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Rachel Wilhelm

B.A. Political Science, 2003

Research interests: Internet-facilitated activism and global citizenship

My first exposure to sociopolitical phenomena related to globalization came in the form of Professor W. Lance Bennett’s “Media, Society, and Political Identity” course during my sophomore year. This course gave me the foundation to start thinking critically about the social and political implications of consumption in a globalized world. When I entered the political science honors program the following year I was able to flesh out this foundation through a series of three seminars relating to globalization, one of which was taught by Professor Bennett. This course explored more in depth new postmodern ways of constructing identity apart from allegiance based on factors related to geography, traditional group membership, and national identity. It also explored challenges to the autonomy of the traditional nation-state and the growing power of new political players: multinational corporations (MNCs) wielding considerable political, economic, and social influence.

The question that emerged from this course was how, in this new social, economic, and political context, are we to conceive of individuals engaging politically in issues with which they are concerned? One answer we discussed was Internet- facilitated activist campaigns. These campaigns provide a forum outside traditional politics for citizens to communicate and act out their concerns, and one way they do this is by tapping into citizens’ lifestyle-based identities so that they are used for political ends. It was with this issue that I chose to grapple in my senior thesis. I enlisted Professor Bennett and Professor Litfin and set about designing my research project.

Research project: Consumer Logic and Global Citizenship: Case Studies of Internet-Facilitated Tropical Rainforest Activism

The idea of “global citizenship,” a concept that highlights the disruption of the old paradigm of social identity and political allegiance, has attracted considerable interest in academia. Some scholars imagine it as the answer to our pressing problems whose solutions have thus far eluded us. In my paper I sought to move the concept of global citizenship out of its theoretical space and examine it in the context of contemporary activist efforts. Specifically, I was concerned with the relationship between global citizenship and the consumer logic employed by Internet-facilitated activism campaigns addressing rainforest destruction. As rainforest loss has its roots in global systems of consumption and production, it would seem that campaigns addressing this destruction might be well positioned to tackle it in a way that uses consumer logic to emphasize such linkages and encourages visitors to identify socially and politically on a global level. Yet as I found, although all seven campaigns I analyzed employ consumer logic, not all emphasize the linkages between visitors’ individual ecological impacts and large-scale problems or encourage a sense of belonging to, and being obliged to, a global community.

All seven analyzed campaigns transcended nation-state machinery and represent a different method of global problem-solving that draws upon visitors’ lifestyles and related senses of identity forged by those lifestyles, otherwise known as “consumer logic.” I identified two campaign models, one that remains “locally-restricted” in its identification of causes and solutions and one that is “globally-integrated” as it focuses on the global connections between the loss of distant rainforests and visitors’ everyday actions. The latter can be conceived as a real-life attempt to foster the sense of global citizenship theorized in academic circles, and I believe can also help flesh out and advance those theoretical definitions. The former can be interpreted as a caution against generally linking global citizenship to activism on large-scale issues.

In conclusion I suggest that the globally-integrated approach to Internet-facilitated activism may serve as a unique tool to help citizens geographically and culturally removed from rainforests link their daily lives to rainforest loss, and offer suggestions for directions further research on this subject might take. Finally, I suggest that the globally-integrated campaigns’ approach has implications for other large-scale global issues which might not so easily employ consumer logic but will nevertheless require a world full of citizens convinced of their own power to help address them.