An Invitation to Digital Public Sociology? Some initial thoughts

What does ‘public sociology’ entail in a world of facebook, twitter, youtube, slideshare, soundcloud, pinterest and wordpress? What affordances and constraints do these tools entail for the task of “taking knowledge back to those from whom it came, making public issues out of private troubles, and thus regenerating sociology’s moral fibre”? What implications do these tools have for the relationship between the public and private in the occupational biographies of individual sociologists and, through aggregation and collective organisation, the discipline as a whole? There’s an interesting passage in Burawoy’s 2004 ASA Presidential Address which I managed to miss the first time I read it:

The original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world, that drew so many of us to sociology, is channeled into the pursuit of academic credentials. Progress becomes a battery of disciplinary techniques—standardized courses, validated reading lists, bureaucratic ranking intensive examinations, literature reviews, tailored dissertations, refereed publications, the all-mighty CV, the job search, the tenure file, and then policing one’s colleagues and successors to make sure we all march in step. Still, despite the normalizing pressures of careers, the originating moral impetus is rarely vanquished, the sociological spirit cannot be extinguished so easily.

It’s in this sense that I think digitalisation within and beyond the academy has to be seen as integral to public sociology in the contemporary climate. It is reshaping what is ‘public’ and ‘private’ in complex ways, some positive but many not, conditioning the propensity of sociologists towards ‘public sociology’ but also the institutional context in which certain forms of activity are recognized and others ignored. It also complicates Burawoy’s distinction between ‘organic’ and ‘traditional’ public sociology:

Public sociology brings sociology into a conversation with publics, understood as people who are themselves involved in conversation. It entails, therefore, a double conversation. Obvious candidates are W. E. B. Du Bois (1903), The Souls of Black Folk, Gunnar Myrdal (1994), An American Dilemma, David Riesman (1950), The Lonely Crowd, and Robert Bellah et al. (1985), Habits of the Heart. What do all these books have in common? They are written by sociologists, they are read beyond the academy, and they become the vehicle of a public discussion about the nature of U.S. society—the nature of its values, the gap between its promise and its reality, its malaise, its tendencies. In the same genre of what I call traditional public sociologywe can locate sociologists who write in the opinion pages of our national newspapers where they comment on matters of public importance.

There is, however, another type of public sociology—organic public sociology in which the sociologist works in close connection with a visible, thick, active, local and often counterpublic. The bulk of public sociology is indeed of an organic kind—sociologists working with a labor movement, neighborhood associations, communities of faith, immigrant rights groups, human rights organizations. Between the organic public sociologist and a public is a dialogue, a process of mutual education. The recognition of public sociology must extend to the organic kind which often remains invisible, private, and is often considered to be apart from our professional lives. The project of such public sociologies is to make visible the invisible, to make the private public, to validate these organic connections as part of our sociological life. [my emphasis above]

Digitalisation disrupts ‘traditional public sociology’ because it fragments the media field in a way which renders a  broadcasting model of public intellectualism untenable while also creating many new opportunities for narrowcasted public intellectualism of various sorts. It also disrupts ‘organic public sociology’ because it engenders a tendency towards an increasing awareness of the ‘private’ activity of others within the academy (e.g. you follow someone on Twitter and you’re much more likely to find out about the activism they’re involved in) and it’s also changing the organisational dynamics of the publics with whom one is working in an organic way. My claim is that if we take Burawoy’s call to develop a ‘sociology of publics’ seriously then it’s impossible to ignore the important role digitalisation is playing in reshaping the processes through which publics come to be constituted. Though we should of course resist naive tech-boosterism which would seek to reduce the constitution of publics to digital communications.

Another aspect of Burawoy’s address which I managed to miss last time I read it was his emphasis on sociology students as a public:

There is one public that will not disappear before we do—our students. Every year we create approximately 25,000 new BAs, who have majored in sociology. What does it mean to think of them as a potential public? It surely does not mean we should treat them as empty vessels into which we pour our mature wine, nor blank slates upon which we inscribe our profound knowledge. Rather we must think of them as carriers of a rich lived experience that we elaborate into a deeper self-understanding of the historical and social contexts that have made them who they are. With the aid of our grand traditions of sociology, we turn their private troubles into public issues. We do this by engaging their lives not suspending them; starting from where they are, not from where we are. Education becomes a series of dialogues on the  terrain of sociology that we foster —a dialogue between ourselves and students, between students and their own experiences, among students themselves, and finally a dialogue of students with publics beyond the university. Service learning is the prototype: as they learn students become ambassadors of sociology to the wider world just as they bring back to the classroom their engagement with diverse publics. As teachers we are all potentially public sociologists.

This is an idea I’ve had in mind with for some time: what role can social media play in facilitating an active engagement with sociology outside the confines of the university? One thing which irritates me about the Open Access debate is the persistent tendency to overestimate both the degree of external interest in gaining access to academic journals and the likely ramifications of people doing so. I think there’s often an entirely unrealistic view of how many people would, could or should read academic papers which is coupled with a distressingly common view that an increasing circulation of expert knowledge will inevitably lead to the amelioration of social problems. It’s underpinned by a potent mix of bad sociology (what Margaret Archer would describe as ‘social hydraulics’) and professional hubris. Instead I think engaging outside the academy has to be seen in more quotidian terms which, at least in my own mind, lend themselves easily to a dichotomy: seeing the amelioration of social problems through the communication of sociological knowledge in an agential way (i.e. working with others to deploy this knowledge in collective action rather than simply ‘making public’ and assuming that’s enough) and attempting to communicate sociological knowledge in a much broader and open-ended way to simply to facilitate engagement by those who are interested or might become so if circumstances lead them to encounter it. The importance of seeing sociology students as a public encompasses both categories but the latter, such as can be achieved through blogging and podcasting for a wider audience, seems obviously numerically larger to me.

Another aspect of ‘digital public sociology’ (I really dislike this phrase but I dislike it less than ‘digital engagement’ which I’ve tended to use for the last year) that seems important to me is the collective negotiation of what Dave Beer calls the politics of circulation:

What I would like to suggest is that this blog post, like other social media content, will be subject to the politics of circulation that defines contemporary media. The data that is produced as a by-product of contemporary cultural life does not just stop when it is produced, rather data fold-back into our everyday lives in variegated and often unseen ways. Similarly the destiny of this blog post will be shaped by the material infrastructures that it has been placed within. In this sense, academic knowledge is being opened up to social media’s politics of circulation. As such, these transformations in the communication of research are likely to have profound implications for the way that we encounter and discover knowledge. All of which will then, in turn, implicate the knowledge that we go on to produce. There is the potential then for social media’s politics of circulation to influence both the communication andproduction of knowledge.

Using social media to communicate academic knowledge is not a problem in itself, it actually opens up vast new possibilities, but it forces us to ask what will happen as more and more researchers use social media and other open-access outlets for their work. How will we cope with the din? And, most importantly, who will get heard? If we don’t understand the politics of data circulations that define contemporary media cultures then we may also find that academic practice is reshaped without sufficient reflection and reaction. Social media is likely to lead to uneven patterns of influence, amplification, visibility and, to borrow the discourse of contemporary web cultures, Klout. It is important that we are alert to this, particularly as social media come to define the circulation of our ideas

It is becoming increasingly apparent that various academic disciplines, right across the spectrum of the social sciences and humanities, are trying quite hard to develop a more public profile. These struggles take many forms, as do the drivers and pressures that instigate them. Some are based upon governmental imperatives for research ‘impact’ – which is actually shorthand for having measurable impact (Burrows, 2012). Others are a result of cultural changes and the general feeling that public engagement is worthwhile. Alongside these, there are also some broader transformations in the media landscape that mean that researchers are forced to ask: what is stopping me from having a public face?


The outcomes and findings of social research have always circulated back into the social world in variegated and often untraceable forms (Savage, 2010). But the changing media through which research is being communicated opens this research up to a new range of possibilities for circulation and re-appropriation. If it gets any attention, it will be commented upon and rated (or ‘liked’) and, crucially, it will be re-appropriated through sharing, re-tweeting, re-blogging and as sections of the content (particularly visualizations) are cut-and-pasted into other posts for use by other ‘authors’.

It’s in this sense that I think digital skills can be understood in terms of the extension of academic agency. I did wonder recently if I’ve misunderstood Dave’s point about the ‘politics of circulation’ having only read a couple of short papers and blog posts but not yet read his book. However at least in how I understand the concept, as conveyed in the extracts above, the question of how socio-technical structures shape the circulation of sociological knowledge seems unavoidably intertwined with the more ‘traditional’ question of how social structures more broadly shape this circulation. So at least in my own mind seemingly narrow and technical issues pertaining to the capacity of sociologists to use digital tools effectively are unavoidably entangled with larger political questions concerning the marketization of higher education, the assault on the public university and the restructuring of the broader knowledge system within which academics as intellectual workers are embedded. This is brilliantly diagnosed by Tom Medvetz in one of my favourite books I’ve read in the last couple of years:

While social scientists with little left to prove in the academy can afford to reinvest their academic capital in pulibc debate – and often do – rank-and-file scholars have little incentive to follow this route […] the growth of think tanks over the past forty years has played a pivotal role in undermining the relevance of autonomously produced social scientific knowledge in the United States by fortifying a system of social relations that relegates its producers to the margins of public debate. To the degree that think tanks arrogate for themselves a central role in the policy-making process, they effectively limit the range of options available to more autonomous intellectuals, or those less willing to tailor their work to the demands of moneyed sponsors and politicians […] The rise of think tanks must therefore be set analytically against the backdrop of a series of processes that have contributed to the growing subordination of knowledge to political and economic demand – including the reassertion of control over the economy by holders of economic capital, the development of specialised forms of political expertise, the growth of the mass media as a conduit for the imposition of market forces into politics, the corportization of the university, and the withdrawal of the state from the financing of public education. The question posed acutely by the rise of think tanks in America concerns the social value of social scientific knowledge itself: Put simply, should money and political power direct ideas, or should ideas direct themselves?

Tom Medvetz, Think Tanks In America 225-226

But think tanks tend not to be very good at social media (a claim I should probably substantiate at some point given that I keep coming out with it) whereas academics often do turn out to be very good at social media once they acquire a familiarity with its ecology. So the politics of digital literacy (crap term – any suggestions for a better one would be much appreciated!) could be seen as simultaneously inwards and outwards facing – negotiating the politics of circulation within the academy increasingly goes hand-in-hand with negotiating it outside the academy. This is because the distinction between ‘within’ and ‘without’ becomes, at least in terms of digital communications, a solely analytic one and arguably not even a coherent one at that and is perhaps a zombie category.

Categories: Digital Sociology

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3 replies »

  1. Great article.

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