Archive: Aug 2008

Do you Twitter?   Twitter is a microblogging software that allows you to post short updates, just 140 characters, in answer to the question: What are you doing?  The updates that people add to Twitter are called “tweets.”  You can choose to “follow” people, that is read their tweets.  And, people can choose to “follow” you, or read your updates.

I know, I know.  Another web application to update, what a pain.   I thought so at first, too.  But Twitter continues to surprise me in its usefulness.   I follow a range of people from Barack Obama to friends to people I don’t know offline but who post really interesting updates.   The most useful tweets are those that include links to other websites, so it’s one of the main ways I stay informed about breaking news these days.

And, I predict that Twitter is going to have increasing significance as a tool in sociological research.   Just last week, for example, I posted a short announcement about a new research project I’m doing for which I need a very specific set of respondents: feminist bloggers.  So, I posted an update on Twitter that I was looking for (at least) forty feminist bloggers to interview.     A feminist blogger I follow on Twitter re-posted, or “retweeted,” my call to her network of followers, then posted it on her blog.

A week later I have responses to my quick online survey from twenty feminist bloggers and follow-up (face-to-face and phone) interviews scheduled with 15 of those.   That’s nearly half my sample in a week.   Now, I’m considering revising the total sample size upward.

It’s not a representative sample, to be sure, but it is a solid “snowball” sample and a perfectly fine sampling strategy for qualitative research.    Twitter as sampling strategy simply means that the “old” way of snowball sampling, by asking respondents and key informants to recommend people, is now being mediated – and speeded up – through online networks.     This morning, I’m off for my first in person, face-to-face qualitative interview for this research project.   All arranged via the “snowball” sampling strategy for the digital era: Twitter.

Contexts just wrapped up the first phase of an online roundtable titled, “The Social Significance of Barack Obama.” We solicited short statements from six sociologists on the significance of Obama’s candidacy and potential Presidency, published them online & then held a group discussion about the statements in the comments.

The roundtable is now public & open for comments. One of the topics that hasn’t been discussed much so far has been the role of technology & the internet in Obama’s campaign and in modern politics generally. In fact, I might just head over over there and chime in about this myself… Come join us & encourage others to join in as well!

Sarah Lai Stirland writing for Wired magazine calls this Democratic Convention the “techiest” (her term) convention ever.   That’s not hard to believe as lots of people bypass the talking-head-pundits on the broadcast networks and seeking out their own streaming video of the convention (as Jon described yesterday), or looking for outside-the-mainstream commentary from their favorite bloggers at the convention.    All this makes me think about Todd Gitlin’s famous book, The Whole World is Watching (1983), about the role of the mass media in the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.  But, the world has changed since 1968…. more...

Last night I watched the DNC live online and I had a very odd thought: the politics of watching this online was getting in the way of my enjoyment…of a political convention? Well, given the fact that conventions focus more on personalities & life stories than political issues, it shouldn’t be surprising that most of my political thoughts had to do with two technology issues surrounding the online broadcast: Microsoft’s Silverlight technology (being used to stream the video online) and high speed internet policies in the US.


Welcome Freshmen. Have an iPod.
NYT, August 20, 2008.
Jonathan Glater

I groaned when I saw this one. Colleges resorting to iPod giveaways! What a dumb marketing stunt! What are they giving away? The greatest distraction in the classroom of all time!

Then I realized the question is really: how do teachers treat mobile technology in the classroom?

Since I know what they’re really doing when they’re clacking away on their laptop in class (writing email) or fiddling with their phone (sending a text message) I warn them at the start of the semester that if I don’t think they’re paying attention, they might not get credit for attendance.

Interestingly, this has the effect of drastically reducing the number of laptops in class, and eliminates cell phones, in no small part because THEY’RE relieved that I have taken the toys away from those who would distract them.

If you want someone to look something up on the Internet for the class, you can always ask.

Grappling with the digital divide
Times Higher Education, August 14, 2008
Hannah Fearn

This article grapples with the difficulties of getting faculty to teach with the communication tools their students are now used to using. It suggests students are ‘transliterate’ across a range of technologies and laments that most faculty are not.

Now I’m all for faculty experimenting with email and forums, but I wonder sometimes if making dichotomies between those who do and those who don’t is the most helpful way to think about the problem.

I like to suggest to students that technologies at work progress vertically, and one system drives out another. Whereas technologies at home progress horizontally, and we just get more and more ways to do the same thing.

Thus, what we have today are different ranges of competence – perhaps we’re more up the analog end, and they’re more up the digital end. But at the same time, we occasionally send text messages, and they know how to get a stamp and mail a card. And both parties are struggling with how to construct an identity on the ever shifting sands of privacy. May be we have more in common than we like to think.

In his classic sociological article, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” (American Journal of Sociology 1973) Mark Granovetter demonstrates how social activity influences labor markets. In this and other work (including a follow up article in Sociological Theory in 1985 and his book, Getting a Job, from University of Chicago Press, 1995), Granovetter systematically explores how 282 men in the U.S. found their jobs.  His work has not only provides evidence for the truism that “it’s not what you know but who you know,” it also illustrates how social activity and labor markets overlap and interact with one another.    Some of that is changing.  more...

Since starting Contexts Blogs, I’ve had the chance to talk to lots of blogging sociologists. I’ve also had the chance to have a lot of non-blogging sociologists firmly say “No!” to my attempts to turn them into blogging sociologists. So over the last year or so I’ve given a lot of thought to why more sociologists don’t blog, and of course the related question of what drives those who do. Here’s my current take on the topic:


At the recent ASA meetings in Boston, I spoke with several colleagues about some of the interesting stuff going on in sociology and social media/digital media/Internet technology/fill-in-your-favorite-term here. In those conversations, I heard a familiar refrain. One colleague remarked in reference to a presentation I’d done recently on using technology in the classroom, “I wish I didn’t even know about all that. It’s all too much!” Another colleague lamented, “I have no time to learn about the Internet. I work 80 weeks as it is, and I have a family!”

I can sympathize. For those of us working under the usual constraints of a publish-or-perish academic career, multiplied by the demands of a (family) or personal life beyond academia, keeping up with the latest developments in technology can seem like a daunting – and unnecessary – task. I’ll write more about what I see as the “necessity” of it some other time, but for now, I just want to talk about how it might be less daunting.

Some of the new technology out there can make keeping up with the rest of the information possible. Here’s one tool, “RSS,” explained in “plain english” along with some handy visual aids (about 3 minutes from the folks at CommonCraft):

Stanley Aronowitz has suggested that sociology may be experiencing a resurgence of interest in the work of C. Wright Mills, a veritable Mills Revival. I think this is a good thing for sociology. I confess to having a keen fascination with C. Wright Mills (image from: I, like so many sociologists, came to the discipline through Mills’ notion of the sociological imagination, that is a grasp of the intersection of biography and history, between private trouble and public issues. In part, I identify with him because we shared a similar geographic trajectory as Mills and I are both Texas-born and raised sociologists who ended up in New York. I don’t, as Mills famously did, ride a motorcycle (though my girlfriend does).

While most of us who have taught an introductory sociology class have drawn on the concept of the sociological imagination, what endures for many sociologists about Mills’ work is his appendix to that work, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” If you can read it while translating every “he” to “she” (or a gender neutral pronoun), then it can be a compelling and relevant text for what we do as sociologists. I was just re-reading it and wondered how Mills, were he alive today, might update it for the digital age. Kiernan Healy has done a nice job of this in his post “On Wasting One’s Time,” in which he pulls an excerpt of Mills’ appendix and strategically inserts the word “blog,” for Mills’ use of the term “file.” The notion of “playfulness” that Mills writes about, the arranging, re-arranging of the file, contrasting extremes and opposites of one concept, the search for comparative examples, are all quantum leaps easier in the digital era. For someone who loves knowledge, the Internet can seem like a vast playground of searching and knowing and exploring. Mills, as Todd Gitlin points out, was also a gifted – if solitary – political radical. And, in that regard, I have no doubt that were Mills alive today, he’d have his own blog.

There are lots of other bits in Mills’ appendix that are worth revisiting in the digital age, and I’ll be exploring some more of those here in days to come.