What’s holding back Digital Sociology?

New year, new issue of the online journal Fast Capitalism. This is a special one, with a special section on Academia in the Internet age (one of my topics of choice – as you can see from this recent communication of mine at the Sciences Sociales 2.0 symposium at the ENS Lyon).

The plat de resistance here is the article written by Jessie Daniels and Joe R. Feagin “The (Coming) Social Media Revolution in the Academy”. The authors start by addressing the (increasingly) common opinion according to which digital academia is characterized by a decline in elitism and in expert knowledge. Does democratization of knowledge mean the Gramscian “organic intellectual” will be replaced by a new brand of open-source academic? Sure this is not a linear process. The authors turn to analyze the material conditions of contemporary academic labour. This implies an adjustment in the use of some pre-existing scholarly facilities – such as libraries. This also means the introduction of new tools. Blogging and micro-blogging can be efficiently used to expand intellectual impact and to bridge different departments and research fields. But these participatory Web devices can also meet mixed reactions in the academic community, where they might still be perceived as “distractions” taking away from career pursuits.

“Christine Hurt and Tung Yin refer to blogging without tenure as “an extreme sport” because of the risks involved (2006, p. 1235). They enumerate these risks of blogging for untenured faculty as including: the amount of time involved, being controversial, being wrong, and sharing too much personal information. These are all legitimate concerns that any blogger (not just an academic) should weigh in the balance before engaging with social media.”

[Daniels and Joe R. Feagin (2012) The (Coming) Social Media Revolution]

Academic blogging must not be understood as the end of peer-reviewed publications either. On the contrary, the complex interplay between the business of academic publishing and crowdsourced/open publishing makes things all the more complicated for today’s academic labourers.

The proliferation of online tools represents a methodological and epistemological shift as well, although not all disciplines are concerned in the same way – or adapt at the same pace. One important issue raised by Daniels and Feagin is why there is no such thing as Digital Sociology (while, on the contrary there is Digital Humanities).

“Sociology lags far behind in the adoption of digital tools for scholarly work.  As Paul DiMaggio and colleagues noted in 2001, “sociologists have been slow to take up the study of the Internet” (“The Social Implications of the Internet,” Annual Review of Sociology, 2001, p.1). While there are notable exceptions, such as Andrew Beveridge’s digitizing of Census maps (www.socialexplorer.com), when looking at the field as a whole these sorts of innovations are rare in sociology. In contrast to the decade-long conference in the digital humanities, there is no annual conference on “digital sociology.”  Sociology graduate students Nathan Jurgensen and PJ Rey recently organized a conference on “Theorizing the Web,” that drew luminaries in sociology Saskia Sassen and George Ritzer, but this is the first sociology conference (that we are aware of) to focus exclusively on understanding the digital era from a sociological perspective.  Analogously, there is no large institution, like the NEH seeking to fund digitally informed sociological research. The reasons for this sociological lag when it comes to the Internet are still not clear, but some point to the problems of getting digital publication projects recognized by tenure and promotion review committees.”

[Daniels and Joe R. Feagin (2012) The (Coming) Social Media Revolution]

Broadly speaking, authors insist, hiring and promotion committees in sociology are less sympathetic than in other disciplines to recognizing digital production of knowledge as a legitimate, CV-leverageable activity. On the contrary, many institutions in the field of Digital humanities take into account creative works (works in fine or performing arts, including digital works) and others value dissemination of research (public speaking, media features, op-eds online or offline).

How much of this is an effect of the pressure of the eponymous “fast capitalism”? The effort to maintain an increasingly high “scientific production standard”, measurable via a difficult access to high impact factor journals, can lead to overlook actual social and cultural penetration of academic sociology research – which can assessed by online participation. As this matter remains to be addressed, the other articles published in this issue might be of some help.

I especially would like to mention Patricia Mooney Nickel’s biting essay “The Man from Somewhere: Author, Affiliation, and Letterhead”. It is about how social networking sites for scholars, such as Academia.edu, can end up replicating status display involving affiliation, rank, and institutional prestige. And it is also about the difficult balance of full professors affiliation and lecturers/adjuncts affiliation in grant-driven research institutions.

“As they participate in this circuitry of value, academics pursuing the normal path of the academic career become complicit in the casualization of the university. Faculty members, encouraged by the university to accumulate prestigious grants, earn teaching “buy out.” The grant-maker, who typically funds only affiliated individuals who posses prestigious letterhead (Caesar 1992), pays for someone else to teach in the vacated classrooms while the grant recipient pursues — and contributes affiliation value to — the grant-maker’s objectives. This exchange allows faculty members to collect affiliation with prestigious foundations without abandoning their affiliation with the university, while the university capitalizes on the sign value that they extract when their faculty members achieve more value.”

[Patricia Mooney Nickel (2012) “The Man from Somewhere”]

Also have a look at Venessa Paech “Publish or perish: digital presence and mobility as worth” (about how mobile technology and scholar connectedness echoes the dominant ideology of Publish or Perish) and at Henry A. Giroux “Rejecting Academic Labor as a Subaltern Class” (about the heritage of Brazilian pedagogist Paulo Freire in the Occupy movement)