Does Sociology still have a demand problem?

Mark Carrigan asks, after an essay by Wolfgang Streeck, why there is so little sociology in public discourse? Streeck argues that there might be a demand problem, since although there are numerous sociologists plying their trade, we still seldom see sociology talked about (or acted upon) in public.

Mark specifically frames the question a bit differently:

 “Why is sociology absent in public debates … why do sociologists have so little confidence in their work that they talk about it only to each other, rather than to the world at large?”

I want to briefly give an anecdotal account why I think it might no longer be true that there is little demand for sociology. Also, I like to think that increasingly sociologists are taking up roles as public intellectuals.

Firstly, I am not a sociologist. Originally trained as a lawyer, and with an MA in Hypermedia (Say what?), I run a small social media agency in London called RAAK. Yet, I have been trying to learn bits and bobs of social science, and sociology in particular over time.

Why? Well, much of what has happened online in the last twenty years is of such nature that it begs proper explanation. From Wikipedia to AirNnB, from Twitter to SnapChat, humans are behaving in ways few predicted. If media is being democratised, we need to understand individuals, society and publics much better to understand media itself.

There are numerous questions to answer. Why do people share stuff? To what extent does identity matter online? How does information spread from person to person, and why and how does something go viral? What about privacy in this brave new world, and what of its flip-side, flourishing?

Much of the literature on the Internet and new media has sought to fill this gap. From the quasi-utopian writing of Jeff Jarvis, to the more nuanced work of Clay Shirky, I gobbled it up. A lot this work dabbles in social science light. Quite often one is left with more questions than answers.

It has been the far more substantial works of the likes of Manuel Castells that provided a better framework for much of my thinking. So slowly I drifted to reading and following more social science.

I am not alone in this endeavor. I have noticed over time how the discipline of social media (which encompasses a wide range of disciplines: research, marketing, product development, customer service) has veered to the social sciences looking for answers.

Brian Solis, a popular social media guru, has been popularizing the interest in sociology with blog posts like Social media is about sociology and not technology. Much if his writing on the topic is simplistic and instrumental (not to mention muddled), see for example his piece in Techcrunch (arguably the world’s largest Technology news website) on how Klout measures Social Capital and not Influence.

But the quest by him and much of the industry for answers in social science is very real. When Facebook first published the average number of friends on Facebook a couple of years back, it was remarkably similar to Dunbar’s number of 150, and people sat up and took notice. When sociologists explained the difference between relationships on Facebook and Twitter and their respective ability to transmit useful information based on research into the difference between strong and weak (Or bridging) ties, it rang true. When numerous sociological studies showed that people that used social media a lot were also more social offline, the public and industry felt vindicated.

And not all the whole lunge for sociology is purely instrumental without any consideration to what should be. For example – Yammer, a company (now bought by Microsoft) that provides social networking software for use inside companies and organisations, touts its platform as a way for companies to escape stifling hierarchies.

One of my own current fascinations is social network analysis. This is of course a sub discipline of sociology that has drawn heavily on both network theory and physics. Not only does it help me understand how information travels through social networks, but concepts like preferential attachment has helped us build better tools for surfacing the most interesting content on Twitter. How so? It has helped us grasp how networks form hierarchies that can be divorced of merit. Thus we realised simply building tools counting numbers of retweets or likes as signals often give you unsatisfactory indication as to the quality of content.

Through primarily Twitter, I have also noticed several sociologists putting their work in public of late. Here is a far from exhaustive list: Zeynep Tufekci’s tweets and writing on social media and social movements; Nathan Jurgenson’s Cyberology blog and Theorising the Web conference (which I attended); danah boyd, who has written extensively on youth sociality online; Gabriella Coleman, who has put herself out there as an expert on hacker culture.

I made a Twitter list of people talking about media, tech and society, and many of them are indeed sociologists. You can view it here.

– Wessel van Rensburg (@wildebees)

Categories: Committing Sociology

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