The Communication and Information Technologies section of the American Sociological Association (CITASA) was founded in 1988. Since its inception, the membership has evolved, as have the mission, perspectives, and the empirical world of study.
As a section member, one who just participated in five days of conferencing at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting (ASA2012), I am reminded of the need to look critically and reflexively at our social worlds—especially those aspects to which we hold strong attachments. In this vein, I am simultaneously energized about the role of new technologies in social life, and uncertain about the role of a special section dedicated to their study. In short, I am led to the question: Do we need the CITASA section?
CITASA’s Digital Dualism Problem
Reality is augmented—characterized by the entwinement of human and technologies rather than their categorical separation. Digital and physical, online and offline are false dichotomies that the bloggers here at Cyborgology actively work to blur.
My participation at ASA2012, as a presenter, presider, and audience member in numerous sessions from various sections was in many ways heartening with regard to the scholarly implementation of augmented logic. Indeed, I sat on a social problems panel dedicated to new media methods; I saw social psychologists report on experiments that utilize digital technologies as tools to better understand small group processes; I saw medical sociologists examine emergent and contested illnesses by looking to doctors, patients, online support groups, and web-based information seeking; I saw embodiment scholars explicitly evoke the cyborg as they theorized about the enmeshed relationships between the physical body, gender, race, sex/sexuality, the medical institution, and the self. In sum, new technologies—including information technologies—are increasingly understood as part and parcel of our social worlds, and in turn, part and parcel of sociological study.
What does it do, then, to separate out a section to study technology and its effects independently from the substantive concerns of the other sections? My worry is that this institutional cordoning off of IT as a topic of study reinforces digital dualism. Symbolically, this distinct categorization indicates that IT is somehow something apart from other sociological concerns, something to be studied by specialists, rather than something to interweave into the innumerable phenomena of sociological interest. Materially, this distinct categorization separates IT experts, and their work, from the scholars and scholarship that make up the rest of sociology. These distinctions and separations are not something that I want for the discipline, and I imagine that that few (if any) CITASA members favor the symbolic or material separation that I describe above.
The Case for CITASA
To make a case for CITASA, I begin with the reminder that augmented reality refers to a relationship between humans and technology in which they are enmeshed, but also distinct. Technology—and IT in particular—may be part and parcel of everyday life, but it is not necessarily the root of all social processes. On the contrary, IT is sometimes of periphery importance and of worthy of only periphery concern. IT intertwines with deviance, gender, sexuality, social movements, social psychology, political economy etc., but it is not synonymous with these things.
CITASA is useful for those of us who want to focus on the role of technology within these substantive areas. It is useful for those of us who want to spend the time and space to understand how technology operates in the micro and macro processes of social life. And it is important for us to have a shared space and community of scholars with which to delve deeply into these issues, critique each other’s work, push each other further, and build something complex, robust, and constantly evolving. CITASA provides such a space. CITASA provides such a community.
Moreover, it is important for us to bring this complex, robust, and constantly evolving knowledge to other substantive areas. Few (if any) scholars study only technology in society. Most (if not all) of us specialize in several other substantive areas of research. In a world in which technology is increasingly pervasive and quickly changing, these other substantive areas will benefit from a technology and society expert who can fold technology into the collective knowledge. CITASA can breed such scholars.
A Fruitful Future for CITASA
To continue usefully and successfully into the future, the CITASA section must navigate the delicate space between specialization and isolation. We must avoid digital dualism (symbolic and material) while garnering a deep understanding of technologies’ sociological import.
I argue that such a fruitful future—on that I am invested in bring about—must contain the following three ingredients:
1) Inter-Scholarly movement. CITASA members must not only continue to work, write, and present in other substantive areas and outside disciplines, but to share with their colleagues the knowledge and expertise that we gain through the collective and critical focus on human-technology relations. Similarly, CITASA members must bring their substantive expertise to bear on issues of IT. With our collective specializations, we can construct real knowledge about technology in social life. We must therefore act as a two-way bridge between technology experts and the larger scholarly community.
2) Translation of complex content. This applies to all areas of scholarly sociology. We study social life, and the knowledge we produce is relevant to everyone who lives in the social world. Too often, however, we talk only to ourselves. It behooves us all to share our work in accessible spaces (e.g. blogs, news programs, open-access journals) and to do so using accessible language. We must act as a bridge between the scholarly community and general interested publics.
3) Theoretical orientation. Descriptive studies are useful, but they are not enough. Any statistician can tell us how many people use Facebook and in what ways. Sociologists are critical. Sociologists theorize. It is theory that connects us to other substantive areas and to the general public. It is theory that enables us to build the bridges that I describe in ingredients 1 & 2. This is particularly important because, as I’ve written about previously, we study empirical phenomena that changes with extreme rapidity, but work within a system that publishes slowly. Without theory, our findings are likely obsolete by the time they appear in print. In this vein, we might eventually think of renaming the section to more explicitly include a theoretical emphasis. Perhaps the easiest would be CITTASA (Computer Information Technology Theory). Other suggestions are welcome (and probably better).
A section is what its members make it. The above is therefore not only an argument, but a call to action.
Jenny Davis is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at Texas A&M University. She is a regular author on Cyborgology and member of the CITASA section. Follow Jenny on Twitter @Jup83