Sociology of … outer space?

I started this post as a one-sentence note about a future field called “sociology of space”. The idea came while I was reading this BBC article on some of the problems encountered the crew of a spaceship going to Mars. The article touches on important sociological issues – sleep, social interaction in a small total institution, sex – but in a new context. This made me think whether the case of (currently very small) communities and societies of people travelling in outer space actually merit a whole new subfield. Perhaps not yet, but eventually yes, i though. I imagined the not-so-distant future of sociology and its inevitable expansion into new – literally – territories. Okay, not quite literally, because in latin, terra means earth, and I was thinking of extra-terrestial sociology. This would be a sociology beyond globalisation.

Now, a sub-field related to both sociology and social geography, called “sociology of space“, already exists, so we would need another term. So I set out to do a rudimentary literature review to see if anyone at all had published anything about a sociological approach to outer space.

But lo and behold, a hasty online search for literature revealed that some work in this direction already exists – albeit still on the outskirts of sociology. Note to self: the first example you find in an internet or physical library search is not always the most important.

My first find was the Journal of Astropolitics and the name of Jim Pass who in 2006 published an article on Astrosociology as the missing perspective. Two years earlier, Pass had defined astrosociology”, or “sociology of outer space” as a new field dealing with ‘the scientific study of astrosocial phenomena, or social and cultural patterns related to outer space. A debate ensued about whether to add a new Astrosociology section to the Americal Sociological Association (ASA). In his 2006 article The Astrosociology of Space Colonies: Or the Social Construction of Societies in SpacePass claims to be making ‘the first formal astrosociological effort’ to discuss future societies in outer space. Further attempts to legitimise this subfield include a special issue of the same journal in 2011 (See introduction by Hearsey and Pass) in the same journal and a 2011 paper by Pass, Hearsey and Caroti. Pass has presented his thoughts in several conferences and published linked from his website, astrosociology.org. Whilst it is undoubtedly wrong to judge a book by its covers (or a website by its graphics), other subtle signs such as the constant reminder of the author’s credentials, text titles such as “Inaugural essay”, the overabundance of the “all rights reserved” phrase do raise the reader’s suspicion as to whether importance is placed on the content, or indeed on securing a potential trademark.

An anthology called “The Astrosociological imagination” has been published by Stephanie Lynne Thorburn.  (I’m not so keen on the use of classical sociology references in the titles such as “Invitation to astrosociology” and “Astrosociological imagination”, but I wouldn’t mind, if there were more behind the titles).

Pass’ work has been criticised mainly informally in the blogosphere both for his approach, and for the name he uses for the new subfield. One short comment paper by James Ormrod deserves special mention, because it offers a more plausible framing of the problem. While Ormrod embraces the idea that space needs to be studied sociologically, he criticises Pass for taking an overly simplistic approach to this topic, as well as of blowing the idea out of proportion. He makes an argument for a ‘critical sociology of the universe’, rather than simply defining a new subfield by its physical location.  Ormrod gives as a reference a book he wrote with Dickens called A sociology of outer space. (Routledge). If it really was forthcoming in 2005, it either hasn’t come forth yet, or Google hasn’t indexed it yet in 2013.

Young sociologists who don’t have a field of your own, are you taking notes? Sociology of outer space is currently a small, empty, quiet and rather messy space. This might change. In fact, it has to change, because outer space – imagined and real – has an important role in social life. But perhaps we need to write some pretty good stuff about it, before stitching a pithy name on what is currently a non-existing discipline.


Categories: Rethinking The World, The Idle Ethnographer

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4 replies »

  1. An interesting piece. But too limited and narrow at the time being.

    • Thanks for reading! Yes, it began as an idea on the spur of the moment and then I realised that there already exists some work on the question of sociology of outer space. Fascinating and totally out of my field, so the post turned out lacking depth. Is your work connected to this area? We would love to post a contribution.

  2. Current sociological subfields can indeed cover what we consider astrosociological issues, but they tend to do so as individuals not attached to a specific community with an interest in space and society, and we have moved on to a multidisciplinary orientation. Finally, astrosociology is just a field, which I founded to create a coherent literature and body of knowledge. Space has always been influential in cultures since the creation of ancient societies. For those who want more good theory and research institute this area, we invite you to contribute. Our nonprofit organization is dedicated to building this field that covers space issues from a social-scientific perspective; an area traditionally scoffed at by sociologists, as I have learned from personal experience. The exceptions to the rule remain inadequate, which we endeavor to remedy, including inspiring students to help us develop the field.

  3. Neil Brennan’s ideas about extended urbanization also involve the extension of urban influence into outer space. I think his talk might be up on the rc21 conference website.

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