Symbolic Politics Meets Digital Media: Research on Political Meaning-Making

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The concept of performance is gaining relevance in the analysis of global political phenomena. The new media environment treats public figures as actors on a stage, and they act accordingly. The spectacle of modern politics, the engagement with citizens as audiences, personalisation and populism all speak to this trend. But performance is also relevant from a more abstract perspective: it is an analytical and theoretical concept that allows us to approach the process of meaning-making where it really matters, namely at the point where politics emerges. Rather than concerning ourselves singularly with the politics of form – style, structure, rhetoric – or with the politics of content – ideology, scandal, propaganda – we need to consider what happens when form and content meet. This is the point at which a disruptive optic constructs political reality and where political agents engage in struggles over meaning and truth, those aspects of politics that define our political existence. Digital media are significant to this process of political meaning-making in several keys ways that research urgently needs to address. First, modern political performances integrate live action, social media behaviour and acts targeted at traditional gatekeepers and forms of mediation in increasingly complex ways. The role that digital media play in such performative assemblages is not clearly understood as most political communication research confines itself to silos of media types. While we are all keen to point out our understanding of the complexity of the media ecology, few of us make the effort to develop theoretical perspectives – for instance on processes of mediation – that are able to address hybrid media use. Even fewer take up the methodological challenge of studying such complex processes empirically: how does meaning travel and change across platforms and between online and offline environments, and how do we investigate these processes? As a result of our current theoretical and methodological isolation of media types and platforms, the ways in which political actors make symbolic uses of social media to bolster, promote and distract from their performances in the rest of the media ecology is not understood in context. Yet such hybrid media performances evidently play an increasingly important role in practices of political communication and performances of democratic representation; they are a central component of the relationship between citizens and their representatives. Second, the use of social media as symbolic action by some political actors is becoming problematic. The affordances of social media enable new forms of communication and relationships between political actors and their publics. But symbolic uses that evade participatory and conversational affordances while utilising the symbolic and imaginary qualities of media technologies are becoming increasingly prevalent. In other words, political actors claim to engage in non-hierarchical ‘friendships’ and conversations through digital acts that supposedly increase substantiveness in the political process, but they often do so in name only. This is especially the case amongst institutional political actors and would-be non-institutional actors such as populists. A research agenda that addresses how representative claims are made on social media through a political performance perspective is needed to investigate such uses of the imaginary and symbolic properties of media. Currently most of our research is focused on affordances and neglects this important aspect of political meaning-making. As a result, it also loses sight of the performative qualities of digital media – the ways in which digital acts bring about what they claim (Isin & Ruppert, 2015). But do such imagined performances have the lasting effects on democratic politics that they intend (or proclaim)? Third, an engagement with political meaning-making requires a hermeneutic approach (Gerbaudo, 2016), but digital media data are big. An essential prerequisite to dealing with questions of political meaning-making and performance through digital media is therefore to advance our existing methods. We need mixed-methods perspectives and sampling mechanisms that enable us to approach big data qualitatively, both so as to understand the political practices that are developing in the media ecology and their often problematic implications, and to identify and suggest better practices.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationA Research Agenda for Digital Politics
EditorsWilliam H. Dutton
PublisherEdward Elgar Publishing Ltd.
Number of pages13
ISBN (Electronic)9781789903096
ISBN (Print)9781789903089
Publication statusPublished - 18 May 2020

Publication series

NameElgar Research Agenda
PublisherEdward Elgar Publishing

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    Sorensen, L. (2020). Symbolic Politics Meets Digital Media: Research on Political Meaning-Making. In W. H. Dutton (Ed.), A Research Agenda for Digital Politics (1 ed., pp. 133-145). (Elgar Research Agenda). Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd..