TED & TEDx Talks as activism, catalysts of norm-critique and moralism in matters of social change.

“..identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results”

-Judith Butler

To start off this third part to my blog post venture, I am focusing on a TEDx Talk by Ph.D Sara Edenheim at Umeå University on norm-criticism. As this talk alone may be hard to relate to social change processes, I also use its description to illustrate why norm-criticism within discourses of social change processes are relevant, and that talks like this one may also serve as examples of “use” of academic TEDx Talks as activism, both locally and beyond. Surely the context in which a TEDx Talk is presented plays a part of ‘it’ as part of media. In relating it loosely to the article TED Talks on International Development: Trans-Hegemonic Promise and Ritualistic Constraints by Malmö ComDev’s Tobias Denskus and Daniel E. Esser at American University, Washington DC [1] I also want to illustrate ways in which there is more to dynamics of social change than first meets the eye, and how activism within this field of ComDev may be quite broad a term for application.

A broader meaning of ‘digital activism’ has more or less been a recurring theme throughout my posts thus far, and will be specifically focused upon in me concluding my personal #resist journey in my final post later this week.

To quote Edenheim:

“The widespread idea that norm-breaking is radical and will lead to change is based on an idea of norms as autonomous and without connections to that which is marginalized. It is part of a more general discourse of liberal inclusion where identities are seen as existing as free entities with no constituting relationships, histories or desires”…”today’s norm-breaking discourse suffers from a problematic moralism and will run the risk of reproducing the already prevalent political order, where social inequalities become a matter of personal responsibilities of doing “the right thing”, rather than a collective and democratic demand.”

Statements like this can be easily related to social change discourses, for example, when NGO work focusing on development in the global south challenge whiteness or gender norms; thus critiquing prevailing norms in a society. And when you relate the statement to how norm-breaking discourses become a matter of personal responsibility not democratic demand, in such widespread processes as social change/development, should the moralism inherent to norm-criticism perhaps be questioned much like this, using TEDx Talks as a medium, and does that also constitute digital activism? You really don’t have to look further than to the recent Women’s Marches, as eloquently addressed here on #resist by the lovely Cecilia, noting that gender-norm critique is a very relevant topic for discussion.

Tobias Denskus and Daniel E. Esser touch (very) briefly upon academic institutions in relation to TED Talks in their article, with roughly a quarter of the talks sampled from the field of international development being affiliated with just that. What matters more to the content and context of this post however, is that they come to the conclusion that TED-talks are not really effective as driving forces for social change as “they reflect institutionalized, corporatized modes of mass communication rooted in elitist discourses and practices.”[2]

In focusing primarily on institutions and elitist discursive practice here, an argument can definitely be made that they represent elements of elitism, however when faced with the less corporatised modes of mass communication as presented by TEDx Talks, another angle for its application as digital activism begins to take shape.  To clarify, I am in no way arguing against the application nor analysis of collected data re: TED-talks as gathered for the article, I however think there is always more than one side to a story..and TED Talks vs. TEDxTalks might be one worth taking a look at, specifically in the context of this particular ‘talk’ and social change. I chose to focus on the TEDx Talk by Edenheim for the simple reason that it is not related directly to a development context as such, rather it looks at ‘elitist institutional’ use of norm-breaking as part of the norm itself, which conveniently translates into development technologies and institution contexts quite nicely. Noting that one of the ‘qualms’ with ‘regular’ TED talks as activism for social change is specifically that “TED talks on international development primarily reflect core elements of contemporary development discourses rather than reshape them.[3]

Philip N. Howard points out that in applying Castells ‘network perspective’ it “allows us to make important connections between who the media is and what the media is. The media can be defined in three parts, consisting of (a) the information infrastructure and tools used to produce and distribute content, (b) the content that takes the form of personal messages, news, ideas, and cultural products, and (c) the people, organizations, and industries that produce and consume content. Using a network perspective, researching the media refers to studying the linkages and relationships between tools, content, producers, and consumers.”[4] In Howard discussing Castells’ network perspective more broadly he holds that it illustrates “how digital media technologies serve power”[5]. In extending this argument that digital technologies are then part of social structure(s), what of their use to question certain elites and institutions specifically, or development, or gender (..the list goes on) discourses?

In trying to approach social change then from a different angle, what about matters not of  international development, but which may ‘filter on down’ to those circles and scenarios anyways? One seemingly straightforward application could be western feminism’s breaking of social customs norms surrounding use of a headscarf as a fight for women’s rights, all the while implicitly assuming “that norm-breaking is radical and will lead to change”. Talks such as this one by Edenheim addresses power (and specifically norms) in many areas, some of which spill into the realms of development. And when UNICEF employs the SEM C4D framework, the social change they envision “aims to change behaviors on a large scale, eliminate harmful social and cultural practices, and change social norms and structural inequalities.”. Does it then stand as a critique of social change (and other) processes that are not sufficiently connected to those who are marginalised, and as such helps form its own group of digital activism perhaps? Not one that questions scenarios found ‘elsewhere’ in development scenarios, but one that questions the power relations found within the development institutions and approaches themselves -arguably playing a part in many, if not all, social change contexts.




[1] Denskus, T. and Esser, D. E. (2015), TED Talks on International Development: Trans-Hegemonic Promise and Ritualistic Constraints. Commun Theor, 25: 166–187. doi:10.1111/comt.12066

[2] ibid, p.1

[3] ibid, p.14

[4] Howard, P. N. Castells and the Media. [electronic resource] : Theory and Media. Hoboken : Wiley, 2013, pp.2-3

[5] ibid, p.1

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  1. Pingback: HeForShe, Emma Watson and gender equality on Twitter 🕊 – #RESIST

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