Sociology and, of and in Web 2.0

In this 2007 paper David Beer and Roger Burrows suggest that “by the time you get to read this paper in its published form, even in the hypertextual pages of Sociological Research Online, what it describes may well have become part of the cultural mainstream”. Seven years later, the paper certainly seems prescient, even if the eponymous term ‘Web 2.0’ has fallen out of use and the now ubiquitous phrase ‘social media’ fails to feature anywhere in the paper. There are many suggestions they made which can now be seen in much of the work increasingly conducted under the category of ‘digital sociology’:

There are two issues here. First, we need to be inside of the networks, online communities, and collaborative movements to be able to see what is going on and describe it. If we take Facebook for instance, it is not possible to enter into and observe the network without becoming a member, providing an institutional email, entering some personal details and generating a profile. Therefore, in order to get some idea of users and their practices it is necessary to become a ‘wikizen’. The social researcher will need to be immersed, they will need to be participatory, and they will need to ‘get inside’ and make some ‘friends’. We will have to become part of the collaborative cultures of Web 2.0, we will need to build our own profiles, make some flickering friendships, expose our own choices, preferences and views, and make ethical decisions about what we reveal and the information we filter out of these communities and into our findings. Our ability to carry out virtual ethnographies will – by necessity – involve moving from the role of observer to that of participant observer.

4.4 A second issue is that once inside these networks we may explore the possibilities of using Web 2.0 applications, and particularly the interactive potentials of SNS, as research tools or research technologies (this is not necessarily limited to research into Web 2.0, SNS could be used to conduct research on any topic). Interviews and even focus groups could comfortably be conducted through SNS, either privately or in the open. Of course, there are a range of alternatives here. We can imagine the construction of virtual ethnographies accounting for these communities of users and their practices. Perhaps, more significantly, what we have, particularly with SNS, are vast archives on the everyday lives of individuals – a sort of ongoing codification of habitus – their preferences, choices, views, gender, physical attributes, geographical location, background, employment and educational history, photographs of them in different places, with different people and different things. These are open and accessible archives of (what was once thought of as sensitive) information that may be used to develop understandings of these people and to track out communities or networks of friends. These archives could be used to track preferences, connections, personal histories, views, friendships that may be data-mined, mapped, network analysed, discourse analysed and so on. There are possibilities then for tailoring innovative research strategies that take advantage of the interactive potentials of these new media and of the data that they hold.

However I wonder how widely social media has influenced the practice of those teaching sociology? There are certainly examples of using services like twiter and youtube for pedagogical experimentation and innovation. But how widespread are these? Beer and Burrows offer a few suggestions towards the end of their paper:

As a final note, once we have entered into these Web 2.0 applications it may also be worth giving some thought as to how they may be used to teach sociology. We can imagine here students building their own sociologically motivated mashups, collaborating to put together wiki’s on sociological topics, running seminars online through SNS, continuing to use SNS groups and profiles to informally discuss sociology or using folksonomies to tag and collate sociology content online (allowing students to create their own reading lists, or perhaps even using SNS as archived data sources on which to draw for short term research projects and dissertations). Of course, this may already be happening.

Does sociological teaching lag behind sociological research in its embrace of the possibilities which social media affords? Or are those utilising social media in their teaching practice not receiving the recognition they deserve? Are innovations failing to diffuse because they’re lodged within existing departments and networks rather than feeding into a more pervasive shift in our understanding of what it is to learn sociology and how sociology can be taught? Is this a matter of teaching repertoires which needed to be expended to take account of these new possibilities? We’d love to know what you think and are particularly keen to feature any experimental uses of social media in teaching that you’d like to tell our readers about.

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