kieran discusses public sociology in the age of social media
At his web site, Kieran has a nice working paper called “Public Sociology in the Age of Social Media.” The paper, forthcoming in Perspectives in Politics, has some really nice commentary on how the world has changed since Michael Burawoy called for a public sociology. A few clips:
I shall argue that one of social media’s effects on social science has been to move us from a world where some people are trying to do “public sociology” to one where we are all, increasingly, doing “sociology in public”. This process has had three aspects. First, social media platforms have disintermediated communication between scholars and publics, as technologies of this sort are apt to do. is has not ushered in some sort of communicative utopia, but it has lowered the threshold for sharing one’s work with other people. Second, new social media platforms have made it easier to be seen. Sadly, I do not mean that it is now more likely that you or I will become famous. Rather, these technologies enable a distinctive field of public conversation, exchange, and engagement. They have some of the quality of informal correspondence, but they are not hidden in typed correspondence. They take place as real-time interaction, but do not depend on you showing up to a talk. Again, as is typically the case with communication technologies, exactly what gets enabled can vary. The field of public conversation encompasses everything from exciting forms of serendipitous collaboration to the worst sort of trolling and harassment. Thirdly, new social media platforms make it easier for these small-p public engagements to be measured. They create or extend opportunities to count visitors and downloads, to track followers and favorites, influencers and impacts. In this way they create the conditions for a new wave of administrative and market elaboration in the field of public conversation. New brokers and new evaluators arise as people take the opportunity to talk to one another. They also encourage new methods of monitoring, and new systems of punishment and reward for participation. Universities and professional associations, for example, become interested in promoting scholars who have “impact” in this sphere. But they are also slightly nervous about associating what they have come to think of as their “brand” with potentially unpredictable employees, subscribers, and members.
In “Science as a Vocation”, Weber remarks that although we do not get our best ideas while sitting at our desks all day doing regular work, we wouldn’t get any good ideas unless we sat at our desks all day doing regular work. In a similar way, successfully engaging with the public means doing it somewhat unsuccessfully very regularly. This fact is closely connected to the value of doing your everyday work somewhat publicly. You cannot drop a lump of text onto the Internet and expect anyone to pay attention if you have not been engaging with them in some ongoing way. You cannot put your work up on your website, or “do a blog”, or manufacture interest in your research like that. There is a demand side as well as a supply side to “content”, and most of the time the demand side does not care about what you have to say. This is why, in my view, one’s public work ought to be be continuous with the intellectual work you are intrinsically motivated to do. It is a mistake to think that there is a research phase and a publicity phase. Your employer might see it that way, but from a first-personal point of view it is much better—both intrinsically and in terms of any public engagement you might want—to think of yourself as routinely doing your work “slightly in public”. You write about it as you go, you are in regular conversation with other like-minded researchers or interested parties, and some of those people may have or be connected to larger audiences with a periodic interest in what you are up to.
Read the whole thing.