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.

Beloit College’s Mindset List for the class of 2012

This year’s cohort was born in 1990. They never knew Ronald Reagan as President (which is why they spell the name “Regan”). None of them remembers George W. Bush or the Gulf War. They were only 8 when Bill and Monica made headlines, and just 10 when George H.W Bush emerged victorious from the debacle in Florida.

So if it seems as if they “haven’t got a clue” it’s because all they’ve learned of their immediate past was what they heard from adults or saw on TV or cobbled together in a hurry for a paper in High School.

And adults are still trying to make sense of the past! Some of my colleagues are still trying to come to terms with the fact that BOTH Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were elected President of the United States TWICE. All that heat and so little light makes their immediate past (or what we would call “the present”) an off-putting topic, something adults haven’t finished carrying on about, something that’s their problem, as in ‘that was when you were living your life, now I’m living mine’. So little wonder today’s teens think ‘Watergate’ was a movie, have never heard of Iran-Contra, and think ‘Newt Gingrich and the Republican Revolution’ were a grunge band!

It’s not that they’re so young, it’s that we’re so old! So have patience when you speak about that present. For your students, by definition, the decade before last is ancient history!

I’m happy to be blogging here and I want to thank Jon Smajda, Chris Uggen, and the other folks at Contexts, for the invitation. I’ll be back with a more substantive post soon, but assume most readers don’t know me so I thought I’d offer a brief intro.

I started thinking about technology in my research and teaching in 1996-1997. The timing of this new thinking was not coincidental. That was also the same year that Chris Toulouse (my co-conspirator and fellow blogger here) and I started teaching together at a suburban Long Island university. Chris shared with me his enthusiasm for using computers in the classroom and quickly convinced me of the importance of cyberspace for sociologists interested in understanding society in the 21st century. Chris and I both lived in Brooklyn at that time, so we often commuted together on the Long Island Railroad (LIRR). And, it was on those LIRR journeys that Chris and I talked for hours about the way that sociology as a field of study and our jobs as professors in the classroom were going to change because of the Internet.

In about 2001, Chris and I together approached some people within the ASA administration about the tsunami-like changes that were soon to transform the discipline. Our suggestions were met with politely blank stares. At the same time, some of our colleagues were discouraging us from using technology in the classroom or from focusing on it in our research, because after all, “the Internet is a fad.”

Fortunately, lots of things have changed since those days. Chris and I are friends now more than colleagues, since we’ve both moved on to other institutions; and, most people realize that the Internet is something more than a fad. And, most delightfully, the ASA has begun to wrestle with the implications of digital technologies for the discipline. Yet, I think that sociologists are still just beginning to ponder what the Internet might mean for our usual practices of research and teaching. This is where Chris and I come in. We’re still having those long conversations about technology and how it is transforming sociological research and teaching. At this point, we’ve each also had more than ten years of experience doing research and teaching with, about and through the Internet, and we’ll draw on that background for our writing here. Our plan is to update this blog five days a week, Monday-Friday mostly. I’ll focus on research, methods, and how the way we think about society is changing because of the Internet and “social media” more broadly. Chris will focus primarily on the classroom and how these technologies are changing how we think of the pedagogical side of our jobs. Of course, Chris has things to say about research, and I have a good deal to say about teaching, but that’s the general plan. That said, we recognize that the distinction between “research” and “teaching” is often a false one, so feel free to regard those categories as heuristic devices.

So, again I’m happy to be here, and look forward to this new blogging venture as a way of expanding the conversation to include new friends and colleagues.

As you might have noticed from the new (temporary) banner, changes are afoot here at Contech.

I started this blog as a primarily internal resource for people blogging at Whenever people asked me questions about things like blogging clients or adding images to posts, I’d write up a post on Contech instead of just replying individually. However, I always secretly wanted to do a little more with this blog as well…

So from now on, all the “how-to” posts will now live at Contech is, as the blog description says, now about putting “social media in social contexts.”

What does that mean? Technology and the internet are obviously huge factors in our lives today. Most importantly, in our opinion, they are huge factors in our social lives. New “social media” and technologies like blogs, wikis and social networking sites have the potential to radically impact and transform the way we communicate, the relationships we form, and the knowledge we have about the world. The web is full of sites filled with daydreaming and speculation about the social causes and consequences of new technologies. Our aim is to bring social science research and theory to bear on these new developments. What does empirical data about social media technologies tell us? And in the absence of hard data, we think we can offer at least slightly more informed daydreaming and speculation. 🙂

I’m going to have company! Jessie Daniels and Chris Toulouse will both be writing for Contech. Chris specializes in teaching with technology & Jessie studies the convergence of race, gender and digital media. Over time, we hope to have others join in as well!1

So pardon the mess for a little bit, but the new Contech will be up and running very soon!


  1. Take that as an invitation, social scientists interested in blogging about technology! Email contech (at) for more information! []