Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The public purchase of sociological stories, part II: Internet edition

Back in October, I wrote a piece lamenting the seeming inability of sociology to make its disciplinary perspective compelling to the general public. At the time, I was writing about evolutionary psychology's dominance in popular press stories about gender, but the issue has popped up in another area recently, one that's near and dear to my own research. That's right folks, I'm talking about the Internet.

The number of pop science/business/cultural studies books that have come out on the subject of the Internet in the past few years has been staggering. Off the top of my head, we've got Nick Carr's The Shallows, Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus, Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation, Evengy Morozov's The Net Delusion, Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget, Johnathan Zittrain's The Future of the Internet; and How to Stop It, Don Tapscott's Grown Up Digital, Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants, and John Palfrey & Urs Gasser's Born Digital. Now, some of these books are better than others, and the perspectives they offer tell valuable stories about the way the Internet is changing human life. But if you look at the authors listed, not a single one of them is a (working) sociologist. There are business consultants, psychologists, veterans of Silicon Valley utopianism, computer scientists, law professors, and journalists. But there's not a single sociologist up there.

This is not to say that there isn't some great internet research out there being done by sociologists. There is. But this hasn't translated into sociologists being asked to give TED talks on the future of social interaction online, and it hasn't led to the social/cultural studies section of your local bookstore being flooded with crossover books by academics who are investing in doing a more public sociology. The last time I saw a sociologist (actually two sociologists) cited in a tech-oriented article in the New Yorker, it was in a Malcolm Gladwell penned piece on social media and revolutions, and they were social movements scholar Doug McAdams, and network theorist Mark Granovetter. Not to begrudge the usefulness of either scholar's work in understanding social change sparked by social media, but I've never seen a sociologist cited when "the Internet is bad for your social life" comes up for the millionth time.

On the subject of online interaction, we're once again dropping the public sociology ball. By evacuating the public forum when it comes to the Internet, we've leaving the field to neuro-psychologists who want to talk about "re-wiring the brain" and business people who want to know how better to promote their brand on Twitter. We've got law professors writing books not only on the response of the legal system to the problems posed by the Internet (of which there are many), but also publishing on the subject of what online communication means for social life. What we don't have is a proliferation of solid, meaningful interpretive research on social life on the Internet. I don't know if this is because, as a discipline, we still prefer to treat text as artifact, rather than action, or because we can't find a way to talk about online activity that doesn't have major offline consequences in a way that makes it seem important.

Whatever the problem is, we should get over it, and quick. The internet has played a defining role in the social lives of millions for almost two decades. I got Facebook when it was first made available to Canadian university students, in 2005; my younger cousins got Facebook when they were eight. And from the time I was thirteen until today, I've watched online communities blossom and wither, morph into offline organizations or maintain their virtual character. I've seen entire communities pick up and switch mediums when the Usenet infrastructure got too outdated. I've seen people get excited about blogs and about Second Life, about Facebook and Twitter, and about forums that allow threaded comments. But I don't see a lot of solid sociological research on any of these things, with perhaps the exception paid to the Internet by network sociologists (and we all know how I feel about the dominance of that particular methodology).

We need new and better sociological concepts to deal with the contexts of virtuality. We need a new approach to text, one that treats it as something other than an inert data resource. We need a new approach to space and place, one that allows us to talk about these things without reference to geographic clustering. We need to rethink our privileging of face-to-face relationships in our research, and of methodologies that embed and perpetuate that privileging. But mostly, we need to stop talking about what people do online as though it isn't real. Human beings spend hours of their lives interacting with cultural artifacts, bureaucratic institutions, entertainment and news media, economic and health information, and yes, even each other online. Just because they do it on a computer instead of in the public square doesn't make it any less real or any less meaningful. The sooner sociology takes that seriously, the better. Because otherwise, we'll be letting slip the opportunity to expand the boundaries of our discipline in a way that is not only relevant to the ASA come conference time, but also to the public at large all the time. To reach for that most common of sociological cliches, C. Wright Mills, in The Sociological Imagination, argues that the task and promise of sociology is to allow us to grasp the relation of history and biography in society. If we relegate online life to the realm of biography alone and thus abandon it to psychologists and business journalists, we are missing out on the opportunity to contribute knowledge in an area where we are uniquely qualified to speak: that of human social interaction and meaning-making. Personally, I'd like to hear what we have to say.


mtz said...

All very true. Though it could just be an institutional thing. Most people who were 18 (or younger) when Mosaic was released are only just now, I would argue, finding tenure-track positions (or not, as the case may be).

I might just be proving your point, but have you read any of Peter Ludlow's stuff?

Sarah said...

Sorry for the late reply!

I think it is certainly both a demographic & an institutional thing. But it also seems to be something that's embedded in the disciplinary boundary maintenance that goes on in sociology. We don't make a lot of space for social activities/settings/scenarios that take place outside of traditional sociological areas of interest -- the sidewalk, the voluntary association, the classroom, or the neighborhood. Qualitative sociology, at this point in time seems particularly attached to the geographically stable, although this could just be a perception that I have from working in my own specific department.

I haven't read any of Ludlow's stuff. Any recommendations?

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