When institutionalized behaviours create obstacles to democratic debate: analyzing the silence in Brazilian environmental-education virtual communities

Hercheui, M.D. 2009. When institutionalized behaviours create obstacles to democratic debate: analyzing the silence in Brazilian environmental-education virtual communities. in: Ljungberg, J. and Grundén, K. (ed.) Proceedings of the 3rd European Conference on Information Management and Evaluation, University of Gothenburg, Sweden on 17-18 September 2009 Academic Conferences. pp. 214-221

Chapter titleWhen institutionalized behaviours create obstacles to democratic debate: analyzing the silence in Brazilian environmental-education virtual communities
AuthorsHercheui, M.D.
EditorsLjungberg, J. and Grundén, K.
Abstract

The emergence of virtual communities has opened many opportunities for a more participatory democratic debate, but this potential has not necessarily been explored in all online collectives. This research – based on an empirical study on Brazilian environmental-education virtual communities – explores the reasons why members may prefer to keep silent in debates that are supposed to foster democratic participation through online interactions. Drawing upon institutional theory, this research explores how authority and power systems may constrain the freedom of expression in virtual communities in such a way that more institutionalised perspectives are reproduced by social actors in the online environment. Community members reveal the fear of challenging participants with legitimate knowledge, such as academic professionals, and questioning mainstream perspectives on the theme of environmental education. The study also gives details about the relevance of mechanisms that reinforce the legitimacy of institutionalised perspectives, and mechanisms that punish deviant behaviour such as the expression of challenging standpoints. Indeed, respondents point out that the practice of strongly criticising members (flaming), ostracising dissident voices and even expelling participants who do not agree with mainstream perspectives, are mechanisms for fostering silence in the communities. In addition, leaders have other subtle procedures to set the agenda of debate for the whole community – including the private organisation of peers to demonstrate a coordinated support to their common ideas in the public space – as a way of avoiding the emergence of challenging propositions. Even the fact that alternative perspectives are simply ignored by the community creates reasons for frustration and silence as members understand the debate is not actually open. The study concludes on the relevance of considering the institutional environment to understand the social structures that emerge from virtual communities, and of reflecting on the limits of virtual communities as spaces for a more participatory democratic debate in specific contexts.

Book titleProceedings of the 3rd European Conference on Information Management and Evaluation, University of Gothenburg, Sweden on 17-18 September 2009
Page range214-221
Year2009
PublisherAcademic Conferences
Publication dates
Published2009
ISBN9781906638443

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