Emergent Norms in Corona Protests?

A Digital Political Ethnography

The measures taken by state and local authorities to curb Covid-19 infections in German-speaking areas have sparked public protests. In Germany, just a few weeks after an initial nationwide lockdown in March 2020, numerous people demonstrated against the decisions made. In the course of protest events, there was a broader mobilization of diverse groups of people, whose interaction was understood as a movement not only by those involved, but also by political and (social) scientific observers. It brought together artists and intellectuals who count themselves on the left, entrepreneurs and the self-employed, naturopaths and esotericists, as well as avowed right-wingers. The composition defied common political classifications. At the same time, the question arose as to how the participants came together and “worked” on a more or less shared understanding of their situation, state and communal action, and the social situation.

This is where the research project comes in. It treats the observed mobilizations, which continue to this day, as a political phenomenon, and understands them as a sociohistorically specific form of “contentious politics” (Charles Tilly). In particular, the research project asks how shared imaginaries – and especially critiques of pandemic response measures – form, reproduce, transform, or even (re)dissolve in the events themselves (with Ralph H. Turner and Lewis M. Killian, we can speak of “emergent norms”). These events do not only consist of the classic protest repertoires of the so-called New Social Movements since the 1970s, such as demonstrations in the streets or campaigns, but also of a multi-voiced and multi-layered communication via social media, which cannot be reduced to the expression of protest.

In order to approach these events, the research design is that of a digital political ethnography. In this context, “digital” does not mean limiting the research to social media formats, but rather asking about the relevance and function that virtual communication media has for movement events. This research project is primarily reconstructive, examining selected virtual and physical sites where participants encounter each other. A central guiding question serves this purpose: How do the participants “work” with and against each other on shared imaginary worlds (up to norms)?

The research’s primary assumption is that the performativity of content contributions is a central key to the study of emergent imaginative worlds. Against this background, the research focus is on four aspects

(1) How is the social interaction of the participants concretely shaped?

(2) What understandings of themselves, other participants, state action, and social situations do they present to themselves and others?

(3) In what (communicative) ways are they connected to previous social and political milieus, groups and organizations, and where can we recognize new connections?

(4) How are virtual communication formats and physical encounters connected in the context of rallies?

The research is a cooperative project between Helmut-Schmidt-University/University of the Federal Armed Forces Hamburg (Chair of Sociology with a focus on social analysis and social change) and the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, with the involvement of the archive there: In addition to the content-related epistemological interests, it acts as a pilot for the digital archiving of materials and traces of the protest.

Funding agency:

Volkswagen Foundation (under the funding line “Corona Crisis and Beyond”).

Funding period:

July 2021 to December 2022


Leslie Gauditz (HSU – project management)

Thomas Hoebel (HIS – co-lead)

Svenja Kunze (HIS Archive)

Teresa Koloma Beck (HSU – co-lead)


Letzte Änderung: 15. December 2021