Neo-structuralism and social media in higher education

One of my aims for the next year is to familiarise myself with Emmanuel Lazaga’s neo-structural sociology, which combines organisational sociology with multilevel network analysis in a conceptually rich and empirically powerful fusion. My work on social media for academics originally focused on the individual as a locus of reflexive practice, with my initial interest in digital scholarship (first edition of the book) being replaced by a slightly gloomier focus on academic labour (second edition of the book). This led me to want to understand how the use of social media by academics leads to changes in the structure of academic networks, as well as how this intersects with the recognition and evaluation of this activity within institutions.

My initial instinct was to approach this in terms of stratification, in the sense of the new forms of ranking which social platforms introduce into academic life. There was a clearly observable empirical trend underlying this, with quantified popularity within the attention economy of Twitter* facilitating a form of academic capital which could to at least some extent be converted into more traditional markers of reputation e.g. receiving speaking invitations or being pitched for book projects by publishers. The extent to which this quantified popularity could contingently be associated with outcomes which universities valorised (viz the capacity to plausibly claim societal impacts for social research) led to an indirect institutional approval of online visibility, in spite of the conservative dismissal it was still capable of provoking.

But there was also a more micro-sociological phenomenon in which forms of recognition emerged which built upon existing institutions of academic celebrity, in the sense of expanding the ranks of celebrities as well as the form embodied by it. As Goffman once observed, being famous is a matter of being known by far more people than you, which can manifest within a sector in ways which reflect its internal dynamics. The rise of academic micro-celebrities created the impression that social media was democratising higher education because these figures were far less likely to be the white men who dominated the legacy hierarchies. But they also changed the way academic celebrity more broadly reproduced and legitimated itself, creating a situation in which only the most globe trotting superstar professor could reliably ignore digital platforms without being at some risk of their star waning.

I refer to Twitter in the definition above because my instinct is that its normalisation within British higher education of the 2010s represented a specific phase in the institutionalisation of social media. If I’m correct that the assembly of academics on Twitter is now dispersing (sometimes in visible way but more often in the simple fact of declining engagement) then this will have an impact on the dynamics I identify above. What happens to the convertibility of online popularity into academic capital when there are multiple competing sites on which that popularity can be accrued? What happens to the accumulated popularity of microcelebrities when the platform lacks the engagement necessary to keep the attention economy running in its once and former glory? What does the uncertainty about the post-Twitter landscape of higher education (in the sense of beyond Twitter rather than the death of Twitter, to use a helpful distinction from Colin Crouch) means for how institutions recognise and reward online activity? There are lots of empirical questions opening up in the current landscape which need a more robust conceptual grounding than is currently present in the literature, at least if we are to avoid the trap of abstract empiricism which fails to see the wood for the trees.

This is why the focus of Lazega’s work on inter-organisational and intra-organisational collective action is so interesting to me. His work on what he calls ‘multilevel relational infrastructures’ identifies patterns such as ‘vertical lynchpins’ (“present and active on at least two levels of collective action – tuning collective action at one level with action at another level”) and ‘multilevel social niches’ (“subsets of ‘pairs’ of individuals/groups or individuals/organizations that occupy a common position in the division of work of at least two strata of collective agency”). All these quotes are from pg 3 of his Bureaucracy, Collegiality and Social Change, unless otherwise indicated. His writing is dense and I’m reading it more slowly than anything I have read for a while.

Take vertical lynchpins such as those who are “recognized as central individuals at the level of individual networks and as directors of their laboratory when the latter is a central organisation in the interorganizational network of laboratories involved in scientific research in a given field”. The affordances of social media facilitate the emergence of vertical lynchpins by giving means through which this interorganisational role can be more easily and effectively played, as well as the incentive to do so through the influence which can be accrued by playing this role in a visible fashion through the platform. I’d like to understand how the visibility of online networks, in principle to all parties, influences network dynamics; as well as how the partiality of its visibility influences network imaginaries i.e. is it imagined that Twitter conversations reveal the full contours of the network even if they don’t embody it? Patrick Dunleavy’s notion of digital hermits is interesting to consider in light of this.

I found multilevel social niches a more difficult concept to grasp. But if I understand correctly it’s when individuals in competing organisations nonetheless collaborate because doing so facilitates the circulation of resources which would otherwise be fatally limited. This is the perfect lens through which to study the role of social media in facilitating research collaboration which, I argue in a short article coming soon, tends to be overlooked in favour of a focus on downstream quantifiable outputs. I’m increasingly convinced this role of social media in facilitating intellectual communities is much more practically significant than the influence social media can have on knowledge-exchange and research impact, though there’s no inherent reason why the two need to be seen in opposition.

Finally I’m interested in Lazega’s account of digitalization as “framing personalized relationships in the language of impersonal interactions and by parameterizing social processes in collegial settings, thus attempting to en utralize its many forms of oppositional solidarity and steer its innovative capacity” (pg 4). At the root of my interest in social media from the outset was the intuition it could make a significant contribution to oppositional solidarity, with my gloomy turn since then reflecting my increasing understanding of all the ways it fails to do this. What I would like to understand now is the conditions under which remains possible and what action we can take to defend those conditions and help them grow.

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