About Elizabeth Brunner, Ph.D.: Elizabeth Brunner is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Philosophy at Utah State University and a Research Associate for the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies and the University of Copenhagen. Dr. Brunner’s academic and applied work focuses on environmental issues and activism. Her research explores digital rhetoric and social movements with a focus on environmental activism in the context of contemporary China, while her applied work has helped to advance environmental solutions for a variety of nonprofits.
Dr. Brunner is author of the book Environmental Activism, Social Media, and Protest in China: Becoming Activists Over Wild Public Networks. Her publications on rhetoric, social movements, and digital media have appeared in leading journals like Communication and Critical / Cultural Studies, Critical Studies in Media Communication, and Journal of Communication, as well as in several collected volumes, most recently The Rhetoric of Social Movements: Networks, Power, and New Media. Prior to joining the faculty at Utah State, Dr. Brunner was Assistant Professor at Idaho State University, where she received the Outstanding Researcher Award. In 2019, she received an East Idaho Women of Influence Award for her contributions to Media and Communication.
Dr. Brunner was a Fellow at the Communication University of China through the National Communication Association’s Visiting Fellows Program. She received her Ph.D. in Communication from The University of Utah, her M.A. in Communication from the University of Colorado Denver, and a Dual MFA in Painting & Art History from Ohio University, where she also received her B.A. in English Literature.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in communication and come to work as a professor alongside your role at Idaho National Laboratory, which is affiliated with the United States Department of Energy?
[Dr. Elizabeth Brunner] I sometimes think of myself as an academic mutt because my degrees are spread across several different majors. I started off with a Bachelor’s degree in English literature, and then I went directly into a Master’s in Fine Arts program, where I ended up doing a dual degree in painting and art history. After that, I left academia because I felt like I was too young to teach — that I did not have the experience I needed to help elucidate the material that I was teaching.
I had grandiose dreams upon graduating, but 9/11 happened, the market crashed, and art jobs were scarce, so I ended up taking a job as a nanny. I have lots of great stories from that experience. Next, I moved on to work as an education specialist at the Franklin Park Conservatory. Then I moved to Chicago and worked for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I started off as a temporary employee and worked my way up to become a project manager and event planner in the President’s Office.
I met a lot of really wonderful and talented people there and also went through a series of life events that made me ask, “What do I want to do with my life?” I said to myself, “I’ve always wanted to go back and get a Ph.D. I have some varied work experience and collected some stories, so it’s time to move on to the Ph.D.” Still, I decided I needed another Master’s first. I needed to get my feet wet again. It had been seven years since I had written anything longer than an email.
I went back to get an M.A. in Communication at the University of Colorado Denver. I worked full-time while I did that for the Colorado Center for Community Development and then for the Colorado Trust, whose mission was to secure access to healthcare for all Coloradans. I ended up teaching for the University of Colorado Denver. Then I was accepted to The University of Utah and received a Ph.D. there.
After graduating, I started working at Idaho State University, but I was let go during the pandemic, so I went back to nonacademic work. This was a difficult transition. Being an academic had been my lifelong dream and I was nervous about transitioning back into nonprofit work. But I stopped and thought…a lot. I remembered that at my very first faculty meeting at Idaho State University, they did an ice breaker, and the question they asked was, “If you could do anything else outside of what you’re doing right now for a job, what would it be?” I said I would work for an environmental nonprofit in China.
If I could not study activism, I might as well do it and help create change. I could not go to China due to pandemic restrictions, so I moved to California where I worked for the South Yuba River Citizens League, a nonprofit that engaged in forest, meadow, and river restoration. Eventually I began feeling a little homesick for the Idaho/Utah area, so I came back to the area and took a job with Idaho National Lab. Then, I was offered my current visiting position at Utah State University, which I accepted.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How did you come to research the contact points between environmental communication, media studies, rhetoric, and social activism, particularly as they pertain to Chinese politics?
[Dr. Elizabeth Brunner] When I was doing my master’s in Denver, I had applied to Ph.D. programs and gotten in, and I did not need to complete that master’s because I already had an MFA. I was three credit hours shy of graduating, and Lisa Keränen, who was Director of Graduate Studies at the time, said, “Hey, Betsy, if you go to China for three weeks you can get those three credit hours and complete your master’s degree.”
I had absolutely no interest in going to China, but she said, “Betsy, you should go. It will change your life.” I thought she was exaggerating. Then I went to China, and it changed my life. I had gotten into the University of Utah to study gender and media. Then I went to China, and my world was rocked, and I knew I had to go back there.
At the University of Utah, I met Kevin DeLuca, who became my advisor. I talked to him about wanting to research China and he was supportive, so I began by studying Western perceptions of China. After spending more time there, I became interested in studying environmental activism.
I jumped in head first. I said, “Alright. I’m going to learn the language, I’m going to go meet people, I’m going to network, I’m going to figure out what’s going on. I’m going to study every single part that I can.” Once you start studying the environment and environmental activism, it brings you to social media, because that’s how people are becoming activists. Everything just came together.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you tell us more about the origins of your critical interest in Chinese environmental movements and your experience conducting international fieldwork? How does your research in this context bring together insights from your fieldwork with examinations of digital social networks?
[Dr. Elizabeth Brunner] I started studying Chinese environmental movements around 2012. This was five years after the very first large-scale environmental protest in China that utilized social media. That lasted for almost a decade, so I basically entered this movement midstream. At the time in China, awareness of environmental issues was rising and social media was just starting to be widely adopted. All these different Chinese social media platforms were popping up. So, when I started studying the environment, I almost had to study activism. Then when you study activism, you have to study social media.
Of course, it was pretty complicated to do field work in China. For one, I started off with zero language skills. I did not even really know how to say, “Where’s the bathroom?” Learning Chinese is not like learning another Latin-based language. I took courses during the semesters, and then every summer I went over to China for immersive language studies that I was able to fund with fellowships. I think it probably took me a year and a half or two years to get to the point where I could conduct an interview, but I always brought a native speaker along with me to help fill in cultural context I might have been missing.
The other really difficult part about what I was doing was studying activism in a country where protest was illegal and had really significant consequences. If you were caught in a protest, not only could you be jailed or lose your job, but your actions could also impact your family. The government might say, “We know that your son protested, you can’t work for the government anymore,” or deny promotions to family members.
I had to be incredibly careful about how I contacted, chatted with, and met with activists. I created this really elaborate practice to safeguard my interviewees. I never contacted them directly. I always worked through other people. I never left any trace on social media. At the same time, I found that many people were willing to sacrifice their safety and be seen talking to somebody like me. I’m white, so I’m clearly not Chinese. I stuck out like a sore thumb in some places in China. The people that I was talking to were willing to talk to me because they wanted their story to be told. They wanted to make a difference and that was so compelling to me. It increased my dedication to publish my research.
I was very careful to respect the situation of my contacts and in navigating cultural differences. The key to that for me was just being incredibly open and trying to put myself into new perspectives. Rather than asking, “Why did they do it like this?” or saying, “That’s different than the way that we do it in the US,” I wanted to understand their perspective as completely as possible and, by doing that, understand how people are persuaded to become activists.
Censorship was another major issue. People would send me things like news articles, memes, or pictures of protests, and if I did not check my social media often and download immediately, they would disappear from my feed. This creates a challenge for gathering information. As soon as the protest occurs you have to gather as much as possible before it all disappears.
A final lesson I learned that informed my research is that people in China acknowledge, pretty explicitly, the role of guānxi, or social relationships. In the United States, we acknowledge their importance, but often in a way that is negative as in the case of nepotism. We say, “Relationships shouldn’t get you X, Y or Z.” It is like the American dream; hard work and talent are what should bring you success.
This is contradicted by most of the research on these issues. In sociology, for instance, they have found that people end up in White Nationalist groups often through a close contact or a friend. It is not just through an advertisement for white nationalism. Content is important, persuasive messages are important, but if we are going to look at how people are moved to act — if we are going to study activism and the movement of the social — then we have to foreground relationships and not overemphasize content.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In several of your publications, for example “Activism in the Wake of the Events of China and Social Media: Abandoning the Domesticated Rituals of Democracy to Explore the Dangers of Wild Public Screens,” coauthored with Kevin DeLuca, you discuss contemporary China as an “event” that, together with social media, changed the parameters of democracy and activism. Could you introduce some of the key challenges or transformations that contemporary Chinese politics introduces to traditional Western understandings of politics, including activism, the public sphere, and democracy?
[Dr. Elizabeth Brunner] I have to give Kevin [DeLuca] credit for the concept of the “event.” He is the one that introduced that term, and it became an important tool or launching point for our collaborative writing. China, if we look at it really closely, challenges Western understandings of activism. In the Western imagination China is often conceptualized as a place of oppression and censorship. We think about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. We know about and frequently make fun of Chinese censorship. We know that it is an authoritarian government.
Some people might know about what is happening in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs are being persecuted, detained and killed, or in Hong Kong where people are resisting China’s incursion. But, generally speaking, our perception of China is not multifaceted. It is simplistic and flat. I realized in the course of my research that my initial reluctance to go to China was based on this reductive, Western understanding of China as a terrible place. As a result of this bias, Western academics were not really looking at China in 2011. If we do not look at China, then there is lots we do not see. I distinctly remember that a paper Kevin and I had co-authored was rejected from a journal, and one of the pieces of feedback that we got was, “How could you possibly suggest we look at China as an example of what we could do?” when we posed that we could learn from their activist practices.
I point out this Western exceptionalism, not to insult the reviewer, but to show its actual, tangible impacts. When we conceptualize China in a singularly negative way, we do not want to pay attention to it or learn from it.
With that in mind, when I started looking at China I was blown away. I saw protests erupt with sometimes nearly immediate impacts. In 2007 in Xiamen, protestors opposed the construction of a PX plant [para-xylene, an industrial chemical], and within 48 hours the government put a hold on construction. These protests ended up forcing officials to conduct research, to follow the rules in place, and they ended up relocating the plant.
People protested the Keystone XL pipeline for close to a decade before anything happened. I was seeing these little pockets of democracy erupt in China that were powerful. It made me wonder why these protests were working so much better there. There are lots of reasons, but one is that protest in China is full of risk. If you protest, you are not just going to jail for 24-hours and then released without future impacts on you. If you protest in China, you can end up in jail, you can end up brutally beaten.
This can also happen in the United States, and we have seen it happen, especially to minoritized groups, who are disproportionately faced with violence. The implications are frequently far-reaching in China. You can lose your job, there can be repercussions for your family — your children, your parents, your spouse. Just for sharing something online or helping to spread rumors, you can be jailed. There is tons of risk. Yet, 10,000 people will show up in the street to create change. The fact these protests have a really big impact changes our ideas of what protests can look like.
China really brought to the fore Foucault’s insight that censorship does not create silence, it creates discursive explosions. We like to talk about censorship as creating silences, and this creates the misperception that the Chinese people just shut up and abide by the dictates of censorship. This is totally wrong. It creates discursive explosions. If something is censored, they come up with a different way to say it or represent it: they turn to images or they turn to GIFs. This makes it very evident that our common understanding of censorship is flawed.
Chinese activism also makes it really clear that social change is motivated by affect [relational, often emotional, structures of feeling], in many cases, not reason. One of the papers that I am working on right now explores the role of rumors in protests. Obviously now in the United States, we understand that rumors motivate all kinds of behavior with the proliferation of conspiracy theories. Social change is not being motivated by good reason. It is being motivated by these affective appeals. Affective appeals travel really wildly through all of these social networks. The fact that we are so connected right now gives them the ability to move so quickly. We need to focus on these connections and the different forces that are moving things across these connections.
[MastersinCommunications.com] A key thread in your research, including the article we just discussed, has been developing the concept of “wild public networks.” This is, for example, a focal point of your book, Environmental Activism, Social Media, and Protest in China: Becoming Activists Over Wild Public Networks, and a concept you apply in your recent article, “#MeToo as Networked Collective: Examining Consciousness-Raising on Wild Public Networks.” Would you introduce us to the idea of the “wild public network” and what this helps us capture about the nature of contemporary digital activism?
[Dr. Elizabeth Brunner] Wild public networks are in many ways intended to replace the concept of the public sphere and encourage attention to connections between and among humans and non-human objects. Wild public networks move us away from the ideal public sphere — of rational in-person discussions conducted by men gathered in a coffee shop where they make the best decisions — and move us instead to understand how affect moves people, moves across networks, moves among mobile devices, and forges new relationships that then activate people to protest in the street and demand change.
If I am studying rhetoric and how people are moved to do something, for example, I need to look at networks and incorporate that connection to the device and digital platforms. When I am studying environmentalist movements, many of the people are protesting so passionately because they have lived there for generations. That is the only thing that they know. They have connections to the land. If I am going to study rhetoric, I need to study connections between humans, non-humans, and non-human objects. Wild public networks allow for that.
Wild networks also allow us to think about multidirectional movements. The original title of my book was Becoming Activists, because wild public networks also allow you to become an activist and participate in a movement for a moment, then come back out of it, perhaps as a changed person. The idea of wild public networks really recognizes that the idea that progress is linear is totally flawed. We know that, so let us talk about movements in a more networked fashion. We also know that change is constant, but we just need different ways of understanding social movements from the commonplace, “There was the Civil Rights Movement, then everything was better,” “There was the Women’s Movement, and then things got better.” If we map it, that is not the way things look, as is obvious today as we witness Black Lives Matter protests and #MeToo movements. Wild public networks push us to reconceive how the social moves.
Using wild public networks to look at the #MeToo movement also allowed me to home in on the importance of affect. Wild public networks emphasize not just looking at rational appeals but also affective movements [movements organized around emotional, social, or cultural relations to politics, as opposed to rational relationships to political discourse]. This focus on affect is particularly important because images tend to be much better at advancing affective arguments than rational arguments. We live in a world of images: of GIFs, movies, and short little video clips. We have to understand that is what moves people to act.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there key commonalities or salient differences you would highlight from your research between how Chinese environmental activists negotiate the wilderness of public networks when compared to digital activism in the United States?
[Dr. Elizabeth Brunner] There are definitely differences and similarities between digital social networks in the United States and China. China’s social networks are way bigger than ours. There are just under a billion people on some form of social media in China, and the entire U.S. population is about 350,000,000. When you have more people and more social media users, it creates a different landscape.
Their platforms are also really different and more complex than ours. WeChat is essentially all of your apps in one, and you do everything on it. You can pay your utility bill, you can file for divorce, you can send somebody money for the Chinese New Year, you can split your dinner bill, you can tell your grandma you love her. You can do all of that on one app.
Because everything congregates on this single app, it makes it almost impossible to live without it. The last time that I went to China in 2019, there were places where I could not use cash, I could only use WeChat to pay. They moved from a cash to a cashless society really quickly. Because you had to use WeChat or Alipay to pay for things, these platforms were enlisting more users and keeping people on them all the time. When I was leaving, they were trying to put your Government ID on the phone.
Engagement on devices is so essential to day-to-day life in China, and this entails an intensified form of connectivity. It also presents unique risks. The laws are always changing, but you can get jailed for things that you post, or have your posts subject to censorship. So, it is definitely full of risk. Risk is also a factor in the United States, though it looks slightly different. In the case of #MeToo, and something that is also true for U.S. movements like Black Lives Matter, there is risk involved with posting. There is risk involved in using the hashtag #MeToo. You are afraid that people might perceive you differently. I was uncomfortable posting #MeToo when I posted it and I am pretty passionate about these issues. I worried about what my brothers would think, and whether people would ask me follow-up questions.
We also have social media platforms, but I feel like we are pretty divided between Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and TikTok. Social life and activism occur across a greater number of different platforms. A key thing that is the same, however, is that activism takes place on what I call, as we have been discussing, “wild public networks.” The #MeToo movement would have never been possible without the networks that made it so easily shareable. It was a great example of people that were able to become activists and participate in a movement without having to self-identify as an activist.
There is recent research that states that people are relatively reluctant to identify as activists unless it is their full-time job. If we allow people different ways to become activists and to move in and out of that space of activism, then it allows for greater public participation and engagement and overall movements.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Alongside your appointment at Utah State, you currently work with the nonprofit group Battelle Energy Alliance, which is subcontracted with the Department of Energy. Would you tell us a little bit about this organization and the work you do with this organization?
[Elizabeth Brunner] Battelle Energy Alliance is a nonprofit organization funded by the Department of Energy. They help manage Idaho National Laboratory, whose mission is to discover, demonstrate and secure innovative nuclear energy solutions, other clean energy options and critical infrastructure. I work for Idaho National Labs as their Net-Zero Business Development & Financial Strategist. The Net-Zero program aims to move the lab closer to net zero carbon emissions by 2031.
The idea is that, if we can demonstrate clean energy solutions, we can offer a path for others across the region, the nation, and the world to decarbonize. It is super exciting to be part of something that makes a difference. When I go into work there, I am doing everything from writing grants, to engaging with researchers to apply the solutions they develop, to helping businesses and universities create a plan for their net-zero goals
At Utah State University I teach students, and I see lightbulbs turn on, and I see people’s worlds expand. They start seeing the world through different lenses, and it is incredible. It is one of the most fulfilling things that you can do. At Idaho National Lab, I work with the best non-academic team that I have ever worked with. I watch them work so hard to help advocate for energy solutions that have the potential of creating international change. They are very different things, but what both have in common is that I am working really hard to foster change.
In my teaching, I work to encourage students to become more civically engaged. I do not tell them what to think, but I want to educate them about issues and teach them how to analyze images and understand how organizations work. I am really trying to foster civically engaged humans. At Idaho National Lab, I get to use my skills and talents in a directed way toward creating the meaningful, tangible change that I write about. It is amazing. I feel really spoiled that I have the opportunity to do both right now.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in rhetoric, environmental communication, and social movements who are interested in pursuing a graduate degree in communication, or for current graduate students considering alternative academic jobs?
[Dr. Elizabeth Brunner] We all come to academia for different reasons but I think many of us, especially today, are really looking to help motivate change. Rhetoric is the study of how people are moved to act. I want to understand it, and I also want to do it. Academia is incredible, and it is a great place to be, but there are so many ways to change the world and to get involved in that movement. Taking a job in science communication, getting involved in science writing, or doing strategic consultation for any cause that you are interested in is so rewarding, especially when you work with a really great team.
I think that as jobs in academia become more scarce as student populations decline, more people will be attracted to this type of work. Even those people who do want to become professors, especially if they do their bachelor’s straight through to their Ph.D., can get burned out. Even if you want to come back to academia later, working outside of it can be valuable. All of the years that I spent outside of academia deeply inform how I teach, and I think they make me a much better teacher. Even if you want to just take a couple years out, you can get back into academia.
That being said, if you are in a non-academic job, it is hard to juggle 40 hours a week and try to write papers on weekends, but there are ways to stay connected. One of the organizations that I am involved with is called Research 4 Impact (R4i). Research 4 Impact tries to connect academics and practitioners. Academia has developed so that you need a deep understanding of the literature to pick up an academic article today and read it and get it. We have a lot of jargon, we have a lot of big words, we have a lot of theories that most people who do not get PhDs are not introduced to. In some cases, I am watching academia start to drift away from practice to the point where the articles we write are becoming really difficult to access.
Research 4 Impact is meant to create that bridge between academics and practitioners. For practitioners, sometimes this just means a 20-minute phone call with an academic who can explain the literature about an issue that they are interested in. It also allows researchers to get involved with practitioners. For example, the researcher and organization might co-create a study where they share data. It has the benefit of getting academics access to real-world applications and gives practitioners the benefit of having access to academic ideas without having to do all of the scholarly work.
It is this beautiful way to move us back towards each other. Research 4 Impact tries to bring us together and, for me, has been a way to think about how to make the complex ideas of my research meaningful — when I am trying to construct an argument for investment in clean energy technologies, for example.
I went to The University of Utah, which is a Research One [R1] University. When I entered the program there was an implicit assumption that you would just graduate and become a professor at a high-ranking institution. We did not really realize it at the time, but the subtext was that taking a job outside of academia was forsaking your education. I think that the skills that we learn in graduate school can definitely be applicable to other areas, and that we can use our research to make an important impact. I believe we can also still stay committed to a life of the mind.
My advice would be, do not be afraid to pursue other options. If you are not finding support, talk to someone like me or someone else that has gone elsewhere after academia to see what that world is like. There is another resource called Post-Ac [Post-Academic, or a group of Ph.D.s who are both in and out of academia], which you can use to figure out what people are doing with their degrees. There is no shame in not using your Ph.D. to be a professor. There are so many other things that we can do to create meaningful change.
Thank you, Dr. Brunner, for sharing your insights on the digital rhetoric of social movements, environmental activism in China, alternative academic career paths, and more!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.