A Marxist Analysis of Immigration as a “Spatial Fix”

 There are some industries, such the agricultural sector among others, that rely heavily on the work of immigrants (Fussell, 2011).

There are some industries, such as the agricultural sector, which rely heavily on the work of migrants (Fussell, 2011).

by Maricarmen Hernandez


Marx warned us about the abysmal consequences of capitalism and the insurmountable greed of its ruling class. He maintained that capitalism, as an economic system, is unsustainable and self-destructive due to its inherent contradictions, which would bring about recurrent crises and, eventually, its own demise (Marx, 1848). With the modern exploitation of global markets, and the international movement of people from the (semi) periphery to the core (Wallerstein 1974), vulnerable populations are facing injustices that are the product of capitalist globalization and its crises.

Drawing from David Harvey’s (1982) argument that these are crises the system itself would attempt to resolve using what he calls a “spatial fix,” I frame the decision-making of migrant populations to leave their home countries as embedded in and responsive to the capitalist system. Specifically exploring whether these migratory flows empower migrants or merely reflect their marginality. I claim that migrant currents from the (semi) periphery to the core, and from the rural to the urban, serve as a sort of “grassroots spatial fix” to the widespread crisis of rural social reproduction migrant laborers face in their home countries. And while many find work that is economically empowering to them and their families (through the sending of remittances) they typically find themselves in polluted areas – raising the question of environmental justice for these migrant communities, which I will touch upon in my conclusion.

Marxist Theory and the “Grassroots Spatial Fix”

According to Harvey, capitalism is addicted to technological change and endless geographical expansion through economic growth, and it has found in globalization a spatial fix for its crisis tendencies. A “spatial fix” refers to a variety of strategies pursued by capitalists to overcome the inevitable crises generated through their routine activities (Harvey, 1985). He states that globalization today is nothing more than yet another round in the capitalist production and reconstruction of space, which is of course, not without consequences. Marx referred to the annihilation of space through time as a fundamental law of capitalist development (Marx, 1853), which is achieved through the conquering of new markets and innovations in the technologies of transport and communications (Harvey, 1985).

There are different ways in which capitalists make use of spatial fixes to overcome crisis, but the most common is expansion and the exploitation of new markets. When a crisis of localized over-accumulation and over-production occurs within a particular region, the solution is to export capital and labor surpluses to new territories. In other words, surpluses of capital and shortages of labor are fixed by the movement of capital to areas of labor surpluses and weak labor organization, or by importing cheap labor into centers of capitalist development.

Cash flow: This graphic shows how much money is being sent by migrants to their families back home and where it is being transferred from in a transient economy that topped $530bn last year, according to new figures by the World Bank. More than $120bn was sent from the U.S.

Cash flow: This graphic shows how much money is being sent by migrants to their families back home and where it is being transferred from in a transient economy that topped $530bn last year, according to new figures by the World Bank. More than $120bn was sent from the U.S.

But thinking more deeply, can the process of migrating from the (semi) periphery to the core serve as a type of spatial fix that immigrants themselves use to overcome a crisis of social reproduction at home? If so, it begs the question of who does this spatial fix truly benefit? The agency that immigrants practice in their own decision to migrate is important as a point of departure.

Overcoming a crisis at home by migrating from the (semi) periphery to the core in search of jobs can be interpreted as a sort of “grassroots spatial fix.” These migratory trends are common in rural areas after farmers either lose their farms or are pushed out of the agricultural market (Fitzgerald, 2011). In the case of Mexico, there are entire rural towns where the majority of working-age adults have migrated to the United States in search of wage labor. Through the process of migration to the United States, these people are economically empowered and are able to send remittances home, which in turn serves as a spatial fix for the immediate crisis at hand. Therefore, this begs the question: Who benefits the most from immigration as a “spatial fix?”



The polluting industry, or sources of environmental threats are typically sited in poor, politically weak communities. Therefore, largely affecting minority communities.

Using a Marxist lens, it becomes clear who benefits the most from migration as a spatial fix: the capitalist. As the most vulnerable population, migrants must deal with the tradeoff of exchanging clean living spaces for work and financial opportunities. It does not make sense to argue that migrant populations, like other communities that have been successful in protecting themselves from noxious environments, should be able to do the same when there are added layers of marginality (e.g. restricted mobility due to legal/language barriers and financial constraints) that they must negotiate every day. Therefore, using migrant labor as a technique to surmount capitalist crisis has proven more effective than the grassroots spatial fix used by migrants in attempting to solve their problems of social reproduction at home.

Recommended Reading:

Be sure to read Dr. Néstor P. Rodríguez‘s new book entitled Guatemala-U.S. Migration: Transforming Regions, which touches on a number of themes introduced in this piece.

Rock Climbing Culture in Austin, TX


by Corey McZeal

This post consists of excerpts from Corey McZeal‘s M.A. Thesis entitled, “Rock Climbing Culture in Austin, TX.”

Supervising Committee: Dr. Harel Shapira and Dr. Sheldon Ekland-Olson.

The sport of rock climbing has seen a boom over the last two decades. Interestingly, this boom has not been due to the extreme commercialization of the sport, but by the increasing availability of indoor climbing venues that allow individuals to foster the skills that allow them to eventually climb outdoors. While the demographics of climbers can vary by region, in Austin, Texas climbers tend to be middle class, male, and white. Through my research on the climbing culture in Austin I seek to discover what features of the sport make it so appealing to this particular demographic. Through ethnographic methods, in-depth interviews, and participant observation, I gained insight on the climbers’ motivations. Additionally, though climbing offers a peculiar mixture of pain, injury, and even the potential for serious injury, climbers see it as a “stress reliever.” Throughout this thesis, I seek to discover how climbers manage this apparent contradiction, and what their participation in the sport can tell us about other aspects of their social existence.

Eva was overwhelmed. It was her first time rock climbing, and she was at an indoor gym with a few friends who were avid rock climbers. Ascending the wall, she noticed that there were too many rocks for her to grip as she worked her way up, and there were just as many places for her to place her feet. Instinctively she reached for the closest one that seemed easy to grasp, but her fellow climbers quickly reprimanded her. “No, you can’t use that one!”

Climbing-Wall-1990854“Why can’t I use that one?” she fired back. “There are like 800 of them! What’s the point if I can’t use them?” She was confused, but her friends told her that she could not use those holds because they were on a different route.

Eva did not particularly enjoy this adventure into climbing, but another friend convinced her to try outdoor climbing. On top rope with her friend belaying, he said, “You can use whatever holds you want to get there, I’m not going to tell you no. However you want to do it.”

She tried this style of climbing and enjoyed it much more, since she was able to be freer in her movements and do whatever she felt she needed to do to get to the top. Eva remembers the moment fondly: “It finally clicked with me and I was like, ‘Oh, this is really fun.’ And that’s the whole point of the gym, to teach you how to do harder moves. It’s all for training and it’s supposed to make you better.”

In the simplest form, climbing should seemingly be about getting to the top of a rock wall. But among serious climbers, this is not the case. They climb, but only in very specific ways. If it were only about getting to the top of the wall, we would use ladders, build stairs, or simply find an easier route and hike there. Instead, these particular groups of people decide to use possibly the most physically difficult method of accomplishing the task. The activity that rock climbers participate in isn’t practical; it is not about getting to the top of the wall at all. For them, climbing is about creating a certain type of experience.

rock-climbingClimbers, especially middle class suburban climbers, need this particular experience. Climbing gives them a chance to embark in something that they rarely get to do. We currently live in a society of increasing structure, regulation, and technological advancement. Through the generations we have had to exert less and less physical effort to acquire food, shelter, and protect ourselves. Rock climbing gives middle class, suburban individuals, those who occupy generally comfortable spaces of our society, an environment in which they can experience pain and flirt with danger.

Even if sport climbing seems like something very natural and primal, it is still extremely controlled. It sometimes does not feel that way on the wall, but without equipment failure or tremendous human error the climber is almost guaranteed to reach the ground safely. Yet that feeling is key to the experience; climbers create an environment in which they can do something that feels primal and dangerous while knowing that the risk of death is actually very slim. For the typical suburban, middle class individual, this level of pain and feeling of risk is almost completely absent from their home lives. Rock climbing gives these particular individuals a place to embrace the aspects of their lives that they do not, or no longer, have a chance to enjoy.


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Katherine Jensen featured on RacismReview: Dismantling White Supremacy at Vassar


by Eric E. Borja

Back in early December Katherine Jensen‘s piece entitled, “Dismantling White Supremacy at Vassar,” was featured on Joe Feagin and Jessie Daniel’s blog, Racism Review.

Below is an excerpt from Jensen’s piece:

A message appeared in my inbox last Thursday from Vassar College President Catharine Hill, addressed to parents and alumnae/i of Vassar like myself. It serves as Hill’s official response to the national attention the college has received in recent days and what she names “a very challenging time for our community.”

While she does not name them, she references “several online articles” regarding race, class, and sexual assault, which “reflect the frustration and pain of individuals in our community.” These include pieces like Kiese Laymon’s “My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK” and Eve Dunbar’s “Who Really Burns: Quitting a Dean’s Job in the Age of Mike Brown,” which have garnered national attention from venues like Inside Higher Ed in “Black and Not Feeling Welcome.”

The letter is peppered with two words – we and our. It is filled with phrases like “our campus” and “our community.” But who is this we that Hill addresses? Who is this our that lays claim to the campus, that is entitled to be in and the right to be of Vassar?

To continue reading the rest of Jensen’s piece, follow this link.


Kristine Kilanski featured in the London School of Economics and Political Science blog

The corporate embrace of “diversity” rarely translates into more opportunities for women.


Kristine Kilanski 80x108While efforts in the corporate world to promote gender diversity have been ongoing since the 1990s, the representation of women at higher corporate levels is still relatively poor – more than 83 percent of board directors are still male. In new research on women scientists in the oil and gas industry, Kristine Kilanski examines the effectiveness of corporate diversity programs. She finds that despite the good intentions of these programs, they can work to shift an organization’s focus away from the sources of gender inequality, and often do little to help women advance through the corporate ranks.

Title linked to full Article

Happy Holidays from UT Austin SOC

Celebrating the end of the old and the coming of the new year here in balmy Austin, TX.  Happy and peaceful holidays to everyone celebrating here and elsewhere.

Longitudinal ethnography and the changing face of ethnographic research

by Katherine Sobering

DennisRodgersAt a well-attended talk sponsored by the Urban Ethnography Lab, Dennis Rodgers, a professor of Urban Social and Political Research at the University of Glasgow discussed his paper, “From ‘broder’ to ‘don’: Methodological reflections on longitudinal gang research in Nicaragua, 1996-2014.”

Over lunch, Professor Rodgers reflected on the academic career that began with his dissertation research in Nicaragua in the 1990s. Since this initial period of research, Professor Rodgers has returned to the specific barrio of his dissertation fieldwork seven times. And he plans to continue going back.

As his dissertation evolved into a long-term research project, Professor Rodgers conceived of it as longitudinal ethnography. By this, he refers to immersive ethnographic fieldwork conducted diachronically over an extended period of time, or through appropriately timed revisits (Burawoy 2003; Firth 1959).

But what are the implications of such on-going ethnographic research? How can we make sense of ethnographic “revisits”? And what are some of the pitfalls that may result?

Certainly one of the greatest benefits of ethnographic research is to observe dynamic social processes as they occur over time. As Professor Rodgers pointed out, he has more or less witnessed a cycle of cultural transformation through the institutional evolution of a gang in Nicaragua.

Yet the specific challenges that arise from such an endeavor are many. First, the notion of “the field” as a spatially and temporally bounded location is increasingly misleading. Professor Rodgers (and many of the event’s attendees) stay in regular contact with individuals in “the field”. Social media further complicates this artificial division.

Over the course of a lively discussion informed by many different experiences conducting ethnographic research, we critically examined the idea of a “revisit.” If “the field” is no longer a bounded place, where do you go? To the original site of study? Or do you trace the network of people you once knew? Or follow a particular trend or social phenomena?

Moreover, “the field”—may it be sites, people, or networks—changes over time. But this is not unidirectional. As ethnographers, we also change. We age. We read more. We go through life changes that may provide different perspectives on the same event. And all of this affects how we do ethnography.

Professor Rodgers clearly describes such changes in his own career. Almost ten years ago, he conducted mostly participant observation in the barrio, and was even inducted into the gang he studied (Rodgers 2007).

Today, he is treated as a respected elder (a “don”). His methodological tools increasingly rely on interviews and informal conversations with long-term informants.

The form and function of ethnographic research is changing. In his paper, Professor Rodgers understands his return visits as “serendipitous time lapse(s).” Yet it seems to me that these ethnographic revisits are institutionally structured by his academic career trajectory as well as access to funding.

Structural changes in both funding and time-to-degree requirements affect the way ethnographic research is produced. For many graduate students, multiple periods of “pre-dissertation” fieldwork pave the way for a prolonged period of dissertation-worthy immersion

Examples abound in our department alone. Marcos Pérez conducted three summers of ethnographic research with piquetero groups in Argentina before returning for a year of dissertation fieldwork. Katie Jensen has studied asylum seekers in Brazil for three summers, and is now preparing for an extended period of dissertation research. And I conducted my first period of fieldwork in Argentine worker-recovered businesses as an undergraduate in 2008, having since spent a total of nine months in the field prior to my dissertation research.

Professor Rodgers did well to remind us: “Research is by its very nature imperfect and limited, and this not only in terms of ‘’the data’, but also ‘the method’, ‘the researcher’, and ‘the context’”. Indeed, grappling with the notion of longitudinal ethnography spurred many of us to think critically about how the pattern of our fieldwork shapes what data we collect, the topics we analyze and ultimately how we interpret our findings.


Burawoy, M., (2003), “Revisits: An outline of a theory of reflexive ethnography”, American Sociological Review, 68(5): 645-79.

Firth, R., (1959), Social Change in Tikopia: Re-study of a Polynesian Community after a Generation, London: George Allen & Unwin.

Rodgers, D., (2007), “Joining the gang and becoming a broder: The violence of ethnography in contemporary Nicaragua”, Bulletin of Latin American Research, 27(4): 444-61.

Rodgers, D., (Forthcoming), “From ‘broder’ to ‘don’: Methodological reflections on longitudinal gang research in Nicaragua, 1996-2014.”

PHS Panel: Michael Young, Néstor Rodríguez, and Sheldon Ekland-Olson on Transitioning Methods

by Luis Romero

One of the most important things graduate students can do while in grad school is to take as many methodology courses as possible. This advice is given to us by our mentors, faculty and older graduate students. Yet no matter how many methods classes you take, it is impossible to master every method – getting one down is difficult enough. While mastering one method lasts some researchers their entire academic lives’, others venture into different types of questions and units of analyses that warrant the use of new methods. What happens, though, when you are out of graduate school and want to change methods? How do you go about this change? Navigating the different assumptions, techniques of data collection and analysis of a new method can be overwhelming. However, it is something that can and has been done. Professors Michael Young, Néstor Rodríguez and Sheldon Ekland-Olson joined the Power, History, and Society Network (PHS) to describe how they transitioned into new methods. Each provides a piece of the puzzle to better understand how sociologists can change methods, even without prior graduate training.

Dr. Michael Young: Keeping Books on the Nightstand

MYoungOf the three panelists, Michael is the most recent to transition to a new method for a project he is currently working on. His training in graduate school was oriented toward the study of old social movements using historical sociology. Specifically, he was trained to map the trajectories of different movements to get at the causal sequence of events (e.g. how the morality and religious schemas of the evangelicals helped to mobilize them during the antebellum era). Michael has recently shifted to studying the DREAMers – a group of immigrant rights’ activists who are concerned with helping undocumented immigrants that were brought to the U.S. as children and attended school in the U.S. However, because the DREAMers and their activities are an ongoing phenomenon, Michael understood that he could not rely solely on his training in historical methods to study this group. Instead, he decided to learn about ethnographic and interviewing methods. This posed a problem for Michael, since studying an active movement followed a different logic than studying something that already had an outcome (and analyzing how and why that outcome came to be). To resolve this dilemma, Michael turned to Professors Javier Auyero and Harel Shapira and asked them both to give him a list of their favorite ethnographies. Once he obtained these lists, Michael read and studied the exemplars of ethnography, keeping these books on his nightstand for easy access so he could read them nightly. Reading these exemplary works, coupled with his interactions with the DREAMers has helped Michael transition from historical sociology to ethnography and given him new insights into the complexity of this new social movement.

Dr. Néstor Rodríguez: An Important Key Lies in Co-authorship

pix_RodriguezNéstor Rodriguez’s transition between methods took a slightly different trajectory than Michael Young’s. Michael’s was a constant transition between historical work, interviews and surveys. Nestor’s graduate work was focused on tracing the trajectory of migration in relation to capitalist growth, combining historical methods with theory building. In his post doctoral research, Néstor began studying Mayans from the Guatemalan Highlands who were migrating to Houston, Texas. It was during this project that Nestor began to incorporate fieldwork into his research. Later on, Néstor also began to use more quantitative methods – surveys and data sets- in order to study deportations. In the past year alone, he has published two articles on El Salvador using surveys, a book (coming in January 2015) that incorporates fieldwork from Guatemala and is a return to his first love of historical sociology.  When asked how he was able to incorporate so many different methods, Néstor stated that an important key could be found in co-authorship. Co-authoring with other researchers that are more adept at various methods allows for the successful incorporation of those methods.  Similar to Michael’s approach, Néstor also recommended that students considering a transition to new methods should read widely in sociology.  That will allow them to become familiar with different sociological methods and their implicit logic.

Dr. Sheldon Ekland-Olson: Delve into Different Projects

Sheldon Ekland-OlsonSheldon Ekland-Olson has done research using various methods throughout his career. His earliest work was heavily quantitative and was among the first to incorporate dummy variables into the research. This was largely influenced by his math background and because he came into graduate school as a student of methods. Sheldon’s first shift occurred during his time in law school, as he finished his dissertation. During his research, he became involved in learning about the rights of those who were institutionalized, which led him to spending time in prisons. It was through this experience that Sheldon began studying Texas Prison Reform, using quantitative methods along with qualitative methods to learn about the lived experiences of the prison inmates. His most recent work on life and death decisions uses historical methods to study the boundaries of social worth when people are faced with different issues such as: abortion, neonatal care, assisted dying and capital punishment. For Sheldon, switching methods was something that was necessitated because he believes that you should let your problem determine the method that you use.  Sheldon’s advice is derived from his own experience: you should delve into different projects and learn new methods by striving to answer different questions.

A Few Warnings about Transitioning Methods from the Panelists

  • While everyone on the panel transitioned after graduate school, picking up a new method is more difficult – “the brain gets old and slow.”
  • Your old training in a method can sometimes be “like a straight jacket” to your new method – it could hinder you since you may be imposing the assumptions of your old training into your new method.
  • Because learning a new method can be difficult and there is a demand on publishing, transitioning methods could undermine your rate of productivity.
  • There may be pressure to stick to the method that has made you known in a field – your colleagues in a field can get caught up in their own methods and may be resistant to your change.
  • On a related point, while multiple methods are seen as a positive, there may be a high cost if you switch methods at any point of your career.
  • However, some subfields are methodologically eclectic, which means there could be opportunities to switch. If you are thinking of switching at any point, be sure to weigh the consequences.

Advancing Meaningful Practices in Higher Education

by Shantel Buggs and Brandon Robinson
DDFirstBiennialLast Friday, we had the opportunity to attend the inaugural biennial conference for the Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center (DDNRC) entitled “Advancing Meaningful Difficult Dialogues Practices in Higher Education: A New Imperative of Democracy?” The mission of the DDNRC is to advance innovative practices in higher education that promote respectful, transformative dialogue on controversial topics and complex social issues, thereby reflecting a commitment to pluralism, academic freedom, and strengthening a democratically engaged society. A central goal of this year’s conference was to propel academic communities to have productive engagements with difficult dialogues.

Dr. Silvia Hurtado, the opening keynote speaker, focused on the following central concern: if we are not the society that we aspire to be, how do we get there? She suggested that while “problems” are complex, we have the capacity to be change agents. However, there are prevailing norms that we must face as educators and members of academic communities: 1) people’s mindsets that they come into college with, 2) traditional notions of teaching and learning, and 3) first-years in college ask fewer questions in the classroom than they did in high school. HurtadoSlide

Hurtado emphasized that we need engaging forms of pedagogy in order to challenge these academic norms and to move students from their own embedded worldviews. One interesting pedagogical approach mentioned by Dr. Silvia Hurtado is for educators to learn that they are not the only authority in the classroom. Students are teachers as well, and peers can be an authority on a topic for one another. However, as educators, we must be good facilitators, which does not mean being neutral. It does mean that we must develop skills of active listening and embrace conflict and different voices in order to make progress. It should be noted, however, that choosing which educators get to de-center themselves as the authority in the classroom is fraught with various forms of privilege. Certain marginalized bodies are often already questioned as having authority, so this pedagogical approach may be difficult or not conducive for certain people’s classrooms. Despite this, new forms of teaching and learning outside of traditional forms of lecturing are needed in order to truly engage in difficult dialogues and to transform the mindsets of students in order to make them better global citizens.

Following the keynote, we broke out into smaller workshop groups in order to have conversations about what distinguishes a “difficult dialogue” program from a one that promotes and/or encourages “respect for difference(s).” Much of the conversation focused on the fact that difficult dialogues are not value-neutral and that it is imperative to push students and educators beyond a notion of “respect as tolerance”, instead aiming toward “real” action and social change. In thinking about what goals should be set for a difficult dialogue and how these goals could be identified or measured, some of the more interesting suggestions involved some directly observable goals (such as the ability to facilitate a dialogue in class or to identify strategies of facilitiation and demonstrate active listening). Others were more business-minded (such as measuring the numbers of department heads, faculty, and campus leadership groups that participate in difficult dialogue training) or philosophical (such as seeing a student develop a better understanding of structural oppression and inequality and/or an awareness of their positionality in the world). These workshops were a great opportunity to learn about the kinds of courses/programs going on at other schools and how they prioritized social justice within them.

DifficultDialogues2The workshop groups prepared us for the interactive theater session that led to an interesting discussion about which classrooms and which professors can actually engage in difficult dialogues. The interactive skit was about four undergraduate students who had witnessed a religious demonstration and saw people praying on campus. They entered a classroom discussing religion, protests, praying, the First Amendment, and other issues that undergraduates are likely to encounter and discuss. However, the classroom was an English course, so when it was time for class to start, the professor tried to shut down the lively debate. The skit ended with the professor telling students that it was his job to teach them about dangling modifiers, and that he did not feel like religious controversies should be discussed in his classroom. This performance raised several important questions: When should professors engage in difficult dialogues with their students? Should these issues only be discussed in certain classroom settings? For example, should religion only be discussed in a religion course, but not in an English course?

During the Q&A following the theater performance, many people felt that the professor had valid concerns about addressing these issues in his classroom. Many professors worry about tenure; engaging in these difficult dialogues could create barriers to their ability to get promoted. Likewise, students may give professors bad evaluations if they begin engaging in difficult dialogues that students perceive to have nothing to do with the topic of the class. As the conversation continued, it became evident that there are structural constraints in place that make it hard for some professors to engage in difficult dialogues in the classroom or in the larger academic community. Based on the reactions of some of those present at the session, these constraints must be addressed before institutions put greater pressure on professors to do the work of trying to “change mindsets.”
Overall, we walked away from Friday’s experience with important questions to consider, some awesome books, and new theoretical lenses through which to assess our roles in the classroom and in the academy. As stated in the keynote, the key to changing mindsets is disequilibrium. Disequilibirium relies upon new and unfamiliar experiences that cause us to abandon routine and encourage active thinking; if we – as sociologists – are committed to learning as a “social act”, we must be committed to creating opportunities for disequilibrium and to developing an “empowered, informed, and responsible learner.”

To learn more about the DDNRC, you can visit http://www.difficultdialoguesuaa.org/ or check out their Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/DifficultDialogues.org. Also see Indigenous Solutions to Intellectual Violence – Stop Talking and Listen.

Shantel Gabrieal Buggs is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology, studying race, gender, sexuality, and popular culture. Her dissertation will explore the online-dating experiences of mixed-race women in Central Texas. Follow her on Twitter at @Future_Dr_Buggs.
Brandon Andrew Robinson is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology. His research interests include sexualities, queer spatialities, and intersectionality. His dissertation will be exploring the lives of LGBTQ homeless youth.

Amanda Stevenson on the Twitter chatter surrounding Texas HB2 and Wendy Davis’ Fillibuster


by Eric Enrique Borja

On September 12th, Amanda Stevenson was kind enough to discuss the work behind her recent paper in Contraception entitled, “Finding the Twitter users who stood with Wendy.” In the paper, Amanda examines Twitter chatter surrounding the Texas omnibus abortion restriction bill (Texas HB2) before, during and after Wendy Davis’ filibuster in summer 2013.  The implications of Amanda’s results and conclusions are eloquently outlined both in the article published in Contraception, and her op-ed piece “Twitter analysis shows not all Texans want abortion rights limited,” which was published in the Houston Chronicle.

In this post I will only briefly go over some of the major takeaways from Amanda’s talk.  I highly encourage you to read Amanda Stevenson’s articles for the full story.

1) “The Citizen’s Filibuster”

Amanda discussed one of the first major events in summer 2013, now referred to as the Citizen’s Filibuster. On June 20th, a special session of the Texas legislature was held. On the agenda was a pair of bills that would ban abortions after 20  weeks of pregnancy, restrict access to medication abortions and require abortion clinics to become ambulatory surgical care centers. In response to the special session abortion-rights groups such as: NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, Planned Parenthood, and the Lilith Fund, quickly organized a “citizen’s filibuster.” TXPepMap

Approximately 700 people were organized in a flash, and the citizen’s filibuster was successful. Amanda showed that social media was important prior to Wendy Davis’ filibuster because it was instrumental in mobilizing people across the state of Texas.

2) Social media provided the primary coverage of Wendy Davis’ Filibuster

If it weren’t for the success of the Citizen’s Filibuster, Wendy Davis would have never had the opportunity to stage her filibuster. And if it were up to mainstream media outlets, the world would have never known what Wendy Davis had accomplished that day. Amanda discussed how mainstream media outlets failed to cover the filibuster. Therefore, social media became the primary source of coverage on Davis’ filibuster – with YouTube providing live streams for the world to see.

3) Social media data is generated through a selection process

Given the protocols that govern Twitter’s API, and the issues of access to technology, the kind of data a researcher pulls from social media is highly selective. Amanda was careful to point out that this does not mean social media data is useless, but that when you are interpreting your results you must be careful with what you think you are explaining. For Amanda, social media data is great at analyzing discussions that occur in social media, but falls short in accurately capturing public opinion. Interpreting social media data is like interpreting any kind of data a sociologist may collect; you have to take into consideration what and how much your data actually captures.

4) Hashtags can be a way to classify opinions


Trying to understand what people are attempting to convey through a tweet is a hard problem to resolve. One way this can be resolved, as illustrated by Amanda’s study, is to categorize tweets thematically using hashtags. For example, the hashtag “#standwithwendy” was a popular hashtag used through Davis’ filibuster. Users typically tag their tweets with hashtags to categorize them.

5) Social location estimates are inconclusive

In general, users do not GPS-enable their tweets. It’s been found that it is primarily younger males in urban areas who do. Therefore, to not further limit her sample, Amanda generated location estimates for users in her sample. Amanda writes, “For each account whose tweets had GPS data, I collected 100 tweets from the Twitter REST API v1.1. For all accounts, I collected location data from user profiles in the form of text strings.” By combining GPS data from GPS-enabled tweets and whatever location data she could garner from geocoded text string, Amanda was able to generate location estimates for more users than if she had solely relied on GPS data.

What impresses me the most about Amanda’s work is that she is careful (both in her talk and her paper) not to overreach in her conclusions.  Moreover, her work is a great example of a project that elegantly employs qualitative and quantitative methodologies, something I aspire to achieve in my own work on social media. We all look forward to seeing more as Amanda’s dissertation develops.

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