Blog 2- Research and Reflections

I’m currently in the process of writing the conclusions of my research and decided to take a break to reflect on the trials and tribulations of my research process.

I originally set out to answer the question, “what role did digital media play in the collective action protests during the Arab Spring of 2011?” To answer this question, I tried to systematically review the series of events in four countries with different political outcomes in a comparative analysis. These were Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain. I knew from the beginning that there were coinciding factors contributing to the revolutions in these countries and wanted to see how they meshed with the role of digital media. Little did I realize, this is nearly impossible to accurately do with the data available.

It is not difficult to see what factors played a role in each of these countries’ revolutions, but how influential these factors are is hard to determine. I read multiple independent accounts of the events in my countries of interest along with macro accounts of the major variables in the Arab Spring. While these accounts were informative and useful for my research, they did not provide clear casual relationships of factors like social media, income inequality, population densities, youthfulness of populations, online civil society presence, and rentier states with the resulting outcomes of the revolutions. Perhaps this information will be available in the years to come, but for now it’s been hard to fine.

In my position, it is hard to determine these roles myself. I’ve had little training in econometrics and data analysis that could help me to create regressions and plots to show the trends and relationships between these factors. Not to mention doing these type of analysis would probably take up more time than I have to work on this project. Therefore, I’m limited to providing an accurate description of the events in each country and analyzing which variables were present in some countries and not others. Then I have to compare those variables with the success or failure of the revolutions they contributed to. This is frustrating to me because it is not a very precise measurement of what really influenced regime change in the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, I’ve developed a picture that provides some insight into what happened and what variables shaped the series of events in each country, which I can compare in a descriptive analysis.

To summarize, most people in the Arab world were upset with rising unemployment, income inequality, oppressive and corrupt regimes, and simply wanted a means to express their political views through civil society. I have found that social media and digital media helped to form networks of actors with these common grievances before and during the revolutions, organize protests by providing times and locations for people to meet, and disseminate information about the revolutions so that protests could spread both nationally and internationally.  Other factors inhibited the role of social media, such as regimes with very oppressive internet regulation and monitoring who could arrest bloggers and shut down critical sites. Furthermore, rentier states were better able to appease their populations with welfare checks, international support, and minor political concessions. Countries without significant rent wealth had more trouble appeasing their populations without regime change.  These are just a few of the variables that influenced how successful revolutions were.

For the future, I would like to learn more about research techniques that can help me to better analyze data, and better data sources to analyze besides secondhand accounts. I’ve learned that time and effort are necessary in any good research project, and the two weeks we had limited me to studying a small fraction of the plethora of data available. Nevertheless, it was a learning experience and I’ve certainly improved my research, writing, and critical thinking skills in trying to answer my questions about the Arab Spring. In a few days, I’ll post a more detailed account of my conclusions and the findings of I’ve discovered.


  1. I can empathize with this problem– as an intern at a Behavioral Genetics lab last year, I learned that one of the major struggles that scientists, too, deal with is attempting to determine the relative importance of various inputs. In our lab, this was most often environmental versus genetic factors. One technique that the epidemiologist that I worked with used often was twin studies– since identical twins have the same genetic factors, it can more or less be assumed that differences between them are due to environmental factors (and epigenetics, but that complicates matters). I don’t know the specifics of the variables you studied, but would it be possible to do a similar mathematical analysis? Through her and our work, though, I learned exactly how complex it can be to isolate causal factors. She taught me that it’s much easier to determine a correlation. It seems that you had few quantitative accounts to work with, but the thought strikes me– would you perhaps be able to use the four varying case studies to analyze which of the six or so factors you mentioned is most closely correlated with particular revolution outcomes?