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Public Sociology in an Era of Social Media

As social media is increasingly becoming a standard feature of sociological practice, this timely book rethinks the role of these mediums in public sociology and what they can contribute to the discipline in the post-COVID world.

It reconsiders the history and current conceptualizations of what sociology is, and analyzes what kinds of social life emerge in and through the interactions between ‘intellectuals’, ‘publics’ and ‘platforms’ of communication.

Cutting across multiple disciplines, this pioneering work envisions a new kind of public sociology that brings together the digital and the physical to create public spaces where critical scholarship and active civic engagement can meet in a mutually reinforcing way.

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What does public sociology mean in an era of social media? Many answers to this question see social media as providing new tools for public sociology, promising the expansion of sociology’s reach by communicating its insights to vast audiences. This book argues that such a response engages only superficially with what social media can and cannot contribute to public sociology, offering little insight about media platforms and their impact on sociology’s scholarly and public expression. Worse still, much of the public sociology debate is remarkably silent on the question of what ‘the public’ is, means, or how it should be brought about. This leaves it ill equipped to account for how shifts in the means through which social life is mediated influence processes of public formation and the publics which ensue from such processes (Marres 2012). In the following chapters we attempt to address this deficit in order to reconstruct public sociology for an era of ubiquitous platforms. But first it’s necessary to account for what ‘the public’ is and what it means to be public. In seeking to provide an answer, this chapter is a necessary prelude to what follows, resting as it does on our reconceptualization of ‘the public’ to discuss platforms as communication tools, while also interrogating their relationship to their users and the public context they shape and are shaped by, before concluding with our vision for a digital public sociology as a form of sociological practice that uses social media as what we call assembly devices to create public life online and offline.

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To understand the emergence of digital platforms it can be helpful to look back through the history of the media in order to understand how new media technologies have always been embedded within a broader apparatus of technical developments. The materialist phenomenology of Couldry and Hepp (2018) conceives of a sequence of media systems, underwritten by technological advances with an array of interdependent effects. The broadcast media system emerged with electrification, the capacity of media to operate through electronic transmission (Couldry and Hepp 2018: loc 1299–1375). Numerous media emerged from this, ranging from the telegraph, through to telephony and broadcast media, with their own particular dynamics and effects. However, the capacities of the media system as a whole were defined by simultaneity in terms of public broadcast and personal communication. Exploiting these possibilities facilitated the growth of enormously influential media organizations, producing connectivity through shared patterns of experience grounded in their production cycles and control over the relatively unified attention space within a media system where broadcast capacity was only accessible to a few.

Under these conditions there was a relative scarcity of representations of publics in their own terms, ensuring the social visibility of those which did pass through the many filters in operation. Professional expertise meant representations of lives tended to be presented in appealing and engaging ways, filtered by professionals based on an expectation of what will win the attention of a general audience. Furthermore, the commercial imperative to ensure an audience means norms, genres and expectations will be shaped by the past experiences of these professionals and lessons learned from them.

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In recent years, the term ‘platform’ has become ubiquitous, taken up by both business gurus and critical social scientists in a way liable to leave many suspicious of what appears to be a passing fad. It is a slippery term, trading off a range of connotations which are not always apparent to speakers, helping social media firms shield themselves from their responsibilities as gatekeepers of our media ecosystem at the same time as being used to analyse the business model and hold the firms behind the platforms to account. But it is nonetheless a useful word because it identifies a significant change in how digital technology is being deployed within social life, underscoring a turn towards an approach which has rapidly become ubiquitous.

The utopian ambitions which defined the internet as it grew revolved heavily around virtuality, the possibility of escape from the mundane constraints of the physical world and the promise of a better world which could be built beyond them. As John Perry Barlow ([1996] 2019) put it in his A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, these pioneers saw themselves as building a world where ‘all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth’ and where ‘anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity’. The fact it was published from Davos, at the World Economic Forum where Barlow was an invitee alongside other ‘digerati’, detracts slightly from the epochal character of his declaration and his frustration at the ‘self-congratulatory arrogance of my hosts’ could easily be levelled at the man himself (Barlow 2006).

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For many readers, the phrase ‘sociology and its platforms’ will immediately bring to mind images of blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds through which sociologists engage with audiences beyond the traditional venues of conferences and scholarly journals. However, the thrust of our argument ha s been that we misunderstand such contemporary activity unless we consider it alongside the analogue platforms through which sociology has sought a relationship with a public. A platform in this sense is a position from which to communicate, facilitated by a material infrastructure,1 more or less able to draw attention and rendering some modes of reception more likely than others.2 For example, this monograph provides us with a position from which to speak, materialized through the codex book and its related apparatus of production and distribution. It encourages a monological mode of reception in which communicating about it or back to us as authors requires switching to another technology, with its capacity to draw attention being reliant on the publisher’s leveraging interest in the topic and the authors within a difficult marketplace for scholarly monographs (Thompson 2005: 79).

There are many limitations to the codex book, which we’ll explore as part of the broader category of ‘legacy scholarship’. However, we want to be clear that we’re not advocating its wholesale rejection, as evidenced by the fact we’ve chosen such as technology to deliver our argument. Rather than dismissing the ‘old’ and valorizing the ‘new’, we’re trying to retrieve the technological aspect of publishing as an object of scholarly reflexivity.

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The range of ways in which sociologists are using social media is constantly expanding, leaving it difficult to make definitive statements about emerging practice. If we look carefully enough we can find examples of any social media platform we can think of being used by sociologists, even if it might be little more than a fleeting experiment or an activity with little reach beyond a limited network. But pointing out that sociologists are among the users of most, if not all, platforms provides us with little help when trying to conceptualize the sociological uses of social media. An attempt at such a declaration also encounters the obvious question of what it means for their use to be ‘sociological’. This is a problem which plagues the research literature on social media as it is far from self-evident where personal use ends and professional use begins (Carrigan 2019). In fact it is precisely this boundary which the uptake of social media within higher education is destabilizing, as the line between what happens ‘inside’ the university and what happens ‘outside’ it comes to look increasingly unrecognizable (Bacevic 2019a).

This has implications for how we conceptualize public sociology because if we persist with a common sense concept of getting beyond the ivory tower, any use of social media comes to appear as if it is public.

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At the heart of our argument is a simple observation: there is an inherent asymmetry built into platforms. What makes them exciting at the level of social research, the real time data they unobtrusively generate as a by-product of user behaviour, can look rather sinister at the level of political economy1 (Mantello 2016, Wood and Monahan 2019). They are, as Marres (2018: 437) says, ‘an environment in two halves’. The front stage is a remarkably engaging place full of inducements, provocations and distraction while ‘a veritable army of social data scientists who monitor, measure, and seek to intervene in this behavioural theatre’ lurk behind the curtain (Marres 2018: 437). The users are known but the platform affords them little capacity to become knowing in turn (Kennedy and Moss 2015). This is what we have called, following Seymour (2019), ‘the social media machine’ and any account of digital public sociology needs to grapple with its implications in a systematic way. These are not tools we can pick up and put down at will but rather systems we can operate with and through that will simultaneously be exercising an influence over us, encouraging us to return more frequently and stay for longer when we do (Van Dijck and Poell 2018).

What Srnicek (2017) calls platform capitalism provides us with an exciting machinery for making public but it is one we are liable to be used by if we are not careful in our use of it. We offered the concepts of technological reflexivity and platform literacy to identify those characteristics necessary to thrive as public scholars under these conditions.

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In the previous chapters we have engaged with the voluminous literature which has emerged around public sociology, suggesting it is an example of a scholastic predisposition towards thinking rather than doing. It should be stressed at the outset that we don’t believe that thinking about public sociology serves no purpose. Even if we did it would be impossible, if not embarrassing, for us to admit that now that we have written an entire book on the topic. Despite this book’s theoretical tone, however, its intention is actually practical. We therefore concur with David Mellor (2011) who argued that ‘[w]e don’t need to debate public sociology anymore; we need to get good at it’. Stating this book’s objective in such a bold and forthright manner might seem imprudent or careless even, yet much of the sentiment behind Mellor’s arresting phrase captures our own argument for a sociology that can be(come) public only if it reinvents itself as such. Yet, what do sociologists need to do to make their discipline ‘public’? What does it mean to be good at public sociology? What does it mean to do it well? How would we know that we have done this? Once we start asking such questions, it becomes clear that the answers depend on how we define our terms, how we envision the practice of public sociology and what the key attributes for such a role may be.

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You are holding a book of sociology about public life and the technologies that make it possible. But you are reading it during a period when our experience of being public is largely mediated through being online. This seems like the perfect moment to be thinking about the contents of this book. The pandemic has done much to challenge our conceptions and practice of what public life is, how it has been or can be understood sociologically and what role social media platforms play in enabling or compromising our ability to occupy, create and identify ourselves with or as a public. Just like a virus forced us to confront the ills of social life in pre-COVID times, while also prompting us to reimagine its aftermath in a more convivial, equitable, less extractive and more human manner, this book aspires to a similar reconstructive logic without leaving a trail of devastation in its wake. What we have put together in book form, therefore, is an attempt at throwing our ideas of public life, technological innovations and sociological scholarship up in the air; as an invitation to a conversation about how we can make such resources work for us as ingredients of a citizenship which traverses the conventional distinctions of ‘online’ and ‘offline’.

Rather fittingly, this book’s life has been shaped by some of the issues it addresses. Much of its content was mulled over in public or semi-public spaces – pubs, cafés and library courtyards – where its authors met to discuss how to rethink and write about public sociology as an endeavour that could be practised as a relationship between intellectuals, publics and platforms of communication.

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For many sociologists, public sociology and Michael Burawoy are indelibly associated, as if it were a project he initiated with his presidential address to the American Sociological Association in the early years of the 20th century. Though understandable when one figure has played such a crucial role in popularizing the term, such mental associations betray a complex history which precedes his formulation. In tracing the origins of the term ‘public sociology’, one is immediately confronted with a penumbra of problems; historical, epistemological, philosophical, ethical and political alike. Historical because there is no adequate historiography of the term, philosophical because it is an immensely difficult term to accurately pinpoint without the risk of sounding arbitrary or selective, ethical because the term’s parentage is uncertain, with Gans (1989), Seidman (1998), Agger (2007) and Burawoy (2005) all aspiring to the role of the putative father, and lastly, political because, as Becker (2003: 661) notes, ‘what things are called always reflects relations of power’, with aspirations to legitimation, recognition, influence, and authority.

This concatenation of dilemmas makes it difficult to establish any authoritative definition of the term ‘public sociology’, or provide any accurate depiction of where it resides in the relevant literature and public usage. Rather than an attempt to describe ‘public sociology’ as an ineluctable fact of the discipline’s history, we approach it for these reasons as an ongoing, and often confusing intellectual debate. We are much more interested in the debates which now tend to be signposted using the terminology of public sociology than we are in the term itself.

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