simultaneously engaging in an analysis of the impact the network has had on the strategy of "transnational media conglomerates" (298).

Andrew Chadwick's Internet Politics: States, Citizens and New Communication Technologies is intended to be a textbook and it functions admirably as such. Its methodology and its insights, however, go far beyond introductory material and stand as a model of scholarly analysis. Chadwick is fully aware of the risks with which the field of Internet Studies is fraught, yet he has managed to transcend the essential fluidity of his subject matter to write a solidly researched and constantly illuminating book.

Bijker, W. E., (1995) Of Bicycles, Bakelites and Bulbs: Towards a Theory of Sociotechnical Change (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

Braud, P. (1995) Sociologie Politique (Paris: LGDJ Editions).

Haggerty, K.D., and Ericson, R.V. (2000) "The Surveillant Assemblage." British Journal of Sociology 51 (4), pp. 605-22.

Marvin, C. (1988) When Old Technologies Were New (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Rhys-Morus, I. (1998) Frankenstein's Children: Electricity, Exhibition and Experiment in Early Nineteenth Century London (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

Serfaty, V. (2000) "De la répulsion à la fascination: l’Internet et les représentations des NTIC." ASP (27-30), pp. 231-241.

Winner, L. (2000) "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" In Kraft, M.E., and Vig, N.J. (eds), Technology and Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press).

Viviane Serfaty:
Viviane Serfaty is an Associate Professor of American Studies at Université de Marne-la-Vallée (France). She co-wrote and edited L'Internet en politique, des Etats-Unis à l’Europe (Strasbourg, Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 2002), a collection of essays in English and French. In 2004, she published The Mirror and the Veil: An Overview of American Online Diaries and Blogs (Amsterdam and New York, Rodopi). She is currently working on a manuscript devoted to freedom of speech on the Internet.  <vivianeserfaty@yahoo.fr>

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