Department of Sociology

The Department of Sociology Blog

  • By Christine Hine

    Last month I taught at a summer school focused on “New Media and Justice Communication in the Information Society” at Fudan University in Shanghai. This was the fifth in an annual series offered by the School of Journalism at Fudan, taking graduate students from across China for an intensive week of teaching by guest scholars, focused on this year on: political economy of the media; gender sexuality and queer theory; and online ethnography (observational study of online cultures). Students on the summer camp are keen to access perspectives rarely taught at present in China, including the research methods for ethnographic study of the Internet that are my specialism. In turn, I was also keen to learn. Having taught at Surrey for a number of years a module on “Internet and society” that tries to recognise different Internet cultures and governance regimes around the world, this trip offered an opportunity to put some meat on the bare bones of my existing understanding of the Internet, and Internet Studies, in China.

    Any consideration of the Internet in China has inevitably to reference ongoing government control and filtering of online activities, to the extent that many familiar online services from other parts of the world remain unavailable to many ordinary people in China and certain things are effectively unsayable in Chinese cyberspace. It is important, though, to recognise that this does not mean that the Internet in China is therefore under-used or under-developed. On the contrary, the Chinese equivalents to familiar services are growing apace, with Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent vying with Google, Amazon, Facebook and Uber as online commercial giants. . In the urban context of Shanghai, online and offline live seemed to be seamlessly woven together and I, the poorly connected visitor without my familiar social media and search engine, found myself feeling marginalized by lack of technology and language skills and very much dependent on the kindnesses of my hosts to steer me around and organize me. Just like students in the UK, or maybe more so, the Chinese students I met used their phones in almost every situation, chatting, calling and paying for taxis, taking and sharing photos, looking up scholarly information and song lyrics, moving seamlessly between academic activities and conducting their social lives.

    Given this vibrant yet constrained online culture, training students in China on how to conduct ethnographies of Internet use raises some interesting questions on how far established approaches transfer from a British context. The question of what online activities mean, when we can see that people are investing huge amounts of time and energy in them and yet at the same time we and they are conscious of the multiple layers of filtering, manipulation, self-censorship and evasion that characterise online social worlds is a troubling one to unpack. Then again, while the regimes of oversight and governance of the Internet are quite different between Britain and China, in both cases the online domain does not just reflect ordinary life as lived. In either country, we should be cautious in treating what we see online as being simply “what the public thinks” as in both cases many (often ultimately unknowable) layers of commercial and government surveillance, algorithms, cultural pressures, conscious performances and self-censorship shape how we portray ourselves and what we see. Finding out what the internet means to people, whether in UK or China, demands that we look for the bigger picture and interrogate the back stories behind the obvious features of online life. Neither should we expect social media to be experienced in the same way everywhere even within the same country, as two recent ethnographies of the Internet in China demonstrate. Methodologically speaking, many of the familiar principles of an open-minded ethnographic exploration that assumes nothing in advance still apply.

    One key difference that I encountered was in the treatment of research ethics. Social science research ethics are not as culturally or institutionally embedded in China as they have become in a British context in recent years. While in the UK we have become used to discussing concerns around how to properly respect participant privacy and wellbeing in online studies and how to handle informed consent for materials found online, such discussions are in relative infancy in China, and have little to draw on in terms of established social science research ethics debates. I therefore felt it important, whilst highlighting to students the exciting possibilities of online studies, also to explore some of the areas in which to tread sensitively and to highlight that the Internet makes possible an intrusion into the lives of others that sometimes as researchers we should not exploit.

     

     

    Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

  • By Rachel Brooks

    In the literature on higher education, there is an increasing emphasis on the importance of virtual spaces in terms of both pedagogic practice and wider aspects of university life. It has also been argued that online spaces, and social media in particular, are playing a key role in facilitating the political engagement of students. In our research on contemporary students’ unions, however, much greater emphasis was placed by our respondents (students’ union officials and senior institutional managers) upon the physical spaces of the campus than on the virtual spaces available to students and/or students’ union officials for both academic and social activities. Indeed, the students’ union building itself was discussed, at great length, by many of the students’ union officials and senior managers who participated in our focus groups. Several respondents described how changes had recently been made to the buildings used by the students’ union, which, they claimed, had had a positive effect. For senior managers at one of our higher education institutions (HEIs), for example, a shift to a more central location on campus was thought to have had a significant influence on the visibility of the union, and the propensity of others to engage with it:

    It’s much more visible, the [students’ union] is just a much more open place, it’s more centrally located, it’s better connected with other parts of the university. It’s actually a place where people are wanting, not just the students, but people want to do things in it. And I think, so it’s more valued by the university than the temporary place that was there before. And I suppose that, the effect on the student unions it’s just to make its business, its existence much more public…..I think that’s made a big difference because the student union is far more visible, not just for students, but it’s also visible for staff as well.

    Similarly, union officials at another HEI claimed that the improvement in the union’s space – making it more open and welcoming – had had a direct impact on its use:

    We have had this fantastic space this year, so we have been able to even engage with people that don’t have problems, all they want to do is to find a nice place to sit … To chill out, yeah. … and to play Scrabble and to …. You know the glass front, when you first walked in, that used to be a brick wall with a little window, could knock on and speak to someone in reception in the corridor. So it wasn’t even nice sort of …It was awful.

    In these accounts, an emphasis on the materiality of the campus is clearly evident. In particular, the nature and location of the students’ union building is claimed to have a direct impact on the extent to which the wider student body engages (or does not engage) with the union.

    Although there is currently little academic research on the role of students’ unions in the UK, a notable exception is that carried by Andersson and colleagues, which analysed the role of the union as part of a broader project that examined ‘geographies of encounter’ between different social groups at a UK HEI. They argue that while, in theory, the students’ union can be seen as a key arena for bringing students from different backgrounds together to pursue a range of social, political and leisure activities, in practice, the increasingly commodified nature of union activity militates against social mixing. Here, they point to the impact of unions letting out space to private enterprises, which then often offer a range of highly-gendered commercial activities (such as beauty salons, hairdressers and nightclubs). The students’ union, in their analysis, is a space in which students from diverse backgrounds are ‘thrown together’ but which does not take the shape of a Habermasian, egalitarian ‘public sphere’; instead it is a space that is heavily mediated by commercial interests, and tends to reinforce some forms of inequality.

    Our data, however, suggest a more complex reading of the spaces of students’ union, and a more ambivalent relationship between unions and processes of commodification. Although commercial activities on campus were clearly important to senior managers and were valued by some students’ unions as means of preserving some independence (through having an income stream in addition to the block grant from their institution), in none of our ten case studies were they viewed (either by managers or union officers) as the key focus of the union’s activity. We suggest that market pressures on universities (such as competition with other institutions, and the emergence of various ranking systems) have caused unions to place less emphasis, rather than more, on their commercial activities, which, in turn, has implications for the physical spaces that students’ unions occupy. While HEIs are clearly concerned with revenue generation and ensuring financial sustainability in an increasingly competitive higher education market, the importance of measures of ‘student satisfaction’ in stimulating demand for courses has encouraged senior managers to work closely with their students’ union and, often, to value highly the contributions unions can make to improving the quality of ‘the student experience’ and ensuring ‘the student voice’ is represented effectively.

    Such pressures have encouraged unions to foreground their representative function, often at the expense of campaigning activities and also, in many cases, to the detriment of commercial ventures. This has, inevitably, had a direct impact on the use of physical space on campus, with a decline in the number of bars and clubs. The same pressures have also been an important driver of institutional investment in the physical infrastructure of students’ unions – particularly a desire to increase the visibility and use of the union by the wider student body. Indeed, union officers in our research believed they had been ‘rewarded’ by investment in their buildings for their support of university priorities. In some cases, respondents also linked this type of investment to the substantial increase in tuition fees for domestic students in England and Wales from 2012 onwards:

    And my view is that the university’s very much aware of the fact that the fees have gone up to £9,000 … and they’re very keen to invest in facilities for students and provide additional resource to support the student experience, and [the union is] very good at actually tailoring their message to sort of like address that particular lead. (Senior managers’ focus group)

    Nevertheless, our data indicate that while institutional investment in students’ unions buildings may have had a positive impact on both the use and visibility of union space, it was not always entirely unproblematic. Indeed, some of the factors that had motivated the investment were also those that created tensions. For example, one group of students’ union officers described a struggle over the extent to which the union should look similar to the rest of the university and an insistence by senior management that they should use the same colour schemes and branding. Such tensions provide support for those who have argued that university campuses are often ‘paradoxical spaces’ in which competing, and sometimes contradictory, discourses prevail – in this case, the marketization of higher education appears to have substantially limited students’ unions’ focus on commercial activity.

     

    A fuller account of this research is given in this article.

     

     

    Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

  • By Graham Scambler

    Sociologists will be familiar with Michael Burawoy’s ‘four sociologies’, namely, professional, policy, critical and public. Professional sociology encompasses the bread-and-and butter tasks of the discipline, asking and endeavouring to answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions about social phenomena of interest. Policy sociology aspires to support the formulation and implementation of policy across such domains as education, jobs, welfare and health by constructing usable evidence bases. Critical sociology demonstrates a reflexive concern with the discipline’s modus vivendi. And public sociology, Burawoy’s favoured project, seeks to inform and stimulate engagement and discussion in civil society and the public sphere.

    I have previously suggested that professional sociology might be said to be represented by the scholar; policy sociology by the reformer; critical sociology by the radical; and public sociology by the democrat. Furthermore, each sociology/sociologist might be associated with a distinctive mode of discursive engagement. Thus, the scholar’s mode of engagement via professional sociology might be characterized as cumulative, the aim being to furnish an ever more comprehensive narrative of social order and social change. The reformer’s mode of engagement via policy sociology is cast here as utilitarian, the object in this case being to improve the way things are organized and accomplished with the interests of greatest number in mind. The radical’s mode of engagement via critical sociology is meta-theoretical, a form of sociology oriented to reflexivity and self-interrogation. The democrat’s mode of engagement via public sociology is communicative, the aim here being to insinuate sociology’s project and accounts into the public sphere to provoke rational discussion, debate and decision-making.

    It is the purpose of this short blog to introduce two further types of sociology to add to Burawoy’s four. There are ‘foresight sociology’ and ‘action sociology’. Foresight sociology is committed to exploring institutional and organizational alternatives. How might greener technologies be most effectively deployed? What is the best model for a fit-for-purpose housing programme? What might a better health service look like? Action sociology follows up on public sociology, contesting ideological opposition to evidence-based conclusions and recommendations. I have suggested that it is the visionary who pursues foresight sociology, deploying a communicative mode of engagement; and that it is the activist who fights sociology’s battles under the rubric of a strategic mode of engagement. These ideal types – and remember that this is what they are – are outlined in the Table.

    Table: The Six Sociologies

    SOCIOLOGIES SOCIOLOGISTS MODE OF ENGAGEMENT
    Professional Scholar Cumulative
    Policy Reformer Utilitarian
    Critical Radical Meta-theoretical
    Public Democrat Communicative
    Foresight Visionary Speculative
    Action Activist Strategic

    I have offered an important qualification in addition to stressing the ideal typical status of these concepts. I am certainly not recommending that all sociologists contribute to each of these six sociologies. What I am arguing is that the sociological community as a whole should cover all six bases.

     In a published piece on the sociology of health inequalities I gave examples of key questions that might be posed of each type of sociology. Thus:

    1. Professional sociology/scholar: which social structures or mechanisms are causally critical for health and longevity through each phase of the lifecourse?
    2. Policy sociology/reformer: how might evidence-based research on health inequalities most effectively be translated into telling interventions?
    3. Critical sociology/radical: what obstacles indicative of relations of power contaminate/neutralize sociology’s comprehensive array of contributions to research on health inequalities and its dissemination and impact?
    4. Public sociology/democrat: what kind of routes and media offer the best prospects of participatory engagement via the protest sector of the public sphere in decision-making pertaining to health inequalities?
    5. Foresight sociology/visionary: how might different types of organizational and/or institutional change deliver a more equal distribution of health and longevity?
    6. Action sociology/activist: how might sociologists best resist being ‘rubbished’, ignored or side-lined on health inequalities by those with a vested interest in a status quo conducive to their widening or deepening?

     

    References

    Burawoy,M (2005) For public sociology. American Sociological Review 70 4-28.

    Scambler,G (2015) Theorizing health inequalities: the untapped potential of dialectical critical realism. Social Theory and Health 3/4 340-354.

     

     

    Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.

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