Sign in or register
for additional privileges

Civic Media Project

adminx, Author

You appear to be using an older verion of Internet Explorer. For the best experience please upgrade your IE version or switch to a another web browser.

38 Degrees

James Dennis

This case study explores 38 Degrees, a political activist movement based in the United Kingdom that has, since its foundation in 2009, amassed a membership of 2.5 million individuals. Through their use of email and social media, 38 Degrees mobilizes its geographically dispersed membership across sedimentary networks: loose affiliations of digitally connected individuals that periodically come together to act across a diverse range of issue campaigns (Chadwick and Dennis 2014). The group has achieved significant policy change, most notably in their campaign to halt the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s plans to sell off public forests in 2011 (Chatterton 2011).

38 Degrees bears little resemblance to the organizational models that scholars in political science have become accustomed to. Unlike political parties or traditional pressure groups, its members play an important role in directing the movement’s day-to-day decision making. Essentially, the organization acts as a conduit for its membership, removing the layers of elite-level decision-making that characterized political groups of the twentieth century.

Members are responsible for a number of decisions made throughout each campaign. During the recent campaign to compel a leading energy provider to pay more tax, members were consulted on whether the movement should launch the campaign, their ideas were sought for potential campaign tactics and, as shown in Figure 1, they were given the final say as to whether or not 38 Degrees should try to organize a mass, “people-powered” switch away from the energy provider to alternative suppliers. By using digital tools that are diffused widely amongst its membership, members are able to express their opinion and set the movement’s priorities very quickly on an unprecedented scale. For those involved, this is a clear and visible way of exerting their influence.

Figure 1: “Npower: 48 Hrs to Vote” (Babbs 2013).

However, it is important to emphasize that 38 Degrees is not an example of “organizing without organizations” (Shirky 2008). The staff, based in the organization’s central London office, performs a gatekeeping role and have an enhanced level of influence over the design and selection of campaign actions. Yet, equally, this is not an elite-dominated hierarchy masquerading as being member-driven. The movement relies on the central office to assimilate the priorities of its members and then offer repertoires of engagement. As such, the movement’s overall direction is decided by its membership. Paolo Gerbaudo (2012) describes this as “soft leadership”; the staff organizes and structures campaigns whilst minimizing their encroachment on the will of each individual member.

Karpf (2012) proposes to consider this as characteristic of a new type of organization. These new organizations challenge our traditional conceptions of collective action, as they are structurally fluid. 38 Degrees—like GetUp! in Australia (Vromen and Coleman 2014) and MoveOn in the United States—is an example of a “hybrid mobilization movement,” using the internet to adapt and transform its organizational structure and repertoire of actions during campaigns in real-time (Chadwick 2007, 283). 38 Degrees lacks the bureaucratic structures that make rapid structural change difficult for traditional organizations. By virtue of its structural fluidity and through constant monitoring of members’ attitudes, the organisation is able to strategically adapt and respond to current events, riding the groundswell of enthusiasm and interest that surrounds current affairs (Chadwick 2013, 193). It is this responsivity, coupled with the organization’s fluid structure, which is central to the cultivation of a sense of proximity for the membership, a vital characteristic given its diffuse and networked structure.

A critique frequently leveled at 38 Degrees is that its campaigns amount to little more than clicktivism, low-threshold forms of political engagement online that are perceived to have an insignificant effect on political outcomes (Rickett  2013). It is important to note that the repertoire of actions used by 38 Degrees is not limited to e-petitions or hashtag activism. The organization employs a range of online and real-space engagement repertoires that vary depending on the campaign aims. In the recent campaign to stop the passage of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, otherwise known as the “gagging law” members were initially tasked with sending an email to Chloe Smith MP, the minister responsible for the bill. The intensity of member participation increased as the campaign progressed, culminating in a rally outside the Houses of Parliament (see Figure 2). 

Figure 2: Activists protesting against the “gagging law.”

When examined in isolation, examples of so-called clicktivism may seem trivial. However, these low-threshold digital acts form an important part of an architecture of participation in which the interdependency between different acts sheds light on the normative value of one’s democratic engagement 

(Chadwick and Dennis 2014). For example, in the campaign to pressure a clothes manufacturer to pay compensation to the affected families of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, the first action launched was an e-petition—a common practice for most 38 Degrees campaigns. By collating email addresses through an online petition, the central office are able to mobilize a network of engaged members, some of whom will then take part in further activism; in this case a series of localized protests at the company’s stores (Torabi 2014). 

It is true that the actions designed by the central office often require small amounts of effort, or more precisely time; they are designed with this in mind. By making campaign actions granular, the organization lowers the barrier of entry to political participation. Past studies have highlighted that the democratic benefits accrued through use of the internet tend to be skewed in favor of affluent, well-educated, and politically informed citizens (Brundidge and Rice 2009; Mossberger, Tolbert and Stansbury 2003). However, 38 Degrees try to buck these trends by enabling non-activists to take action in spheres traditionally controlled by political professionals.

When considering the time pressure that individuals experience on a daily basis, the granularity of digital engagement represents an important means of maintaining awareness—keeping a toe in the water so to speak—sometimes sparking further involvement at opportune moments. These moments tend to revolve around personal context. The membership of 38 Degrees is not tied into one fixed ideology, but instead individuals pick and choose the issue campaigns to which they relate. Individually expressive frames displace more traditional, collective action frames, in what Bennett and Segerberg (2013) describe as “personal action frames.” Political participation is therefore self-motivating, as political acts are akin to personal expression.

What is most striking about the movement is its organizational ethos, “People. Power. Change.” Individual empowerment is at the heart of the movement. In line with those who argue that citizenship is increasingly personally-defined rather than institutionally-derived, and that engagement is focused around issues of importance to the individual rather than coherent ideologies (Dalton 2008; Pattie, Seyd and Whiteley 2004, 275), the successes of 38 Degrees comes down to how the organization maximizes the membership's sense of efficacy; the feeling that each individual member has, or can have, an impact. The movement offers what people want from their political participation—influence and tangible efficacy, rather than rigid ideological platforms and unresponsive hierarchies.


Babbs, David. 2013. "NPOWER: 48 HRS TO VOTE." 38 Degrees. Last Modified May 14, 2013. Accessed May 25, 2013.

Bennett, W. Lance, and Alexandra Segerberg. 2013. The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Brundidge, Jennifer, and Ronald E. Rice. 2009. "Do the information rich get richer and the like-minded get more similar?" In Routledge Handbook of Internet Politics, edited by Andrew Chadwick and Philip N. Howard, 144-157. London: Routledge.

Chadwick, Andrew. 2007. "Digital Network Repertoires and Organizational Hybridity." Political Communication 24 (3): 283-301.

Chadwick, Andrew. 2013. The Hybrid Media System: Politics and Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chadwick, Andrew, and James Dennis. 2014. “’People. Power. Change.’: 38 Degrees and Democratic Engagement in the Hybrid Media System.” Paper presented at the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C., August 27–31.

Chatterton, Jonny. 2011. "Victory! Government to Scrap Plans to Sell Our Forests." 38 Degrees. Last Modified February 17, 2011. Accessed February 28, 2013.

Dalton, Russell J. 2008. Citizens Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies. 5th ed. Washington DC: CQ Press.

Gerbaudo, Paolo. 2012. Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Action. London: Pluto Press.

Karpf, David. 2012. The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mossberger, Karen, Caroline J. Tolbert, and Mary Stansbury. 2003. Virtual Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Pattie, Charles, Patrick Seyd, and Paul F. Whiteley. 2004. Citizenship in Britain: Values, Participation and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rickett, Oscar. 2013. "Want to change the world? It won't happen via your mouse button." The Guardian, November 22.

Shirky, Clay. 2008. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. London: Allen Lane.

Torabi, Ali. 2014. “MATALAN: DAY OF ACTION.” 38 Degrees. Last Modified August 4, 2014. Accessed August 10, 2014.

Vromen, Ariadne, and William Coleman. 2013. "Online Campaigning Organizations and Storytelling Strategies: GetUp! in Australia." Policy and Internet 5 (1): 76-100.

Comment on this page

Discussion of "38 Degrees"

Add your voice to this discussion.

Checking your signed in status ...

Related:  Social Media Use and Political Activism in Turkey: 140journos, the Post of Others, and Vote and BeyondPop-Up Newsroom: “We Are Where You Are”#aufschrei – The Role of Twitter for Feminist Activism and as a Platform for Alternative PublicsStrike Debt and the Rolling Jubilee: Building a Debt Resistance MovementFort Vancouver Mobile ProjectBlogging for Truth: Ai Weiwei’s Citizen Investigation Project on China’s 2008 Sichuan EarthquakeThe #WalkMyWorld ProjectCitizenship and Digital Mobilization in BrazilCitizen journalism and Civic Inclusion: Access DorsetBinders Full of Election Memes: Participatory Culture invades the 2012 U.S. ElectionThe 2013 Protests in BrazilInternet Parties: The Internet as Party, Policy, Platform, & Persuasive SymbolismThe Se Non Ora Quando Social Movement in ItalyMeu RioIran, the U.S., and Online DiplomacyDesigning PolicyTwitter Use and Negative Campaigning: A Case Study from the World’s Largest ElectionAn #EpicFail #FTW: Considering the Discursive Changes And Civic Engagement of #MyNYPDBecoming Civic: Fracking, Air Pollution and Environmental Sensing TechnologiesExploring Net Neutrality with Mozilla WebmakerGalas: Mobilizing and Managing Volunteer Humanitarian Efforts Online During Euromaidan Protests in UkraineBetter Reykjavik: Open Municipal PolicymakingThe 2013 Gezi Park Protest and #resistgeziImplication of social media on electoral participation in IndiaAnother Promise’s Digital Civic Network and SamsungGuerrilla Research Tactics: Alternative Research Methods in Urban EnvironmentsThe #YoSoy132 Movement in A Case of Online-to-Offline ActivismMobilizing Collective Urban Actions through MicroActsThe Community Media Drupal ProjectKony 2012: Using Technology for EmpathyHacking Politics: Civic Struggles to Politicize TechnologiesThe Tilburg Public Library KnowledgecloudMashnotesMídiaNINJA and the Rise of Citizen Journalism in BrazilIdle No More in Canada: Dissent, Resonance, and a Middle GroundThe Human Rights Campaign Facebook LogoDIY Citizenship in the “New Northern Ireland”: the Case of a Belfast MakerspaceCityBeat: A Social Media Data Visualization Platform for JournalistsWebsite to Weibo: Activating the Local Communication Network and Civic Engagement in a Diverse CityThe ‘Solutionistic’ Logic of the National Day of Civic HackingRegulationRoomCuban Blogosphere: an Scenario for Political Debate and Dissent“Bury Until They Change Their Ways”: The Digg Patriots And/As User-Generated Censorship“More Than A Quota”: Youth-Led Creative Arts and Advocacy About the Stop & Frisk PolicyPadres y Jovenes Unidos: Student Empowerment through Critical Media LiteracyIt Gets Better ProjectMissing Intentionality: the Limitations of Social Media Analysis for Participatory Urban DesignFrom #destroythejoint to far reaching digital activism: Feminist revitalisation stemming from social media and reaching beyondIdle No More by Liz (beta)Room to Tell: Designing Affectively Engaging Civic Opportunities with New Media for Adolescents Hospitalized with Cystic FibrosisCommunity Radio as Civic Media: The case of Radio al-Balad 92.4FM in Amman, JordanUnited Colors of Dissent Digital Empowerment AcademyPriorities and pathways for civic caucusing: The Michigan Student CaucusMarriage equality, Facebook profiles pictures, and civic participationHarrasment and Karen Klein: A Case StudyHorizontal Networking and the Music of Idle No MoreConnecting Across Oceans Over AirPivot: Surreptitious Communications Design for Victims of Human TraffickingUkranian Crowdmapping of the '12 ElectionsThe Civic Cloud: A Public Access Model and the InternetNewsActivist: Using globally networked writing to facilitate cross-campus dialogue and engagement