Notes for The Practice of Public Sociology
It can seem obvious that there’s some relationship between social media and public sociology. After all, these are platforms which offer free, instantaneous and immediate access to audiences ranging from the tens of millions to the billions. However unpacking the relationship between social media and public sociology requires we be careful about exactly what we see social media as allowing us to do. Social media platforms allow us to publish in a way that bypasses traditional intermediaries. It facilitates new forms of multimedia engagement. It allows us to do this with an immediacy which couldn’t be further removed from the time-consuming process of traditional scholarly publishing.
However this isn’t necessarily doing public sociology. Communicating sociological ideas doesn’t entail that anyone hear or responds to them. We can publish work without necessarily making it public. Being clear about the sense in which we’re trying to do public sociology is crucial if we’re going to take advantages of the opportunities it offers us. In our current climate, universities are expecting academics to embrace social media to indicate their capacity for impact, creating a risk that we embrace these platforms without any clear purpose in mind. Without serious thought, there’s a real possibility that, as Bourdieu once put it, we confuse “verbal sparring at conferences for ‘interventions’ in the affairs of the polis”.
An obvious question then: for what sort of purposes might we use social media as public sociologists?
- As an extension of traditional public sociology: using social media to try and enter into public conversations, increase the influence of sociological ideas and ensuring sociological findings are prominent within public debates. I paraphrased John Holmwood’s keynote at the BSA a few years ago as advocating that we “occupy debate and make inequality matter”. This has traditionally been through writing books for a wider audience, opinion columns in newspapers and making appearances on national media. Social media can support this activity by making sociologists more easily discoverable by journalists and producers. It’s also extending the range of online outlets, with newspapers and magazines having large digital sections and new online-only publications opening up which specialise in academic content. But it creates new opportunities for narrow-casting rather than broadcasting, connecting with specific audiences who might previously have been marginalised within mainstream media. For this reason, writing for specialised blogs and engaging with niche social media forums can be an effective form of traditional public sociology if the publics you want to engage with are pre-constituted and specific.
- As an extension of organic public sociology: working in a scholar-activist capacity with groups, organisations, campaigns and movements. Social media offers new ways of identifying and beginning to engage with groups, it offers new ways of supporting groups (albeit ones that might often blur into the category of traditional public sociology) and it offers new ways of making this activity visible within the academy in a way that might draw others into their remit. Social media is changing how such groups can come together, particularly in their initial stages, by offering new opportunities and challenges for assembling similarly-concerned people in time and space. But the very fact of these changes also transforms the relationality of how digital public sociologists engage with them over time. Though we should of course be wary of overstating the point, with the risk that we license a lapse into slacktavism.
There are important new challenges public sociologists face in both cases. Traditional public sociology may be easier than ever but it creates the problem of being heard above the noise. How do we ensure that our attempted interventions have an effect? Existing academic platforms like The Conversation, The Sociological Review, Discover Society and the LSE Blogs serve a purpose here by pre-assembling a public and mediating engagements with them. It can be difficult to assemble your own audience, unless you invest a lot of time and energy in regularly engaging on social media, have a pre-existing reputation to leverage or are seeking to communicate with a very specialised public. Learning about platforms like these helps you identify which, if any, seem right for your purposes. They all offer clear guidelines about how to submit material and are edited by people who are used to working with academics in this capacity.
Organic public sociology may be more visible but with this too comes hazards. When it is informed by our own research, the gap between researcher and researched narrows precipitously. For instance, my own experience of researching asexuality was that I very readily got drawn into doing media and campaigning work as an ally. But this also meant that many people in the asexual community were reading and engaging with material I was sharing online, as well as sometimes criticising it. In one case, this was a really informative critique that changed my mind on a specific issue. In another, it was a quote taken out of context which got circulated widely on Tumblr. These are examples of new challenges which we’re not trained for and we need to consider carefully
There’s a risk that the style of communication we’ve all been traded in proves utterly ineffective for digital public sociology. One of my favourite passages by C Wright Mills concerns the tendency of academics to “slip so readily into unintelligibility”. An “elaborate vocabulary” and “involved manner of speaking and writing” become props for a professional self-image which defines itself, in part, through the inaccessibility of the work being produced. If that work is now accessible then it holds this writing up to scrutiny. It may seem absurd, it may provoke offence but it’s perhaps much more likely to simply fail to gain any purchase and leave us talking amongst ourselves.
We also need to be careful about the climate within which we’re trying to do digital public sociology because it’s so dominated by a competitive individualism in which people are seeking to win attention for their work. The problem is that winning attention for your work doesn’t take place in a vacuum. As the digital anthropologist Melissa Gregg puts it, “even uniqueness starts to sound the same when everyone is trying to perform”. If everyone is seeking to build an audience and stand out from the crowd then the challenge of achieving these aims spirals ever upwards, excluding ever more people from the process in gendered and classed ways while this subordination is masked by the powerful rhetoric of openness.
To give one example of trend, George Veletsianos found in a study of educational tweeters that “the top 1 percent of scholars have an average follower base nearly 700 times that of scholars in the bottom 50 percent and nearly 100 times that of scholars in the other 99 percent” (loc 1162-1708). Rather than undermining old hierarchies, social media supplements new ones, with complex emergent effects: sometimes allowing the already celebrated to quickly amass a social media following or to allow those with a big social media following to translate this into academic capital. This is part of the reason why I think community-orientated platforms such as The Sociological Review and Discover Society are likely to prove so important in mitigating the ‘celebrity’-generating effects of social media.
But hopefully if we focus our discussion of digital public sociology on specific aspirations, projects and publics then we can negotiate these institutional difficulties. There are real opportunities here but also profound challenges.